Sermon for the 18th Sunday after the feast of Pentecost - Matthew 21:33-46
Jesus loves vineyards. We’ve heard it three Sundays in a row. The parable of the workers in the vineyard, and some work many hours and others one. All paid the same in that vineyard. Last week we had the 2 children and the vineyard. Go and work, the father says. One says no but goes, the other yes but stays. A question of repentance and turning to the Father and hearing the word and call of faith that is the vineyard. Here we have a vineyard, built, established, lent to tenants. A lord of that vineyard seeks fruit. It ends badly. Dead messengers. Dead son. Dead tenants. Yet, Jesus loves vineyards. Loves grapes. Loves wine. I wonder if it has something to do with a cup, a new testament, blood for the forgiveness of sins. Poured out for you. More on that later.
The imagery of the creation works though. A place like a vineyard, something crafted, as many of us have homes, gardens, things we have put work into. Natural imagery of the world around us can speak to us. So using what has been made for those people, a country and time where grapes and vineyards were the norm. Where the Scriptures are ripe with the fruit of these pictures of fields and harvests, vines and branches. Things one can remember, or be reminded of as they look around, are good.
Isaiah uses his parable to tell us of this vineyard. The vineyard of his beloved. All the work has been put into it to do well. The vines tended. The machinery and the buildings and irrigation system is done. All the work is completed. Time for the harvest, but it’s no good. The vines have borne only rotten fruit. Grapes with mold and blight on them. Ugly fruit. Fruit that is only good to be burned. He makes this fruit the example of the people. The people being the vines and producing fruit which should not be produced by the vines of this vineyard. Fruit of injustice, bloodshed, wickedness. People raised in a society that is to be something special only to find they fight one another, shoot one another, hate one another.
Jesus does the same. Borrowing from Isaiah, from the Scriptures that he knows the leaders know, he takes the story and changes somethings. A landowner plants the vineyard. Puts up a wall of protection, a watchtower, a wine press. He rents it out to people for the purpose of their caring for it, and harvest time comes. The owner seeks the fruit. But instead of bad fruit, we have bad tenants.
Sending the messengers to collect the harvest, and what happens? “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.” It must be a fabulous vineyard. The harvest must be good. The fruit flavorful, and in great quantity. So much so that the tenants don’t wish to give it to the owner. The tenants, the tenders of the field want the fruit for themselves. They want the vineyard for themselves.
One passage speaks of the vines and the other the farmers, but what ties them together? The vineyard. The vineyard is a place for the vines, but the vines exist because of the vineyard. The tenants don’t own the vineyard. They didn’t plant it. They didn’t build the walls, the tower, the wine press, but they sure as hell want the fruit.
In Isaiah, the Lord speaks of it as MY vineyard. Mine, God says. A vineyard he built and crafted, and is willing to let go to waste so that fruit might come at some point somewhere else.
For Christ, it is the “landowner’s” vineyard. A vineyard he makes and hands over to the tenants to tend, but the tenants don’t own it. It is for the tenants to follow the needs and instructions of the landowner, and they refuse.
The absurdity of it all is that the tenants think that by killing the son they can inherit the vineyard. Thinking that the landowner would somehow pass the vineyard onto them after they murder his child. An issue of control and power, but little reason as the tenants don’t own the vineyard and the landowner is still alive. It’s a crazy story, but how true.
For Jesus, he is speaking to the religious leaders, to the tenders of the people. To the pastors. To the parents. To those whose responsibility it is to care for this vineyard the Lord has made. At that time, the vineyard is the people. Those producing fruit of repentance. Those who are following Christ, hanging on his every word. Being touched by his hands and hearing the words “I forgive you.”
This isn’t the first time either. Prophets came many times to bring people back to God. To call for them not to follow the way of the leaders but to be captured by the Spirit and mercy of the Father. And the leaders, whether kings or priests would do their worst. Killing the prophets. Driving them away. Because what the leadership, and dare I say we, want and think is theirs or ours, is not; and it’s the job of the prophet to remind us of that.
But we don’t want to hear that. We don’t want to hear that the vineyard has a landowner and we are just the tenants. We want the vineyard. We think we deserve it, or assume it as ours. I wonder of what in our lives we believe is all ours, all our doing, but it actually belongs to God? The answer is everything. But for the works of faith. For the things dealing with the realm of religion and life in God, the danger is thinking that it is ours. It is up to us. It is something we can control and keep for ourselves. It is something that we can scale back, refuse to offer out, but God sends us people in our lives to remind us it is not ours. Prophets, messengers, pastors, friends. We may not beat them or kill them, but we definitely don’t like hearing no, your faith, that grace, is a gift, graced to you.
And so in the end, we kill the son. Jesus enters our lives, upsets our rule and our work. Comes to us with words of forgiveness we think we don’t need, parables of a God who gives grace to the worst sinner we can think of, who gives the kingdom to the one who only works an hour while we slave away the day. This upsets us and so we kill him. We drag him outside of the city, nail him to the cross, and think the war is over. The vineyard of our faith, of our life, of our sin is ours.
But…but…no. The son dies, yes, but with his death comes a will. This will, or testament if we use the old language, is written in his blood and sealed forever. It cannot be changed because the one who died, actually lives. The one who put the will in motion, this testament we call it, this son we killed on a hill outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago, lives. The tomb is empty, but the will is in place. The rock is rolled away, but the son lives as a living testament to what it is he gives to not only the vineyard, but also the tenants…life. A life built on a foundation that is this cornerstone that we thought we rejected. A life that comes only with our death, our destruction, our being wasted away in the great mulcher of God’s love only to be raised to new life as branches in the kingdom of God. A Kingdom fed by the fruit of a vine. Fruit that is faith in this Son who raises the dead.
How often we think that faith is personal. That it is just ours and that is all that matters. That it is no concern of anyone else, definitely not God, but God says otherwise. A faith that is borne and bred in the vineyard of Christ. Fruit of faith and repentance that comes because God and Christ have planted you. Nourish you. Wash you. Harvest you. Desire you to be overcome by it.
Planted in God’s vineyard takes faith. It takes trust that we know that the vinedresser, the vineyard owner knows what he is doing. Our usual and most common sin is to believe otherwise. But may that never be for you. May the word of God do it’s work this day. May the stone that the builder rejected become the chief of the corner. The stone, that is Jesus, becoming the foundation, even if we don’t want it that way. That we might consider all other things, as Paul says, all other things as loss except to know him, the power of his resurrection, the communion of his sufferings, being transformed with him in his death.
Jesus likes vineyards, because vineyards give grapes, grapes give wine, wine becomes this cup which we all partake of for our forgiveness, becoming the sole foundation of our life and health and freedom. Thanks be to God. Amen.