After a sudden epiphany when I realised that Jesus does not answer this question 'what will he do?', I have re-shaped the sermon a bit. And thanks to those friends on facebook who helped me conclude my thoughts about fruitfulness - have a gold star!
What will he do?
This week's wrestling is with the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. The other lectionary reading helps us to remember that in the Hebrew Scriptures 'the vineyard' was God's Promised land, inhabited by God's chosen people. I think we have to beware an anti-semitic reading of this parable that says 'God throws out the Jews and put new 'tenants' in his vineyard: us!’.
So what does Jesus say about this owner of the vineyard?
He is persistent - almost to the point of stupidity. The first slaves are beaten, killed and stoned. So what does he do?
Sends more! - and they are 'treated in the same way'.
Isn't this the point at which we expect the owner to bring in the bailiffs & clear the place out & either put in new tenants or sell & get out of wine-production altogether.
But no, our persistent/foolish owner sends his son, saying 'they will respect my son'. But it comes as no surprise to us to find that these lawless tenants kill him too. Now what will he do?
We think we know the answer, don’t we – the owner will do what he should have done in the first place - sort them out. He is far more patient than we might expect, but in the end he wants his vineyard to produce wine.
What will he do? Asks Jesus.
And have you noticed that in the parable as we heard it, it is the crowd who answers the question, not Jesus. “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."
Jesus does not answer the question which he asks, ‘now what will the owner do?’ – he asks the crowd for an answer.
And when they give the sensible, human answer ‘he will finally sort them out’, Jesus says "Have you never read in the scriptures: `The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'?. 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.”
When the crowd gives the obvious answer to his question, Jesus reminds them that God’s world is different from our world – God’s logic is different, God sees things differently. What we cast away, God treasures. We would lose patience with these tenants. Jesus never says that that is what God will do.
So what if this is not a parable told to show the Pharisees that God has had enough of them and is bringing in a new thing called Christianity? What if Jesus is trying to say that God’s endless patience is the sign of God’s kingdom, and that when we judge others and want God to punish others, that is when we are far from the kingdom? If we want to be part of what God is doing in God’s world, we need to be as patiently, endlessly forgiving as God – then our lives will show the fruits of the spirit – love, joy peace, patience, kindness.. and so on.
So, says Jesus, the kingdom of heaven will be given to those who produce the fruits of the kingdom.
Matthew puts this parable at the end of a very varied string of events, all recorded in Chapter 21.
First Jesus enters Jerusalem and throws the money-changers out of the temple. Then he curses the fig tree because it is not producing fruit. Then Jesus' authority is questioned by the chief priests and elders of the people. Then Jesus tells 2 parables - first the one about the sons who are asked to work by their father and say yes & no, and then this one of the tenants.
Throughout these events, which of course are in the lead up to a lot of resistance to Jesus, and finally to his arrest and death, there seems to be recurrent themes about bearing fruit, being part of the life of the kingdom, and doing what is required.
Jesus tells this parable against a background of questions about who is and who is not a part of the kingdom, who is on God's side, who is living the right way in the sight of God.
And Jesus is clear in the parable - God is endlessly patient, he is not going to give up on people if they fall at the first hurdle in following Jesus. Yet God is looking for a harvest for results, for the fruits of the kingdom, for people who seek God's will and do it. And it is precisely the patience to bear with those who are not yet part of the kingdom which makes us fully paid-up citizens of Gods kingdom!
There may be wrestling and difficulty - there will even be persecution and death - but God wants us to be people of faithful fruitfulness, who never lose sight of God's kingdom and never lose faith in God’s way of bearing with people.
So what does this fruitfulness look like in our lives – as individuals and as churches?
I think in some people’s eyes it looks like foolishness. So close to harvest we probably think of fruitfulness as something lush and lavish and wonderful. It can be wonderful – but in a totally different way: more like the scrawny weed that breaks through the concrete against all odds, than a mouth-watering bunch of grapes. The fruits of God’s kingdom are the sort of hope that keeps us going when all seems bleak. The sort of hope that sits and waits as the body of Christ lies in the tomb on Holy Saturday, believing that God’s love will triumph in the end on Easter Sunday.
If we show the fruits of God’s kingdom we try to be as forgiving as God is.. even when the world tells us to hit back. We trust that God’s love will never leave us – even when all the tangible proof seems to point in the opposite direction.
And if all this sounds like hard work and we wonder whether we can keep bearing this kind of fruit, God offers us nourishment at this table.
This bread and wine remind us of Jesus’ offering of himself, the ultimate sign of God’s endlessly patient, self-emptying love. The life laid down for us, but also the life restored by the ultimate sign of God’s kingdom – the power of the resurrection.
Eat, drink – be restored – and may God’s love help your life to bear the fruits of God’s kingdom.
To his praise and glory.