By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 25, 2020
Matthew 22:34–46 (ESV)
34 But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, in the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 44 “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet” ’? 45 If then David calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Throughout the history of the Church, those that follow Christ have spent a great deal of energy trying to determine who real Christians are. I am certain we have participated in this activity; I know I have. It is difficult to not be drawn into this activity. This week I posted a meme on Facebook that was created from someone that worked in food service that complained about the Sunday afternoon crowd. The complaint was that the people on Sunday afternoon are some of the worst behaved people of the week. The implication in that statement is that these people are those that would call themselves Christians. I have mentioned it before because I have had several friends that have worked at restaurants and they have mentioned how they received the worst tips of the week on the Sunday lunch crowd, while the people eating out demand the most. Many of these friends were so discouraged by those customers that when I invited them to attend church with me, they refused. Their entire knowledge of God was jaded by the manner they were treated while they worked.
The early Friends were confounded by these sorts of things as well. When George Fox was a young man, he eagerly sought spiritual direction. He met with several men of respected position. The direction the young Fox was given did not speak to the heart of his condition. One minister encouraged the young man to smoke tobacco, another encouraged him to get married. These men thought that George just needed a distraction to keep his mind or body occupied and the deeper question he carried would just go away. He visited a third man, and in this meeting, they walked in the man’s garden and talked. According to Fox this meeting seemed to be on the right track, until George accidently took a step off the garden’s pathway and crushed on the plants. This man went into a great rage over the minor offence and threw George out. The conversation was over. George was at a loss, everyone that he queried about life, pointed him in a different direction. Every person encouraged him to pursue something temporal when he sought to know God more deeply. George nearly lost faith, he finally took his book of scripture to a field and sat down alone in the wilderness. It was in that field that George reported that he heard the voice of God, telling him that Christ could speak to his condition. George then went out into the community to preach.
The early Friends did a great deal of preaching in that first generation. They would meet in silence waiting for Christ to speak to them, and when they sensed the Spirit of God speaking, they would be compelled to speak. The fact that they met in silence caused a stir in the community. How could they be Christian if all they did was sit there? No baptism, no communion, no ceremony, or sacraments? The early Friends spoke of this saying that all of life is sacred and should be lived for the Lord’s glory. All of life, not just Sunday morning, but Sunday afternoon as well as the rest of the week. Every moment you live, every journey you take should be lived as if it is a missionary journey appointed by God to expand his kingdom.
If you were to look at every denomination or revival movement within Church history you would find somewhere within a story like this. A small group of people sought to know God in a deeper more meaningful manner, and from that desire they were directed to reform the church in some way. The Franciscans left all worldly wealth and relied on God to provide all their needs as they walked around the European countryside, preaching the gospel wherever they would go, and when necessary they would use words. Martin Luther was so moved with a desire to adhere to the truth of scripture that he along with the early Lutherans would reject all church traditions that were not found in scripture. Each major movement had an aspect of faith that was being neglected, that neglect was causing a rift in the spiritual community, and the younger generation was called to minister in that area. And with each of those spiritual revivals there was opposition. This opposition caused division in the church, the first was the Coptic Church. Then the eastern churches were forced out. Then the Protestant reformations. Then within those protestant reformations, we began to see more and more division which became the various denominations that we see today. And these divisions continue because we are all trying our hardest to determine who is a real Christian.
Today the passage begins again with a conversation between Jesus and one of those religious groups within the Jewish faith. The people of the first century were also engaged in the debate of who had the true faith. The Pharisees and the Sadducees both had their theological ideas, and they were attempting to determine if Jesus as an enemy or an ally. Each group would send spokesmen to Jesus. Each group would ask questions that would test Jesus’ positions in reference to their own.
Jesus knowing that they were pitting him to the test provided answers that prompted deeper consideration. On the surface one could say he was in opposition, while at the same time he could be voicing support. This is unique, because the answers Jesus gives do necessarily give us a dualistic answer but instead engage those present in a deeper conversation.
The question the Sadducees asked dealt with the issue if whose wife a woman would be in heaven. The question we might not see as a great theological issue, but this was one of those points that caused division within the faith of Israel. Jesus answered in a manner that shook their understanding, no one is married in heaven. If God ordains marriage how can marriage not be present in heaven? The issue goes to the deeper meanings of marriage and intimacy, we do not need marriage in heaven because our identity and intimacy is found not in the acceptance of those around us but in God. This answer draws into question the very nature of human creation, and Adam’s fall. Adam desired companionship and a mate, this was the beginnings of the fall, Adam questioned God’s plan and execution of those plans. Humankind was created as a complete expression of love and grace, not man nor woman genders but a groundling in full possession of all humanity. Intimacy was found in God. When Jesus answered that there will be no need for marriage, he is saying that humanity will be restored to its proper place, we will be complete and restored.
Now the Pharisees come with a lawyer. This gives us a glimpse into the deeper expressions of this group. I mentioned last week that they were devoted to preserving the faith of Israel even when there was not a temple to provide devotional actions. Duty and legalism became the manner of religious expression and they were devout in this. When Jesus states that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, he is speaking of the religious mantle that is being placed on the people attempting to participate in religious devotion. They labored vigorously to determine the proper lifestyle, yet they debated among each other as to which laws held the most importance. We might consider this odd because to most of us we think mainly of the ten commandments, but if you were to study Torah there are more than six hundred laws that these religious leaders are considering. Laws dealing with food, hygiene, social responsibility, dealing with immigrants, and much more. When they ask Jesus, what law is the greatest, they are expecting to enter a great debate.
Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor. If we were to focus all our efforts on these two things imagine the difference we could make? While I was attending Friends University, one of the books we worked through in class was called Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. This book was amazing because it opened my eyes to aspects of who I am in relation to myself, God, and others in ways that I had not encountered before. In this book Mr. Willard places the heart at the center of our soul. It is in our hearts or will where our deepest identity resides, who we truly are. Because the heart is where our most real identity resides that is why we should guard our hearts. Willard goes on to say that there are two forces that directly influence our heart, those two forces are our mind and our emotions. These two forces are the greatest things we use to guard and to encourage our hearts.
When Jesus says love God with all your heart, he is saying that love and devotion to God should be at the very core of our identity. It should be the starting point of every endeavor we make, and it should the place we come back to find rest and restoration. Jesus also says to love God with all our mind. Since the mind is one of those forces that relate directly to our hearts, we should focus our minds to God as well, through discipline. How do we direct our minds to God? The easiest answer to this question is Bible study. This is one discipline that will direct our mind to the things of God but devoting our mind to God goes much deeper than that. We need to treat our minds as things cherished by God. Which means we should pursue greater knowledge and wisdom in many areas both inside and outside what we would call church pursuits. We should pursue knowledge with as much passion as we pursue God. I say this because when we pursue knowledge with God, we can often find ourselves in a state of awe. When we look at the structures of cell, it is amazing how many details there are and how precise our creator was. When we look at the vastness of space, we can see the vastness of God and get a fuller sense of the reality of grace. Scripture tells us that God removes our sins from us as far as the east is from the west. That distance is infinite in theory, but when we look at celestial bodies at distances measure in light continuously traveling in years, that grace becomes massive.
Devoting our mind to God also helps temper our emotions. We struggle with emotions. The positive emotions are not so bad, the things like love and joy, but what about anger and depression? When we commit our emotions to God, this allows our mind to process those things through something that remains constant. At this moment I might have feelings of anxiety, why do I have those feeling? Right now, it is because everyone is looking at me, I am speaking, and I do not want to look foolish. These are emotional triggers that are affecting my core identity. How can I deal with these emotions? Study is one way. I do not want to look foolish so I do everything I can to make sure what I say is filled with as much wisdom as possible. But that does not prevent those around me from seeing me as foolish. I cannot know someone outside of myself unless we have a conversation.
This leads us to loving God with all our soul. For many we were taught that our soul is that area of our lives that I previously said was our heart. But Dallas Willard proposes that the soul is our entire existence, or every aspect of our lives. This includes our heart, mind, body, interpersonal relationships, and even our environment. Every person here is part of who I am and part of who you are. How we react to and with each other affects something deep within us and reveals our identity. This is something that science calls systems theory. Each part within a system has a purpose, and when one part is in distress the entire system suffers. The best example of this I can think of is empathy and grief. When someone close to us suffers, we suffer too. And if someone close to us dies, we still feel the sting of that loss even years later. I personally struggle during this time of year. I struggle because twenty-three years ago this coming week my little sister died. That death had a profound impact on my life, one that caused changes to my perception of who I am. In my attempt to process the emotions of that loss, I initially made decisions that changed the course of my life. From those decisions and how they affected others around me, my life is completely different than it was before.
A more positive example of how interpersonal relationships affect our core identity, is children. Things change in our lives when we become responsible for another life. And the decisions we make as parents can encourage or discourage the hearts of our children. I have said many times that my son James brought me to Christ. I identified as a Christian before James was born, but when I held him in my arms the first time, my understanding of God changed. I had a greater understanding of love, and I also had a greater understanding of my own limitations.
Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. That is the first commandment. And the second is like it love your neighbor as yourself. If one aspect of our soul is interpersonal relationships, the command to love your neighbor as yourself is included in the first commandment. Jesus repeats this part because it is important. We get the love God part. We often struggle with the love your neighbor as yourself. We struggle with this because we do not love ourselves. Consider for a moment something that annoys you about a coworker, or even one of your children. The things that annoy me the most personally are the things that I see them doing, that I do. And the more someone resembles you, the more annoyed you often get. Jesus once illustrated this by a parable saying, do not take the speck out of your brother’s eye when you have a plank in your own eye. I get annoyed often by those around me, but it is often myself that I am annoyed with. And when we get into one of those places we need to step back and examine ourselves.
I began today by mentioning the amount of energy we often spend trying to determine who is a true Christian. The early Friends removed all the rites and rituals that are often associated with Christian practice, because they wanted to encourage people to make their lives a sacrament, holy and dedicated to the Lord. This means that every aspect of our lives is lived in a manner of worship and service. When we go to the store, it might be to make purchases for ourselves, but it is also a missions trip just as vital for the soul of the world as the missionaries that serve in Africa or Asia. When we eat at a restaurant, we are not only enjoying the food with friends and family, but we are making God’s joy complete by being a blessing to those that serve us. The religious lawyers wanted to know what the greatest commandment was, and Jesus told them to love God, love your neighbor, and love yourself. He is saying live our lives completely dedicated to God in all we do. And that is our mission and our purpose to love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and to live the love of Christ with others.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 18, 2020
Matthew 22:15–22 (ESV)
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. 16 And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” 21 They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away.
Is it lawful to pay taxes? This is one of the conversations with Jesus that keeps intriguing me. Contrary to what many might believe I am a very conservative individual, and this passage is one that continues to come to mind. It strikes at the intersection of my spiritual and ideological planes of though. It is often at this point where the concept of faith become a reality.
The ideologies of men pounce on this passage with the hopes of utilizing it to convince the followers of Christ to support their agendas, but like many proof texting activities this exercise basically renders scripture impotent. If two opposite positions use the same passage to support their position clearly the truth nature of the passage has been missed.
What exactly is going on in this passage? To begin we really need to look at who is involved in the conversation. The first people mentioned are the Pharisees. Because we live in a seemingly dualistic culture, we often attribute the characteristics of our society onto the groups we see within scripture. I have heard and have probably perpetuated the illustration that the pharisees could be one of our dominate political parties where the Sadducees would embody the other. This illustration is ineffective because these groups are not governmental entities but are instead religious or theological schools of thought. When we try to say the pharisees are republicans and the Sadducees are democrats we develop within our minds ideas about what they might stand for or against because of what we might think. We should not do this. Both groups were part of the Jewish council, both were active in the work of educating the generations of faith. Both had scholars and following. But their concern was not the politics of man, but the politics of the organizational structures of religion. The Sadducees largely focused on the ceremonial aspects of temple worship, whereas the pharisees grew out of the years of exile where the Israel was attempting to formulate a religious identity when there was not a temple complex to support activities of devotion.
The Pharisees were devoted religious leaders attempting to carry their faith into a changing era of history. They were looking at the revelations of God through the Torah and the prophets, made interpretations, and formulated systematic disciplines to attach devotion. This discipleship was then promoted though the synagogues within the various Jewish communities. These disciplines included instructions and means of providing charitable aid to those in need.
We look at these religious leaders with disdain because so often they are opponents of Jesus, but the reality of life is that these faithful men were often righteous and respectable. They were devoted to their faith and their God, in respect to their religious interpretation. We would likely desire their participation in our own fellowship.
We look at this passage and we wonder then why they would be opposed to Jesus, and why would they test him in this particular manner? Is it lawful to pay the tax? We might be tempted to think that maybe the Pharisees were against taxation, I mean I would like that to be the case because I am not too fond of them, but that is not the whole truth. There is a long tradition to the gathering of funds to use to encourage those in need among the Hebrew people. Early in their history they began the voluntary giving of their profits for the glory of God and for the encouragement of the people. The tithe we so often hear about in churches began with Abraham, but that was just the first of the religious financial offerings. When Moses established the tent of meeting there was a financial obligation that would have to be paid before a worshiper would have an opportunity to offer their sacrifices. And then when we consider the actual cost of the offerings, we can begin to sense the large financial commitment Israel was accustomed to paying to be an upstanding member of their society. If we were to break all of that down the offerings were not a simple ten percent of their income but much higher, some have suggested that it would have been closer to thirty or forty percent of their annual profits. Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees were diligent to this practice, even going so far as including the potential value of the mint and other herbs that grow wild on their properties. The Pharisees were not against giving and investing into their community, but they did have issue with additional imperial taxation.
This brings us to the second group of people in this conversation, the Herodians. Within the New Testament scriptures there are three social groups mentioned. The most common is the Pharisees, the second group is the Sadducees, the third group referred to as the Herodians is only mentioned a couple of times. Little is known about the Sadducees outside of scripture because they were connected to the temple, and when the temple was destroyed much of their history was destroyed along with it. Even less is known about the Herodians. The reason put forth by scholars is that little is known about this group because it was not necessarily an autonomous group. The conclusion is that those labeled as Herodians are those within the community that accepted the governmental rule of Rome through the descendants of Herod. When we take that into consideration one could be a pharisee and a Herodian, or a Sadducee and a Herodian. They are simply a branch of people that did not embrace a revolutionary mindset and live their lives within the systems they find themselves in. One could imagine that being labeled a Herodian could have some social stigma.
Again, we often look at these labels and make judgements, but I want us to think about something. Jesus had an apostle named Phillip; this is a name that is Greek in origin. Jesus also had a disciple known as Matthew who was called to follow from his tax collection table. Both disciples could be considered Herodians. Let us consider other figures from scripture, the apostle we know as Paul called himself a Pharisee, he goes so far to consider himself as one of the greatest pharisees, yet Paul was a Roman citizen. Paul could be considered a Herodian. One could be considered a righteous practitioner of the Jewish faith, while still accepting the rule of Rome. One could even accept the rule of Rome, while being considered an upstanding member of the Jewish society. It is clear historically that most of the Jewish population opposed the rule of Rome, because within the first century the rebellions of the Jewish people lead to war with the Romans. But there were some within the community that looked upon the rule of Rome as those that were exiled to Babylon, they made their homes and established themselves within the culture they found themselves in.
The Pharisees and the Herodians both had trouble accepting Jesus. They were concerned because his influence threatened to tip the balances of power these groups held within the community. Jesus was challenging the Pharisees’ interpretation of scripture, and the increasing size of the multitudes that followed Jesus could be the beginnings of open rebellion. Both groups were nervous and hoped to end Jesus’s ministry. They come together to challenge him and ask, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?
I am not going to stand here and say that the people of ancient Israel were not being exploited at the hands of Rome. Anything and everything you could think of was taxed. Their produce was taxed, their land was taxed, the use of the temple was taxed, if they traveled on an actual road they were taxed. Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Rome wanted to be able to tax people more efficiently. But taxation is not really the issue, it was where the taxes were going to that was the problem. The question is not is it lawful to pay taxes, but is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?
These two opposing ideologies were joining forces to test Jesus because in their mind any answer that Jesus would give could be used against him. If Jesus said yes you should pay taxes to Caesar, then every person that was opposed to Roman rule would come down on him. And if he said paying taxes to Caesar was against their religious faith, Jesus would have been charged for treason. This is the type of question that we love in our culture today. We love these questions that seem to have only two possible answers. We love these types of questions yet they are ripping our nation and even our church apart.
We can turn on the tv and nearly every channel will have an advertisement telling us that we should oppose or support someone based on a question like the one given to Jesus. We should not vote for this candidate because they said this or that. And If you agree with this answer then this candidate is the one for you. We base everything within our nation on loaded questions asked in a manner that are often answered in a single syllable answer. Is it lawful to pay the tax? Yes or no? Jesus saw through the hypocrisy of the question. He knew that they were attempting to force him to answer with one word so that they could pounce. How does Jesus respond?
Jesus asks them to hand him the coin to pay the tax, he looks at it, maybe he even flips it in the air for dramatic effect, and then he holds it up in front his accusers. He answers their question by asking them a question of his own, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” Do we recognize the depth of that question?
By asking that question Jesus is causing his accusers to acknowledge something profound, ownership. Caesar created or commissioned the minting of the coin. The coin itself is the property of Caesar distributed to others as a tool of trade. That piece of metal has value because it is supported by the power and authority of the one whose image it bears. Outside of the Roman Empire that coin’s only value is the fair market value of the metal when it is melted down, but within the Empire that coin’s value is the equivalent of day’s wage. When we live in an area where that coin’s value is respected there are conditions to use it. Those conditions are determined by the one whose image and inscription it bears. If the issuer of the currency demands fees or taxes for the use of that currency, we must comply or we are in violation of the social contract of the currency. And we pay those fees, because the issuer of the currency has the strength to enforce that contract.
But wait I earned that money through my labor it is mine. The reality is that we make trades. We traded our labor for the currency we hold. We do not own the currency, because that currency is only a tool used as a place holder for trade. I work an hour for a certain amount of currency and I am able to trade that currency for goods and services for as long as that currency has value, but if the value of that currency disappears I am left with paper.
“Look at the coin,” Jesus says, whose coin is it? We know because it bears the image of the true owner. And Jesus tell his testers to give Caesar what is Caesar’s. And he goes on to say, “And to God the things that are God’s.” The coin is Caesar’s because it bears his image, but what then are the things that are God’s? The things that bear God’s image.
In the story of creation, we are told that God said, “Let us create man in our image.” We are created in the image of God, and we are bearers of that image. Every human being in this world bears that image. That means we all have value to God. Have you really thought of that?
How often do we walk through life thinking that we are insignificant and worthless? We compare ourselves to those around us. That person appears to be successful and we agree they have value, but that person holding the sign on the corner by Walmart, do they hold as much value? We make judgment based on human concepts, often measured in terms of currency. Yet the reality is that God values each human life to such a degree that he gave himself for us. God values you so much that he gave his own life to redeem, purchase, or ransom you. To God you are worth as much as Jeff Bezos. You are worth as much as Warren Buffet, Bill Gate, and Donald Trump. To God that person on the corner by Walmart is priceless.
But do we treat ourselves and those around us as if we have value? When we compare candidates in an election do, we recognize the value God places on them? When we consider those who support those candidates do, we recognize the value God places on them? When we look at those in this meeting do, we consider the value God places on them? Or do we look instead at the measure mankind places on them? When we use the measures of humankind, we are looking at the toolbox. They might have a lot of tools in that box, which is all currency is, but do they know how to really use them? Are they using that which God has given them to encourage and enrich their community or do they just have shiny tools packed away in a box?
These two groups approached Jesus with a test, and Jesus avoided their accusations by causing them to assess the image. Currency is the tool of men because it bears the image of man. Human life bears the image of God. If we are the image bearers of God, we are the currency of God’s economy. If we are to give God the things that are God’s everything, we do should be focused on him and his glory. God gave his son to live with us, to teach and show us how to live. He gave his son to pay the wages of sin for us by taking on our sin and shame to the cross. He valued us so much that he endured death for three days buried in a tomb, and his joy is made complete when life is restored on that third day.
Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and give God that which is God’s.
By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 4, 2020
Matthew 21:33–46 (ESV)
33 “Hear another parable. 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. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 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.” 42 Jesus 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 marvelous in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
Jesus speaks a great deal about vineyards. For those that do not have a background in agriculture we might just think that this is just one of many options in the agricultural life. But a vineyard is something different. A vineyard is a long-term investment. It takes a great amount of patience, investment both financially and physically, and time. With investments like this there is a great amount of risk, but like many high-risk investments they can be extremely profitable.
When we read through the pages of scripture, we can learn a great deal. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything. There is a time to reap or harvest and there is a time to plant or to sow. In most cases the time to plant and the time to harvest occur within a year. With wheat you would be planting around this time, at least in this part of the United States. You plant wheat in the fall and it begins to grow, it will stay in a grassy stage all through the winter making it an ideal crop for many ranchers to plant because during the winter they can allow livestock to graze on the wheat grass without causing significant damage in the yields. As the temperatures begin to raise in the spring the wheat starts the second stage of its life cycle, it produces a head and that head pushes up above the surface of the soil. It is during this stage that cattle must be removed form the fields and farmers begin to pray that the temperatures do not drop below freezing because if that delicate head is damaged the crop could be ruined. In four months, the very livelihood of a farmer could change dramatically. The farmer waits through that long winter not knowing what to expect, their investment is in the ground, but the future is unsure. The cereal grain farmers wait a few months, but a vineyard that wait between planting and harvest is years. They will carefully tend the vines for years without any fruit. And during those first years anything can happen that would potentially harm the future of the crop. One does not plant a vineyard without careful planning.
Jesus speaks of vineyards because of the time investment involved. Often we want things to happen quickly, we want to see results in our investments, we want to see that our labor has a point, and when we do not see fruit from our labor we tend to get distracted. We get bored. Jesus uses the concept of the vineyard to remind us that the work we do is great, but the results and the fruit may not be seen right away.
He says in this story, a landowner or master of a house plants a vineyard. Planting a vineyard, a simple task. There are many other things involved. The first thing that we must consider is that this is not a crop like wheat that is basically a grass, but it is a vine. Vines grow differently than other crops. Grasses grow close to the ground and their cellular structure is formed to be flexible and generally are not required for a long lifespan, and even if it is a perineal grass the lasting structure is found in the roots not in the parts we see above ground. A tree is build for a long life, the cellular walls are very rigid and with each passing year the tree gains more strength, the tree requires greater care than the grass, but a tree can survive on its own. A vine is different, it is somewhat rigid, but it often cannot support itself. For a vine to be profitable you must build support structures. If you were to drive outside of Kansas City you would be able to see a few vineyards in our area, and if you were to visit one you would see that there are posts and wires placed throughout the vineyard. The vine dressers will tie the newly planted vines to the wires and as they grow, they will encourage the branches to grow out along the wires. That is just the beginning of the work.
These vines will eventually produce fruit and that fruit is something that is greatly desired and there are always robbers of various species that would like to taste the fruits of the labor. Because of this great potential loss through human and animal consumption a landowner would invest in security to attempt to keep the loss to a minimum, and they would construct a fence around the vineyard to keep the unwanted consumers out. Today this might not be a large investment because we could just pound a few posts into the ground, and sting wire between them, but in ancient times a fence would basically be a stone wall. This makes the land that the vineyard was planted in secure, but it also means that the land is committed only to that use.
The landowner has planted the vineyard, the rows are established, and the land is secured within a wall, but there is more investment needed. What will you do with the fruit that will eventually be produced? Grapes are nice to eat, but the fruit will only last for a short time, so for the vineyard to be profitable the landowner will need to convert the fruit into something that will be profitable for a greater amount of time, and that profit comes from wine. The grapes will need to be harvested from the vine and converted as soon as possible to preserve the profitability of the vineyard, so the landowner will construct a wine press to squeeze the juice from the fruit so that it can be collected and fermented so that it can be consumed at a later time.
We have covered just one verse, but the amount of time that would have passed in this one verse is a couple of years. This is a massive construction and agricultural process. Land was surveyed and carefully examined to determine how best to proceed. And after the initial work was completed, the landowner would have to wait. And during that time Jesus suggests that the owner decided to lease the land to tenants for them to care and tend to the plants, while the owner went to another country.
I want us to think of the time and investment involved in this story. A vineyard is not something you just decide to plant. You plant a vineyard because you are established and secure in the land and you can take that land out of grain production for several years without suffering hunger. The illustration of the vineyard is one that is used in Hebrew tradition throughout their history. Israel is often regarded as God’s vineyard. The people were carefully tended by God’s revelation, the land was secured, and the people were left there to be tended by judges, kings, and the priests. But a vineyard needs constant attention.
This parable that Jesus speaks is something that the people of Israel can identify with, because the prophets used a similar story in their history. In Isaiah, A similar illustration was given. The vineyard was planted, and the supporting structures were built, but in Isaiah’s illustration there was not any fruit because the vines had turned wild. When I was a child my family would drive around the countryside looking for wild fruit. We would pick these wild fruits and my mother and grandmother would take the fruit and make the best jelly you could imagine from them. I remember one year when we found some wild grapes. Wild grape vines do produce fruit, but the fruit from the vines is not like the grapes you buy from the store. The grapes are not plump, and the clusters are not full. This wild grape vine was large but the amount of fruit that we harvested was not. When Isaiah says that the vines were wild it means that they were not tended. A vinedresser carefully prunes the vines so that only the main branches are left. When a vine has too many branches the vine is using the energy to support the branches instead of putting it into the production of the fruit. Isaiah is saying that the vines were wild, or untended, the plant was full of leaves and branches but unfruitful. So, in Isaiah’s story, the landowner destroyed the vineyard. He tore down the walls and uprooted the vines. All the investment that was put into the construction was gone, and they would have to start over. This story told by the prophet was to encourage Israel to turn back to God or their destruction was at hand.
Jesus uses this language and this story while he converses with the religious leaders for the very same reason. God has invested in his people. God has put the time, the energy, and his riches into this vineyard. And God entrusted the care of that vineyard to a group set aside for that purpose.
Years down the road, the landowner comes back to this estate when the season for fruit is near. He sends his servants to collect the fruit, but the tenants have different ideas. Jesus says that the tenants took their master’s servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. He sends more servants and they face the same fate. Jesus at this point is drawing from the history of Israel, they knew Isaiah’s story of the vineyard and they knew what happened to the prophets that carried the words of God. The people knew that when the prophets spoke, they were often rejected, and the people continued to live as if they were the masters of their own destiny. But whose land were they living on?
God gave them that land. He gave the land to their father Abraham as a gift of his faithfulness. When God eventually allowed the children of Israel to enter that land, each family received a portion. Yes, they had to work with God to fully obtain the land, but the land known as Israel was a gift from God. And because He gave them the land, they were to give Him his portion. What is God’s portion?
Everything we have, and everything we are is a gift from God. God has blessed us with our abilities, God has placed us in a particular spot within time and space to use what we have, to bear fruit. We work, we invest, we take risks with the resources that God has placed under our stewardship, but we should always remember where it originated. In our American culture we like to think that we are self-made, that we have created our prosperity, but that is a myth. We have what we have because of those that lived before us, and the sacrifices that they have made. We build on what was given to us, we carry on the work that was started by our ancestors. We might take risks ourselves; we might invest in education and in business, but even then, we are relying on the investment of teachers and of customer to make our sacrifices worthy for the next generation. Everything we have can be traced back to one place, the creator of heaven and earth. God has worked through years, and generations to bring us to this place at this time. All that we have is his, all the fruit from our labor is just the fruit we harvest from his investment over the courses of history.
The tenants of the story have different ideas. They have worked the vineyard, not the landowner who has been out traveling in another country. They are upset that this master of the house demands their fruit. They kill the servants sent to them, and they kill more finally the owner decides that he will send his son to collect what is his. When the tenants see the son, they think if we kill the son then we can devastate the landowner and keep the heirs’ inheritance for their own.
Jesus ask, “what will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants?” The religious leaders rightfully respond, “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.”
Jesus tells this story to explain the kingdom of God. We may not see the fruit of the vineyard, the fruit of our labor right away. We are laboring in a vineyard where it often requires years of careful delicate work to see the fruit emerge. Do not get discouraged during that time. There is a time and season for everything. We also need to continue to work so that the vines do not go wild. This requires discipline and practice. We need to draw close to God daily. And practice the lifestyle Jesus showed us in scripture in all that we do. Reflect Him through our lives so that others can see that there is hope. And we need to recognize that every resource we have available to us is a gift from God and should be used for his glory.
God has invested in our lives. Through the courses of history, he has called people to himself, and they have responded. He has sent them to various places to share the hope that they have, and they have been obedient to that call, and each of us are here today because someone listened to the call of Christ in their lives. And we have that opportunity because God sent his son to live, die, and raise so that we could be reconciled to God. We are here because God invested, will we tend his vineyard? Will we carry on that which he started in his name, or will we reject it? All of creation is God’s and we are stewards in his vineyard, He is calling out to us today to tend and harvest, to give him what is his. How will we respond? Will we open the doors to the master of the house, or will we claim is as our own and reject the call? The kingdom of God is like that vineyard. God wants us to enjoy it, but it is not ours it is his, and it is for his glory. Will we join him in his kingdom?