Text: Matthew 21:33-46
Date: Pentecost XVI + Proper 22 + 10/2/11
In the last week of our Lord’s earthly ministry, Holy Week, leading up to His foremost goal to be the all-sufficient sacrifice for the sin of the world upon the cross, the chief priests and elders of the people (now joined by the party of the Pharisees) questioned His authority. It appeared that Jesus was not going to answer their question. But He did indirectly by means of a couple of parables—the first, the parable of the two sons and the second the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard. The authority they questioned was and is His own as the Son of God and as the Incarnate Word of the Father. More important than arguing over who’s in charge, however, is the question of the salvation and life Christ came to bring.
It is easy to hear the telling of today’s parable as having the effect of merely putting the religious leaders in their place, bowling them over, giving them “what/for,” so to speak, with incontrovertible facts, winning the argument and leaving them cowering in the corner. And it’s true the account ends with a mighty pointed word of Law that condemns their (and any) rejection of Jesus or refusal to repent and believe in Him. But just the fact that Jesus went to the trouble to tell them this rather pointed parable is evidence that He was still reaching out to them, that there was a bigger, more important question, calling them to repent, believe and be saved. This is the main task of the Church in this world, to call people to salvation—all people both within and without the Church, to call people to “Get With Christ.” When a young Christian couple finds themselves with the new vocation of parenthood, the first thing they “tell” their newborn infant is “Get With Christ” by means of the water and the Word of Holy Baptism. Every sermon, every Sunday School lesson and every Bible study is the call of God to men, women and children struggling to live their God-given faith in this world to “Get With Christ.” Sometimes, as in today’s parable, it is an urgent word either to those who have arrayed themselves as enemies or when there isn’t much time left for further testimony to “Get With Christ.” But no matter who or when or where this is the heart of the Church’s message to all: “Get With Christ.”
The vineyard is a familiar Biblical picture or metaphor, especially from Isaiah 5, which we heard earlier. It is a picture of God’s covenant people, the “Church,” if you will. Whether old or new testament, God’s people are, as with a vineyard, God’s own planting, the objects of His ongoing care. As with a fence and a tower He protects His people from the enemies of His salvation and rule. And, as with a vineyard, God expects the vines to produce fruit.
Jesus’ parable summarizes the story of Israel’s spotty record, and especially of their leaders, their sins, faithlessness and hardness of heart, as Jesus will say in so many words shortly of Jerusalem “killing the prophets and stoning those sent to them” (Mt 23:37). The missing fruit of the parable is repentance, faith and love, and especially their rejection of the Master’s Son, their Messiah and Savior, Jesus Christ. And while the parable has a very specific context, purpose and audience when Jesus spoke it that day, it reflects God’s own care and purpose and a warning for us, His people, His vineyard today.
Like vines in a vineyard each Christian is God’s own planting and object of His ongoing care. No one comes to saving faith by their own efforts, preparations or decisions. That is to say in parabolic language, you didn’t and you don’t plant yourself! Faith is the gift and creation of God in a person’s heart through the Word of God; the Word that, first, calls a thing what it is. It says of all and each of us, “You are a sinner.” But then that Word hurries to tell us that God’s wrath against sin has been taken away, cancelled, wiped out by the holy life and substitutionary, sacrificial bloody death of Jesus Christ. Furthermore the Word makes clear that a person is connected with that holy death through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, as St. Paul the apostle says so clearly,
all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Rom 6:3-8)
Jesus says in another place, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5). In the parable the master of the house sent servants, and finally his son, to collect the fruit of his vineyard. That fruit is what was missing among the leaders of the people in Jerusalem. And what was missing? Repentance and faith in God’s promises, especially His promise of a Savior, a Messiah who was now standing right in front of them. “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you,” Jesus told them, “and given to a people producing its fruits,” namely, true repentance of sins and faith in God’s gift of salvation through Christ. As Jesus was reaching out one, last time to those who would soon put Him to death, so the call comes to all today, whether in or out of the Church, “Get with Christ.”
To “Get with Christ” means not as much to seek Him out and find Him as it does to receive Him when He comes seeking and finding you. Even in a time of economic recession this country is still one of the richest most blest nations in the world. Still there is concern, even the world over, over financial collapse. More than that as the old hymn says, “The world is very evil” (TLH 605). In our day some of the evil is the growing cancer of political corruption and money-grabbing. Some of it is the rampant growth of immorality and rejection of even the most basic of God’s laws. Some is the historic, continuing threat of anti-Christian religious radicals. As a result many people are hoping to grab on to something solid these days by purchasing gold or silver or even buying “food insurance” out of fear or concern over a coming disaster or other emergency. The greatest coming disaster or emergency, however, is the day when you must face your Creator and your eternal destiny. That crisis cannot be answered with gold or silver or any such thing but successfully alone by faith in Jesus Christ. So we continue to say to a world whether fruitlessly seeking some hope or blissfully ignorant of their most critical need, “Get with Christ.”
Jesus was speaking both to the general population of Israel and to their leaders, to the chief priests and elders of the people, and to the Pharisees. They too needed to hear and heed the invitation to “Get with Christ.” Likewise today, it is possible to be a member of the Church maybe for many years and even to have served in various positions of leadership in the Church or even dedicating your entire life as a pastor or teacher in the Church but to fall away for whatever reason. Therefore we also—church members, leaders and officers, pastors, and even district and synodical officials and bureaucrats—(and I know even President Harrison would agree with this) that we all continue to need to be called back, to repent and be enlightened, reinvigorated, restored by the call to “Get with Christ.”
As we said, the primary fruit the owner of this vineyard is looking for is repentance and faith. But then think also of the fruit of the Spirit. How is it being produced among you? The fruit is not something you have to go out of your way or put effort into producing. Fruit just happens because it is the very nature of the vine to produce it. And the fruit of the Spirit begins with love; love for God and love for neighbor. How’s your love? Then joy; joy especially in your fellowship with God. How’s your joy? Then peace. Love, joy and peace work themselves out in the fruits of patience, kindness and goodness. And when all of these are working together it all adds up to faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Gal 5:21-23). These are the fruits of being connected to Christ the vine.
And so this day the Holy Church Throughout the World is saying, “Get with Christ.” Get with Christ and go with Him—again and again, in daily repentance and faith; faith that grows and flourishes producing its fruit in lives blessed by God. Continue to receive the nourishment provided in God’s Word and sacraments. Stay connected to the vine and “Get with Christ.”