The Dream of the Vineyard – Br. James Koester

Br. James Koester

Isaiah 5: 1 – 7
Psalm 80: 7 – 14
Philippians 3: 4b – 14
Matthew 21: 33 – 46

Everything I known about vineyards and growing grapes comes from watching several seasons of Falcon Crest, a Friday night TV soap drama that competed with Dallas and Dynasty. I preferred Falcon Crest over Dallas because there was a priest, Father Bob, who would show up every so often in Falcon Crest, and who wouldn’t love a night time TV drama with a priest in it.

You’ll perhaps remember that the drama of Falcon Crest centered around two branches of a family, living in California’s Napa Valley, one of which had extensive holdings and the other quite a modest operation. Week by week we were offered up a menu of greed, corruption, competition and family dysfunction, with a little sex and murder thrown in for good measure.

What I leaned about vineyards and grape growing from Falcon Crest is that grapes are pretty temperamental. They demand just the right amount of sun and rain and certain soils. But even more important, vineyards are not only big business, and at times a cut throat business, but they are also a long term business. You can’t plant a grapevines in the spring and expect a profitable harvest that same fall. It takes years, and a great deal of hard work before you will see the results of your labours.

Because vineyards are a long term commitment for the grower, vineyards, at least in Scripture, are signs of stability and peace. Ezekiel tells his listeners: Thus says the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the peoples among whom they are scattered, and manifest my holiness in them in the sight of the nations, then they shall settle on their own soil that I gave to my servant Jacob. 26They shall live in safety in it, and shall build houses and plant vineyards. They shall live in safety, when I execute judgments upon all their neighbours who have treated them with contempt. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God.[1] The promise of God is that God’s people will dwell in peace and security and that they shall live in safety long enough to plant vineyards and that in 3, 4, 5 years they shall enjoy the fruits of their labours.

On the other hand, vineyards are also a sign of God’s judgment on the people of God. Zephaniah declares: At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs, those who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’ Their wealth shall be plundered, and their houses laid waste. Though they build houses, they shall not inhabit them; though they plant vineyards, they shall not drink wine from them.[2]

So vineyards in Scripture are both a sign of the Kingdom, when peace, security and prosperity will last and God’s people will live in safety. They are also a sign of judgment, a time of plunder, waste and exile, when God’s people will plant vineyards [but] not drink wine from them.

But if vineyards are both signs of the Kingdom, and of God’s judgment, they are also a reminder that we are not God. Sometimes no matter what we do, no matter how hard we work, no matter how perfect the conditions of temperature, rain and soil, the crop still fails, and the grapes are sour. There is nothing to do, but start over.

Is it any wonder then, that Jesus uses the image of the vineyard in his parables? His audience would have contained any number of people who had small vineyards. They would have known that it takes years of hard work to produce a crop. They would understand the trauma of planting and not harvesting anything worthwhile. They would know the risk of failing. But so too would they know the sweet satisfaction of success. And they would know that in spite of everything, especially all their hard work, over years, it really was all up to God.

So you can understand the disappointment in Isaiah and the rage in Matthew.

What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?[3] What more indeed? I have broken my back digging, and cultivating. I have sweated in the heat of the day tending and pruning. I have spent years of my life, and what was the result? Wild, sour grapes. What more indeed?

There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally 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 get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when 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 lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’[4]

For years, and maybe years, that landowner invested large amounts of capital and time into his vineyard. Is it any wonder that when the harvest finally came he did not think he deserved at least some of the share of the harvest? Yet the tenants abused and killed those whom he sent to collect his share. Is it any wonder that those listening to Jesus were enraged? They would not have tolerated such behaviour. ‘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.’

For those of us whose knowledge of vineyards and grape growing is limited to a few episodes of Falcon Crest it is easy to miss the point of these stories. If we, like Jesus’ original audience, focus on the fate of the ungrateful tenants, we miss what Jesus says next. The point of the parable is not what happens to the tenants. The point of the parable is what happens to the audience, and in the case today, what happens to us. The crux of the parable occurs in verse 43: Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.[5] The focus of the parable is not on some ungrateful tenants. The focus of the parable is on us. Like all of Jesus’ parables, this one should make you squirm. The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. It’s for that reason that when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them [and so] they wanted to arrest him.[6] Forget the tenants and their fate. Think for a moment about yourself. The kingdom of God will be … given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

The dream of God is of a kingdom where the fruits of the kingdom flourish and which produces not wild, sour grapes, but sweet succulent fruit. Some of you will remember the Collect for Stir Up Sunday: Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded.[7] God’s dream for us is that we be, not greedy tenants, but producers of the sweet fruit of the kingdom, the fruit of good works, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.[8]  It is that which needs to be stirred up in us so that God’s dream can come true, because when God’s people produce, not the fruit of the kingdom, but the works of the flesh which are: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these,[9] it might make for great TV, but it doesn’t make for a kingdom where justice shall roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[10]

Our world, this country, is tired, broken, and lost. But the dream of God, the dream of the kingdom, the dream of the vineyard is a dream of peace, security and tranquility where the fruits of the kingdom, the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control thrive and flourish. As followers of Jesus, it is our job to bring about that dream.

At the end of this liturgy, I will tell you to Go! That is not a command to head off to brunch, or home to do some chores. It is an injunction to do the work of God which is to make the dream of the vineyard come true, not just in your life, but in the life of the world.

Like me, everything you know about vineyards and growing grapes may have come from watching Falcon Crest. But even if you don’t know much about growing grapes, you do know something about the fruits of the kingdom. The parable of the vineyard which Jesus tells us today isn’t so much about growing grapes as it is about us living lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those are the fruits which Jesus wants us to grow, and when we do the kingdom of God, the dream of God, the vineyard of God will be amongst us.*

[1] Ezekiel 28: 25 – 26

[2] Zephaniah 1: 12 – 13

[3] Isaiah 5: 4

[4] Matthew 21: 33 – 41

[5] Matthew 21: 43

[6] Matthew 21: 45 – 46b

[7] Book of Common Prayer, 1962, Canada, page 259

[8] Galatians 5: 22 – 23a

[9] Galatians 5: 19b – 21a

[10] Amos 5: 24

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  1. CHRISTINA MCKERROW on October 13, 2017 at 12:44

    Another ‘Thank You.’ Much food for thought. Blessings. Christina

  2. Patricia on October 13, 2017 at 10:04

    Thank you, James. Once again you remindthat I am not God and I need God’s help to flourish. Thank you.

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