The Parable of the Evil Husbandmen in the Vineyard

The 13th Sunday after Pentecost

Mat 21:33-44


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.[1]


Today is the 13th Sunday after Pentecost.  We hear the parable of the vineyard on this day.  It is also the Church New Year, being September 1.  Also on this day we commemorate St. Symeon the Stylite and his mother, Martha, so we have many feasts today.


All Scripture helps us to learn about God.  It gives us promises.  It teaches us how to live.  It teaches us how not to live by giving us the opposite example.  It also gives us a pattern and a role for living. 


Today, in this parable about the vineyard, we can see all these things.  On the surface, there is a strong rebuke of the Jews, because of their rejection of the Messiah.  Some of the Jews were the ones, of course, that were the husbandmen who killed the Householder's servants and even His son.  The Jews understood this when He rebuked them.  Have no doubt about it.  This was one of the things that led them to plot to kill Him. 


We not only see the negative example of the Jews, but also a pattern for how to live.  If you look at how carefully God created the vineyard, and His continual entreating of the householders and what he required of them, you can see that this is, in microcosm, the Christian life. And you can see how to live and how not to live.  And then, with a little explanation, with an understanding of the mind of the Church of what fruits are and what some of the symbolism is, you can see how this parable doesn't just apply to  the wicked Jews who killed the Savior.  It applies to us, who are wicked if we do not do the work that we are called to do in the vineyard. 


Now, there's also a marvelous connection between this Gospel and the Gospel we say for St. Symeon who is a venerable Father[2].  We say this Gospel where at the end it says,


"My yoke is easy and My burden is light.  Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden."[3]


There is a connection between these words, "Take My yoke upon you" and what God told the householders to do.  It's quite simple.  God gave us everything we need for our salvation.  It is natural labor.  Not natural according to the natural man, but natural according to the heavenly man, which is who we are supposed to be becoming. 


Let's see a little bit about this parable - it is rich in symbolism - and then see how it applies to us. 


"There was a certain householder which planted a vineyard and hedged it round about and digged a wine press in it and built a tower and let it out to husbandmen and went into a far country."[4] 


If you read from the Fathers you can see what these things mean.  The Church has understood them for many, many hundreds of years now.  The Householder, of course, is Jesus Christ.  The vineyard is the Jewish people, and by extension, the New Israel -Christians, the Christian Church.  Blessed Theophylact says that everything described is spiritual.  He created a vineyard with everything necessary for our sustenance and for our salvation.  A vineyard bears sweet and juicy grapes that are not only tasty for the palate, but are good for the body and, by extension, this vineyard is good for the soul. 


There is a hedge round about the vineyard.  What does a hedge do?  It protects from marauders, from thieves and from wild animals.  It keeps that which is undesirable, and even evil, out.  The vineyard is the Church.  And the hedge that goes round the Church is just like the sides of a boat, which is another image of the Church - the Ark. This is the Law, the Law of God.  This is our tradition.  Our Holy Tradition: our fasting, our services, which are so full of meaning and beauty, our way of thinking, confession, the grace of baptism - all of these things and many more are the hedge that goes round about the Church. 


The winepress is the altar.  Sacrifices are offered on this altar.  The Jews would have thought of the sacrifices of bullocks, but we think of the sacrifice that the God-Man has given to us and of the Body and Blood of Christ offered on this altar.  And the tower within the hedge is the temple. It is high, to be seen by all, and to be a light for all.  And the temple, or course, must be within the hedge because the True Faith is only within the Church.  And it is hedged round about keeping away heresy and unclear ways of thinking and acting, no matter what they are. 


There are two meanings regarding the husbandmen.  First of all, the Jewish teachers were the first husbandmen all throughout the ages.  And there were good husbandmen, but there were a remarkable amount of bad ones.  Later, Christian bishops, priests, deacons and indeed, all of us, because we are a holy priesthood, a holy nation, and peculiar people, so says the Apostle Peter.[5]  We are like husbandmen now because if you see, later in the parable, the vineyard was taken away from the first husbandmen.  They were not worthy of it.  And it was given to other husbandmen, that is the universal Church, through the calling of the Gentiles. Now we are of that vine and of that body, if we choose to live according to the way God has taught us.


Now, God, the householder, went into a far country.  What does this mean?  It means God's long-suffering for us.  It means that He is slow to judge us and quick to hear our repentance.  He is not slack concerning our salvation, but He is patient with us,[6]  however, when a person goes on a long journey, they return from that journey eventually.  And when He returns that will be the end of the age.  That will be the judgement.  So God is patient.  And God might seem, occasionally, because of this patience, to be far away from us.  "He doesn't see", so we sometimes lie to ourselves.  Indeed, He sees all, and He is patient.  But there will come a time of reckoning.


So we must not be slack concerning what we have been told to do just because He is not on top of us as a taskmaster with a whip, telling us every moment what to do.  We must indeed be mature in Christ and live according to the Gospel without compulsion.  Remember some of the other things that are in the Gospels.  The prodigal son went into a far country and came back.  In that case the country means something different.  Remember the foolish virgins.  Their master went away and He was late, so they thought, in coming and five of them let their oil go out.  They did not have works of mercy and of devoutness and of desire and they were left out when the Bridegroom came to the great feast.


Be careful, brothers and sisters.  Life has a sort of narcotic quality to it.  We're so busy with living.  We're so busy with the things we need to do (or think we need to do). We forget so often, God is merciful and allows us time. Time to become like Him.  Time to repent of our sins.  Time to grow in knowledge of Him.  Time to grow in perfection. This is the purpose of our life.  Not time to acquire anything, or for pleasures, or for entertainment, or all the other things that are craved in our industrial society.  We must watch.  Jesus said it to us.  He said to His apostles and to us, "Watch, therefore, for ye know not what hour the Lord shall come."[7] 


So, the Master of the house is in a far country.  But He still sees all.  And He is patient.  And that patience should spur us to action knowing that we have a little bit of time to work out our salvation.  It should make us zealous.


Let us think for a minute of this image of the vineyard.  The Master of the house has given us everything necessary and he has hedged it off so that all which is evil cannot get in.  As long as you are within the vineyard you are safe.  As long as you are within the Ark you are safe.  All the things in the vineyard are there for a purpose: the altar, the tower, the trellises, the land, and the crops. We are given these things in order to work.  What are householders to do in the vineyard?  Are they to lie in the sun?  Are they to daydream their days away?  There is work to be done in the vineyard!  There is honest labor and growth to be accomplished in the vineyard, and gradual growth in the knowledge of God.   And as we grow in the knowledge of God, we grow in becoming like God in morality. 


"And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. {35} And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another."[8]


In fact this happened twice, and then He sent his Son.  The "time of the fruit" is the years of the prophets, according to the Fathers.  They announced the coming of the fruit many, many times.  And God sent His servants to receive the fruits of the vineyard, that is our obedience and growth.  That is all we are asked to do, to tend the vineyard.  We're given all the tools and everything necessary just to be obedient.  That is what we are asked to do and to grow in the knowledge of God.  God counts as His gain our gain and knowledge of Him. 


So these householders, these terrible wicked men, given all of these things for their salvation, thought of it as theirs instead and grasped it, and killed the prophets.  Isaiah was sawn in half.  Zachariah, father of St. John the Baptist, was killed between the temple and the altar.[9]  St Elias was hounded.  So many of the others were killed, tortured in various ways because the husbandmen would not be obedient to the Master of the house. 


"But last of all he sent unto them his son saying, 'They will reverence my son. But when the husbandmen saw the son they said among themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come let us kill him.  Let us seize on his inheritance.'  And they caught him and cast him out of the vineyard and slew him."[10]


The coming of the son is the Incarnation.  God comes to His own vineyard, which He had created for us.  And when He was cast out of the vineyard, this was a prophecy of how He was to be killed because, indeed, He was killed outside the gates of Jerusalem, cast outside the vineyard.  Jerusalem is a metaphor for the Church, and He was also cast outside the guileless will of the people.  He was killed by the wicked householders outside of the Law, outside of the vineyard, which was hedged round about.


Now, there is an important question which asked, "When the Lord, therefore, of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?"[11]  He came looking for fruit, you know.  He came looking for obedience.  He came looking for someone who had used His gifts, the talents that He had given properly.  Some actively opposed Him, and perhaps there were other householders who were not so wicked, just misused the vineyard and did not work, but then again did not lift the hand to stop the killing of the prophets or of the Son of God.


The Jews hearing the parable did not yet that is was about was about them. We can see in St. Luke that they did understand eventually because they said,


"He will miserably destroy those wicked men and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen which will render him the fruits in their seasons."[12] 


Then when Christ said something that made them understand, it was them - they said, "God forbid!"  Well, they had already said it.  They had prophesied what would happen to themselves and all those who do not labor in the vineyard with honest work. 


Let us look carefully at this phrase, "...render him the fruits in their seasons."  There is fruit to be rendered.  To be a Christian is to have an obligation.  You have accepted God's grace, and baptism.  You must work now in the vineyard.  Our Christian life is labor. 


I've said it a thousand times and I will say it a thousand more times if I have breath.  The great heresy of our age is that one can have belief without labor.  It is not true.  The Christian who laments his sins knows that he must labor to cease doing them. The Christian that loves God and is thankful for what has been given desires to labor in the vineyard and picks up his spade and digs, and a hoe and hoes away the weeds from his soul so that it will be bright and shiny and will be able to grow. 


We have everything we need in this vineyard and it is hedged round about and yet we, in our foolishness, sometimes cut through the hedge.  That's what we do when we sin, you know.  That's what we do especially when we have incorrect attitudes about the Christian life, because from incorrect attitudes comes sinful behavior and we open the hedge.  And if we open it wide enough, marauders will come in.  This is happening in our beloved Church, even as we speak, these days.  And it is something that should make a Christian lament.  We currently see so many opening the hedge to marauders by false doctrines, false ways of life, false practices that are being touted as Orthodox and we know that they are not. 


The fruit that the Lord wants is the knowledge of Him in our souls.  And a necessity - if the knowledge comes then the action will come too.  A man fools himself if he thinks he knows something about God and he doesn't live morally.  Do not mistake the time the Lord has given you for your own personal security. You must bear fruit.  It is a requirement.  Now, you need not bear fruit like St. Symeon did.  He would stand in prayer from sundown until the 9th hour (that's 3 in the afternoon).  And then he would counsel people until sundown from that time. And he did this for 80 years on a pillar.  He had clairvoyance and humility and all manner of spiritual gifts.  He bore fruit abundantly.  We must have humility and realize we cannot reach such heights.  But we must stay in the hedge to bear the fruit that God desires and requires of us. 


How do we do this?  It's simple.  The things I've told you over and over. And the things I tell myself over and over, because it is only possible to do spiritual works by making a beginning; keeping the fasts, accepting the Church's authority over you, in the way you live, even in the way you think, the way you act, going to the services, fasting, praying, giving (alms-giving) what is God's to God, and work in the vineyard. 


Know that your purpose is to know God.  It's to become perfected.  It's to ascend in knowledge and in action.  Those two swords, when Christ said it was enough, when someone said, 'here are two swords'[13], knowledge and action.  Those are the necessities for salvation.  Anytime you sin you break down the hedge.  So you must rebuild it as rapidly as possible.


May God help you in staying within the vineyard and in working out your salvation.  Now remember, in the vineyard, there is a product of a vineyard and it is grapes, and fruit.  Now, if you are in the vineyard and you do not participate in producing fruit then you will be cast off.  Have you ever seen grapevines burn?  It is mentioned when they tried to burn the Three Holy Children.  The wood that comes from a vine, like grapes, when it dries out, burns incredibly rapidly and with great heat and intensity.  This is what will happen to those who cast themselves off the vine by not laboring.  So now we see.  We come to the end of the meaning of this parable.  Apply it to your life.  Work in the vineyard, brothers and sisters, and struggle for your salvation and understand that every moment God requires of you fruit.  May God help you to attain salvation.  Amen.


Matthew 21:33-44


Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country: {34} And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it. {35} And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another. {36} Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise. {37} But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son. {38} But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance. {39} And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him. {40} When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen? {41} They say unto him, 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. {42} Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, 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? {43} Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. {44} And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.







Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas


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[1] The following sermon was transcribed from one given Sept 1/14 1997, the 13th  Sunday after Pentecost, and also the  day of the commemoration of the Church /New Year St. Symeon the Stylite.


[2] The term "Venerable Father" is used in the Orthodox liturgical literature to denote a saintly monk.

[3] Matthew 11:30, 11:28 (The verses are in reversed order)

[4] Mat 21:33


[5] 1 Peter 2:9

[6] Cf. 2 Peter 3:9  The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.


[7] Matthew 24:32

[8]  (Mat 21:34-35)

[9] Cf. Matthew 23:35

[10] Matthew 21:37-39

[11] Matthew 21:40

[12] Matthew 21:41

[13] Cf. Luke 22:38