Saturday, October 1, 2011

“Problems in the Vineyard”

Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-46

       The reading in Isaiah and the reading in Matthew start out a lot alike.  A vineyard has been established.  A wall has been built around it.  Rocks, shrubs and weeds have been removed.  A watchtower has been built so that the fruit can be protected from the wild beasts and thieves.  A winepress has been built in anticipation of the harvest to come.  
       Just preparing the land has most likely taken the first year in the life of this vineyard. And finally the vineyard is planted with grape vines.  Each plant placed by hand into the hole and the soil carefully replaced around it being sure not to leave air pockets.  Usually a little dirt is added, a little water is added, a little dirt is added a little water is added, a little dirt etc. until the hole is filled.
       Now comes the careful watering.  Until the root system is established the ground must be kept moist but not wet.  Too much water will drown the young plants.  Gradually the dry plantings will begin to show signs of green, signs of growth. 
       Now the next four years is spent tending the vines, pruning, supporting and training them to the trellis.  Plus tending the ground, keeping in loose enough for the water to soak in.  And keeping the weeds and varmints out goes on for a long time before it gets to the harvest stage.
       Sometimes when we read these illustrations we fail to realize the amount of time the landowner (God) has put into this vineyard (us).
       Now in the Isaiah story, the good grapes have gone wild.  The expected harvest will not take place.  Imagine all that work and nothing to show for it!  No wonder the owner wants to withdraw from this piece of property and let it go back to its uncultivated nature.
       God had planted his vineyard.  He nurtured it and trained it.  He had built a vineyard / a nation.  He settled them in the perfect spot for them to grow.  He had given ten simple laws for them to follow, though they themselves added many more from their interpretation of His laws.  God had done all that he could do to insure its survival and yet it had gone wild.  God was not pleased.
       In the Matthew reading Jesus is reinterpreting the Isaiah story and saying that the landowner after doing all he could to get the vineyard established had turned the day to day care to some tenants.  The harvest is done and now it is time to collect his share of the produce.  Being still in a far country, he sent his servants to the workers to collect his share of the produce as agreed upon. 
       The tenants in their greed decided that THEY had done all the work for this crop (which was only THEIR point of view because they were discounting all the time, money and effort the owner had put into it first).  But in their greed they chose not to give the owner his share. 
       Remember that we are really talking about God and – well – us!  How often have we denied that it ALL belongs to God?  We are only stewards.  And yet, we look around us and say, “Look what I have done! Or See what I have made!” 
       My three-year-old great granddaughter is at that stage where she is defining boundaries. She’ll look at me as I’m getting a glass of water and say, “That is not YOUR glass, gran’pa.  That’s Daddy’s glass.” Or “This is not MY backpack.  This is Sissy’s!”  Well, this is not MY world.  It is God’s, along with everything else in existence.  But praise God He let’s me use it.
       Remember what you had in your pocket the day you were born?  That’s right – nothing!  And that is all that belongs to you - nothing.  By God’s grace we have what we have and only asks for a small token to be returned to His service.
       Now some of you are maybe starting to think I’m talking about tithing.  Well I am, a little, but that’s not all.  Yes, as far back as the Garden of Eden a sacrifice, was given to God.
       That reminds me of a cartoon I saw of a family sitting in a restaurant.  The son turns to his dad and says, “Why does the waitress get 20% and God only gets 10?  Let us not begrudge God’s his 10% but be thankful that He lets us have the 90%. 
       Okay, so now that I’ve talked about tithing let’s get down to what God REALLY wants from us.  He wants our love.  He wants us to honor him by doing that which he has set before us.  He wants us to care for His creation like good stewards.
       You see, He has a job for each of us.  All it takes is for us to love Him enough – to trust Him enough.  And then we need to give God the thanks and the glory that are rightfully his.
       Back to the illustration: The workers took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned a third to death.
       Instead of seeking revenge or retribution for these deaths, the owner is still only trying to receive his portion of the harvest as is his right.  So the landowner sent more servants. But the workers treated them the same way. 
       Stepping out of the metaphor and into reality for a moment, let’s look at who these servants were.  Well these were the judges, prophets and righteous people that God sent to his people to get them back in alignment with his purpose.  In this day and age we would recognize them as being Pastors, Sunday school teachers, Christian musicians, Christian authors as well as our family and friends who offer us sound advice.  Time to ask ourselves how well we have received these servants of God.  I doubt that any in this congregation have actually beaten and killed God's messengers.  However, have we received them with the love and with justice as God requires?
       Then Jesus says, “Finally, he sent his son to them. He thought, ‘They will respect my son.’ “When the workers saw his son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Let’s kill him and get his inheritance.’
       Now we know that approach is pure foolishness.  Killing the son in no way puts them in line to inherit anything but the father’s wrath!  But greed and other sins can cloud our judgments and make us do really stupid things.
       So the tenants grabbed the son, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
       Jesus was of course talking about himself here!  He knew what these rebellious people were planning for him.  But Jesus never backed down.  Instead he asks these leaders, “Now, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those workers?” 
       Jesus is checking: do they really not understand right and wrong; or do they know right from wrong and just choose wrong?
       They answered, “He will destroy those evil people. Then he will lease the vineyard to other workers who will give him his share of the produce when it is ready.” 
       By their own tongues they were condemning themselves but had not yet realized it. They had not seen themselves as the “evil tenants”.  They didn’t realize that the “vineyard” was about to be taken away from them and given to those people that these leaders looked down their noses at.
       Okay reality check!  Who do we turn our noses up at?  Are we SURE that we are so much more deserving of the vineyard than they are?
       Then Jesus asked them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord is responsible for this, and it is amazing for us to see’? That is why I can guarantee that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce what God wants.
       Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken. If the stone falls on anyone, it will crush that person.”
       Okay, these guys might not have got the point the first time around but, when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard this illustration, they finally knew that he was talking about them.  This angered them and they wanted to arrest him but were afraid of the crowds, who thought he was a prophet.
       Again, we have to be VERY careful with casting judgment on these religious people.  They were, for the most part, good people.  However, they were people so locked into their customs and mind sets that they could not accept what Jesus was telling them even when he explained it to them. 
       We need to be careful that we are not looking at the splinter in their eye and not aware of the log in our own eye.  For we too, can fall victim to the delusion that we are always right because we keep the letter of the law but do not always filter it through the love of Christ as he taught us and command us to do.
       Part of our communion liturgy says, “Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another."  So, during this time of communion let us each examine our own lives to see if we have the righteousness of God within us or if it is our own self righteousness which can blind us to the true purpose that God has for us.

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