A householder planted a vineyard, and he set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. And then he leased it to tenants, and went into another country (Matt 21:33). “Observe the great care that the householder took with this place…. He himself did the work the tenants should have done. It was he who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it and built a tower. He left little for them to do. All they had to do was take care of what was there and to preserve [and defend] what was given to [their care]…. But they made little effort to be productive, even after they had enjoyed such great blessings from him.”[i] Instead of tending the vineyard, the tenants devoured it themselves, leaving nothing for their Lord.[ii]
This is an image of God’s creation of the cosmos, his setting apart of Israel, and his making of the Church. It is God – and not men – who makes the Church. It is his and not ours. Men are but tenants he leaves to care for it. They are stewards and not owners. And, too often, they are wicked tenants like those in today’s parable and not like the good servants the Lord sends to the vineyard to get his fruit.
The Church suffers and has suffered many wicked leaders. Leaders who not only fail to produce fruit for their Lord, but who abuse and rape and kill the Lord’s true servants, his own children, and his beloved Son.
Good news: this is not, and never was, their Church. Whatever airs the wicked leaders of the Church may put on, these wicked tenants are tenants only and not sons of the householder. The true head of this house – of this Church – is, always was, and always will be Jesus Christ, the son of the Living God – in the parable, the son that the householder sends to the vineyard, saying, “They will respect my son.” Jesus alone is the head of the Church.
Remember this also on the parochial level. This parish is not the Church of Fr. John or the Church of Fr. Cyril or even the Church of Bishop Milan. This is the Church of Jesus Christ.
Yes, it is true that sometimes the Lord leaves wicked tenants in charge for a time and goes into another country. Why does he do that? About that, the Lord and I need to have words. Because I don’t know why he does that.
But what I do know is this: He is coming. The owner of the vineyard is coming. Our deliverer is coming. And when he comes, the chief priests and Pharisees say, condemning themselves out of their own mouths, he will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruit in due season (21:41).
The days these wicked tenants are numbered. “In due time their foot will slip” – it has perhaps slipped already. And “their day of disaster is near, and their doom is coming quickly” (Deut 32:35). Haste the day of reckoning. Vengeance is the Lord’s (Rom 12:19).
After all, these are God’s own children and members of the body of Jesus Christ, the Son of God that the wicked leaders of our day have abused and raped and killed, just the wicked tenants in the parable kill the son of the householder, who represents Jesus, the Son of God.
Let us put our trust in the Lord, who is coming, and not in men and the princes of this world, some of whom masquerade as holy men or men of the Church.
I am a priest. I am a member of an order, which also includes men very much like the wicked tenants. But let me tell you something: these fancy clothes we wear don’t get us off the hook with God – and they shouldn’t get us off the hook even with men. Rather, membership in the holy order these fancy clothes represent puts us on the hook with God, and so it is only fitting that it would also do so with men.
“The road to hell is paved [not with good intentions, but] with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts.” St. John Chrysostom probably didn’t say that, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. He certainly made it clear that we are responsible to an even greater degree for the spiritual welfare of those entrusted to our care. So, when one of us is abusive in any way, let alone in the intensely egregious ways now being revealed in Pennsylvania, the harm we do is amplified. And, I trust, that the consequences of it will be duly amplified as well, in all justice.
Though evil priests and bishops can do great harm, one thing they cannot do is destroy the Church. Because, as I have said and I’ll say again: this is not, and never was, their Church. This is the Church of Jesus Christ.
It has always been afflicted by stupid and evil leaders. Even among the apostles, there is Judas – the grasping, despairing traitor. And what we’re seeing now seems less like the lovable impulsive idiot Peter and more like the calculating murderous traitor Judas about whom Jesus says it would be better if he had never been born. Jesus says their crimes will be punished with a punishment worse than death by drowning in the sea with a millstone hung around their neck (Luke 17:2). Woe to anyone who causes one of the little ones who believe in Jesus to stumble.
Let us not give into any minimizing or excusing of this evil – nor comparisons with the sins of the world. When people fall into this pattern of whataboutism – you know, where they start saying, well what about the abuse that goes on in public schools? or, in other churches and religious communities? – I have to ask, do they think that the sins of the world absolve the sins of the Church? They do not! Our sins are not absolved by the sins of others, but by the grace of God available to us only through repentance.
Repentance is the only hope of the Church. Unless we repent, we will be damned. And repentance doesn’t just mean saying you’re sorry. It means change.
Much needs to change in the Church. The wicked tenants must be routed and replaced with fruitful tenants. Those who have loved their own image more than the children of God, must undergo change – a change of the heart, a metanoia, a turning around, a conversion, a conversio –
away from the way of death and towards the way of life,
away from abuse and toward healing,
away from love of human respect, privilege, and power and toward the love of God and the children of God, his Church.
[i] Chrysostom. The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 68.1.
[ii] Orthodox Study Bible