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How It Goes in God’s Vineyard

Matthew 21:33-46 (CEB)

Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.

“Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

“But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

“When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”

They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes? Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”

Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.

October 7-8, 2017
Matthew 21:33-46
“How It Goes in God’s Vineyard”

Our story today is one of several parables Jesus tells in the Gospel of Matthew about the nature of the kingdom of God. We will hear some of these parables over the next few weeks and seek to find how each can offer us a word of hope.

The setting of our Gospel story today comes at a crucial time in the life of Jesus. He has come into Jerusalem riding on a colt in what we often call the triumphal entry just before the Jewish Passover. So, the setting of this story is around the time we call Palm Sunday and Holy Week.

Jesus’ popularity is high and the people hail him as king. Jesus is also spending time teaching in the Temple, but he knows that the people have not been listening to his message of discipleship and humble service and that they are looking for a more political savior.

(Matthew 21:33-46)

Theologian Martin Luther once said back in the 16th century that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. Our Gospel parable today is one of those stories. So, we need patience and faithful pressure in squeezing this story to give witness to the hope the story can show.

This is also perhaps one of those lesser known stories in Scripture, so let me briefly recap the parable for us.

The owner of the vineyard has set the tenant farmers up with all they need to make a good and abundant life for themselves. They are given a beautiful vineyard, a winepress, a fence around the vineyard, and a watchtower from which to protect the vineyard. The vineyard owner then goes away and leaves the tenants in charge.

When the harvest comes in, the owner sends his servants to collect the rent in the form of a share of the fruit produced. But the tenants beat, stone and kill his servants. When the owner sends more servants the same thing happens. So, he decides to send his son to make the collection, thinking by some logic that the tenants will respect his son. But the tenants kill the son as well, hoping, that if there is no heir to the property then maybe they will inherit the vineyard.

In a nutshell, the tenants in our story, who are thought to be the religious leaders of the day, repay the generosity of the vineyard owner, who is God, with defiance, rejection and violence. With an attitude of greed and hatred, they take what has been entrusted to them as if they are in charge. They are so focused on keeping the vineyard for themselves that they have forgotten that the vineyard was simply lent to them so that they could do good work in it.

Scripture tells us that those who heard Jesus tell this story the first time knew he was talking about them and then it was only a few days later that these first listeners behaved just like those tenants and encouraged the crucifixion of Jesus. They had forgotten the gift and the privilege of being in God’s vineyard.

So often we are like the tenants in this story. We are the ones who get greedy and defiant and respond to others with rejection, hatred and violence. We are the ones who forget that the vineyard is on loan to us from God so that we too can do good work in it.

When the Bible was being put together, this Gospel story made the cut. It made it into the final order of Scripture called the Canon, perhaps because it was a word to the church then and now. It was a warning to all religious groups and people who name themselves as Christians to be careful and not to forget that we are only the tenants.

Retired UM Bishop Will Willimon says, “We forget we are tenants only. We forget the owner of the vineyard will one day come and ask us for an accounting. Maybe our task is to stop pointing fingers, Willimon says. Maybe it isn’t the liberals or the conservatives to blame. Maybe it isn’t the government or the gays or the immigrants or the terrorists or even our parents to blame.
We are they, Willimon says. We are to faithfully tend the garden we have been given. We are to receive those God sends our way.”

We so often forget who owns the vineyard. We forget that everything from the world we live in, to our very own possessions belongs to God and comes to us by God’s grace. That is a hard mindset to have and to maintain, but it is a mindset of faithful stewardship—we are caretakers of the blessings we have been given.

Tending a vineyard, the same as tending a garden or a family or a church, or a community, is a never ending task that requires our time, our attention, and our resources as we work to be in relationship with God and one another.

God’s very nature is relationship. God created us for relationship and God gave us an outline for this way of relationship-living in the vineyard…the outline is to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8).

John Wesley, our founder of Methodism, called us to be guided by three simple rules as we live together in the vineyard…Do no harm, Do good, and Stay in love with God.

And Jesus called us to this life together in the vineyard with the command to love God and love our neighbor. God has invited everyone into the vineyard where there is life abundant with opportunity and also responsibility.

In our Gospel parable, Jesus is trying to tell those listening how far God is willing to go to be in relationship with us. Yet, we see in our Gospel story and in life around us how far people have gone and will go in rejecting God and harming one another with evil acts of hatred and violence.

We have witnessed again this week, how hatred and violence have come storming through the vineyard as evidenced by the horrific massacre carried out by one man in Las Vegas.

The tenants of the vineyard in our Gospel story did not care who they killed as they acted out of hatred, greed and evil. For reasons we may never know, one man in Las Vegas acted with so much hatred and evil within him that he did not care who he killed. And the result was 59 people lost their lives, hundreds were injured and thousands of people now are forever connected to a place called Las Vegas.

So, then we ask the why questions and the where was God questions…or we wonder whether there is a God. When we wonder whether or not there is a God, we should be able to look at the church and at people of faith as the body of Christ and answer ‘yes’…Yes, there is a God, who loves and who cares. Or, as Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood used to say, “Look for the helpers.” That was the advice of his mother whenever Fred would get scared as a child when hearing about tragedy.

When we get scared and fear-filled hearing about and looking at all the tragedy and evil in the world, can we look for and see the helpers? And can we be the helpers? Certainly we can see the helpers in those who set aside their own safety to help others during and after the carnage carried out in Las Vegas last week. Certainly we can see the helpers in those who cared for others in the recent hurricane disasters and who continue to help with the ongoing rebuilding efforts.

So, the question becomes, what does it mean to be a tenant of God’s vineyard in the 21st century? What does it mean to be faithful stewards in the here and now?

The grace and good news of today’s story comes in the truth that God is more gracious than we are. The only rejection in our Gospel story comes from the people, not from God. Even the evil tenants are treated with mercy. The listeners to Jesus assume that the tenants will be killed, but Jesus is proof that God has not given up on humanity, even when we are hate-filled and cruel and unfaithful.

Over the centuries, a lot of time, energy and focus has been spent trying to reconcile God’s love and goodness with the evil in the world.
Our time is better spent when we focus on relationship building and responding to evil with our prayers, our love and our compassion in ways that care for the victims and seek to produce the good fruit that can still be harvested in the aftermath of evil acts. Scripture reminds us that the good fruit of God’s vineyard comes in the form of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

This good fruit is produced when in the wake of tragedy, we get to know our neighbors better; we check on those in our neighborhoods who we know need extra help; we give ourselves in service to others; we tend more closely to our relationships with family, friends, and co-workers; we extend forgiveness or initiate a needed conversation with others; we work to find common ground in an increasingly toxic culture; we step up our prayers for a more just and compassionate world; and we act with kindness toward each other.

When we combined our prayers with our work of relationship building and service, we find a loving, compassionate and hopeful partnership that reaches out beyond ourselves and turns hatred and evil into care, compassion and abundance…And that is the way it is meant to go in God’s vineyard.

May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.