Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

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“A Fruitful Vineyard”

Matthew 21:33-46

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

It is all about the fruit; or, rather, it is all about being fruitful.  If the plants are bad, so the vineyard is full of rotten fruit, then it might as well wither and dry up: which is what Jesus does to the fig tree with only leaves on it (Matthew 21:19).  The ground might as well be cleared for a new planting.  Indeed, the axe is, even now, laid at the root of fruitless trees.  “Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10, ESV).  So goes John’s warning, and Jesus says exactly the same thing (7:19).  Jesus’ curse of the fig tree is the visible parable of the Lord who desires fruit from His vineyard; leaves-even many, nice-looking ones-are no good when it’s fruit you’re after.  To bring forth that fruit, God has leased His vineyard to tenant farmers.  It is part of His gracious care for the vineyard that it be watered and protected and served by those to whom He has given that responsibility.  It is necessary that the plants be tended and pruned if they are to be as fruitful as possible.  But the tenants sometimes forget who owns the vineyard; they forget that the fruit belongs to the Lord of the vineyard and not to them.  So they beat the servants of the Lord and kill His Son, stupidly thinking that He will ignore their wickedness.  The leaders of Israel, those whom God allowed to tend His vineyard-those to whom God had entrusted His beloved people-ignored the Word and will of God for their own preferences.  Their most egregious offense, even beyond beating and killing the prophets of God, was to reject the Son and His last forerunner, John.  They prove Jesus’ point for Him when they seek to arrest Him.  They are unfaithful tenants.  “For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him.  And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him” (Matthew 21:32, ESV).  The warning stands for those to whom the vineyard is now entrusted: “‘When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’  They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons'” (Matthew 21:40-41, ESV).  Beginning with the Apostles, the pastors and teachers of the Church have been entrusted with much; from them much will be required.  As St. James puts it, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1, ESV).  One Church Father said that it is a miracle that any pastor is saved (St. John Chrysostom).  Please pray for me!

It should be clear that the vineyard belongs to no one but the Lord of the vineyard, the one who planted it as a young shoot newly lifted from the soil of slavery in Egypt (Psalm 80:8ff.).  It does not belong to the tenant farmers, old or new, nor does it belong to the plants themselves.  This is clearly bad news for those who would like to see the vineyard run their way.  Whoever thinks that he can run the Church the way that he wants, according to his priorities, had better take this parable to heart.  Some people think that as long as we call it a vineyard, and grow some sort of fruit in it; that as long as the plants feel good about themselves, and the farmers can claim some percentage of growth, then it must match the priority of the Lord of the vineyard.  But if the priority of the Church, through which the reign of God comes, is anything other than Jesus Christ and His forgiveness, then it is the wrong priority; then it is not really the Church, but a wild, un-pruned wasteland.  If the priority is planting more and more and more branches in the vineyard, whether they are connected to the Vine or not, it is not the priority of the Lord.  If the priority is training the vines to grow in any other direction than along the arms of the cross, then it is not the priority of the Lord.  God wants fruitful vines, but it matters to Him what sort of fruit they produce, as well as how they are tended.  No, this parable is not good news for those who have priorities different than the Lord, who seeks good fruit from both plants and tenants.  (And the tenants are also plants in the vineyard.)  This parable is bad news if you do not produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  It is bad news if you want the Church to look like the world.  It is bad news if you want to be in the vineyard but you don’t want to be pruned and tended according to the Word and will of the Lord.  It is bad news if you think you can grow in any direction you please, and remain within the vineyard of God.

But for tenant farmers who simply seek to be faithful, and for the plants that have been planted in the fruitful vineyard, this parable is good news-not because the stewards seek to be faithful, or because the plants bear good fruit-but it is good news simply because it is not their vineyard.  The Lord of the vineyard is in control.  The very problem with the wicked tenant farmers is that they think that the vineyard is theirs.  They want Jesus out of the way so they can control the vineyard and its fruit.  They have different priorities.  It cannot be stressed often enough that God’s priority is the forgiveness of sinners, from which the fruit of righteousness flows.  Wherever farmers and plants have different priorities than the Lord of the vineyard, they show that they have attempted to take over from the Lord.  And that’s a First Commandment issue; that’s a Garden-of-Eden, Adam-and-Eve, Satanic issue.  It is God’s vineyard!  He is in control.  The good news is that He reigns over it in love-a love that allowed the choicest Vine to be trampled and broken down, rather than completely clear-cut the unjust, unfruitful, and bloodthirsty vineyard.  So God the Father removed the divine hedge from around His Son.  The very vines God planted in the first Garden that became briers and thorns choking the life from the Vine, and the tenants God put there became the oppressors.  You and I, no less than the leaders of Israel, killed God’s Son with our sin; with our false priorities and our lust for control over His Church.  In doing so, we only cut our own life off from its source.  The Vine was a lifeless stump, plowed under by the cross; but, on the third day, Life sprang from that dead dirt.  “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Matthew 21:42; Psalm 118:22).  Only in God’s vineyard can a dead Vine become a living Stone.  Only the vineyard of God can be planted on bedrock and live and flourish.  And it is only because the plants are in the Lord’s vineyard that they-that you-produce the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).  You are the righteous ones of the first Psalm: you have been planted by your faithful God alongside streams of living water; He will bring from you His fruit in its season, and He will preserve you so that your leaves never wither (Psalm 1:3).  You are His vineyard, beloved.  He has built His wall around you, and His banner over you is Love.  It is the banner of the cross of Christ, raised up and planted firmly in the soil of your heart forever.  What more is there that He can do for you that He has not done (Isaiah 5:4)?  Here is life itself; the only way that you will not produce fruit is if you refuse to drink from the wells of salvation (Isaiah 12:3) flowing from His pierced side.  So we pray: Restore us again, O Yahweh, God of hosts!  We have been unfruitful; we have not tended your vineyard in justice and righteousness.  Turn us again toward the fountains of forgiveness!  Shine the light of your Word on your Church, and grow her into a strong and lively vineyard, bound tightly to the Vine who gives us life, even Jesus Christ our Lord.  “Turn again, O God of hosts!  Look down from heaven and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself…give us life, and we will call upon your name!” (Psalm 80:14, 18b)

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/30/08


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