Gospel parables, an Orthodox commentary

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The evil husbandmen


We find the parable of the evil husbandmen in the first three Evangelists, Matthew 21:33-41, Mark 12:1-9, and Luke 20:9-16. Here is how the Evangelist Luke recalls this parable:

"A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and set him away empty. And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty. And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out. Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him. But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be our's. So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them? He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others" (Luke 20:9-16).

Our Lord Jesus Christ told this parable in the Jerusalem temple itself, not long before His death on the Cross. He addressed it to the Sanhedrin (the high court in Jerusalem, of 72 members under the presidency of the high priest).

The parable of the evil husbandmen is directed against the Jewish leaders who rejected and killed the prophets and crucified Jesus Christ Himself. It discloses God's foreknowledge of His chosen people, God's long suffering with their leaders, and the sad result of their bitterness. Not suspecting at first that the parable referred to them, the chief priests and elders enjoyed its logic and passed sentence on themselves: He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons (Matthew 21:41), which is expressed in the Lord's words thus: "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof" (Matthew 21:43).

For greater clarity of speech, Christ uses the Prophet Isaiah's "song of the vineyard" (Isaiah 5:1-7), which was well known to the Pharisees and lawyers. He says that the owner-gardener allotted time and care to the "vineyard," to the "house of Israel," that is, to the Hebrew people as the Old Testament Church. Indeed, God gave everything to the chosen people for success. God Himself led their exodus from Egypt, with many miracles and signs. Then God turned authority over the Hebrew people to the spiritual leaders He chose.

The Evangelist Matthew adds some details to the parable that the Apostle Mark does not mention. The Apostle Matthew lets us know that the vineyard's owner hedged the vineyard "round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower."

The hedge is the Law of Moses, which, like a "fiery wall" defends the Hebrews from Gentile influence and from deviations from the Law. God watched the Jews after they entered into the promised land. The tower supplied the watchmen of the vineyard, but the Holy Fathers have also interpreted it as the temple in Jerusalem. The winepress for grape juice is the Holy father altar of sacrifice, prefiguring the redeeming blood of Jesus Christ.

Having arranged everything, the owner of the vineyard left his husbandmen there, to gather fruits at fixed times for the owner. So too, the Lord set up the people and moral and religious life of the Old Testament Church, first led by His chief priests, to till the garden according to His law. The "vineyard" depended on them, and they were responsible to God. These spiritual leaders were imperfect, pursuing personal, financial interests. With malice, they slew the servants of God, the Old Testament prophets, "of whom," according to the Apostle Paul, "the world was not worthy" (Hebrews 11:38). The prophets reminded the priests of their duty to God and His required "fruits," that is, lives according to God's will.

Thus, for example, the Prophet Isaiah was sawn in two with a wooden saw, Jeremiah and Zachariah were killed by stoning, many were tortured or, according to the Apostle Paul, "had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: they . . . were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented" (Hebrews 11:37-37; Nehemiah 9:26 and others). In the same way, the leaders of the people also killed, persecuted, and tortured the apostles and other followers of Christ.

The owner in the parable sent his one son, his "well-beloved . . . last unto them" (Mark 12:6). In reality, God sent His Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, the heir (Hebrews 1:2), "unto Whom all things are delivered of His Father" (Matthew 11:27). When the Lord was telling this parable, the spiritual leaders of the people had already decided to kill Him, lest they lose their domination over the Old Testament Church and their authority over the people. The crime of Deicide by the chief priests and the Sanhedrin, took place next, just as in the parable: The Savior was given over to execution outside the vineyard (Matthew 21:39), that is, outside the gates of Jerusalem (Hebrews 13:12), which was the holy city of the Old Testament Church.

The Evangelist Matthew writes that the Lord, having finished the parable, asked this question of the chief priests and members of the Sanhedrin: "When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? To this he received the very logical answer: He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him their fruits in their seasons"(Matthew 21:40-41).

Glancing at his self-assured audience, the Lord indicated that they were excluded from the immanent Kingdom of Christ by recalling certain prophecies that assigned to the activity of the Messiah: "The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes" (Matthew 21:42; Luke 20:17; Psalm 118:22-23; Isaiah 28:16; I Corinthians 3:11; Romans 9:33 and others). The leaders were to build God's Church, but they rejected Christ, the Cornerstone of this temple. The Cornerstone Foundation held firm all the same, connecting the Old and New Testament Church as two "walls" to separate believers from Jews and Gentiles.

The fulfilled prophecy of Jesus Christ shows that God the Father Himself sent Him into the world to found the Church and to be worshiped by the faithful that He redeemed (Matthew 12:42; Mark 12:10-11). The leaders who reject Christ the Messiah and His Kingdom lose the fruits or faith and virtue, and they belong to Christ's Church. The leaders of the people understand that the parable referred to them. Certain of "them when they heard it, they said, God forbid" (Luke 20:16), that is, "God forbid that the Church be taken away from us and be given to others."

Saint John Chrysostom writes that Christ's enemies' pronouncing the sentence "was a clear proof that it was not the Punisher, but the punished who were the cause of the punishment sent down upon them." The angered and embittered chief priests and the Pharisees then tried to "lay hands on him" (Luke 20:19; Matthew 21:46). Their fear before the watching people, who revered the Lord as a prophet, delayed their violence for a time.

Thirty-five years after Jesus Christ told this parable, His prophecy was fulfilled, about this punishment and loss. The Roman commander, Titus, destroyed Jerusalem and all of Palestine, and dispersed the Jews throughout the world.

The workers of the vineyard had not understood that their ownership was temporary. They misused what they had and killed the owner's heir in order to stay in the vineyard. Christ's word, however, is eternal, and the parable applies to the Church now. If the new leaders of the faithful people, princes of the Church, patriarchs, metropolitans, bishops, and priests behave like the parable husbandmen of the vineyard, God will reject them, and give the vineyard to other, worthier people.

With this parable, Christ also forewarns each of us that the vineyard is His and He will come to ask an account of our work. So, let us labor in the vineyard and bear its fruits unto its lawful Owner, God.

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