Matthew 21 – “Have ye never read in the Scriptures?”

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Have you never read in the Scriptures?”

How many of us have heard a homily or a lecture where the speaker quotes a verse of the Bible that we’ve never read? Or how many of us have been in a conversation about the Bible when another person brings up a really basic concept in the scriptures that we’ve just forgotten? It’s very humbling, especially if we call ourselves a Christian.

When I was in my last year of seminary, we had a substitute lecturer who came in for our Old Testament Prophets course, Fr. Victor Gorodenchuk was his name. We were third year students whose primary task had been to study the scriptures and the services of the church, but in his first five minutes of speaking I felt like a 30 year old kindergartner. I was completely blown away by Fr. Victor’s knowledge of the prophets, his ability to talk about the fulfillment of their prophecies in the life of Christ, and his matter-of-fact presentation of how we know all of this in the Orthodox Church. It was so inspiring it felt miraculous. At the end of his lecture, stupefied, I raised my hand and asked, “Where did you get all of this?” And he simply responded by saying that it was all in the scriptures and was able to be witnessed first-hand in the services of the Church.

In the Gospel reading today, we’re given a glimpse into this type of miraculous inspiration. Christ is rebuking those who are supposed to be teachers of the scriptures for not knowing what the scriptures are about. He lays out in front of them a parable, a story (in kindergarten language) meant to illustrate the reality of their situation.

Though it doesn’t say it explicitly in the Gospel reading we just heard, the gist of what is being communicated is that the chief priests and Jewish elders were given a beautiful responsibility of caring for God’s people, with everything they needed to render worthy fruits unto Him, and yet they didn’t. At the end of the passage (which we didn’t read today) we’re told that they ultimately understand this and rather than repenting, become angry and want to kill Christ.

In the spiritual consensus of the Church, we are told that in this parable,

  • the vineyard is the Jewish people,
  • the hedge is the law which prevented them from mixing with the Gentiles,
  • the tower is the temple,
  • and the wine-press is the holy altar.
  • The man who planted the vineyard is God,
  • and the husbandmen are the Jewish leaders.
  • The servants who were sent to the Jewish leaders are the prophets, some of whom they actually did beat and others they actually did kill.
  • And finally, the son is Christ Himself.

While Christ is speaking to them of the prophets – in this very parable – He is prophesying to the Jewish leaders about his own death. He tells them that they will cast him out of the vineyard and kill him – which they did when they crucified him outside the city walls of Jerusalem.

Then, before they realize what the parable is about, the Lord asks them what should be done to the husbandmen. And in their own ignorance and bloodthirsty desire for justice, they condemn themselves to a punishment of miserable destruction, they prophesy that they will no longer be responsible for the people of God, and that this beautiful responsibility will be given others (the Apostles) who will render fruits in their season. …

The next words of Christ’s are what opens their eyes: “Have you never read in the Scriptures?: The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”

… “Have you never read in the scriptures?”

Though these words of Christ were posed to the Jewish leaders, it seems that they should also make us pause, to consider the danger of not knowing the scriptures ourselves. Like the Jewish leaders, what damage are we doing to others and to ourselves by ignoring the love of God the Father, the teaching of Christ, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be found within the Bible? And conversely, what beauty is in there that we don’t even know about yet?

The providence of God is so beautiful – like Fr. Victor said, we are given the meaning of the scriptures within the divine services. Whether in a homily, or much more likely within the divinely inspired hymns that we sing, the scriptures and the services of the Church are like the harmony to a melody. Without knowing the scriptures, the services can become dry. And without coming to the services, how are we to experience the full beauty and meaning of the scriptures?

I say all of this today as the chief of sinners. I don’t read my Bible nearly as much as I should, and being a priest, I will be held doubly accountable for it. But if you also struggle to read the scriptures regularly, maybe we can move forward together. There are actually quite a few tools available that make it easier to read the daily scripture readings – email subscriptions, phone apps, calendars, etc. All of which I’d be happy to share with you if you’d like. But the daily readings don’t cover the entire Bible.

So one thing I’d like to try myself, now that we’ve begun the new church year just a couple days ago, is to read the Bible within a year. If you’re interested in joining me, in the back of the church I’ve printed out a daily schedule of readings that include verses from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Proverbs, and the New Testament for 365 days. It should take about 15-20 minutes each day. Please take one home with you today and let me know if you’d like to do this too. And if you don’t have an Orthodox Bible – it’s actually different than Roman Catholic or Protestant Bibles – we have several available in the bookstore.

Brothers and sisters, the story of the Bible is our story. If we pay attention while reading it we’ll see that our own lives mirror the story of the Old Testament – and if we’re willing – we will hear the good news of the New Testament as well.

+ Through the reading of the scriptures may we be granted to know the Father’s love for us through His son Jesus Christ, and by the continual inspiration by the Holy Spirit. Amen.