O LORD, Look Down Upon this Vineyard! Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Thirteenth of Matthew

1 Cor. 16:13-24; Matthew 21:33-42; Isaiah 5:1-7; 27:1-13; 2 Peter 1: 3-12

And so we come again to the beginning of the ecclesiastical (and school!) year. In some parishes, schoolbags, children and teachers have been blessed; and on September 1, we remembered the entry of the Hebrews into the Promised Land, and the inaugural sermon that our LORD Jesus gave in the synagogue in Nazareth. It is a new beginning for us. As we begin, I suppose, it is a good idea to survey the place where we find ourselves, and to ask God’s blessing, as the bishop does, upon this vineyard of His that He has planted.

Our readings for this coming Sunday, the thirteenth after Pentecost, and the thirteenth of Matthew, remind us of both the work and the privileges that we have been given in God’s vineyard. St. Paul in the last chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, tells them (and us!) to be watchful and strong, to cooperate with the God-appointed leaders, to receive the greetings of Christians elsewhere, to remember our first love—the LORD Himself—and to wait for the return of Christ. And in our gospel reading, Jesus uses the image of a vineyard to refer to Israel, as did the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Indeed, we will see that Jesus offers his own remix of the parable told in the Old Testament by Isaiah. Isaiah lamented:

Now I will sing to my beloved a song of my beloved concerning my vineyard. My beloved had a vineyard on a high hill in a fertile place. And I made a hedge round it, and dug a trench, and planted a choice vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and dug a place for the wine-vat in it: and I waited for it to bring forth grapes, and it brought forth thorns.
And now, ye dwellers in Jerusalem, and every man of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What shall I do any more to my vineyard, that I have not done to it? Whereas I expected it to bring forth grapes, but it has brought forth thorns.
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it shall be for a spoil; and I will pull down its walls, and it shall be left to be trodden down. And I will forsake my vineyard; and it shall not be pruned, nor dug, and thorns shall come up upon it as on barren land; and I will command the clouds to rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his beloved plant: I expected it to bring forth judgment, and it brought forth iniquity; and not righteousness, but a cry (Isa 5:1-7 LXX)

Jesus’ recasting of the parable keeps in mind both the divine care and divine judgment that we see in Isaiah’s briefer parable: the hedge, the trench, the carefully selected vine, the tower, and the wine-vat. In the prophet’s story, none of this availed, because only thorns were produced, and so the LORD forsakes the vineyard. In Jesus’ parable, we hear more about God’s sustained care, about the ongoing faithlessness and rebellion of the workers, about God’s ongoing warning to them, about the judgment against them. But at the end we also get a surprise! Jesus, the rejected One, has become the cornerstone not only of the Church, but of the whole of Israel and those who preceded Him.

The Lord spoke this parable: “There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’” Matthew 21:33-42

Jesus, the consummate story teller, adds suspense and action to Isaiah’s poignant image. He tells us about the tenant-farmers who were privileged to work in this divine vineyard, and alerts us to the apt timing of the Lord’s appearance—the harvest time, the “season of fruit.” God’s expectations were not unreasonable. We also hear about the unfaithfulness of the tenants, who care nothing for the honor of vineyard’s owner, but want to take everything for themselves. The owner sends to them two lots of servants, just as God sent both the major AND the minor prophets to Israel. But they did not listen to either, and in fact abused and killed some of them. Then the Son Himself is sent—but all the tenants can see is their opportunity to run their own show. They are consumed with jealousy and the lust for power, and do not perceive the glory of the Son. Those hearing the parable that Jesus tells assume that His story should end with the LORD putting the faithless tenants to death, and finding new tenants who will behave as they should: that, of course, would be justice. But Jesus does not fully confirm them in this reasonable expectation. Rather, he finishes by redirecting their attention to Himself, “the very stone that the builders rejected.”

It is true that if we were to continue to read just one verse beyond our selected passage, we would see that Jesus declares that the rule of God will no longer be shared by these chief priests and Pharisees about whom he is speaking in this parable. Rather, it will be extended to those who will produce fruit for God! If they do not repent, then, both these collaborators with the Romans (the chief priests), and these rigid keepers of the Torah (the Pharisees) will be turned out of leadership. For they do not see beyond the politics or beyond the written word to the LORD who is visiting them. But our reading wants us to dwell upon the wonder of the One rejected, and how His very death becomes the life of the world. The very act of murdering the Son in a place outside of the city would be turned by God to the good of all the nations, of all those who would turn to Him, including even some of the Jewish leaders!

Now of course, we are among those who today work in the vineyard. We have been incorporated into God’s kingdom, which is not just a place, but also a position—for, like our elder brother Christ, we are, together, kings and priests and prophets. Like our first parents who in their innocence were set to care for creation we have been set free to cultivate the created order, and to bear fruit for God. And the time of harvest, of fruit-bearing is now upon us. God anticipates delight as He looks upon His vineyard, just as I have delighted in a bumper crop of grapes this year, to my surprise. The difference is that I did nothing much to encourage this blessing. But with us, the Holy Spirit has been given, and we have, therefore, all the provision that we need to bear the fruit for which the Owner of the Vineyard is looking. As the prophet Isaiah’s original parable reminds us, we are on fertile soil, up high on a hill away from enemies, surrounded by the hedge of God’s protection (think of the holy angels and saints!) and the trench dug around us by His grace (remember our baptism!). The vat stand ready for the fruit that we can offer, to be turned into wine for the healing of those who come our way, and for our own refreshment. (And so we offer ourselves to the LORD every Eucharist, that our sacrifices of praise be joined with the great Offering of Christ himself). All has been prepared for us, that we might be fruitful. Even more than this, the prophet Isaiah goes on his book to anticipate,

In that day God shall bring his holy and great and strong sword upon the dragon, even the serpent that flees, upon the dragon, the crooked serpent: he shall destroy the dragon. In that day there shall be a fair vineyard, and a desire to commence a song concerning it… Israel shall bud and blossom, and the world shall be filled with his fruit… And the lost ones in the land of the Assyrians shall come, and the lost ones in Egypt, and shall worship the Lord on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.
(Isaiah 27:1-2,6,13 LXX).

Friends, we are in that day. The LORD saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven, for He cast that destroyer down by His own righteous life, death, resurrection and ascension. There is no room now in high places for that Evil One, for the LORD fills them with his glory. And He is here among us, too, as we worship him, as we continue the song that began on Easter morning, and continued after Pentecost. This song of the vineyard is not a lament, like that of Isaiah, but a joyful hymn of hope! His people are meant to bud, and blossom, and fill the earth with fruit, as all the scattered people of God return. The Stone that the builders cast out has become the cornerstone of the holy building. We are His living temple, and have become living stones to praise Him. The One who died as a humble seed has sprouted, bringing life to all. If Satan had known the wonder of Jesus’ death-and-resurrection, he would not have encouraged them to kill the LORD of glory. The apostle Peter reminds us of the great provision that God has made for us, suggesting that we are not only to maintain (like Adam and Eve) God’s vineyard, but to extend it, as we together grow into the very image of the LORD:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.
For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ… Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall; so there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Therefore I intend always to remind you of these things, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have (2 Peter 1:3-12).

Jesus’ amplified and challenging story of the vineyard, and the deep encouragement of St. Paul to the Corinthians remind us this day of our potential for fruitfulness, because of all that we share with the LORD. Let us, then, set our minds to “confirm our call” so that we will be fruitful, so that we will never fall, and so that we will please the LORD in all things this coming year.

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