Sermon

Matthew 21:33-46

Whose Vineyard Is It, Anyway?

By Dr. Philip W. McLarty

Let’s think of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants as an allegory:

• God is the landowner
• The vineyard is the kingdom of God.
• The tenants are the people of Israel.
• The servants are the prophets.
• The son is Jesus.

As the story goes, the owner, God, made covenant with the people of Israel, gave them a land flowing with milk and honey and all he asked in return was that they worship him only and keep his commandments. In this way, they were to be a light to the other nations leading them to a life of peace and justice and so, establishing the kingdom of God on earth.

But the tenants were unfaithful. They worshiped other gods. They didn’t keep the law. And they certainly didn’t lead the other nations to the truth of God’s ways. So, God sent prophets to call Israel back its senses. They said things like: Remember how God delivered you from captivity in Egypt? Remember how he fed you with manna in the wilderness? Remember how he gave you victory over the Canaanites, the Ammorites, the Hittites and the Philistines? Remember how he brought you back from exile in Babylon? Turn from your wicked ways and worship Yahweh, who created the heavens and the earth.

But the tenants wouldn’t listen. Instead of heeding the message, they stoned the messengers. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, Micah … these and others tried to persuade the people of Israel to turn back to Yahweh, but the people of Israel wouldn’t listen.

So, God sent his only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to earth, not only to proclaim the Good News of God’s love, but to show the people of Israel how to live in peace and so, be reconciled to God and one another.

But instead of listening to Jesus and following his example, the Jewish leaders condemned him as a heretic and put him to death. In so doing, they forfeited their place as God’s chosen people, and the task of proclaiming the kingdom was given to those who accepted Jesus as the Christ, both Jew and Gentile. As Paul explains,

“That which Israel seeks for, that he didn’t obtain, but the chosen ones obtained it, and the rest were hardened.” (Romans 11:7)

The parable begs us to ask the question: Whose vineyard is it, anyway?

Looking back to the Old Testament, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants is similar in many ways to Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. This is what Isaiah said so long ago:

“Let me sing for my well beloved a song of my beloved about his vineyard.
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fruitful hill.
He dug it up, gathered out its stones, planted it with the choicest vine,
built a tower in its midst, and also cut out a winepress therein.
He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.”

“Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah,
please judge between me and my vineyard.
What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it?
Why, when I looked for it to yield grapes,
did it yield wild grapes?”

“Now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard.
I will take away its hedge, and it will be eaten up.
I will break down its wall of it, and it will be trampled down.
I will lay it a wasteland. It won’t be pruned nor hoed,
but it will grow briers and thorns.
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain on it.”

“For the vineyard of Yahweh of Armies is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah his pleasant plant:
and he looked for justice, but, behold, oppression;
for righteousness, but, behold, a cry of distress.” (Isaiah 5:1-7)

Well, you could say God was coming down hard on the people of Israel. Then again, whose vineyard is it, anyway?

This is where the Parable of the Wicked Tenants hits home for us today: As the church, we are the heirs of God’s new covenant in Jesus Christ. We are the new Israel. We have been given the privilege of sharing the Good News of God’s love with others. And Jesus specifically charged us, saying,

“Go, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

teaching them to observe all things that I commanded you.
Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

The judgment is this: If we are unable or unwilling, the call will go to someone else. The kingdom of God is not ours to enjoy all to ourselves, but ours to share graciously with everyone who’s willing to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and follow in his footsteps.

Did you happen to watch the LSU-Tennessee game on television Monday night? LSU dominated the first half of the game, had Tennessee down 21-7. Tennessee’s big name quarterback, Erik Ainge, was totally ineffective. But when Tennessee got the ball in the second half, guess what? The coach put in Rick Clausen. He proved to be the spark they needed to get the offense going. They ended up beating LSU 30-27 in overtime.

It happens all the time – when those in the driver’s seat fail to get the job done, they’re replaced. The call goes to someone else. It’s only fair. And why should we expect the church to be any different?

Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s the one Sunday of the year when we take stock of Christianity all over the world. On the one hand, it’s inspiring to think of how the Christian faith is expressed in so many different languages and different cultures and in different countries.

At the same time, it’s humbling to see how Christianity is growing so fast in other parts of the world; yet, is declining in the United States.

Chris Romig preached the sermon at David Elton’s installation service at Covenant Presbyterian Church two weeks ago. In his sermon, he told us about how the church is growing in South America, Africa and Korea. I won’t bore you with the numbers, except to say that there are literally thousands and thousands of new churches being planted and new Christians being born in other parts of the world, while, here in the United States, churches are dwindling, and young people are drifting away from the church.

Why do you think that is?

I think it’s because the people in these developing countries are on fire for the Lord. They’re filled with the Spirit. Having so few material resources, they have an abundance of enthusiasm for the Gospel, and are willing to share it with anyone who’ll listen.

Our ministerial intern, Russ Ramsey, went to Rwanda this summer on a mission trip. In just four days, he and his team received 4,500 professions of faith – new Christians pledged to becoming disciples of Jesus Christ.

Granted, some will fall by the wayside. Some will lapse back into their old tribal ways. But not all. And out of those who persevere, the church in Rwanda will grow strong, until the days of genocide are a distant memory, and the Hutus and the Tutsis will be able to live together in harmony.

As for us, we’ve become too complacent for our own good. We take the church for granted. We’re comfortable with the way things are and, if anything, resist new growth and the change that goes with it.

Sure, the preacher says we ought to be doing more to share the gospel and invite others into a relationship with Jesus Christ. He says we ought to be asking our neighbors and coworkers and newcomers to come to our church. But, really, isn’t that what preachers are supposed to say? Besides, we’re already over-extended. We don’t have time to evangelize, and we certainly don’t want to impose our beliefs on others.

We live in a live-and-let-live world where it’s O.K. if you come to church and O.K. if you don’t. It’s O.K. if you follow Jesus Christ and, if you don’t, well, God still loves you anyway. As for the church, well, it’ll get along somehow. It always has, it always will. I don’t mean to step on your toes. It’s not all your fault. But the truth remains, as a congregation, and as a denomination, we Presbyterians have done a miserable job of witnessing to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and making new disciples in his name.

We think of church growth as transfers of membership, not first-time professions of faith. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of a new family moving to town and someone asking the question, “Are they Presbyterian?” I always want to say, “Who cares if they’re Presbyterian?

Are they alive? That’s the question. Do they know the love of God in Jesus Christ? And can we make a place for them in our family of faith?” Mark my word: If we’re not willing to step up – if we’re not willing to give the owner his share of the fruit of the harvest, to use the language of the parable – he’ll bring in others to do the job. After all, whose vineyard is it, anyway?

Well, let me stop here and say I think most of you understand what I’m talking about: It’s God’s vineyard, and we haven’t been paying the rent. And I think you’ll agree: We haven’t produced a decent crop in a long, long time. The question is what can we do about it? I’d like to suggest five steps:

• One, take stock of your own faith. How strong is your commitment to Jesus Christ? What place does God have in your everyday life? Telling others about the love of God in Jesus Christ is only valid if you know first-hand what you’re talking about.

• Two, whether you’re spiritually alive, dead in the water, or somewhere in between, ask God to renew your faith. We can all use a fresh infusion of God’s Spirit. Confess your sins, then ask Jesus to come into your heart anew.

• Three, be clear about what you have to say. Not everyone has a dramatic conversion experience to talk about. Not everyone has been healed of a terminal illness or saved from a terrible ordeal. What is your story? Simple truths like, “Praying to God gives me strength,” or, “Going to church helps me do the right thing,” or, “Befriending someone in need makes me feel I’m doing something worthwhile,” can go a long way to leading others to Christ.

• Four, decide how best to share your faith with others. You may not be comfortable simply talking about it. You may prefer to express yourself through a simple gift, or by an act of kindness, or by sending a thoughtful card.

I can’t tell you how often I have someone put a book or magazine article or newspaper clipping in my hand and say, “Here, I’d like you to read this. It says what I’ve been thinking.” So, find a book or a poem or an article that expresses what you believe and give it to someone you’d like to introduce to Jesus Christ. Or, invite them to meet someone who can speak for you. In other words, “I don’t know what to say, but I know someone who does.”

• And five, do something, even if you do it wrong. It may well be that if you reach out to someone with the love of God, they’ll misunderstand you or reject you altogether. If so, get over it. You will have done your part. And you never know how what you said will sink in later.

I had a friend in Odessa who was a salesman. He said he counted on making ten calls for every sale he made. What if each of you were to share your faith with ten people and invite them to this service? If only one out of ten came as a result, you’d double the size of this congregation.

Well, here’s the bottom line: It’s World Communion Sunday, a time to celebrate our connection with other Christians in other nations all around the world. And, in celebrating our unity in Christ, comparing our record of faithfulness with theirs, we’re not doing very well. And it’s not just a matter of pride; it’s a matter of life and death – of living in the kingdom or dying to the sins of the world. We have a responsibility to be good stewards of this vineyard we call the kingdom of God. And good stewards we must be. For, after all, whose vineyard is it, anyway?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright 2005 Philip W. McLarty.  Used by permission.

Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.