Today’s Gospel reading is, for very obvious reasons, known as the “Parable of the vineyard and the husbandmen” or alternatively as the “Parable of the wicked husbandmen”. Just to make it quite clear, I should explain that the word “husbandman” is not connected in any way with the marriage relationship.
Although it is not often heard in English use today it has to do with farming (husbandry), with tilling the soil and that is how it is used in today’s Gospel. My commentary prefers the first title, “The parable of the vineyard and the husbandmen”, presumably because it makes no judgement. It is very easy to judge the characters that appear in the parables of Jesus, and not quite so easy to recognise how the very same faults may apply to us. To others, maybe, but not to us. With this in mind, perhaps, Jesus says elsewhere, “Judge not that ye be not judged.
So how are we to understand this parable? First of all, Jesus is speaking to Jews. It refers to the people of Israel and to their history. The people of Israel had suffered as slaves in Egypt, but then God heard their crying, and set them free. He gave then their own land, asking nothing in return but that they should act as faithful stewards, returning to him that which was his by right.
From time to time he sent his special emissaries, his prophets, to take stock of their stewardship, and to proclaim his will to them. By and large they rejected the prophets – just as the husbandmen rejected the messengers of the owner in today’s parable. This happened over and over again, and every time the prophets were rejected until, at last, God sent his own Son as the owner of the vineyard in the parable sent his.
In the parable, they took the owner’s son, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. I am sure that you don’t need me to point out that this was exactly what the Jews did to Jesus. He was taken, beaten, ejected from the Holy City of Jerusalem, nailed to a cross, and killed.
It is very easy, of course, to say that these parables applied to the Jewish people, but I wonder to what extent they may also apply to us? We perhaps make an easy target of the Jews, we judge them and rarely, if ever, do we judge ourselves.
By rejecting God’s Son, the people of Israel brought doom, that is judgement, onto their own heads. They forfeited their privileged position, and God passed the responsibility over to others, that is to the Church.
The age in which we live today is the “age of the Church” and we, as Orthodox, believe that among many others using that word we are the true Church, founded by Jesus Christ himself nearly two thousand years ago. There are many groups or organisations in the West using the word “Church” in their titles today. These mostly have their origins in the Reformation of the 16th century. They have no earlier history. The Orthodox Church has its origins 1500 years earlier than that on the Day of the first Christian Pentecost. Ours is an unbroken stream of continuity in faith, fellowship, and mission extending for 2,000 years.
Ours is an unbroken tradition. Others may possess aspects, or parts of this tradition, to a greater or lesser extent, but the Orthodox Church possesses the faith in its fullness. However, that is no reason to feel a sense of pride or superiority. We should feel a sense of humility before God, the one who has chosen us to be workers in his vineyard, and to bring forth fruit according to our ability.
The Orthodox Church is not perfect. There are many aspects of Orthodoxy that make its witness weak. In the West, there are rivalries between the different Orthodox jurisdictions, differences in jurisdiction which ought not to exist. The tradition has always been for there to be one bishop in one place, yet in Britain there are as many as eight different Orthodox jurisdictions, some with resident bishops. In the United States there are many more, and to a greater or lesser extent this applies throughout the Western world
This is a matter that can only be dealt with by a Synod, or Council of the Church. The Orthodox Church accepts that there is a problem and preparations for a Synod have been taking place for some time, but it will not be easy to reach agreement. One reason is that all Orthodox churches in the western world are acting outside and beyond the geographical areas of their own patriarchates whether Greek, Russian, Romanian or any of the others. Geographically in the West ought to come under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Rome, but Rome of course is not Orthodox, and has not been Othrodox for a thousand years. So, pending an acceptable agreement from the coming Synod we shall have to carry on as we are at present.
So where does this leave us as Orthodox Christians, with a high degree of responsibility as labourers in the Lord’s vineyard. We need to be fully informed on the teachings of our Church. We need to enter more deeply into the spirituality, prayer, fasting, worship, Holy Scripture, and the teachings of the Fathers.
We need to seek from God two things above all else. The first of these is a spirit of humility. We are not to judge others, and certainly not condemn them. We are to be humble, as our Lord himself was humble. Second, there must be genuine repentance without attempting to justify our shortcomings. Instead we must approach God with the deepest sense of sorrow, accepting responsibility for our shortcomings. We are to seek to recognise, and to commune with, Jesus Christ alive in our hearts, being transformed in the process into children of God and, with him, joint heirs of the kingdom.
Jesus warned his disciples that, in the last times, the hearts of men would grow cold, that faith would fail. That is what I see happening in our own times, maybe as one of the signs of the end If that is so we are to expect the return, the second coming of the owner of the vineyard in the not too distant future, and we need to be prepared.