Tending the Vineyard

Last week some good friends took my wife and I for a quick overnight trip up to Santa Ynez wine country. We were there to celebrate Cindy’s birthday while going wine tasting and enjoying the delightful laughter that can only be found among friends. You know, there is something wonderful about spending time in wine country. To be out there among the vineyards you find your stress and anxiety levels slowly begin to ebb away. The rolling hills and the rows of grapes rippling across the landscape possess a unique beauty. I think what we like about such scenes is the mixture of both intentional care and functionality on one hand and the artistry on the other. The planning and design of a vineyard are not only about making wine but about creating a sanctuary, of sorts, in the landscape of our world.

Jesus tells us a parable that gives us an insight to the ongoing working of the Kingdom of Heaven. A master of a house plants a vineyard. Now, he does not just plant some grape vines in any old place. No, he puts a fence around it and digs the winepress and builds a tower and finally leases it out to tenants. He puts time, care, and intention into his actions. You get the sense, right off the bat, this man longs for the potential fruit of the vineyard. He does what is necessary so that, one day, with enough time and care, he will be relaxing with some friends laughing and telling stories while drinking wine from his own vineyard.

The image of the vineyard plays a big roll throughout the pages of Scripture from the Old Testament to the New and is a regular picture of the working of God upon this world. His chosen people, His Church, is often pictured as a vineyard. In Isaiah 5 the vineyard is the house of Judah. Here you get some of the famous reproaches of God. We use them every year in our Good Friday service. “What more was there to do for my vineyard?” says the Lord, “than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes why did it yield only bad?” (Isaiah 5:4) It is an accusation about the failure of the house of God to produce the fruit He longed to for. But the parable our Lord tells about the tenants is something different. It is not about getting your fruit up to snuff or being appreciative of the care of the master of the vineyard. No, this parable is about your place in the great story of God’s work of salvation.

The master did everything necessary for the vineyard and then leased it to tenants. The tenants, not the quality of the fruit, is the focus of the parable. When it came time for the harvest, he sends his servants to collect the fruit. These tenants, though, are not inclined to pay up. They grab a hold of the servants of the master and beat one, kill another, and stone the next. So, what does the master do? Why, he sends more, and the tenants do the same. They are not going to hand over the fruit of the vineyard to the master, no matter what. This serves as a foreshadowing of what Jesus will say a few chapters later when He laments over Jerusalem and says, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37) The ancient people of God were those who killed the servants of the master and Jesus is telling a parable about what they will do to Him now.

He says the master finally sends his own son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw him, they say to themselves, “Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” They take him, cast him out of the vineyard, and kill him. In some perverse way they imagine they will get what was the sons by destroying him. They will get the blessings, the inheritance, the fruit of the vineyard and all the glory that comes with it. Jesus is telling them exactly what they will do to Him. They will cast Him out of the vineyard as He bears His crossbeam outside the walls of the city. There they will kill the Son of God so they might proclaim themselves the lords of the vineyard. So, Jesus asks them, “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to these tenants?” The answer is clear to everyone, “He will destroy those tenants and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” (Matthew 21:41)

This, you see, is where you fit into the story. You are the inheritors of the vineyard of God’s planting. You are part of that group of new tenants to whom He has leased it out. The stone the builders rejected, the son they threw out of the vineyard is your cornerstone, your hope, your inclusion into the Kingdom of God. When you read the parables of our Lord you get a good sense of the drive of our heavenly Father to do what is necessary to fulfill His promises. If He is going to have a wedding feast and the invited guest do not show up, why, He goes out and gets others to fill the feast. If He wants fruit from a vineyard and the tenants will not deliver it, He gets rid of them and gets others. The sin and rebellion of mankind will not derail His plans. He will see it through one way or another.

So, if the ancient people of God reject Him, if they go so far as killing the Son Himself, He hands it on to others. He hands on the vineyard to what we now call the Christian Church. The Church is gifted a vineyard it did not build. Without any merit or worthiness in us we are brought into the blessings of the Kingdom of God. In other places in Scripture it is said you are grafted into the root of the tree just as other non-fruit bearing branches are cut off. So, we know the Lord God will have fruit from His vineyard. We know He has done what is necessary for it to produce good fruit and now He has given that vineyard to new tenants, to the Church, to the faithful saints of God. But the question remains, how can you be sure you are part of this new group, that you belong?

The story of the salvation of mankind is a story which is not finished being told. We know the beginning and we are told its end, but we are caught up in the living of it now. Jesus opens our eyes to see our place in it, or at least the Churches place in the story. But it is your hearing of this story here today, your hearing of the promises of God that bring you fully into it. For the promises of God are not just promises out there, floating around, unattached, and elusive. No, the promises of God are rooted in means. They are tangible and give us something to hold firm to in our darkest of days. The promises of God come in water and Word, in the bread and wine. In these gifts you find you are declared to be the children of God. You are a son or a daughter of the most high. You with all your sin and shameful deeds are embraced and washed clean. You are given a place in the vineyard in the beauty and care of the Lord’s Kingdom.

And the owner of the vineyard expects fruit and fruit He gets. Now, this is the beautiful thing about our little vineyard here. The fruit comes without great fanfare or even much thought at times. It comes from simply being part of the vineyard. To repent and believe the good news is to produce fruit. I see it all the time. It may not be perfect, but it is here. I see your care for each other. I see your concern, your words of love and forgiveness. I see the volunteers that show up, the willingness to lend a hand or speak a word of encouragement. The fruit is willingly offered up, and we find that God does not need it, not really. Rather, He turns it back over to your neighbor, for their benefit and support. This is our moment in the story. We work the vineyard. Look around. What a joy it is to be here with you.