Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Sermon #201 St. James the Less #108 10/4/20
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
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?
And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. 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.”
Jesus said to them, “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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
One of my favorite writers is a man named Wendell Berry. It was actually an Episcopal priest who introduced me to his work when I was a teenager and I have loved him ever since.
He is a writer, poet, and farmer from Kentucky. Maybe the best way to describe Wendell Berry is that he is old school and proud of it. He doesn’t hold technology in high regard, and in many of his books, he returns to the problem he sees of humanity’s insatiable appetite to be better, faster, and more efficient and yet not fulfilled or made whole.
What have we as humans lost in this grand pursuit? he wonders.
I was reading an essay he wrote in the early 90s this past week, and it hits on this very important point. And though he’s describing Henry County, Kentucky, the same holds true for much of Middle Tennessee. He said,
“I live in a part of the country that at one time a good farmer could take some pleasure in looking at. When I first became aware of it, in the 1940s, the better land, at least, was generally well farmed. The farms were mostly small and were highly diversified, producing cattle, sheep, and hogs, tobacco, corn, and the small grains; nearly all the farmers milked a few cows for home use and to market milk or cream. Nearly every farm household maintained a garden, kept a flock of poultry, and fattened its own meat hogs. There was also an extensive ‘support system’ for agriculture: every community had its blacksmith shop, shops that repaired harness and machinery, and stores that dealt in farm equipment and supplies.
“Now the country is not well farmed, and driving through it has become a depressing experience. Some good small farmers remain, and their farms stand out in the landscape like jewels. But they are few and far between, and they are getting fewer every year. The buildings and other improvements of the old farming are everywhere in decay or have vanished altogether. The produce of the country is increasingly specialized. The small dairies are gone. Most of the sheep flocks are gone, and so are most of the enterprises of the old household economy. There is less livestock and more cash-grain farming. When cash-grain farming comes in, the fences go, the livestock goes, erosion increases, and the fields become weedy” (204).
Spoken like a true farmer, right?
The issue is twofold in his opinion and from that springs a plethora of other issues. For one, when he looks out at the farms around him, the workers don’t care for the land; it’s not their family farm like it was in the olden days. They are just hired hands with the goal of bringing in as much crop as possible.
And the second issue is connected with the first: farms are now all about cash-grain farming. Whatever harvest will bring in the most money determines what will be planted rather than what may be best for that plot of land.
This morning the image we are given in our readings is that of a farm, a vineyard in fact. Both the prophet Isaiah and Jesus speak of a vineyard, and it’s this image that I want us to hold in our minds with Wendell Berry’s voice in the background.
The title that my Bible gave for the section of Isaiah 5 that we read was, “The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard.” The owner of this vineyard picked a spot on a fertile hill, meticulously cleared it of stones with his own hands, and planted promising vines. He invested a lot in this vineyard, even going as far as building a watchtower.
And then Isaiah tells us, “He expected it to yield grapes [how could he not after all that he had done?], but it yielded wild grapes.”
All the time, labor, and money have seemingly been for nothing. It was a bad investment.
Isaiah tells us that the vineyard is a metaphor for the “house of Israel and the people of Judah.” God had been the caretaker and vinedresser of this vineyard—he hadn’t taken any shortcuts, no fancy new machinery that would have cut the time in the fields in half, and yet after all that, the harvest is only wild/unusable grapes.
God had carefully watched over his people—been there for them at every turn, and yet they were not bearing any good fruit. God had planted his own faithfulness, and yet reaped the people’s unfaithfulness.
They acted like all the pagan nations around them. They continued to run after idols and false gods—even though those gods had done nothing, absolutely nothing for the people of Israel and Judah.
And so, the prophet says that the vineyard’s failure to produce better fruit has forced the owner to remove his attentiveness. If the land is unable to produce with the proper care, what would it do if it was neglected?
The issue is with the crop not the One working in the fields.
In Jesus’ parable, he quotes this part of Isaiah. He says, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press, and built a watchtower.”
But notice here that the produce of the field is fine—there is no mention of wild grapes. In this case, it’s the delivery system that is malfunctioning. The workers in the garden, the tenants, are the issue for Jesus.
This isn’t their family farm, they are merely workers in the field, but out of greed and jealousy, they harm and kill the various servants who are sent by the landowner to collect a portion of the crop that was rightfully his. The tenants are out of control and not working for their boss, but rather actively against him.
The issue has been narrowed from the grand scale of all the people of Israel and Judah in Isaiah to now just the tenants—those caring for Israel and Judah (i.e. the pastors and priests).
The tenants got so hyped up on the new and latest farming technology that guarantees a fruitful harvest, but they lost the whole reason they got into farming in the first place—they forgot who they were working for.
Though Jesus shifts the emphasis of Isaiah’s metaphor—the demand for fruitfulness can be found in both. Jesus looks right into the eyes of the wayward tenants—the scribes and Pharisees—when he says, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”
The crop yielding good fruit is still the major concern: bear fruit worthy of the kingdom.
But Jesus reminds us that we can never forget who we are working for. As much as this is a call for every Christian to bear fruit for God’s kingdom (which it is that), we’d be missing the most profound point all: the long-suffering love of God.
It is the landowner who sends multiple servants, and even in the face of utter rejection, the landowner does not give up. He goes as far as sending his own son, the beloved heir of all that he has.
Even though Jesus tells us the landowner is in a far-off country, he still cares for his vineyard, still loves it, and watches over it. He hasn’t taken any shortcuts, he farmed it the old fashion way.
This is the God that we believe in: this is the God we are dealing with—One who cares for us even when we don’t care about him. God works in spite of our indifference to him, or even active opposition to him.
Whether you read the parable in Isaiah or Matthew the point is still all about God’s action, and it is out of this constant love and action for us and creation that we are called to bear fruit worthy of his kingdom.
We can bear nothing without God, let alone anything fruitful. This is not our vineyard, and yet we selfishly fight for the right to become heirs of the vineyard, going as far as killing the landowner’s Son.
And yet all the rights and privileges of the beloved heir have been given to us through baptism. Through water and the Holy Spirit we are welcomed into the household of God; sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever.
And so, it still isn’t our vineyard, but it’s in the family.
18th Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 22. Year A. Isaiah 5:1-7. Matthew 21:33-46. What are People For? Wendell Berry.