Preached on Sunday, 4 October, 2020, the Eighteenth Sunday After Penecost, at All Saints Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto
Readings for this Sunday: Exodus 20.1-4,7-9,12-20; Psalm 19, Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-46
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom (Mt 21.43)
Last Sunday we talked about Jesus’ authority. Today’s gospel, assuming that we accept Jesus’ authority over our lives, asks us to think about our accountability to Jesus.
Let’s begin though with noting the central metaphor of the parable in today’s gospel reading, the vineyard. Jesus employs the vineyard parable frequently in these latter chapters of Matthew’s gospel (Mt 20.1-16,Mt 21.28-32), so it’s worth taking a moment to think through what the vineyard represents in terms of Jesus’ expectations of us as his disciples. In asking what is rightfully owed to the landowner in the parable, Jesus is inviting us to think about what we owe to God. What does God expect from us? What do you think God expects to find when he visits our hearts? Our church?
First, let’s think about vineyards. Drive three hours south from here and you will find yourself in the Niagara wine country, a very pleasant destination in the summer. If you are fond of these places, as I am, why do you go? What do you hope to gain by going there? Besides the stunning views of the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario, we go because we hope to come back with a few bottles of delicious wine. We would most probably stop at those vineyards that look prosperous, have rows of well-tended grape vines, and staff that seem to know what they’re doing, who understand the science of soil and plants and the craft of turning grapes into wine. Such a vineyard would seem to deliver on our expectations of that delicious wine.
In today’s gospel reading, the vineyard seems to have everything it needs to produce good wine: vines, a wall to protect them, the right equipment, and people to run it. The landowner thus has legitimate expectations of receiving the fruits of the harvest. But there’s a human resources problem. The people in charge of the vineyard don’t care about the landowner’s rights. They want the vineyard for their own, and kill everyone the landowner sends, even the landowner’s son.
Who is the landowner? As in last Sunday, the owner of the vineyard seems to stand for God. Jesus’ original audience would have easily made this connection because of the many images in the Hebrew scriptures comparing Israel to a vineyard planted by God for the benefit of God’s people. The prophet Isaiah for example uses an image that Jesus is surely drawing on in his parable: For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting” (Isa 5.7).
In Isaiah, God wants his vineyard Israel to grow good grapes that can make wine but all he gets are “wild grapes” (Isa 5.4). The good grapes are the results of God’s people living by the covenant, the long agreement that God’s people would live well and respect God’s law, but instead, the elites of Israel care only for themselves. As Isaiah explains it, God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”(Isa 5.7).
Here in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is having the same conversation with the elites of Israel, the ruling priests and elders, and by tricking them into siding with the landowner in the parable and agreeing that the tenants are in the wrong, Jesus gets them to admit that they are in the wrong. Jesus is also predicting his own death – like the landowner’s son in the parable, he will be killed by the chiefs and priests, the tenants who have forgotten that God owns their vineyard.
How does all this relate to us? In several ways, I think, beginning with the idea of accountability. The covenant idea of Israel as God’s vineyard does not apply to us directly, but I think it is helpful in understanding God’s expectations of u as beings that he has created. All that we are and all that we have is a reflection of what God has given us. Our individual lives as disciples and our collective lives as church are vineyards that God has given us to tend. The season of Thanksgiving, which we celebrate next Sunday, reminds us that our relationship to God is always grounded in gratitude. As the Prayer Book reminds us, quoting the Hebrew scriptures (1 Chron 29), “All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee”.
There are lots of passages in the gospels where Jesus speaks of his expectations if what he wants of us as disciples – the parable of the talents (Mt 25.14-30) being one example of the general idea that Jesus expects us to be his disciples in deeds as well as in name. As disciples, we are expected to help Jesus show the kingdom of heaven to the world.
This expectation is often summed up in the metaphor of being fruitful, as when Jesus tells the chief priests that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Mt 21.43). If we want to think of our own lives are vineyards that God has given us to tend, then God expects that we will be spiritually fruitful. St. Paul uses this imagery most famously in Galatians, when he describes the Christian virtues as fruits of the spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5.22-23).
Our accountability to God can seem daunting if we think of it as a series of good deeds that we must produce, like some spiritual quota that we have to achieve, especially as we are far short of perfect. We can dispel this fear when we realize how badly God wants us to succeed and flourish. In Isaiah 5, God sings a “love-song” to his vineyard, and asks “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?” Creating the vineyard is God’s dearest project, and in Jesus’ parable, the landowner pours everything he can into saving the project, including sending his Son.
The parable shouldn’t make us anxious when we realize that the son comes to us as the gardener, someone who wants us to thrive and bear good fruit. We only bear good fruit because of Jesus. We couldn’t do it without him. In John’s gospel, Jesus says “I am the vine; ayou are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15.5).
If being a whole vineyard is too much to take in or feels overwhelming, it might be more helpful to think of yourself as a single branch in God’s vineyard, a branch connected to Jesus the vine. However we think of it, let’s remember that the goal of the Christian life is to be fruitful. Traditionally the church saw fruitfulness as being expressed in acts of charity and piety. A fruitful life was expressed in acts of love and kindness to the poor and in acts of devotion and worship to God.
These definitions remain valid and worthy but today we might add to them – we can also see fruitfulness as the absence of racism and hatred, as healthy community, and as a care for the environment and the earth as part of God’s creation. Fruitfulness can be expressed in a hundred small and practical ways, and like a good perennial plant it should be deeply rooted in our lives and sustained by our relationship with Jesus. Jesus deeply wants us to be fruitful, to show something of the kingdom of God to those around us. Being fruitful is to live our best life, to flourish as God intended.
My prayer for All Saints is that we can be a fruitful vineyard, whose wines are as varied as our personalities and talents, perhaps ranging from dandelion and ice wine to crisp chardonnays and rich merlots, but all of us deeply rooted in Jesus, all of us a good vintage that will be pleasing to God and to others.