According to the teachings of the Holy Fathers of the Orthodox Church, every passage in the whole of sacred Scripture, and above all each word of the Holy Gospel, is spoken by the Lord God directly to each one of us personally. All of the history recorded in sacred Scripture is the history of our own heart. Every prayer should be taken up as the cry of our own spirit to its Creator. The wisdom contained in it–like honey in a honeycomb–is given to each one of us for use in our own lives and for the salvation of our own souls.
In meditating, therefore, on any passage of the divine Scriptures, we must first of all find our own place in it. In today’s Gospel parable, this would seem to be clear. The Holy Fathers teach that the husbandmen are the Jewish leaders – the scribes, Pharisees, chief priests and elders of the people. The lord of the vineyard is the Lord God; the vineyard is Israel, the Old Testament Church; the hedge round about the vineyard is the Law; the winepress is the altar; the tower is the Temple. The lord “went into a far country” when He no longer spoke to Israel in a pillar of cloud; the servants He sent are the prophets, and the son is the Lord Jesus Christ, whom the Jews in their lawlessness crucified outside the gates of the holy city of Jerusalem. Accordingly, then, in this parable we are the “other husbandmen,” the Gentiles to whom the Lord then gave the vineyard of the Church, so that we would “render Him the fruits in their seasons.” And indeed, this interpretation is quite true and correct, and in Luke’s Gospel the Pharisees even at the time recognized this meaning of Christ’s words spoken against themselves, crying out “God forbid.”
But the words of Scripture are not given for one place, for one time, and for one people only. Their meaning is never static, but rather they are filled with active and living power, the same words—without contradiction—speaking anew to each time, each generation, and each human soul that hears them.
The first interpretation is the easy one. It is very comfortable and easy to put ourselves into the place of the disciples, of the faithful men and women, of the prophets and the saints. But the Lord came to speak many hard words to His people. And these are words that each one of us must hear.
When, in the Holy Gospel, we hear the Lord speak to the “scribes and the Pharisees,” let each one of us sit up and take notice, and with rigorous and soul-searching honesty apply these words directly to ourselves. For who indeed are the scribes and Pharisees of today—that is, those who, having been granted the fullness of divine revelation, strive zealously to fulfill the Law of God? Who, if not we Orthodox Christians? We have been entrusted with great and terrible gifts—the divine mysteries which even angels desired to look into, the keys to the kingdom of heaven, the very Body and Blood of God Himself Incarnate. While it is the clergy and the monastics who bear the chief part of the responsibility for these great and holy gifts, in truth it is the great and solemn duty of all of us, priest, monk and layman alike, to preserve and practice the precious gift of the Holy Orthodox Faith. And in the words of the Holy Apostle Paul: “Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let [them] slip. For if the word spoken by angels was steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward; How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard [Him]; God also bearing [them] witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will?”
Why precisely was it that the husbandmen of the vineyard failed to render to the Lord the fruits in their seasons? It is vital to understand this if we wish to escape their fate. Two possible causes stand out.
The first is that they perhaps desired to keep the fruit for themselves. In their blindness and short-sightedness, it may be that they preferred the vineyard of this earthly life to a seemingly absent Lord and to a far country which they had never seen. It is often so with us: though we may seem outwardly to be laboring for the Church and for the sake of Christ, in truth our efforts are directed chiefly towards the satisfaction of our own egotistical desires and fantasies. Like the scribes and the Pharisees, we love the idea of our own holiness, or we love the respect and honor given to us by others when they see our sham righteousness which we secretly make every effort to impress upon them. We love to reflect upon the weaknesses and failings of those around us, because it does not occur to us that our perception of vice in a brother or sister is far more likely to be an indication that we, not they, are deeply guilty of that particular sin. To the pure all things are pure, but as for us, we see muck and filth all around us, and cannot see that we ourselves are the source.
On the other hand, it may be that the husbandmen failed in their duty, and refused to render the fruits to their Lord because they did not have any fruits to render. Like the foolish virgins who took no oil, like the servant who said to himself that the Lord had delayed His coming and so began to eat and drink with the drunken, it may be that the husbandmen simply left the toil and labor of the vineyard and occupied themselves with something else, with anything else, and so were found barren and empty.
If any of us still doubts our place in this parable of the Lord, let us listen to the words of Saint Ignatius Brianchaninov:
Look, brethren, look what the devil is doing, has done, and will do—leading the mind of man from the spiritual heaven to material things, chaining the heart of man to earth and earthly pursuits and occupations! Look and be alarmed with a healthy fear! Look and beware with necessary soul-saving caution! The fallen spirit busied certain monks with obtaining various rare and costly things; then, by attaching their minds to these things, he estranged them from God. Others he employed in various studies and arts, anything so long as the aim was earthly; then, having drawn all their attention to passing studies, he deprived them of the vital and necessary knowledge of God. Others he employed in obtaining for the monastery various improvements, buildings, cultivation of flower gardens, kitchen gardens, pastures, meadows, cattle breeding or dairy farming, and forced them to forget God. Others he occupied in decorating their cells with flowers, pictures, the making of furniture or prayer ropes, and withdrew them from God… Others he taught to give special attention to their fasting and other bodily exercises and to attribute special significance to dry bread, mushrooms, cabbage, peas, or beans; and in this way sensible, holy, and spiritual exercises were turned into senseless, carnal, and sinful farces. The ascetic was corrupted and reduced to carnal and falsely-called knowledge, conceit, and contempt for his neighbors which snuffs out the very conditions for progress in holiness and provides the conditions for ruin and perdition. Others he inspired to attach an exaggerated importance to the material side of church services, while obscuring the spiritual side of the rites; thus, by hiding the essence of Christianity from these unfortunate people and leaving them only a distorted material wrapper or covering, he enticed them to fall away from the Church… So easy is this kind of conflict for the fallen spirit that now he employs it everywhere. It is so easy for the devil to ruin men by this kind of warfare that he will make use of it in the last days of the world to draw the whole world away from God. These are the tactics the devil will use, and he will use them with marked success. In the last days of the world, through the influence of the lord of the world, men will be full of attachment to the earth and to everything carnal and material. They will give themselves up to earthly cares and material development. They will busy themselves solely with the affairs of earth as if it were their eternal home. Having become carnal and material, they will forget eternity as if it did not exist, they will forget God and abandon Him.
And here, the saint reveals to us the heart of the matter: the forgetting and abandoning of God. Whether we abandon the spiritual path for earthly vanity, or whether we make a mockery and distortion of the spiritual life, wherein everything centers around us rather than the Lord God, in both cases we have forgotten the Lord during His journey to a far country, and we have forgotten that He will come again to reward each of us according to our deeds.
But the Lord is merciful, and He sends us countless opportunities to repent. Like the servants in the parable, like the prophets in olden times, the Lord sends to us the touch of our guardian angels, the words of our spiritual fathers, moments of great spiritual beauty and joy, or times of unbearable grief and sorrow which remind us that this world is not our home. These reminders, warnings and opportunities come to us every day, in many different forms. In fact, each and every moment of our life is a precious gift, a moment given to us for our repentance, if only we had the eyes to see it. Yet how often, like the husbandmen in the parable, do we do violence to these servants and messengers of God, reviling and rejecting them, ignoring them, misconstruing and resenting them, trampling them underfoot in our eagerness to satiate our vain and depraved desires.
So what can we do? Having caught at least a glimpse of this tragedy that plays out in our souls each and every day, how can we put an end to it? Let us listen again to the words of Saint Ignatius:
From what has been said here, we give our beloved brother monks the advice to observe extreme caution with regard to earthly occupations, knowing that the malicious and wily serpent is creeping over the earth, always ready to wound us and pour his deadly poison into us. [They] should devote themselves with all care and diligence to their appointed obedience for God’s sake and for their own salvation, without delighting in its successful accomplishment, without boasting of it, and without developing vainglory, conceit and pride whereby obedience is changed from an instrument of salvation into an instrument and means of perdition. One should constantly pray to God for the successful accomplishment of an obedience, and ascribe success solely to the mercy and grace of God. And when a monk is given freedom to use a considerable part of his time at his own discretion, he should guard himself from attachment to any kind of material occupation and to all that is earthly and corruptible as from deadly poison. He should unceasingly raise his mind on high. To raise the mind on high does not mean to imagine heavenly dwellings, angels, the splendor of God, and all that sort of thing. No! Such dreaming only gives occasion to diabolic delusion. Without any reverie let the monk raise his thought with spiritual feeling to the judgment of God; let him be filled with salutary fear from the conviction that God is present everywhere and knows everything; let him weep and confess to God Who is present in his cell and looking at him; let him ask in good time for forgiveness and mercy, remembering the multitude of his sins and his imminent death. If the time given for repentance and for obtaining a blessed eternity is wasted in temporal occupations and for earthly gains and acquisitions, it will not be given a second time. Its loss is irreplaceable. Its loss will be bewailed in hell with futile and eternal tears.
The solution is simply to remember God. As the Holy Fathers teach us, the main task of our life is to stand before God, and to remain standing there until our last breath. Our forefathers Adam and Eve lost Paradise not because they sinned, but because after their sin they hid from before the face of God. In their nakedness and in the shame of their fall, the Lord would still have accepted them gladly, had they simply come before Him in humble repentance. And though the husbandmen of today’s parable had no fruit to render, yet He who forgave ten thousand talents would surely not have failed to forgive them also their debt to Him, and would have taken them with joy to the far country where He had gone to prepare a place for them, to which may we all attain through the grace and mercy and love for mankind of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all glory, honor and worship, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.