Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

by Crossings

Bearing Fruit
Matthew 21:33-46
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Proper 22-Sunday between October 2 and 8 Inclusive)
analysis by Harry Duffy

33Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” 42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore 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. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

DIAGNOSIS: The Leased Vineyard

Step 1-Initial Diagnosis: Stealing the fruits
This parable, for those gathered, described a first-class vineyard (fences to keep out the wild animals, a watchtower to help guard against thieves at harvest time, and a press for making wine) constructed by the owner and leased with the best intentions to the tenants. Not only did the tenants disregard their contractual obligations — producing no fruit for the owner — but they struck out to claim that which was not their own by killing the owner’s messengers, including his rightful heir. Under Jewish law, unclaimed property could be legally claimed by tenants. Their greed had turned into covetousness and even murder. Is this parable a singular example of miserly, non-productive tenants in their relationship to a kind owner? Probably not.

Step 2-Advanced Diagnosis: Rejecting
When Jesus asked the scholarly audience to remember the Scriptures, a flood of texts poured into memory and drowned the parable. The Pharisees and chief priests understood Jesus’ comparison — God is the owner, Israel the tenant. The Covenant is expressed in words by God to Israel: “I will take you as my people, and I will be your God” (Exodus 6:7). The words of Isaiah declared Israel as an unfruitful vineyard — God “expected justice but saw bloodshed” (Isaiah 5:1-7). And the words of Jeremiah said, “what I (God) gave them has passed away from them” (Jeremiah 8:13; cf. 6:9). But Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 118:22 — the “stone which the builder’s rejected” is God’s “rightful heir,” Jesus. After hearing this, those gathered show no remorse, but reject the “rightful heir,” and would eventually go on to act out the last lines of the parable. Israel (and we with Israel) has ignored the Covenant and showed extreme enmity toward God.

Step 3-Final Diagnosis: Taken Away
Jesus asks, “What will become of these tenants?” Those hearing the parable provide their own word of doom: the wicked tenants would receive a “miserable death,” and there would be total enmity from the Creator of the vineyard who will give the vineyard to others. More than a little Law-abiding effort will be required of the tenants to change the Owner’s mind. Nor have the tenants of the past two millennia produced the “perfect” fruit. “Do not enter into judgment with your servant for no one living is righteous before you” (Psalm 143:2). Both the old and the new tenants will suffer the same grim verdict. Both Jew and Gentile, both you and me, have a God-relationship problem that can only be fixed by a God-sized solution that can make us righteous before God.

PROGNOSIS: The Mercy-Managed Vineyard

Step 4-Initial Prognosis: Given
Christ has crossed out that God-sized problem of sin — of enmity toward God. God’s mercy paid the cost of our lease with the fruit of the crucified and risen Christ, “the rightful heir” which the tenants not only rejected, but had killed. Our debt of unrighteousness is scratched out with the blood of Christ’s atonement. Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness. Christ’s perfect fruit becomes our perfect fruit. The lease on our lives has been paid in full.

Step 5-Advanced Prognosis: New Fruits (faith=life and righteousness)
In Christ, the “rejected stone,” we find a new lease on life — indeed, new life! Life in Christ’s vineyard of fruit that cannot be deterred by sin and death. That life is freely given to us, and we get to live under God’s gracious mercy-management. Our first response, our first fruits, is to trust in God’s promise of being made righteous through the gift of “the rightful heir” and to turn toward him (repentance) for the benefits of righteousness and the joy of working the vineyard.

Step 6- Final Prognosis: Producing Fruits
Under God’s mercy, we are free to work the vineyard. We promise in the familiar offertory prayer in the Lutheran Book of Worship to dedicate our lives to the “care and redemption” of all of God’s creation. All people are called to be about the caring works of justice, love and nurture, so that life is preserved, so that fairness and equity happen in human interactions, so that the needs of people and things are met. God assigns the caring work to all humankind, but the redeeming work is an additional assignment for God’s redeemed. The world, at its best, operates on God’s law for caring, but not God’s gospel for redeeming. To “redeem” means to “buy back” the world under God’s mercy-management. Christians confess that creation gets redeemed by the redeeming work of Jesus the Christ — his fruits freely offered to all.


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