In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the vineyard clearly belongs to the landowner. It’s His, and the workers work in it as the landowner’s stewards. The vineyard imagery is rooted in Isaiah 5, which reads:
My Well-beloved has a vineyard
On a very fruitful hill.
He dug it up and cleared out its stones,
And planted it with the choicest vine.
He built a tower in its midst,
And also made a winepress in it;
So He expected it to bring forth good grapes,
But it brought forth wild grapes.
“And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
Judge, please, between Me and My vineyard.
What more could have been done to My vineyard
That I have not done in it?
Why then, when I expected it to bring forth good grapes,
Did it bring forth wild grapes?
And now, please let Me tell you what I will do to My vineyard:
I will take away its hedge, and it shall be burned;
And break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will lay it waste;
It shall not be pruned or dug,
But there shall come up briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds
That they rain no rain on it.”
In the Bible the wilderness has always been a symbol of God’s curse on humanity. Eden was the first “vineyard” into which God placed the first “workers,” Adam and his helpmate Eve. But like the curse in verse 6 above – there shall come up briers and thorns – so also the curse given to Eden. “Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”
Israel was intended to be a restored type of Eden, a place of rest from God’s enemies, a place flowing with milk and honey. But because of Israel’s faithlessness, it became a desert, as the Isaiah prophecy promises. John the Baptist does his ministry in the wilderness for a reason. It’s an action prophecy of what Israel had become. He preached among the stones of the wilderness and proclaimed, “bear fruits worthy of repentance” or God would raise children from the stones who would.
It was to the wilderness that sinners went to confess their abject desolation and be renewed by the waters of John’s baptism, which only awaited Christ’s presence and ministry to fulfill it when He first went there for His own baptism. Jesus and sinners meet in the waters of the wilderness like the Word and Spirit meeting the “chaos and void” of the original creation at the face of the waters, in order to bring about new life.
Not only does Septuagesima hearken to this imagery insofar as it reminds God’s people of its exile and pilgrim status, but once the first week of Lent arrives – Invocavit – we get another tidal wave of imagery invoked as the Church embarks on a forty day wandering with Christ, drawing off of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for forty years.
But so as not to send us off our journey in despair, this first week of our 70 day exile we get a reminder of what our goal is. The vineyard full of fruit-bearing gifts received by God’s stewards – His new Adams – is always the goal. It’s the new Eden. It’s the Promised Land of rest. It’s the world to come. It’s the earth the meek inherit. Israel was a foretaste of the feast to come. The feast comes with Christ’s return.
The point is, it’s not solely a spiritual redemption. It’s a physical, material one. God created the world by His Word, bringing each “thing” of creation by His Word. In Hebrew the word for “to speak” is the verb form of the noun, “thing.” For God to speak is for Him to speak things into existence. The point is powerful. Each life-given thing of creation has a correspondence to a word of God, from the Word of God. Which is to say, language is a divine gift, and to participate in communication is to commune with the Word itself, acting out our image of God, which image is Christ. (See II Corinthians 4: 4 and Colossians 1: 15) It is also to commune with one another in holy conversation.
The wilderness, like the formlessness and chaos preceding creation, is the collapse of “things” back into their futility. And it’s the acknowledgment of that state of existence we must go – marking ourselves with ash – if we would be renewed by Christ. Christ the Word makes life out of ashen, formless chaos. Where else would we go?
Lets take things (ahem) to the next level. Corresponding to the collapse of things is the collapse of language itself into futility, the corruption of language, the loss of grammar, the use of language for deceit, as a toy, an ironical plaything. The Gnostics could not tolerate a healthy use of language because they could not tolerate the physical or material brought about by God’s language. For the Gnostic, the spirit is all that matters, and escape from our physical world is its salvation, and corresponding to this is an escape from language itself. Letters are fetters, as the deconstructionists told us.
Part of the redemption of the world which is Zion, the Church, is also the restoration of speech, its ability to create life, its liturgical use as an Eden-forming tool by the Word Himself. As the proverb says, “A wholesome tongue is a tree of life.”
The Gnostics would never tolerate that this world is worth redemption, or even possible for redemption. For them, the world is a dark, oppressive realm of oppression ruled by dark overlords who use their words to construct prisons for our minds. The first of such dark lords, they wickedly believe, is the God of Scriptures Himself.
They could never tolerate that the Landowner possesses a vineyard and cares for it.
To work in God’s vineyard – not escape it – is to serve in the new creation, of which the Church and its liturgy are a foretaste by faith. It is to participate in divine language, reaping its fruits, the fruits of Jesus’ lips first, but also from each other’s lips. As St. Paul says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”
Is the “Divine Service” work? Technically yes, even as Adam’s work in Eden was work – it takes work to extend ones hand to pluck from the Tree of Life. But its not work resulting in payment or reward, as this parable makes clear. It is work participating in the vineyards fruit-bearing gifts, the fruits of Christ’s and our lips, leading up to a glorious revelation of God’s grace after the heat of the day is complete.