This is the sermon I'll be preaching tomorrow at St. Timothy Lutheran Church. We will be having an indoor, in-person service (all socially distanced, with masks) as well as our drive-in service. The gospel reading is Matthew 21:33-46.Jesus says, “Listen to another parable…” continuing his response to the Jewish leadership regarding his authority. We’re in another vineyard today yet with a different setting. The cast of characters is larger and we find ourselves in a parable that has historically, often been used to fuel anti-Jewish sentiment.
Now Jesus is also calling out the leadership for being unfaithful to God. In the absence of the landowner, the tenants were to care for the vineyard. “The first and second years are typically growing years for the root system and canopy. The third year is usually when they yield enough fruit to harvest. It takes about five years to get a full crop from the new vines” (https://gaineyvineyard.com/blog/replanting-grapevines).
If these tenant farmers had been working the land for five years and suddenly a slave comes and wants to take all the fruit just as the harvest time is near, we can see why they wouldn't want to give up the work of their labors. If the landowner represents God, then we need to be reminded that it is not 10% that belongs to God but 100% and we are but "managers/stewards" of all that God has given us.
It seems a bit silly for the landowner to repeatedly send various representatives to the tenants to collect the fruit when each time they are rejected, seized, beaten, killed, and stoned (v. 35). I am reminded of the quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." What this shows us though is the patience of the landowner, which makes him a perfect picture of God, who loves and loves and gives and gives, desperately wooing his people.
But the tenants are selfish, wanting to benefit from their work. This is not their property, their fruit, but they want it all. So, we come to the linchpin of the parable. The landowner gave the tenants many chances to give over the required fruit. Here Jesus turns the tables on the religious leaders. Jesus got those guilty of unfaithful leadership to testify against themselves saying, “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 time” (v. 41).
This sounds like the parable was meant as teaching on God replacing the Jewish people with the church. But this was not directed at the entire Jewish people, just to the corrupt leadership that was out for themselves. Over the centuries, this has been used to add fuel to the fire of antisemitism. In Romans chapter 9, Paul reiterates God’s love for the Jewish people who are faithful to him.
Now Jesus moves from the vineyard setting to one with which builders would be more familiar. Quoting from Psalm 118, Jesus said, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes” (Psalm118:22-23). “The cornerstone…is the first stone set in the construction of a masonry foundation. All other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure” (Wikipedia). That’s huge. What some rejected is the stone that determines the position of all the others. In Romans 9 Paul wrote, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 9:33).
The parsonage has its share of animal residents. Falla and Jessi (the dogs) have a terrible habit of not picking up after themselves. If we are not careful, we find ourselves tripping over bones, Kongs, or other toys. It’s a minefield at times. If we don’t let our lives be aligned in Christ, producing the fruit of the kingdom, we’ll fall. If we don’t do what God has called us to do, God will get someone else. This is particularly true for those of us in any kind of leadership position.
Jesus certainly has upped the ante; escalating the heat between himself and the religious leaders. But we need to hear his challenges to them as challenges to US, for it is we who are the religious people today. We need to see ourselves in his parables. Are we people from whom the Kingdom will be taken away, or are we people who "produce the fruits of the Kingdom?" (David Ewart, holytextures.com).
In the end, this parable isn’t about wicked tenants…of Pharisees…or Matthew’s community…or even us. It’s about God—the one who entrusted us with all good things, blessing us beyond our wildest dreams. God the one who, even when disappointed by how we abuse our blessings, yet comes to us in love. God the one who weeps over the injustices of the world, embraces those who fall short and promises to never give up on anyone. Not those tenants. Not Matthew with his penchant for violent rhetoric. Not even us, when we refuse to recognize all others as God’s beloved children rather viewing them as competitors or threats (David Lose, …in the Meantime).
May the God of peace fill us with all joy and peace in believing that we may live fruitful lives of service. Amen.