|On the 13th Sunday of St. Matthew, the Church presents to us Christ’s parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard. (Matthew 21: 33-42) Historically, this story refers to the Old Testament kingdoms of Judah and Israel and how they behaved – or, rather, misbehaved – over the course of their covenantal relationship with God. The covenant was the key. It was the Divine Agreement, the statement of expectations and thus the bond that cemented the relation of post-sin man with God Himself. The people were supposed to show forth in themselves the good fruit which God expected of them, but they did not.
And when God sent his servants, the prophets, to them to call them to account for that betrayal and to recall them to the path which would produce such fruit, they were – as St. Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid, notes in his commentary on this parable – “abused in various ways by the false prophets and false teachers of those times. One they beat, as they did to Micah when Sedek struck him on the jaw; another they killed, as they did to Zechariah [the father of the Forerunner St. John the Baptist] between the temple and the altar; another they stoned, as they did to Zechariah the son of Jodae the high priest.” Today’s parable of Jesus has direct roots in the Old Testament, indeed, in salvation history itself. The Biblical scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown, writes: “The passage about the wicked tenants and the efforts of the householder to call them to fulfill their expectations, is a prefigurement of Jesus’ own merciful ministry to draw all persons back to God – the final expression of which was His ignominious death on the Cross.”
Metaphorically, however, the meaning of this parable extends to each and every one of us since we too live in a covenantal relationship with God; we too often fail to develop within ourselves and to show the good fruits of the Christian life – joy in living kindness, in giving selfless service to others (and in that giving receiving back multitudes of blessings). And while we don’t go around maiming or killing the people God sets in our path to call us back to the righteous life, we do what is perhaps worse, which is to make them of no account at all. For the persecution and the slaying of the prophets indicated that at least they were noticed.
St. John Chrysostom said in his Gospel commentary: “But how often do we simply choose to ignore or to not take advantage of the people and the opportunities that God sends our way as reminders and means to return to the life-giving covenant with Love itself, living a fulfilling life, and producing the good fruits of mercy, compassion, and justice?” As did the wicked tenants, you and I let God down many times in our lives because we surrender control of our lives to our own egos and to the unpredictability of our self-centeredness. The motivation of the tenants was pure greed, the “What’s in it for me?” attitude. Once the human spirit travels that path, spiritual corruption is certain. Once we displace the Living God from the throne of our life, and replace Him with our own self-gratifying, self-promoting needs. Our center cannot hold, and the destructive chaos, divisiveness, and yes, cruelty of the world, finds its way into the once holy solitude of our hearts.
IASKINGt was St. Clement of Alexandria who described the medicine for such spiritual sickness: “Behold, the Lord comes and His reward is before His face, to give unto every man according to his work. He exhorts us, therefore, with our whole heart, to attend to this so as to avoid laziness or sloth. Let our boasting and our confidence be in God and not ourselves. Let us surrender our will to His. Let us believe in earnest that His way leads to eternal life and peace – not ours. Let us consider the whole multitude of the Angels who do nothing but stand ever ready to see that His will be done.”
It is not as if God gives us a complex assignment to do, expecting more of the human person than he or she is able to give. The Holy Prophet Micah makes this clear: “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what the Lord requires of thee, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8) Doing the just thing, living out mercy to others, and being genuinely humble before God – these are the antidotes to the spiritual sickness of the tenants in the Gospel and they are ours as well.
These are a contemporary summons from an ancient source, and are at the root of all three expectations in Micah. It is the blueprint, spoken before Jesus’ public ministry, by St. John the Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord: “He must become greater and I must become less.” (John 3:30) No, this is not about physical weight loss, it is about shedding the “pounds” of ego, shedding the need to prevail and control, abandoning the need to be right, and the dark impulses to follow another way than the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (John 14:16) It seemed so easy for the tenants to launch into their vicious attacks against the servants and even the Son of the householder, like it was second nature, almost without rational thought. So it is with the insidious power of the human ego. It forms the basis for the “Unseen Warfare” within each of us that was captured by St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain in his book of the same title.
St. Hesychios the Priest writes in the Philokalia “Just as it is impossible to fight battles without weapons, or to swim a great sea with clothes on, or to live without breathing, so without humility and the constant prayer to Christ it is impossible to master the art of inward spiritual warfare or to set about it and pursue it skillfully.” The more we give into our ego, the more entrenched in our ego we become. The more we allow our self-centered impulses to control us, the more our ego will wrest that control out of our hands. The more we get wrapped up in our reputations, our “powers”, our social status, our titles and official positions, or the things we own – we move farther away from God whose Son said “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart.” (Matthew 11:19) It is that simple and it is that sad. In the end, the tenants paid for their impulsive egos with total separation and estrangement from God – not because God willed it, but because of their own free choice to live a “me-centered” life.
Instead of returning healthy, good-tasting fruit to the master, they returned the bitterness of ego and its incessant thirst to show itself. The master’s expectations of them meant nothing. They ignored them, preferring instead to attempt to bend God to their way of thinking and acting rather than surrendering to His way for their spiritual happiness. That approach was folly. It is God who is the Lord of Creation – not the selfish rantings of egos that are out of control and ultimately, if left unchecked, can result in the death of the soul. This is the cost of the chief of the passions: PRIDE – in its most negative, selfish sense.
Our Holy Father, St. Seraphim of Sarov, an internationally revered Russian Elder, once wrote: “Silence is the Cross on which we must crucify our ego.” This suggests that it is in solitude and reflection that we are to examine our personal lives (not those of others!!!) to see where we have given in to the dark impulses of self, in our thoughts, in how we speak to others, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.
It means that we must ask the most difficult of questions and give the most difficult of answers: “How do I truly stand before God?” Do I live in Christian humility or do I behave from the earth-bound reality of my passions, my self-centeredness, my sense of superiority over others? Do I come across like I have all the answers and that no one else has anything of significance to say? Do I judge others? Do I “fractionalize” my faith – giving God only a small piece of my time and energy and interest, while busy about many other things I consider more pressing? Honest answers to these questions will help crucify our unbridled ego and, in the end, teach us holy humility. They can also instruct us that it is much easier to let God be God and run our lives and our world, rather than think we are in charge of our life and our destiny!
The parable of the wicked tenants is a metaphor, not only of our salvation by the Son of God, it also speaks to the dark power of ego and pride and their ability, if not bridled, to slowly but surely stifle the love of God from our hearts. May you and I ask those difficult questions, place God at the center of our daily lives, and come to realize what St. Augustine realized in his conversion to the Christian faith: “God is that than which nothing greater can be thought or dreamed of.” May he bless each of you with His abiding peace!
Faithfully in the Merciful Lord,