20th Sunday after Pentecost
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! In the name of Jesus, dear fellow redeemed by the blood of God, there’s a reason my wife and I enjoy planting a vegetable garden every year in the backyard of the parsonage. The reason isn’t so much that we enjoy getting down on our hands and knees and planting seeds in the ground in the spring, the reason isn’t so much that we like to go out there and water whenever there hasn’t been much rain, the reason also isn’t so much that we enjoy getting down and pulling out the plethora of weeds that seem to enjoy popping up all over our garden, and the reason is not so much that we enjoy spending hours taking the dead plants out at the end of the growing season and cultivating the ground and making it ready for the next year. I would also guess that the reason any of you who grow a vegetable garden do so for the same reason my wife and I do: we enjoy eating the vegetables and fruit of our garden. In fact, we get disappointed if our plants don’t produce well after all the work that we put into them. The primary reason you plant plants is to get the fruits of your labors.
In a similar way, God also looks for the fruit of His labors. He’s not looking for vegetables on plants, rather, He looks for fruits of faith in the lives of His people. There’s a phrase that is quite true: We are saved through faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. In other words, we are saved simply through trusting in Jesus as our Savior- not by our good works or merits or anything we’ve done. But at the same time saving faith in Jesus is never alone, it will automatically produce fruits of faith. Someone who has been rescued through faith in Jesus will want to lead a life just brimming over with good works.
In our text this morning Jesus tells a parable to illustrate this important spiritual truth. It’s Tuesday of Holy Week, in a few days Jesus will be sentenced to death, and the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law are trying their hardest to trap Jesus. And to them Jesus tells this parable: There’s a landowner who decides to plant a vineyard. This landowner then seems to spare no expense when it comes to taking care of this vineyard of his. He puts a wall around it to protect it from threats, he digs a winepress in it so the grapes can be processed right there, and he even builds a watchtower for it to help ensure the vineyard’s safety. The landowner has every right to expect his vineyard to produce an abundant harvest. Then the landowner rents his vineyard to some farmers to take care of it for him and he moves away. The harvest time comes and the vineyard own sent his servants to collect his fruit. Typically, a landowner would receive a portion of the fruit at harvest time as his pay for renting out his vineyard.
But what happens next is shocking. Instead of giving the landowner that which was rightfully his, these tenants took the landowner’s servants they “beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.” The term for “beat” actually originally meant to “flay” or to “skin alive” and implies a flogging or scourging so horrible that the skin was ripped off the person – not to mention the killing and the stoning! It’s appalling! It’s graphic! It’s horrid! Now, we would expect the next verse to tell us about how the landowner sent in the cavalry to destroy these wicked tenants, but that’s not what we read. “Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.” What?? Really?? There’s no way! The inner sense of justice each one of us has screams at this- what landowner would do such a thing? What landowner would demonstrate such long-suffering and patience? But the next thing is absolutely unreal and wouldn’t happen in our world, but there’s a reason. You see, Jesus is illustrating the absolutely mind-boggling, extraordinary, and beyond all human imagination patience and love of our God.
The next step the landowner sends his son, “They will respect my son,” he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” And then Jesus does something somewhat unusual, He lets the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law finish the parable. He said, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,’ They replied, ‘and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.’ And Jesus answered them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes? Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
So what does that mean? The landowner of the vineyard is God and the vineyard is the nation of Israel. God did so much for that nation, miracles upon miracles, delivered them, gave them the OT, gave them the law, gave them multitudes of promises of the Savior. The religious leaders, however, were the tenants who refused to produce the fruits God looked for. So, God sent prophet after prophet to them to call them to repentance. But what happened to many of the prophets? Many were killed, some stoned, some say that King Mannasseh from the first lesson, had the prophet Isaiah sawn in half. Then God sent more prophets and then finally sent His own Son, Jesus. And what did they want to do? Kill him. And they did. So, what will God do to those who refuse to produce fruits? He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and give His kingdom to a people who will produce fruits of faith.
Something similar was happening right within the church before the Lutheran Reformation. Those who were leaders in the church were not producing the fruit God looks for. The fruit God looks for from his people is a sorrowful and contrite heart and a faith that trusts in Jesus as the only Savior and lives in response to the gospel. But the church leaders before the Reformation were teaching people that they were saved not by God’s grace in Jesus, but by their good works. And they claimed buying indulgence letters were good works, that praying to saints and to Mary were good works, and that these good works earned you salvation. The Lord then used Martin Luther – a sinful human and full of faults – but someone who spoke the truth, that we are saved by God’s grace through faith alone. He was first threatened, then excommunicated, and finally lived the rest of his life under a sentence of death.
It would be easy for us to shake our heads at these wicked tenants, or to shake our heads at the wicked religious leaders who were plotting to kill Jesus, or to shake our heads at the evil people in Luther’s day who twisted and abused Scripture. But then again God also wants each of us to take a long hard look at this parable. As a leader in God’s church this parable confronts me, have I taken for myself that which belongs to God? Have I sought the glory and honor that really belongs to the owner of the vineyard? But this also strikes each one of us: Are you producing the fruit that God is looking for in your life? Have you blatantly refused to hear, believe, or take to heart the Word of God that He sends to you again and again, like those tenants rejecting the landowner’s servants? Everything that we own finally belongs to God, we’re just the tenants, but are we using our things and using our lives to accomplish our own selfish and self-serving objectives or seeking to give honor, glory and thanks to God in all things?
The Augsburg Confession to which we, as Lutherans subscribe, says, “They teach that this faith is bound to yield good fruits and that it ought to do good works commanded by God on account of God’s will and not so that we may trust in these works to merit justification before God.” In other words, yes, we’re saved through faith alone, but faith is never alone. Faith will produce works. God is the gardener, we’re the plants, are we producing the fruit that he is looking for in our lives? Could it also be said about you and me: “he will bring those wretches to a wretched end and rent the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his share of the crop”?
You know, finally, it wasn’t just the religious leaders of Jesus’ day who threw the Son outside of Jerusalem and nailed him to a cross crucifying him. It was also your sin and my sin for which the Son of God died. So what’s the answer? Should we say: I need to start producing better fruit, I need to work harder at being a better person. No, that won’t help. That will either turn us into self-righteous Pharisees or drive us to despair.
The answer is this: You see, we all ought to be brought to a wretched end, we all are responsible for killing the Son, but look at the Landowner’s patience, it’s beyond anything earthly. In love, God sent His Son into our world, not for himself, but for you, for me, for all. Jesus came to be the perfect tenant, always giving to the Lord what was due Him, always producing perfect fruit for you and for me, but then he also died on the cross to pay for the sin of every wicked tenant, every person who hasn’t given to God the fruits God desires, every person who deserves to be brought to a wretched end. Instead, God let Jesus come to a wretched end on the cross so you never would. In Jesus all your sins are forgiven! Only those who refuse to trust in Jesus as their Savior will bring upon themselves a wretched end in hell.
Now, here you are. You’re one of those tenants, you’re sitting in God’s vineyard. You live in a world where every day you have options. You can give the landowner his fruit or you can hoard it for yourself. You can live to give glory, thanks and honor to God, you can live to selflessly serve every human being God puts into your life, or you can live only for yourself. Which will you do? For you and for me, we know there is really only one option. And by God’s grace you are producing fruit. That’s why you’re here this morning to worship the Lord and hear His Word, that’s why many of you are spending time with your spouse or family around the Word of God in your home, that’s why many of you go to work to provide for your families and serve other people – those are fruits of faith, evidence of your love and trust in Jesus.
What’s the key to producing the fruit God desires? What’s the key to being a faithful tenant in the Lord’s vineyard? It’s realizing that you deserve only God’s eternal wrath and punishment forever. But then receiving the comfort of God’s amazing grace, that Jesus died for your sins on the cross, not in part, but the whole. Because of Jesus you have been declared forgiven and innocent of all sin by God and have been given the free gift of eternal life. When you have that, when you cherish that, with your heart cleansed by God’s forgiveness in Jesus you can’t help but produce fruits of faith. Amen.