Text study on Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14 and Matthew 21:33-46
Lectionary text for October 2, 2011
In three of our texts for today, an important image is played out. The nation of Israel is portrayed as a vineyard planted by God.
Each lesson uses this image to make an important point about God’s relationship to God’s people.
A word from Isaiah
In the Isaiah text we hear the voice of God speaking. God says, “I cleared the land, I planted the grapes, I built a tower for protection, I dug out a wine press, I got everything ready.”
But, the vines do not produce as God had hoped. The vines do not produce good fruit, instead they produce bad; wild grapes come forth, grapes unsuited to the making of good wine.
God looks the situation over and says, “Well, I did the best I could. I’ve done all I can. I can’t pour good money after bad. I’m going to abandon the field. Let the walls and the watchtower crumble. Go somewhere else where I can be more productive.”
Isaiah the prophet’s point is simple: The nation of Israel had become an embarrassment and God was ready to abandon them.
A response from the Psalm
The Psalm is a response to this abandonment. Verses 8 and 9 retell the same tale: God planting Israel in a new land. “You have brought a vine out of Egypt, you cast out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took root and filled the land.”
But verses 12 and 13 show the people’s bewilderment at being abandoned: “Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by may pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.”
And then, in verses 14 and 15, the people plead with God for forgiveness and restoration; “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”
Isaiah and Psalm 80 contain a major theme and plot line of the Hebrew Bible:
God’s showers God’s people with grace.
The people prosper.
The people forget God.
The people become “wild.”
God becomes angry and regrets making or saving or favoring the people.
God allows the people to suffer.
The people cry out for forgiveness.
God heals and restores.
And so it goes: over and over and over again.
The Gospel brings it home
Our Gospel lesson from Matthew picks up on these two story lines; the nation of Israel as the Lord’s vineyard and the cycle of rebellion and renewal throughout Israel’s history.
In verse 33 Jesus tells the same story as Isaiah and the psalmist, but he takes it in a new direction. In Jesus’ version, the owner rents out the vineyard to tenants and leaves town.
Later at harvest time — in Hebrew, literally “the season of fruit” — the owner sends servants to collect the rent.
And the tenants, the sharecroppers, do an astoundingly cruel and stupid thing; they beat one of the servants and kill the other.
The owner here is amazingly tolerant and, well, kind of stupid. I mean, it’s really silly to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
But that’s what the owner does. He sends more servants and they get beaten and killed. And then the son is sent.
How ridiculous is that? I mean, would you send your child into a situation like that? Really now?
And sure enough, the tenants beat and kill the son of the owner.
At this point Jesus stops telling the story, looks at his hearers and asks them to finish the story.
Jesus asks: What would you do?
So what would the owner do? And the people say, “Simple, he would come with an army and kill the bad tenants and give the vineyard to good tenants.”
Right you are, Jesus says. “And the kingdom of God, the true vineyard of the Lord, will be taken away from you! You who reject the prophets and even the very son whom God had given to people who bear the fruit of the kingdom.”
It would be easy for us to nod and say “Yes, that’s what happened. Those Jewish people were the bad tenants, so God took away the kingdom and gave it to us Christians.”
It would be easy to say that. It would also be wrong.
Who was Jesus talking about?
Jesus was not talking to the Jews as a people, as a race, or as a religion. Jesus was talking to the religious leaders, the chief priests and Pharisees. The people are the vineyard, the leaders are the bad tenants.
The life of the vineyard, the kingdom, goes on. And God still seeks good fruit. We in the church must listen to the word of judgment in these Bible lessons.
We must realize how often we fail to listen to and obey God’s word because we find it an embarrassment in our modern world.
And we must realize how often our failure to bear good fruit, our lack of love and charity, are an embarrassment to God.
The word of God is a powerful stone, Matthew says in verse 44, pounding on our hearts, shattering our ego and self-serving pride: “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces … “
But in that very brokenness lies the opportunity for new life. The word of God not only breaks us, it also heals us.
The crushing and critical word becomes the cornerstone of our lives, the foundation of a new vineyard, a vineyard which then bursts forth to overflowing with the fruits of the spirit: faith, hope and love.
Once we have come face-to-face with the ugly truth about ourselves, we are ready to hear the beautiful good news about God and God’s undying love for us in Christ.
Our Bible lessons for today call upon us to examine our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. They call us to discover what sort of vines, what kind of tenants we are.
Are we bearing good fruit? Are we giving God God’s due? Are we living our lives as faithful caretakers of God’s vineyard?
If not, let us cry out with the psalmist for forgiveness and new life.
Let us trust in the gospel promise that God will hear, God will forgive, God will restore, God will save.
Amen and Amen.
- How do you bear good fruit?
- How are you a caretaker of God’s vineyard?
Delmer Chilton is an assistant to the bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA, with responsibility for eastern and central Tennessee, northern Alabama and northern Georgia. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.