Sermon Seeds: Producing Fruit
Sunday, October 8, 2023
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Proper 22 | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Listen to the Podcast
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 • Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • Matthew 21:33-46
The Vineyard (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
About two years ago, I joined the board of a non-profit dedicated to environmental and social justice. Because of this connection, I have become increasingly aware of the importance of native plants to sustaining, maintaining, and repairing our ecosystems. Native plants support wildlife and insects in a way that imported plants cannot. The dramatic reduction in bees may make our cookouts more enjoyable but the planet does not benefit from their absence. Butterflies depend upon native plants to live and flourish, and we rely upon the work that these creatures perform in the food chain even more than we appreciate their beauty.
Why then would anyone import plants from other places? They take more care and maintenance in order to help them adapt to a foreign environment. They often never reach their full potential as the soil, temperature, and other atmospheric conditions do not align for growth and blossoming as they would in their native land. Some never flower or produce fruit because of it.
Human beings are not plants. Our ability to adapt to changing conditions is significantly greater due to the complexity of our nature. At the same time, there are conditions under which we flourish and produce fruit. Unlike plant life, which responds primarily to external stimuli, our propensity to adapt, grow, and produce fruit results from internal factors in relationship to external forces. We are complex and relational beings created in love by an even more complex and relational Being.
It makes sense then that Jesus uses relational stories to explain the reign of God as a hoped for ideal in contrast to the human-divine reality. The parable shared in this gospel reading is one of three consecutive stories centered in rejection of the invitation to faithful love as well as the presence of God, manifested first in the Law, then the Prophets, and, at that time, the Christ. This particular parable addresses who will be invited to participate in the kindom. (See last week’s Sermon/Weekly Seeds entry for why these texts should not be used to imply that Christians replace or supersede Jews in the kindom.) Matthew’s audience enjoyed religious diversity, including Jews and Gentiles who decided to follow The Way. His framing does not suggest replacement but expansion.
The landowner in the parable seeks more obedient sons and better tenants for the care of his beloved vineyard. He does not go seeking a new vineyard. These parables are not in the least subtle in their criticism of the religious leaders. The chief priests and the Pharisees realize he is “speaking about them.” They would arrest him on the spot were it not for the crowds (21:45–46).
This is key to the original meaning of this text. The religious leaders realize that Jesus is talking about them. They have rejected his teaching, his message, his ministry, and his person. It’s not a blanket indictment on all people who, as Jesus did, identify as Jewish. In fact, the opposite is true. The landowner in the parable demonstrates relentless and even irrational love for the vineyard and abundant grace for the tenants–all of them.
The second story, Matthew 21:33-46, describes the crazy love of a farmer for his vineyard. In this story Jesus reaches back to an Old Testament image for God’s care for his covenant people (see, for example, Is 5:1-4). In a sense, this story captures the story of the entire Bible. First, God initiates a love relationship with his people. Notice that all the active verbs in verses 33 and 34 (“planted,” “put a wall,” “dug,” “built,” “rented,” “moved,” “approached” and “sent”) begin with the farmer. The biblical love story is from beginning to end held together by God’s love and energy, not ours. With persistent, patient love, the landowner continues his relationship with the vineyard even when its occupants try to throw him out.
The use of garden imagery is not subtle. Rather, it is intentional and pervasive. From the garden in creation to the garden in re-creation, God’s acts in human history have been grounded in the metaphor of the garden. Gardens take time, energy, nurture, and care. Gardens are planted with a hope and vision of a mature result. Yet, gardens respond to atmospheric conditions and cannot be controlled or entirely predicted. Weeds sprout up and choke off some flowers. Shade allows some plants to spread while stunting others’ growth. They all need water, some more than others. Gardens can grow on their own, but benefit from the care and cultivation of a Gardener who understands what they need to fully develop in harmony.
In this parable, the landowner is the Gardener, but they need to delegate responsibility for the care of the garden to others. Those leaders are the ones who reject engagement with the Gardener/landowner through the agents the landowner sends to represent them. First, they reject the law, which would have been a startling idea to the Pharisees, who committed themselves to a strict adherence to the law out of a desire for more faithful living. That commitment was commendable in itself, and the biblical witness demonstrates how that translated into the faithfulness of noted Pharisees like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and eventually Paul. That commitment became problematic when it translated into stifling the experience of God’s grace and the exploitation of power over others.
The scene of persistent love from God’s side soon degenerates into persistent rebellion from the human side. When the farmer sent his servants to collect the fruit, they “seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third” (Mt 21:35). This describes the overwhelmingly irrational nature of our human rebellion. God loves the vineyard with passionate intensity, but his people are “hell-bent” on rejecting that love. Like a warped bow that curves away from the bullseye, the human heart bends away from God’s presence—unless God intervenes. But the farmer matches this irrational rebellion with a more powerful irrational love. At first he continues to send his servants, but the servants continue to be pulverized. Then, for some strange reason, he chooses to send his son. “They will respect my son,” he says (Mt 21:37). Why would he ever reach that conclusion? Doesn’t he know the track record of these people? The evidence is overwhelming: they don’t want the farmer managing their lives. Has he forgotten what they’ve already done to his procession of servants? Is his memory that short? Is he really that naïve?
The prophets, who spoke truth to the powerful, became the targets of rejection. During the era of the Prophets, those agents of the Holy One spoke primarily to kings on behalf of God and in response to the conditions of the world and the people under the leadership of the kings. Many of us may hold an image of the prophet as someone with a megaphone on a street corner, but a better contemporary parallel would be of advocates testifying before congress and other legislative bodies, arguing a case before the highest courts in the land, and seeking an audience with the president or governors. With few exceptions, the kings rejected their message, God’s leadership, direction, and guidance.
Both the Law and the Prophets were ways of experiencing the presence of God. Both centered on cultivating and nourishing the right relationship between Creator and creation. The power and beauty in the garden imagery is that each plant maintains its individuality, character, and nature while living in community with the other plants and animals, with the entire garden under the care of the Gardener who wants nothing more than the entire garden to flourish, bloom, and grow in abundance.
The commitment of the Gardener is beyond any reasonable expectation. It’s actually stunning how much the Gardener will do for the well-being and completion of the garden:
No, he’s not naïve; the farmer’s love pulses with intentionality. He knows exactly what he’s doing. Jesus is summarizing the plot line of the entire Older Testament—and the plot line of our lives as well. God loves his people; they routinely rebel against that love; God keeps pursuing them; then, finally, God does the unthinkable: in and through Jesus he becomes one of us. God steps into the messy, bloody, ongoing cycle of violence and hatred, becoming the next and the greatest victim-ransom: “They took him [the farmer’s son] and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (Mt 21:39).
The prophets, as Jesus and Matthew remind their audiences, predicted the rejection Jesus would receive. It’s not new in human history, nor is God’s persistent, pervasive, and pursuing love. This is the sum of the biblical narrative. God’s love is not only abiding, it’s in pursuit. God’s love is active and intentional. God’s love perseveres. Where others wage war to conquer, God wages love to envelope.
Because they reject the person, the religious leaders miss the message. Their response to the caution that falling on the cornerstone will cause those to break into pieces ignores that God enters into our broken spaces with healing in order to make us whole. God does not reject the person, but will prune dead leaves and fruit from the plant for lasting health and life abundantly. Following the way of Jesus and receiving the invitation to the reign of God means that we assent to the care of the Gardener so that we may flourish and produce fruit for the kindom. Glory to God.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Sir, We Would See Jesus” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
We would see Jesus; earth is grand,
Flowing out from her Creator’s hand.
Like one who tracks his steps with light,
His footsteps ever greet our sight;
The earth below, the sky above,
Are full of tokens of his love; ?*” .
But ‘mid the fairest scenes we’ve sighed –
Our hearts are still unsatisfied.
We would see Jesus; proud and high
Temples and domes have met our eye.
We’ve gazed upon the glorious thought,
By earnest hands in marble wrought,
And listened where the flying feet
Beat time to music, soft and sweet;
But bow’rs of ease, and halls of pride,
Our yearning hearts ne’er satisfied.
We would see Jesus; we have heard
Tidings our inmost souls have stirred,
How, from their chambers full of night,
The darkened eyes receive the light;
How, at the music of his voice,
The lame do leap, the dumb rejoice.
Anxious we’ll wait until we’ve seen
The good and gracious Nazarene.
For Further Reflection
“Do not confuse work and fruit. There may be a good deal of work for Christians that is not the fruit of the Heavenly Vine.” ― Andrew Murray
“The fruits of life can only grow when your roots are implanted well. Being grounded is the key to being fruitful.” ― Dr Prem Jagyasi
“Be faithful till the end. In the end, you will be fruitful.” ― Gift Gugu Mona
Case-Winters, Anna. Matthew: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: a Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Woodley, Matt. The Gospel of Matthew: God with Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Invite the faith community to consider tangible ways to be more expansive and inclusive in whatever ways your ministry may have been insular or exclusionary.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (email@example.com), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 and Psalm 19 • Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:7-15 • Philippians 3:4b-14 • Matthew 21:33-46
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=162