A Nathan Parable
Far into this Season of growth called Pentecost, it's a bit tricky finding room to grow. It's found where we don't expect it, so it's a perfect time for a Nathan parable. A Nathan parable is one like the prophet Nathan told King David to convict him of the sin of adultery. The person being told the parable is surprised to find themselves in the parable. This happens in our text too. The chief priests and elders of the people Jesus is speaking to are surprised to find themselves in the parable. Hopefully, you too will be surprised by where you find yourselves in this sermon.
This parable is straight forward. A Landowner plants a vineyard, puts a wall around it, digs a winepress in it, and builds a watchtower to protect it. The Landowner does everything. He doesn't have help from the farmers who will eventually get the vineyard. All the hard work, all the expense, all the time involved in getting the vineyard operational is borne by him. Yet He just gives it out to some farmers.
Here's the first turning point in the text that poor translations miss. Our insert translates "rented," but the word translated "rented" here, in the last verse is translated "give." Second, the same word the insert translates "tenants" at the end of the first paragraph, it correctly translates "farmers" 3 lines above. Why this monkeying around with plain words? Why can't they translate "give out" rather than "rent" and "farmers" rather than "tenants?" You know why. It's just too wonderful, too amazing, too gracious. A landowner works, spends money and sweats blood to build a beautiful vineyard and then he simply gives it out to people who did not work, did not sweat, and do not deserve it; that just doesn't make any sense.
Maybe it will if we drop the figures, drop the illustration, pull back the veil of the parable? Who is the landowner but God? What is the vineyard but the kingdom of God? Who brought the kingdom of God but Jesus? How was it built here on earth but by His suffering, crying, bleeding and sighing? To give the kingdom of God to sinners who don't deserve it, Jesus had to sweat blood in a Garden, the tortures had to plow furrows on His back with whips just the way Isaiah prophesied they would, and Jesus had to watch abandoned on the cross as the wrath of God pressed the last drops of life out of Him. This is what it cost God to give the kingdom to sinners.
Now you would think the farmers who had been given a vineyard that they hadn't worked for would be favorable toward slaves sent by the landowner. But look what happens. They beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. The landowner sends still more slaves but they are mistreated the same way. In describing this, Jesus uses language similar to the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah who says repeatedly, "The Lord has sent to you His slaves the prophets again and again, but you have not listened nor inclined your ear to hear." Two chapters from now when Jesus weeps over Jerusalem He'll say that Jerusalem kills the prophets and stones those sent to her.
Even after they had terribly mistreated his slaves, the landowner sends his son still believing the absolute best about the farmers. He says, "They will respect my son." But they didn't. They threw him out of the vineyard like a dog and then killed him without mercy, without pity, without a care. But I don't think the horror of their crime really hits home with some of you because you've noticed that word fruit. The slaves were sent to collect the fruit of the vineyard for the landowner. It's not strange that the farmers would kill for the sake of profit. Even killing the son is not surprising, or maybe you don't read the newspaper or watch news? People are regularly killed for the sake of profit. Even in a family business, family members get killed because someone wants the business.
This parable in Matthew hangs on the word "fruit." Mark and Luke also record this parable, but each of them only uses the word once. Matthew has it two more times. If the fruit the landowner comes looking for is something that costs the farmers, then in a wicked, fallen world it's not surprising that they kill his slaves and even his son. But that just doesn't agree with the text. We are told from the get-go that the landowner did everything, bore all the expense of the vineyard and then gave it out. He willingly impoverished himself for farmers who didn't deserve it. Secondly, if fruit stands for sacrifices, prayers, or money that God expected from the chief priests and elders to whom Jesus is speaking this parable, they did give these to God.
Friends, you greatly misread your Bible if you think the chief priests and elders of Israel were lousy church goers or poor stewards. These folks were in church every time the doors were open. They followed the Law making the proper sacrifices at the proper time. In modern church terms, we would say the chief priests and elders where great stewards of time, talent and treasure. So can you see what a twisting of the Scriptures it would be to use this parable to teach people they ought to be better stewards? In the sense that word is usually used in our day, the people who first heard this parable were the best of stewards. You couldn't find fault with their giving, their time spent at church, or their service to the church.
Now comes the turn where I hope you see yourselves in this parable. It's not that you don't give enough, work for the Church enough, or dedicate enough time to Her; it's that you think of your Lord Jesus Christ as some sort of ogre. He wants something from you or He is not happy with you. He is like the gods of all pagan religions. He is angry with you unless you give, serve, or suffer at a certain level for Him. Being in His kingdom, living in His vineyard is one long lists of "have to's" to you. You have to go to Church; you have to give an offering. You have to serve on this committee, go to this board, or help in this project. God is not your dear Father but an oppressive tyrant. You are not His dear child, but a chained slave. It's a burden not a privilege to be in His kingdom.
"Okay, what then is the fruit the Landowner comes seeking?" Well, it's definitely not something you produce, but something the vineyard does. The fruit belongs not to you but the Landowner because the text says, "He sent His slaves to the farmers to collect His fruit." Second, in the last verse Jesus says the fruit belongs to the kingdom of God. Third, every time the word "fruit" is used it's singular. This takes us to Galatians 5:22 where St. Paul writes not about the "fruits" of the Spirit but about the "fruit" of the Spirit though he goes on to list a number of things. He lists: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Where's time, talent, or treasure in this list? Where's the burden in having such fruit? If I told you that I had a vitamin that could produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, would you say to be, "Aw, do I have to take it?" Of course not! Who wouldn't want his/her heart and life bursting with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?
This is exactly what God has done for us. He has planted us in His kingdom by Holy Baptism. He keeps us fresh and green by watering us with His Holy Word of forgiveness, and feeding us with the Body and Blood of His Son in Holy Communion. Having done all of this, it is only natural for Him to come looking for the wonderful fruit that springs from His efforts. Don't you do that in your garden? You naturally expect to see beautiful fruit, but fruit sure isn't a burden to the plant, is it? And how do you get that fruit? By scolding it, threatening it, teaching it how to bear fruit? Not hardly; you water, fertilize, care for it. Fruit comes from what you give.
The problem is that we think we're in a business relationship with God. The mistranslation of the last verse all but locks us into this. Jesus doesn't close our text saying, "Therefore, I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit." That plainly describes a business relationship. If we will produce fruit, we will get the kingdom. The trouble is that there is no "will" in the last part of the text. The NASB, the NKJV, the New Beck Bible have it right. Jesus says, "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and be given to a nation producing the fruit of it." Jesus tells them the kingdom belongs to those having its fruit. The farmers denied they had the fruit of the vineyard thereby showing they weren't really in the vineyard, and so were put out.
This isn't how it is with us. God didn't enter into a business relationship with us when He planted us in His kingdom by Baptism. He entered into a family relationship. Do you know why people believe you shouldn't do business with family? Because it violates the principles of family life. This is our sin when we look at God as a business owner and ourselves as tenants. Our standing in the kingdom is then based on what we do for Him. He only keeps us in the kingdom if we do enough, serve enough, give enough.
Could anything be farther from the truth? Did we work to get into the kingdom? Did we do anything to deserve the forgiveness of our sins or life everlasting? If we did nothing to get the kingdom to begin with, how can we think we keep the kingdom by what we do? If we start by grace, how can we think we finish by works? What keeps a son or daughter in their father's house? Good works? Producing fruit? Isn't it the love and grace of the father? Most parents have had an angry child tell them, "You're not my father anymore." Did that change anything with you? Didn't you smile, at least to yourself? What counts is not what your child thinks of you but what you think of your child. As long as you call them "son" or "daughter" that's what they are.
God calls you "son" or "daughter" in your Baptism. He never stops recognizing you as His child there. His Word of Absolution to you for Jesus' sake is, "My son/My daughter, be of good cheer your sins are forgiven you." He says in Holy Communion, "Take eat; take drink my child this is My Body and Blood given and shed for you." With these He not only plants you in the kingdom but keeps you there.
Love, joy, peace, and the other fruit of the kingdom come from being securely in the kingdom not from thinking you have to produce fruit to get into the kingdom or to stay in it. Isn't that the only way to understand this parable? The farmers couldn't have had the fruit of the vineyard unless the Landowner first put them in it. And what got them thrown out was not the fact that they didn't produce fruit; the fruit was there for the landowner to collect. No what got them thrown out was the fact that they denied they had it. And that's the same as denying they were in the vineyard at all.
You don't deny you're in the kingdom, do you? So enjoy the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control that it produces. A businessman wouldn't care if any of those things were in your life, but a loving Father certainly would and does. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost XX (10-6-02); Matthew 21:33-43