Jesus said, "There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a wine press in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he send his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" Matthew 21:33-40
It was in the fall many years ago that my father would take my three brothers and I to the local orchard to pick apples. Where we lived in Michigan there were many fruit orchards which offered lower prices if you picked them yourself. Dad was economical, but Dad loved apples, so we were all recruited one Saturday each fall.
Getting there was half the fun. Once we reached the orchard we were allowed to sit on the tailgate of the station wagon as it rumbled through the rows of trees, over bumps and across the two rut trails the tractors made. My brothers taught me how to catch "souvenirs"; taking hold of tree branches as we passed along and stripping the leaves off, leaving a palm full of apple leaves.
When Dad found what he thought was the perfect tree, we would pile out and search for ladders. They were always of the rickety sort, having been left out in the rain until they started to rot. At the top of our shaky ladders, we would pick the biggest apples and hand them down to the brother at the bottom with the bushel basket. The first apple I picked I could never resist wiping the spray off and biting into. My, how good they were! Big, juicy, and sweet, with just the right amount of tart. The juice ran down our faces.
After an Saturday morning of picking, we filled several bushels, ate as much as we could possibly hold, and headed off for the farm house where we paid the landowner. I remember once asking him if we had to pay for the ones we had eaten. He just laughed and said something like, "If you ate too many, you’ll pay for them later." I never understood what he meant. Did he mean he’d send us a bill? How did he know how much we ate? Unfortunately, I later learned what happens when you stuff yourself with fruit you haven’t payed for. Memories like this have made the parable of the tenants in the vineyard dear to me. In Jesus’ story it is not an apple orchard, but a vineyard of grapes, but the joys of harvest time are the same.
The landowner spared no expense when he planted his vineyard. He even built a wine press and a watchtower. How eagerly he must have expected the harvest of the first crop of fruit. He was looking forward to tasting those grapes, making wine from his grapes, and seeing the profits of all the work he had done.
But the men he rented the vineyard to were scoundrels. They sent nothing the owner in appreciation for the farm. Instead, when his servants came, they beat them black and blue. At this point it would have been his right to go to the judge and have them thrown off his land and arrested for battery. But the landowner is gracious. He wants there to be no misunderstanding so he sends his own son to the vineyard to ask for the rent.
The scoundrels saw him coming and planned his death. It was no accident he was killed. It was premeditated murder. They killed him and threw his body out of the vineyard that one day would have been his property.
Jesus tells this story not for mere entertainment. There is a lesson to be learned here. The audience who first heard it knew exactly what Jesus meant. God the Father had told this story before. He described his Old Testament people as a vineyard. He dug them out of slavery in Egypt. He led them to the promised land and planted them in rich soil. He came back to look for good grapes, but his vineyard yielded only bad fruit. He sent his messengers, the holy prophets, to warn the people to repent, but they would not listen. They had no fruit to render to the Lord. They consumed it all themselves. What was their lot? They were destroyed by invading armies and carried off as slaves. What their ancestors had once been, they now became.
Jesus is the son of the landowner who visited the vineyard and was killed by the renters. Since they bore no fruit and murdered the owner’s son, they were cut off from the vineyard. Now the vineyard has been given to others.
Jesus also had us in mind when he told this story. We are the new tenants of the vineyard. The vineyard we live in is a wonderful place. It has fertile, soft soil. It produces fruit for us to eat and the best wine for us to drink. We should be happy and content in God’s vineyard. He has taken care of everything.
God has graciously provided us with homes to live in and people who love, he has given us the opportunity for education, the professions we work in, the clothes on our backs and the shoes on our feet. That car that brought us to church today came from him, as does each and every good thing that we enjoy. Truly we live in a rich and well provided vineyard. We should be so happy with all God has given us.
Not only this, but He has provided and even greater gift, forgiveness. He has given us His beloved Son that we may be pardoned of all our offenses to him and live lives of peace and joy, knowing that because of Him we shall enjoy life after death.
And what of the rent? What do we pay to live in this wonderful vineyard? Nothing. It is all a gift. But surely we will be found to give thanks to Him every moment of our lives, to pray to Him in praise for all our good fortune!
The parable directs us to consider our response to God’s grace. Since God has provided for us in such measure, are we not inspired to take a generous portion of all He has given and return it to Him? Certainly our hearts are so full of thanks that the offering basket overflows with gratitude. Each day finds us rejoicing in the grace of God, never complaining, but full of peace and contentment. Is that the way it is?
Or do we see ourselves in the story as those wicked tenants, who think the farm is theirs and keep all of the fruit for themselves? And when someone comes along to remind us who all this belongs to, we shut them out and threaten to beat them. And what would happen if the owner’s Son came to us? Would we treat him any different than the tenants in the story?
As a child in the apple orchard I used to eat too many apples because I thought I was pulling a fast one on the farmer and getting away with more than I paid for. But later I got what I deserved.
John the Baptizer once said, "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Out of stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Mat. 3:9-10).
Jesus himself said, "A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit" (Mat. 7:18) "By their fruit you will recognize them" (7:16).
God has planted us in His orchard by Holy Baptism and cultivated and fertilized us by the continual teaching of His Holy Word in the Scriptures, it only follows that we should bear good fruit and have a healthy desire to offer that fruit to God. God should not have to come down and demand this of us, threatening to remove us from the vineyard if we do not. He knows that when we see the good soil where he planted us we will give thanks and render the first of our fruit to him.
The Christian must remember that faith alone saves, but faith is never alone. The condition of our heart which we call faith, where we are sorry for our sins and receive forgiveness, is always accompanied by a life of thanksgiving and good works. This is the good fruit of repentance. It is not the cause of our salvation, but when we see what God had done for us by sending His only Son to death for us, we cannot help but to live as His people. Where we fail, He again forgives and restores us, that we may serve Him each day created new.
How wonderful it must be for God to visit the orchard He planted, tasting, gathering the good fruit from His trees, tasting the fruit of faith He alone has produced in us. How we long to be that good fruit that pleases Him.
Let us pray, "Lord of the harvest, produce the fruit of faith within us. Let our lives be sweet tasting and fragrant, filled with love for You. Gather us to You, that we may bless You all our lives long. In Jesus’ name. Amen."
Copyright © 1998-2011 James F. Wright. All rights reserved.
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