Sunday, August 30, 2015: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Thirteenth Sunday of Matthew
Leave-taking of the commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist; Alexander, Paul the New, and John, Patriarchs of Constantinople; Venerable Phantinos of Calabria; repose of Venerable Alexander of Svir; translation of the relics of Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod; Cyril and Makarios, patriarchs of Serbia.
Commenting on the parable in this morning’s Gospel St John Chrysostom says that the owner of the vineyard “did the work the tenants should have done” leaving them “little … to do.” He goes on to say that “nothing was left undone but all was accomplished.” They only thing required of the tenants was that they “take care of what was there and preserve what was given to them” (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily 68.1 quoted in ACCS NT vol Ib, 139) so that they could give to the owner what they owed him.
Unfortunately the tenants don’t respond with grateful diligence. While they cultivated the vineyard they do so out of greed; what they did, they did only for themselves. So when the owner sends other servants “to get his fruit” they “beat one, killed another, and stoned” a third. All this they did to avoid given the owner what was his due.
In all this says Chrysostom, the tenants display not only “their laziness” but their anger. Instead of asking forgiveness for breaking their word, they “were indignant; and though “deserving punishment, they themselves inflicted punishment.” Not only did they not “put aside their evil ways,” John says, “their disregard” for their own sinfulness filled them “with madness” and caused them to murder the owner’s son in the vain hope of inheriting the vineyard (pp. 140-141). And so what they got instead of a joyful harvest was “a miserable death.”
All of this happens because “they failed to learn self-control” and “did not put aside their evil ways” (pp. 140-141).
If I’m not careful I can find myself in much the same situation of the tenants. No, I probably won’t murder someone. But it is easy for me to neglect the gift of salvation, to fail bear the fruit of obedience “demonstrated through … works” as St John says. This is why St Paul tells the Christians at Corinth to be watchful, faithful, courageous and strong and to do all things in love.
Love is not a sentiment, it isn’t a feeling. The cliché of my youth was that love isn’t a feeling but a decision. In part yes, but this begs the question. What is it that I must decide? How must I live in order to be faithful to love?
To love someone is to want what God wants for them. In other words, love is first a matter of obedience to God. Just as it isn’t enough to have warm feelings for some, it isn’t enough to want good things for them. I love you precisely when I want for you what God wants for you.
Think about St John the Baptist whose beheading we commemorated yesterday. What does the Baptist say about himself and his relationship to Jesus? “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, NKJV). How tempting it must have been for John to engage in sinful self-promotion. Not that John would have promoted himself above his cousin but how easy it would have been to place himself on the same level of Jesus. Or if not that, he could have just basked in reflected glory. John could have sought to be known as the friend of Jesus, His cousin and maybe even confident. But doesn’t do any of this. Instead he points people to Christ and so to Eternal Life.
If I’m not careful I can use my status as Christian or as a priest, to promote myself subtly at the expense of others. Avoiding this requires not only the self-control that comes from watchfulness but also a person fidelity to Christ and the Gospel. This is more than just a willingness to affirm the Creed. Above all it means to be obedient to the demands of my vocation. True love, love worthy of the name, requires not only self-control but a commitment—in season and out (see 2 Timothy 4:2)—to the work to which God has called me.
This vocational fidelity, though, is often hard work. Yes it is also joyful—I love being a priest—but it can be difficult to a priest. And so love requires not only self-control and fidelity but courage. This is something of an underrated virtue today not only in the surrounding culture but even among Christians. There are many reasons for this. Chief among them is that we confuse courage with bravado. Courage as both a natural and a Christian virtue is the willingness to do what is morally good, to do the morally right thing, even when it is painful. The father who goes to a job he doesn’t like, a mother who cooks dinner when she’s not feeling well, the student who studies even when it’s a beautiful day out and friends are calling. All of these are the fruit of courage. In each case the persons does what is right even when doing so is painful or unpleasant.
And so strength. Not physical strength, though sometimes that can be required, but moral strength in the sense of moral health. At the Trisagon at Liturgy the deacon turns to the congregation and says in Greek “Thinamis!” that is “Fervently!” or “With Strength!” Or more simply, “Powerfully!”
God has given each of us the power, the ability to love and to give ourselves over to Him and to each other without reservation. Just as we undervalue courage, I think we undervalue strength that comes from His grace. How easy love would be if it only required self-control, fidelity and courage. Love also requires the strength that comes from divine grace that gives us the ability not simply to sacrifice but to produce a harvest of good works. My brothers and sisters in Christ, what makes the tenants so pathetic is that they failed to use the grace they were given. After the owner Himself, they could have been masters of the Vineyard. Instead they choose greed and laziness. It shouldn’t be this way among us.