October 2, 2011 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“[Jesus said:] ‘When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to Him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
Vineyards and tenants gone wild: that is the theme of the readings this week. The Lord speaks to His people who had forsaken their identity as His covenant people. Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord speaks about His people, using a parable about a vineyard: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it. . . .” Everything was set up for the vineyard to be productive. The owner had chosen a good place for his vineyard to be planted. The land was properly prepared. He selected the choicest vines. All that was needed for a successful wine-making venture was there. It was a process that was repeated countless times in Israel and all over the Mediterranean region.
Yet, there was a problem: “And he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” Instead of finding the fine grapes that the choicest vines should have produced, the owner sees all sorts of wild grapes growing on the vines. These are not what he expected! No, he wants the grapes that his choice vines should bring forth. The owner asks the people to comment: “What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” So what was wrong? The vineyard had gone wild: it had incorporated other species into it. Cross-pollination had taken place, so that wild grapes were its fruit. Its identity as a vineyard that produces good grapes had been forsaken.
Isaiah mentions whom He is describing with this parable: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are His pleasant planting; and He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold an outcry!” This parable is meant to shock the Israelites, especially its rulers, into changing their behavior, to turn from the abandoning of their identity as the Lord’s covenant people and return to Him. They had been brought out of Egypt, made into a nation, given a homeland—all actions done by the Lord for their benefit. But their sins, from the breaking of the Lord’s Law concerning behavior towards the neighbor to the disastrous adoption of foreign worship and religions, became the reason for the Lord’s punishment of Israel.
Like Isaiah of old, Jesus also tells a parable about a vineyard. He does so to show the error of the chief priests and elders: “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” The storyline is straightforward. Nothing is odd about it. That’s the way large farming operations work. Substitute farm for vineyard, silo for winepress, and grain for fruit, and the story would sound just like what the people in my former parishes in Iowa did every year.
But the storyline changes rapidly from normal to unusual: “And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” The owner’s servants go to collect the harvest fruit from the tenants and they get assaulted, beaten, and killed. This is an arrangement that has gone horribly wrong! The tenants have abandoned their identity as the people who are contracted with the owner: their agreement was to oversee the working of the vineyard and to send the harvest fruits to the owner. But when that contract was to reach its fulfillment, they refuse to do so. They will not abide by the terms of the agreement.
Yet, that is not the end of the storyline. No, Jesus puts something else in it: “Finally [the owner] sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” Now everything has gone off the tracks. Beating and killing servants was an outrage, but to actually kill the son who has the rightful possession of the vineyard? Who in their right mind would do that? This is what completely cuts off the tenants from the owner. Here is the total forsaking of their connection to the owner. They refuse to be under his authority anymore, but want to be the owners of the vineyard themselves. And for that action, they receive punishment.
In both parables—the wildness of the vineyard and the wildness of the vineyard tenants—the owner metes out punishment. Isaiah described the owner’s reaction: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.” The hearers’ response to Jesus’ question tells the fate of the tenants who killed the owner’s servants and son: “[The owner] will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” So it was for the ancient Israelites and for the chief priests and elders. The Lord removed His protection from the nation of Israel and Judah and both were overrun by Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon. The Lord took away the oversight of His people from the chief priests and elders who murdered Jesus; in their place, the apostles were appointed to oversee the Lord’s people. The vineyard and the tenants who had forsaken their identities are forsaken by the owner.
But these words of judgment do not simply describe past events. No, they are meant for you to hear, for they speak about what happens whenever people abandon the Lord’s covenant with them. The parables provide warning for pastor and pew-sitter alike: for the judgment is spoken against the tenants, just as it is spoken against the vines themselves. Their sins are different, but the result is the same. Both the tenants and the vines went wild, losing their identity as the Lord’s people. Their forsaking Him was answered by His forsaking of them, and that has eternal consequences!
The great sin that these parables warn you about becomes clear. All the wild grapes produced by the vineyard—worshiping false gods, adopting the piety of other belief systems, refusing to live as the Lord dictates, reveling in evil, coveting roles that have not been given, rebelling against the Lord’s authority, ignoring and assailing those who speak for the Lord—they are all symptomatic of the great sin of unbelief and apostasy. They take place when people who had been given the identity as the Lord’s people forsake that identity. There is a refusal of the way of life that the Lord sets for His people. Instead of abiding by the covenant that He has made with them, the people act contrary to it.
So what is the answer, the remedy to this? What will deliver the vineyard and the tenants from their wretched fates? It is obvious that continuing in their current behaviors will lead to destruction. So a change in that is needed. But even that is not enough. No, there needs to be something done that comes from outside the vineyard and the tenants themselves, a reception of actions done for them. This is what Paul mentions in his writing: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh I have more. . . . But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” What Paul did would not bring him salvation; it would not bring the true gain. No, he needed something from outside himself: “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
The deliverance needed is what Jesus provides. The problem with the vineyard and the tenants is their forsaking of the identity given to them. That identity needs to be restored, given back. It is granted through faith in Jesus as the Christ, faith that trusts who Jesus is and what He has done. But only the Lord can create that faith by planting His word in the hearts and minds of people. The knowledge of Christ Jesus as Lord is something bestowed to people, not produced by people. To use the vineyard imagery, what needs to happen is the owner to take action—to replant that vine, to rehire tenants.
And here today’s Psalm is very helpful. When the people of Israel understood what was happening to them, as the Lord’s protection was removed from them because of their abandoning the covenant and forsaking their identity as the Lord’s people, the cry of repentance came from them: “Restore us, O God of hosts, let Your face shine, that we may be saved!” The vineyard was in disarray, torn up because of the Lord’s judgment against it. The words of the psalm depict the proper reaction to the divine judgment that came from the people: “Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that Your right hand planted, and for the son whom You made strong for Yourself. They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of Your face!”
The plea is for divine action, divine favor. It is not based on trust in what the people had done. No, their record of actions rightly deserved judgment; there is nothing to take confidence in. Rather, the plea for divine action is based upon the proper understanding about how someone becomes connected to the Lord: that connection is what He chooses to grant them; that identity is given by His work. The psalm’s words acknowledge that: “But let Your hand be on the man of Your right hand, the son of man whom You have made strong for Yourself!” Receiving what the Lord does, restoration of the identity will take place: “Then we shall not turn back from You; give us life, and we will call upon Your name!”
This is what you pray for in your repentance. There is a reminder that the Lord has had made you His people. His name that was placed on you is spoken again: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Through baptism, the identity of belonging to Him was given. That identity came with a way of life. But as you have failed to abide by that way of life, you produced the wild grapes instead of the good grapes. Such action brings divine judgment. But you are made to understand and know that this judgment is rightly spoken against you. So you call out for a restoration of your identity as the Lord’s people, the choice vines that produce the expected harvest: “Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name.” Then as the forgiving words of Jesus’ Gospel are spoken to you—the words that proclaim His death and resurrection for your salvation, the acts that accomplish everlasting life for sinners—that vine is replanted, the identity of being the Lord’s people is restored, life is given again.
So as you consider these two parables about vineyards and tenants gone wild, know that they speak judgment against the sin of abandoning and forsaking the identity that the Lord gives to you. But know also that He has the ability and desire to restore that identity to you, along with all the benefits it brings. Speak the words of the psalm that call for divine action: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts! Let Your face shine, that we may be saved!” Knowing and admitting your own sins and failures, but also believing who Jesus is and what He has done for you, His covenant is renewed with you. You are called His people. You are replanted as the choice vines that produce the good grapes of faithful action that the Lord desires to find. And when the day of harvest comes, you will be gathered up to be with Him for eternity.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.