This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen.
I love how Jesus paints these beautiful images for us with his parables. Each new picture shows us a clearer idea of heaven and the power and love of God. With just simple ideas he expresses these amazing truths to us. Like when he tells us about a farmer casting out seeds in his fields showing how God reaches out into the world with his powerful Word. Or the image of a small mustard seed that seems insignificant, and yet grows into this huge plant, showing how God’s kingdom grows. Jesus uses these very simple concepts to make sure that his listeners can understand him. Even if they don’t want to hear what he’s saying. Like in the parable that we hear about today. Jesus describes this beautiful vineyard that has been lovingly planted and tended by the landowner. He makes sure it’s safe and secure, protecting it with walls and a watchtower to keep out the wild animals and enemies away from destroying the crops. Then he places the care of the vineyard under some tenants that he chooses. It’s their job to watch over and protect the vineyard. To tend the vines. Imagine living in that beautiful and protected vineyard! If the parable ended right there, I don’t think anyone would have had a problem.
After all, Jesus is referring to the Israelites as the vines, and the religious leaders were supposed to be the tenants in the parable. Their job was to watch over, care, and protect the vines. No problem there. But the thing is that the parable keeps going. Because the tenants, the religious leaders, become selfish and greedy. They don’t want anything to do with the landowner even though it’s his property and work that they are watching over. When his servants come along, they beat them, murder them, and throw them out. Which is true. That’s so often how the religious leaders treated the servants of God. His prophets. His messengers. When they came to serve God’s people the prophets were often beaten, hurt, and murdered. Look at Jeremiah, Elijah, and Micaiah just to name a few prophets who faced punishment and hatred. Or Uriah, son of Shemaiah. When he proclaimed God’s Word to the people, King Jehoiakim was so angry that he demanded Uriah be killed. So he went to Egypt, but the king sent men after him to bring him back and killed him. Israel had a long history of mistreating God’s messengers. So Jesus message was very clear: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you…” (Matthew 23:37a)
Or look at King Manasseh from our Old Testament reading from today. At the age of 12 he took the throne of Judah and for the next 55 years he led people away from God. He built altars and set up pagan worship areas. He put an Asherah pole in the very temple of God. He offered his own son as a sacrifice. This man who should have been a moral and religious leader for God’s people instead sinned and rebelled against the land owner. He who was to watch over the vineyard couldn’t care less.
That’s an extreme case, but it points the bigger problem that the Jews had: spiritual laziness. Spiritual complacency. And their religious leaders were pointing them to all of the wrong things. Of course they were safe: they had the temple. Of course they were fine. They were the Israelites! Of course God wouldn’t let them be destroyed. Just like the walls around a vineyard or a watchtower to keep an eye out for their enemies, these Jews felt invulnerable and forgot about the one who makes it all possible. So when God, the landowner, sent prophets to warn them about the spiritual danger that they were facing, no one wanted to listen. Better to get rid of them. And they did. I love how Jesus knows their hearts so well. He speaks about the son who was sent to these tenants, and of course they murdered him too. Jesus was telling them “you’re going to get rid of me because you are jealous of me.” Jesus spoke about how they would treat him because they were jealous. And exactly as he said, the religious leaders tried to find ways of getting rid of him. “They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” (Matthew 21:46) In not too much time they would be beating, mocking, and murdering the Son who was sent to them. The Son of the landowner who should have been loved and respected by these people. But instead they hung him on a cross. All because they forgot their purpose. These religious leaders were supposed to be taking care of this beautiful vineyard and directing the people back to their God. Instead they were selfish and foolish. Instead of serving God, they were serving themselves. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” (Matthew 21:40-41)
We are those other tenants. Those tenants who are in this beautiful vineyard because the original tenants turned on God. Nice, right? And we could stop right here and everyone would be happy. But then we would be just like the religious leaders. Because while this parable was directed at them, God is also warning us about the dangers of falling into the same problem. God doesn’t want us to forget our purpose. That purpose is clear: to take care of this beautiful vineyard that God has blessed us with. To encourage fellow believers. To correct sinners when they begin to struggle. To forgive them when they repent. To help each other in our troubles and hardships. To build and strengthen each other and to grow in love and thanks to the one who has made all things. And in all of these things we use his powerful Word. This is the purpose that we are here. We’re called to watch over God’s vineyard.
But what happens when life gets busy and we don’t have time to encourage those around us? Because we know how frantic things can get. Running from one thing to another and never having enough hours in the day. We may have very good intentions to help the Christians in your lives, but you barely have time to take a breath. We can hardly squeeze time in our schedules for church and a few minutes a day to be in God’s Word for ourselves. And maybe not even that. We’ll worry about the vineyard later. Or what about when other things catch our attention. When we find ourselves running after the newest gadgets, the best stuff, or the next great thing. Or how about when we let anger or bitterness or jealousy run our mouths and actions? Instead of pointing people to their Savior we vent our frustrations and anger. So often, instead of serving God, we serve ourselves. We who are supposed to be watching over the vineyard find ourselves with the same struggles of the first tenants: distracted, jealous, spiritually lazy. We deserve to have our places taken away and given to someone else.
Look around and see where you are: you are in the vineyard of God. And this beautiful vineyard is filled with those that God has called to be his servants. Our failures and frailties have been washed away and God has made you worthy to be in his vineyard. All of those sins that cry out and remind us of our mistakes are gone and in their place is the title: servant in God’s vineyard. Because God loves you and came to save you. Your place is not lost because of God’s mercy and goodness. We are not like the first tenants who met a “wretched end.” No, we are those he called to take their place. “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.” (Matthew 21:43)
And yet, we know that we are not worthy. We know that we still struggle. How can we expect to produce the good fruit that God desires? Paul wrote about this in the letter to the Philippians. He knew that salvation has nothing to do with deserving it. Instead, it was the knowledge of his salvation that moved him, wanting to serve God with all that he was: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:20-21) And so we press on, serving our God in the vineyard that he has placed us. We look to our fellow believers and to their needs. We warn those in danger and encourage each other with God’s Word. The fruit that we “produce” has nothing to do with us. We are simply the tenants who serve God out of joyful thanks. Whatever is produced, whatever grows, whatever is good is all because of God. He is the Son who the tenants killed and thought they would take his inheritance. He was the one the religious leaders and the Israelites rejected. If only they would have listened. “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 “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.” (Matthew 21:42-43) Because of their rejection, those unbelievers lost their place in the Garden. But the resurrected Son has called us to take their place. The one who saved us and who placed us in this beautiful vineyard has given us a task. Brothers and sisters, let’s eagerly watch over God’s vineyard. Let’s be ready to warn of sin and eager to proclaim God’s mercy. Let’s encourage one another to grow in our faith and be built up by God’s Word. And let’s always rejoice because we are in God’s beautiful and precious vineyard. Amen.
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. Amen.