God Wants His Fruit

Written by Joel on October 6th, 2011

Oct 2, 2011
Proper 22
Matthew 21:33-46 – Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Another Sunday, another challenging parable. Again, this one is set in a vineyard – it’s the third in a series of vineyard parables. The first with the workers (the first will be last and the last will be first), the one from last Sunday (the two sons asked to work in the father’s vineyard) and this Sunday (the tenants of the vineyard). They are all connected. Today’s parable comes immediately after last Sunday’s gospel reading. The chief priest and the elders just didn’t get it, so Jesus offers another parable for hopes that they will get it. Just like last week’s parable this one also speaks to authority – Just who is this Jesus, what gives him the right, and where does his authority come from? And also how the established religion, and the leaders of the religion, are challenged.

Again, just like last week, it may be easy to allegorize this parable and understand it as a simple affirmation that the kingdom of God was taken away from the elders of the temple and Christianity replaced it. It seems pretty clear those connections. A people are chosen to tend the vineyard for many years, they are sent folks who ask for the produce but they abuse and kill them – we might understand those to be prophets and teachers sent throughout Jewish history. And then finally the own sends his beloved son – and we instantly think of the love of God who sent his only son that he would die for us. The tenants killed this son just like the temple leaders would hand over Jesus, God’s son, to be killed.

Again, just like last week, we need to be willing to try and see ourselves in the mirror of the parable. Because the church is now the establish religion in our day, and we are always at risk of falling into the same traps as the temple in Jesus’ day. We may want to quickly identify as the new tenants who receive the vineyard; but how might the church be at risk for acting like the first tenants? Might we see ourselves in this parable?

The lease agreement described in the parable still happens today – landowners may rent out farm land for other people to work. Today, it is probably most common to simply have a cash lease – the tenants pay a certain amount each year or month and in return they get use of the land and have control of the sale of the produce. The lease agreement in the parable sounds like the payment was some portion of the crop, in this case grapes. It sounds like this is a new vineyard, one that is not yet established. He planted the vineyard, put in the fence, dug the press. In this case, with a new vineyard, harvest time would be years later, not just a season. The grape vines would need considerable time to establish before it would bear any fruit. Over those years it might be easy to see how the tenants forgot that they were working some-else’s land. It was an absentee land-lord after all And could you imagine spending years of labor on the vineyard and then have some stranger come in and ask for a portion? We might have a bit of sympathy for the tenants and how they wanted to say no. I bet that after all that time, it felt an awful lot like their vineyard, and they weren’t inclined to give any of it up. The landowner wanted his fruit!

But the tenants seized the servants. Beat one, killed another, and stoned another. A direct challenge to the landowner. It was as if they were saying “This is not your vineyard, it is ours! Back off.” Right then and there the landowner could have exerted his authority, appealed to the courts or sent in assassins (which was a common practice in the day to deal with insubordinate tenants); but instead he tries again. Again, he sends more servants. Is this landlord crazy? Stupid? Just full of too much grace? Already, by sending the second group of servants his is being way more generous than anyone else would be. And the tenants, just like they had already done, abused the second set of servants. No surprise.

The landowner sent his son. “They will respect my son.” Really? What in the world makes you think they will respect your son? The evil tenants saw the son and their selfish greed took hold. They thought to themselves if we kill him, this vineyard could be ours for good. And they might be right, if they took care of all the servants, and now the son; if this landowner is going to continue to be a push-over and not exert his right on the land, then this just might be all they need to do to get the vineyard for themselves. They kill the son out of selfish greed, when all the landowner wanted was his own fruit that was due to him.

This is a failure on the tenant’s part to recognize the ownership and the authority of the landowner. Though he was not physically present, the vineyard still belonged to the rightful owner; they were just working the land. How often do we refer to this place as “our church?” Is it our church, or is it God’s church. His vineyard, we are the workers, and God wants his fruit. Remember, the tenants in the parable were successful they raised the grapes and harvest time came, they were able to bear fruit from the land. But they were selfishly evil when they wanted the fruit all for themselves – the tenants were evil because they did not produce fruit for their lord. Does the church ever risk being selfish with its fruit?

I heard of a church that approved the building of a playground on church property. Everything was ready to go, it was funded, they hired a contractor to install it, ready. But then a few of the members raised a fuss – we don’t like where you are planning on putting the playground because it can be seen from the road. Neighborhood kids might come down to the church and play. There was a handful of folks who wanted it hidden so that the community would not be tempted use church property. I think those handful were missing the point of offering good fruit for others just as a good in itself. The tenants produced fruit for themselves but not for the Lord.

Jesus asks the hearers of the parable “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Now, the elders answered, this is not Jesus answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest.” That sounds like a right and just answer and what anyone would do. But what in the parable would cause us to think that this is in character for the landowner. He sent 2 groups of servants and then his son, he hasn’t been violent yet, why would he now? If we understand this to be a parable to point to Jesus’ rejection and death, it is interesting to realize that though he could have Jesus did not call down legions of angels to conquer his executioners; nor did he seek vengeance following his resurrection.

Jesus does not seem to agree with the elders in their answer, instead he quotes Psalm 118 “the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone.” Else where in Psalm 118 there is a constant refrain “His love endures for ever.” The parable of the landowner is a reminder for us of God’s constant reach for those, even those who reject him because his love endures for ever.

That, and it sounds like a call to us to view Jesus as our corner stone – the most important part of a building. We are are not talking about a literal vineyard here. And Jesus spells it out – he is our corner stone. His is the authority, his is the vineyard, his is the kingdom. The call of the parable is to remind us that it never was our vineyard in the first place, it never is our church, our ministry – it is the Lord’s. The Lord does not own just a small portion of our fruit, it is all his. God calls us to work in his vineyard as an act of grace in itself, and God wants the fruit that is due to him in his kingdom.


 

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