“A nod to God”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 3:12-21
Matthew 21:33-43

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson picks up right where last week’s ended. Immediately after sending home the point of last week’s parable, Jesus said, “Hear another parable.” It is another story about a vineyard. The Jewish authorities and Jesus’ disciples all knew that the vineyard, once again, represented the kingdom — God’s people under His gracious reign and rule. In this parable, a man created a fully outfitted vineyard. Nothing was lacking. He cleared the land, plowed and planted. He put a hedge around it to keep animals from grazing in it; he dug a winepress; he even erected a watchtower. (The hedge deterred four-legged thieves. The tower deterred the two-legged variety.) Then he rented it out and took a well-earned vacation. At vintage time, he sent some servants to collect his produce from the tenants.

We don’t know how many servants were sent, but the fate of three is clearly told. Jesus said that the tenants beat one, killed one and stoned one. The setting of the story makes it clear that the owner was wealthy and powerful. We might think that the tenants were already doomed by this first act. Instead of sending a war party, however, the owner sent a larger group of servants. No explanation is given — perhaps the owner gave the tenants the benefit of a doubt — maybe they thought the first servants were not really representing him. In any event, the terrible tenants treated the second group just as they had the first.

According to Matthew, Jesus went on without hesitation and without interruption from His audience. When you read this story, can’t you imagine people saying something? I expect to hear at least a sigh of sympathy for the servants or some expression of anger toward the tenants — either, “Oh, no, those poor people,” or, “Can you believe that? Those rats!” Instead, Jesus said the owner sent his son, thinking that the tenants would surely respect him. They didn’t. When the tenants saw the son, they said, “This is the heir. Let’s kill him and gain possession of his inheritance.” With that, they murdered him.

Now, with His audience set up, Jesus asked another of His famous questions — designed to have a seemingly obvious answer. He asked, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” Someone answered, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” The answer is half-correct.

A short history lesson might help us understand this story. In Jesus’ day, it was not unusual for a vineyard to be rented on a sharecropping basis. The renters lived there and took care of the place as if it were their own. They would pay the owner either in cash or produce when harvest time came around. The payment would either be a set amount, staying the same whether the harvest was poor or bountiful, or it would be a percentage of what we would call the profits. Typically, owners received from one quarter to one half of the harvest. According to Jewish law, if the owner’s share was not collected for three years, then the property changed hands and actually belonged to the tenants. The operating principle is that if a thing happens three times in a row, it is considered standard. The law made an allowance that added a fourth year when an owner was out of the country. This may help to explain why the tenants thought they could possess the property. It is even possible to infer that the events of the story covered several years. One year, the owner sends a few servants, the next year he sends more, then he sends his son, but on the fourth year he comes himself.

Taken on its own, the story makes you angry at the thoroughly ruthless, violent, selfish, greedy, thankless tenants. I am convinced that Jesus’ audience knew the larger implications of the story. They knew that the real Owner was God, the vineyard was His kingdom, the servants were the prophets, and that Jesus claimed to be the Son. We are not told who answered Jesus’ question. It may have been one of the Jewish authorities who initiated the conversation, or it may have been one of Jesus’ followers. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t matter. The fact is that no one there except Jesus ever dreamed the part about the son being killed could come true. Tenants in a story line might kill an owner’s son, but no one could kill the Son of God. The Gospel writers make it painfully clear that, even though Jesus told the disciples repeatedly He would be killed and rise again, they could not accept, comprehend or believe it. At the last some of His tormentors wondered if He was the Son of God and would come down from the cross and His disciples were shocked and oblivious to His promise to rise again.

Jesus’ story is a new wrinkle in an old piece of cloth first woven by Isaiah. In Isaiah’s song, Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the vineyard is likewise fully outfitted, but it produces only “wild grapes.” The prophet says that in response to God’s grace and mercy, Israel has repaid Him with ingratitude and rebellion: “He looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” According to Isaiah, God threatened to cut down the hedge and the wall so that animals could graze on the useless vines and people could trample all over them. According to Jesus, God is going to turn the vineyard over to “a people that will produce its fruit.” On that score, He and the person who answered agree. That is the correct half of the answer. The other half of the answer suggests that when the owner returns, he will kill the wretched tenants.

As I already indicated, the reason for the tenants’ death would be the son’s death. If you don’t think the first will happen, then you don’t think the second will either. The opposite is also true: if you stretch your imagination to its limit and conceive that the first thing could happen, then the second seems absolutely sure! If the Son of God could be murdered, then you can bank on God killing the murderers. While no one there except Jesus dreamed that the first could happen, as a theoretical question, they certainly knew the right answer. If the tenants killed the son, they were undoubtedly doomed.

It is the way of God that the impossible part happened and the sure thing did not. We must continue to be amazed by the real answer — Jesus’ own answer — to His question: “What will the Owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when He comes?” He will forgive them.

Nonetheless, Israel’s grab at ownership of the kingdom failed. The kingdom will always belong to God. This parable and the one from Isaiah need to be applied beyond their original context. It is one thing for us to observe that those people went about their own business and ignored God’s. We may even be upset that they took His gifts and assumed ownership of His property without so much as a nod to God. It is something else when we ask whether or not we are just like them. When I was pastor of a congregation, I avoided using the phrase “my church.” If I needed to distinguish the congregation I served from some other church, I usually said, “our church,” but it is always Christ’s church. We are only tenants. A pastor who was upset with a certain person once told me, “He won’t get away with that at my church.” What are we trying to get away with in God’s church?

What are the fruits of the vineyard? Are you producing them? Is your participation in the church anything beyond a nod to God? Some people never grow beyond being saved and secure in the faith to being a servant. The biggest role God ever has in their lives is an occasional nod of recognition. Genuine service is out of the question. They accept His gift of life, but insist on maintaining ownership in how they live it. You have heard that you are either a missionary or a mission field. We could say that people outside the church are our mission, but when they have come to faith, can we say they are “missioned”? I don’t think so. You are either mission or commissioned. There is no in-between step. God commissions us. The “co” is a link with Him and with each other.

Arnold Toynbee wrote, “Christianity is a movement and not a condition, a voyage and not a harbor.” That voyage takes us through salvation to growth and discipleship, and finally to service. The fruits of God’s kingdom are the very ones that He plants within and through us. Once we are harvested, God makes us harvesters.

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