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?