A People Who Bear Fruit

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 10/8/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Matthew 21:33-46. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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In our reading from Matthew this morning, Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem. He’s getting into all sorts of trouble. Yesterday, he had arrived in triumph, with the crowds shouting his name. He had cleared the Temple of money changers, overturning their tables.

Today, after a night resting with friends in the nearby town of Bethany, Jesus is back at it. He’s seeking confrontation with the priestly authorities and the lawyerly elites, the guardians of the law, the keepers of the Temple, the respected religious leaders. Jesus is here to pick a fight.

Earlier in this chapter, it says that the chief priests and elders of the people came to Jesus and demanded that he tell them by what authority he was disrupting the orderly function of the Temple. Jesus gave them a challenge right back: I’ll tell you the authority by which I am doing these things, if you’ll tell me where John’s authority came from.

The leaders knew this was a trap. They couldn’t say John’s ministry was from God – because they had stood against John while he was still alive. They also didn’t have the courage to say that John’s ministry was operating under only human authority – because they knew the crowds respected him. So they did what politicians are very good at doing. They gave a non-answer. And so Jesus, also, refused to answer their question about his authority.

But in our reading for this morning, Jesus tells a story that makes it quite clear where his authority comes from. In a stark and bloody parable, Jesus lays out a scenario where a landowner rents out his property to tenants who agree to farm the land in exchange for a share of the profits. But when harvest time comes, the tenants renege on their agreement, and decide that they are going to keep the whole crop for themselves.

Naturally, this doesn’t work for the landowner. It’s his land, and he wants his share of the fruits. So he begins to send messengers, demanding that the tenants keep up their side of the agreement.

It doesn’t go well. The tenants are not only greedy and dishonest, they’re violent too. A whole series of servants is beaten, mistreated, and even murdered, until finally the landowner sends his son to sort things out. “They will respect my son,” he tells himself.

But of course they don’t. The moment the son shows up in the vineyard, the tenants seize him and kill him, hoping that, with the heir gone, they can possess the vineyard for themselves.

And at this point in the story, Jesus asks his listeners, “What do you think the landowner will do to those wicked servants?” The answer is clear, and his audience answers: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Who is Jesus in this story? He’s clearly the son, who has been sent by his father to deliver a message from the landlord. 

So when the religious leaders asked Jesus where his authority came from, he wouldn’t tell them. But after this parable, it should be obvious. Jesus is the son, and his authority comes from his father, the landowner of the vineyard of Israel. The current tenants believe that they are in charge, and are ready to defend their position with violence, but they are usurpers. Their time is almost up.

Jesus already knows that these “tenants” at the Temple are getting ready to murder him. They imagine that if they beat and kill him, just as their ancestors did to the prophets that God sent before, that they can keep the vineyard – the kingdom of God – for themselves. But, of course, they are deluded. God’s justice does not sleep, and there will be a reckoning for all the blood that has been shed on the land of Israel from the days of David until now.

This story has a very specific meaning to the people that Jesus originally told it to. Yet we hear the parable read in churches throughout the centuries and throughout the world today. What is its relevance for us?

Who are we in this story? Where do we locate ourselves in the parable? We’re clearly not the landowner, or his son. So maybe that leaves us at least two options: Are we the servants of the landowners who are mistreated and attacked for delivering the Master’s message? Or maybe we are the tenants, insisting that the land is ours and that we can do what we want – or else!

Maybe it’s not so neat and tidy. Maybe we’ve been servants of the Master sometimes, and tenants other times.

But maybe we’re not supposed to find ourselves in either of these groups. I mean, we might be either of them. But who is the real inheritor in the end? Who wins in this parable? It’s the new tenants.

There is a group of people that, after all this mess – after the dishonest and violent rulers of this world are thrown from their position – God is going to bring in a whole new crop of people. A people who are rooted in right-action and truth-telling. A people who honors the agreement with the Master, who brings forth fruit according to the season. The kingdom of God is for this people.

Could we be that people? What would that look like? How would we be different from the wicked tenants, the devourers and thieves and murderers – the ones who occupy lofty posts, guard the fences, and sit on the watchtower to maintain their position? What does it look like to be a humble, receptive people, who welcomes the servants of God when they come to us with the Master’s message?

Let’s examine ourselves for the places in our lives where we are living like the wicked tenants – and need to repent. Let’s keep our eyes out for those who are acting as servants of the Master, bringing the message of God into places of power where they are not being heard – how can we support them? And above all, let us pray for transformation in our lives – that we would find ourselves to be people who produce the fruits of the kingdom of God.