Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Vineyard of Decision: Matthew 21:33-45

     Jesus' authority is under fire by the religious leaders.  He uses two parables to explore His authority and Who He is.
     The first one concerns a father of two sons. 
     This second one concerns a vineyard: “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.  The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.  But  when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.  Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
     OK, let's see what is happening.  The landowner, who can do what he pleases with his land, decides to plant a vineyard.  Jesus talks of new wine into new wine skins.  He will use the wine of Passover to announce the arrival of a new covenant, which is His blood, soon to be shed upon the cross.  So, using a vineyard as a place of encounter is not surprising.
     The landowner plants the vineyard and then in order to protect his investment, he builds a wall around it.  He sets up a watchtower, from which the vineyard can be guarded.  It also provides a place to stay.  
     Now, he could have stayed, but he placed his investment in the hands of the "farmers."  He didn't rent it to just anybody; he rented the vineyard to people who knew what they were doing.  It would have been irresponsible to do otherwise:  The vineyard would have suffered from their ignorance.  They would have then feared the return of the owner.
     So, from the outside looking in, the landowner hired the right folks for the job.  Right?
     The gloves come off the day he sends his servants to collect the fruit.  Uh-oh.   
     Remember:  He has the right to send anyone whom he chooses to collect his fruit from his vineyard. 
     The servants come in the name of the landowner to collect what is rightfully his.  
     The welcome is anything but.  The reception is shocking: The servants are met with violence and death.
     Why such brutality?  Perhaps the tenants were not doing their job.  They had the knowledge yes, but they were disobedient.  They probably had very little to show for their efforts.  The vineyard was not yielding fruit the way it had when the owner left it to them. 
     What have the tenants been doing?  Going out and leaving the vineyard unattended and in disarray?  Is the vineyard full of weeds?  Are the grapes no longer robust and the wine is lackluster to say the least?  Whatever the state of the vineyard was, they are guarding a secret:  They have been disobedient tenants. 
They would have welcomed the servants and shown them around the vineyard with a sense of satisfaction that it looked much the same as it did when the landowner left, if all is in order.  
     Something is wrong.
     The landowner, by all rights, could have come storming in and demanded justice for his three servants.  But he decided to give the tenants a second chance.  This is exceedingly generous.
     The next group of servants he sent were treated just as abominably.  
     The landowner decides to do a curious thing.  He will send his son.  He believes the tenants will respect his son.
      Interesting.  Perhaps the angry tenants were responding to these men who showed up in the landowner's name out of mistrust and skepticism.
      Who are you and what are you doing here?  Right.  You represent the landowner.  OK, pal, and I represent the Queen of England.  You're servants.  How can I trust what you say?  Where are your credentials?  No, your word is not good enough.  We were called to take care of this place and we're not handing over the goods to just anyone.   The landowner trusts us and gave us dominion over this here vineyard.  Yeah, we know it's not ours, but the landowner has been away for awhile.  So, we're kinda owners now.  But if you think we're just gonna hand over the fruit we've labored over, you got another thing comin'.  Did I mention Levi here is a blackbelt?
     So, the landowner believes that his son will be seen by the tenants as trustworthy enough to collect what is rightfully his father's.  
     Wrong.  Not only do they seek to kill him right off, but they want to take his inheritance.  They want the vineyard all to themselves.  If there's no son, then there's no one to leave the vineyard to.  The landowner will be forced to leave it in their hands.  They don't kill the son in the vineyard.   They take him somewhere else.  How thoughtful.
     That son!  All smiles, thinking his daddy will protect him.  Ha.  He comes in his own name, and thinks we'll just fall into line and hand everything over.  Right.  But we can't kill him here.  We'll drag him out to the back forty and let him have it there.  No one will see him.  No one will find him.  He ain't gonna come back, is he?  When the landowner finally shows up--if he ever does--we'll just say we don't know what happened to Sonny Boy.  We'll say he never came here.  A bunch of yayhoos claimed to come in your name, Mr. Landowner, but we made short work of those losers.  We'll stick to our story:  We did what we did for your sake, Mr. Landowner.  It was all for you, Sir. 
     So, at the parable's close, Jesus asks His audience that when the landowner returns, what should be the fate of these tenants?  Their response is very telling: "'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.'"  Reasonable.  In other words, their utter irresponsibility takes away their privilege of being tenants, and others shall come in and share in the harvest.
     Interesting. We need to give the religious leaders credit for their insight.  But intellectual prowess is not what the Kingdom of God is built upon.  It is built upon Jesus and His work.  Jesus immediately takes their response and focuses the discussion back to its origin:  by what authority does Jesus do what He is doing?  
     He responds:  “Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’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. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
     In other words, the very ones who should know the Christ, because of their vast knowledge of the Word of God, are the very ones who have missed the Son.  Sad, but so true:  knowledge is not enough.  A sincere heart that seeks God earnestly is what He rewards.  
     Now, at this point, the leaders could have engaged in a conversation to pursue truth and see what this Jesus was all about.  But, if you are sincere about the truth, you have to be willing to pursue it to where it leads.  The truth sought by a seeking heart will lead to Jesus, His work and His divinely appointed authority.
     The leaders' reaction illustrates their hearts:  "When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet."  
     Whoa.  They were not interested in pursuing whether or not Jesus' claims were true.  They weren't interested in the Kingdom of God.  They wanted him out of the way.  Period.  They wanted to arrest Him and whisk Him off to some jail, where He would languish and not be heard from ever again.
      But the parable speaks a deeper truth:  Jesus is claiming to be God's Son.  How do the tenants react to the landowner's son?  Death.
      The leaders' hearts will continue to harden to the point where they will ask the Romans for the death of the Son.  The end of Jesus' earthy ministry was coming, and sadly these leaders will, out of jealousy and hatred, be involved in ending it.  
     But, the Good News is:  Fruit will come.  The Kingdom of God will come.  Salvation in His name will come.  
     The Bad News:  The very Temple that the leaders so cherish will be torn down stone by stone by the Romans who earlier had helped the leaders destroy Jesus.   The Romans will turn on the Jews and many of them will be thrown to their deaths from the Temple ramparts in 70 AD.  
     The Kingdom of God is built on His Son as the foundation, with His sacrifice to be the cornerstone.  The vineyard will have new tenants whose hearts will open to truth, to the Truth.



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