This parable is found in all three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew, as usual, adds to it some details that give it a particular flavor unique to Matthew. In its original setting in Jesus’ ministry, it is likely Jesus tells a shorter form of this parable in anticipation of his death. He has already been rejected by the religious leaders who are now plotting a way to get rid of him. In the narrative Jesus tells this parable after he stages a protest in the Temple overturning the tables of the money changers. That prophetic act of Jesus sealed his fate. Now it’s just a matter of time.
The parable is based on Isaiah’s song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5. This passage in Isaiah 5 is called by the prophet a love song. In that love song the owner and caretaker of the land diligently prepares and plants a vineyard with tender-loving care. But instead of producing good fruit, it yields sour grapes. And so the caretaker decides to let it be. The result is that the vineyard gets trampled down and destroyed.
The song of the vineyard is an allegory. The vineyard represents God’s covenant people, called out to communicate to the world the grace and goodness of their God. The prophet explains why God allows judgment to fall. He says, “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed.” That’s the reason for judgment. God expected that the people he called to be divine image bearers to the world would reflect God’s passion for the downtrodden, the outcasts, the poor, and the aliens in the land. God expected the fruit of righteousness and mercy. But instead, God’s vineyard, God’s covenant people bore the sour fruit of violence and bloodshed. Instead of peace, they pursued war. Instead of justice, they took advantage of the vulnerable.
In the parable in Matthew 21 the same type of allegory is developed. The “tenants” represent the leaders of the covenant people. The landowner is God. The vineyard, here though, is God’s kingdom, unlike in Isaiah where the vineyard represents the covenant people of God. The servants who are rejected, mistreated, and killed represent the prophets. The son, of course, is Jesus. The other tenants symbolize the new community of Christ made of both Jews and Gentiles committed to Christ’s teachings. This story in Matthew 21 highlights two themes that are fairly prominent throughout the biblical tradition and are as important to us today as they were in Matthew’s community then. The two themes are grace and judgment.
While judgment falls on the violent tenants of the land, it only falls as the last resort, after all attempts at reconciliation have been exhausted. Twice the landowner sends his servants to collect the harvest, and in both instances the tenants respond violently, even killing some of them. Then he sends his son, saying to himself, “They will respect my son.” The landowner takes a great risk in sending his son. And pays for it. Because the greedy and violent tenants see this as an opportunity to take possession of the land. They say, “This is the heir, let’s kill him and grab his inheritance for ourselves.” So then the question is asked, “What do you think the landowner will do to those tenants?”
The question of course is rhetorical. In Mark’s version Jesus answers his own question and says in a rather straightforward manner, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Matthew’s version Jesus says, “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.” In typical Matthean fashion there is an added harshness to to Matthew’s version of the story, but of special note is the emphasis on producing fruit.
Matthew adds a postscript to the parable that Luke and Mark do not have. In Matthew’s version Jesus says, “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Only Matthew has this phrase, “the fruits of the kingdom.” Throughout Matthew’s Gospel there is a frequent emphasis on fruits, on doing the will of God. Judgment falls because they failed to produce fruits, they failed to do the will of God, they failed to pursue justice, to dispense mercy, and walk humbly with God. When Isaiah calls the people of his time to seek justice, he says, “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17). These are the fruits of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is about a just world; it’s about a just society; it about the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. It’s about liberating the oppressed, opening the eyes of the blind, freeing those captive to the demonic systems and powers of the world, and bringing good news to the poor.
Consider for a moment Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. The conclusion to Jesus’ teaching on the mount puts all the emphasis on bearing fruit. Isn’t it interesting that in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 there is not a single teaching about what to believe. Every single teaching is about what to do and how to live. In conclusion Jesus says, “Every tree (doesn’t matter if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an atheist) that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits.” I think we should be honest and acknowledge that most of us were not taught this. I grew up in a typical conservative SBC church and I was taught that one would be judged on the basis of whether or not one believes in Jesus as Savior, but that is not what the Gospels teach. In every single judgment text in Matthew, Mark, and Luke participants in God’s kingdom are not identified by what they believe, but by what they do. This emphasis is even found in John’s Gospel.
The Gospels teach that just as God’s grace is for all, God’s judgment is for all too. Most Christians don’t want to think about that. They think that just because they are Christians they escape God’s judgment. But according to the Gospels God is no respecter of persons. When we, as God’s people called to be the body of Christ in the world fail to bear these fruits of the kingdom, we too, just like the covenant people of God under the old covenant come under the judgment of God. All the judgment texts in the Synoptics have to do with fruits, rather than faith.
Does that scare you? It shouldn’t. And here’s why. The judge is full of grace. The judge is an unconditional lover. The judge is Abba the loving Father Jesus prayed to and spoke about. I do not presume to even guess what God’s judgment might look like or what form it might take. But what I’m convinced of, sisters and brothers. is that whatever God’s judgment involves, however painful it might be, or whatever suffering it might cause, it’s all for the purpose of restoration and redemption. God’s judgment is not punitive or retributive. God’s anger is but for a moment, say the prophets. God’s grace and mercy are forever. We all will pass through the “fire.” The fire of divine judgment is not intended to consume us, but rather to purge and purify us, to refine us and teach us how to be like our Abba, our heavenly Father and Mother. Do you know what God wants from us? God wants us to share God’s heart, to treat one another in love and grace, forgiving one another, defending the helpless and liberating the oppressed. God wants us to engage in works of mercy and justice. And I believe God will do whatever God can do to get us to that level of maturity, just the way we attempt do with our own children. God’s judgment is about the discipline and correction that is needed to rid us of our prejudice and hate, and turn us into little Christs.
I have no idea what God’s judgment in the future state of our souls will look like. But I’m convinced that whatever form it takes it will be for our good, because God is good. God is not going to torture anyone. I’m not saying that divine judgment will not be painful; it might be very painful, but it will be ultimately for our good. I can imagine lives being terminated if no redemption is possible, but I can’t imagine the God of Jesus torturing anyone. We are the ones who want vengeance, not God. We may have to live through some hells in order to get to heaven, but the hells are of our own making.
I was writing about this via social media and a minister friend responded by saying, “I believe in hell because I have lived in hell before.” He went on to define hell as separation from love, as well as self and others. That’s a good example of taking the Bible seriously, but not literally. It has been my passion in ministry help people do this: If we just understand and accept that all scriptural language is symbolical, figurative, metaphorical, and hyperbolic language, I have no doubt some of us would have a much healthier image of God. That has been one of my passions in ministry is helping people nurture a healthier image of God.
Joe Phelps is the pastor of a very progressive Baptist church in Louisville. He shares an experience that I think speaks to the kind of fruits God expects from us. Three or four years ago Joe was ticketed for failing to follow directions at the scene of an accident. He contended his innocence and was compelled to have his day in court. He didn’t think he needed a lawyer. He had his photos and he could defend himself so he thought. Phelps wrote about this in an article at what is now Baptist News Global. I want to read what he wrote:
“A Wednesday evening court date conflicted with my schedule, but I arrived for court with evidence of innocence and anxious to plead my case. What a disappointment to learn after an hour that the purpose of this particular appearance was to schedule another court date. A month later I arrived as instructed before 9 a.m. and entered the uncomfortable silence of a room full of those awaiting trial. This might take a while, I thought. During the next hour it dawned on me that I was in a scene like the children’s game “Which one of these is not like the other ones?” I was the only “person of no color” in the room, which prompted the question: Why would only persons of color, and one white guy, be required to show up for court?
“We averted our eyes from each other throughout the next hour as we listened to names called and cases dispatched. Yet our numbers weren’t shrinking. In fact, as we entered Hour Three, not one person in the courtroom had heard their name called. More surprising: None of my fellow court waiters appeared to notice or feel frustrated but me, though surely some of them were missing work, too. Or paying for sitters. Or missing class.
“As the only person of no color, I felt safe wandering into the prosecutor’s office to inquire why so many invisible people appeared to be cutting in line. I was tutored that cases in which attorneys appeared on behalf of the accused have the privilege of jumping to the head of the docket (thus nullifying the definition of the word docket), while the rest of us wait. “Then, why didn’t you just schedule us to arrive at 11:00?” I asked. I was told to sit down.
“An hour later my case was called. Showtime! Wait – the officer who issued the citation was not present, so the case would be rescheduled. I’d seen enough ‘Law and Order’ to ask for a mistrial or a writ of habeas corpus or a stay of execution or something legal sounding to avoid a repeat. No luck.
“So a third time I joined the community of the wooden benches, even taking on this community’s blank stare. And the reason for this ordeal became clear to me: I needed to see how our judicial system, like many institutional protocols we take for granted, favors those with resources and connections, to the detriment of those without resources, or in my case those too stubborn to use them.
“The result: Those least able to afford to take off from work, pay for parking, hire a sitter or miss school, are forced to show up on time, only to wait and watch while those with means go first. . . .
“I’d glimpsed the ways in which our systems betray our national ideal of “liberty and justice for all” through laws and procedures that are inherently racist. They may not appear so on the surface and may have been written originally with naive or even noble intent, but the result is the same: Certain persons, particularly black males, are disregarded, disrespected and disproportionately imprisoned with longer sentences than their white counterparts, even though the ratios of crimes committed by races are equal...”
Joe concludes by referencing an event that took place in his city that year: “In March, four young men in our city were arrested for ‘sitting while black.’ Police were searching near a crime scene for four suspects, and these four were found on their front porch. Despite evidence of their innocence they were booked and jailed. It took considerable time, energy and money but this week the court exonerated them. But not before one missed his high school prom and graduation and all had their reputations impugned and their lives traumatized. Perhaps no one intended racism, but like pollution, it’s the invisible poisons that are the most insidious.”
We must eliminate these invisible poisons says Pastor Phelps. Why? Because that’s what disciples of Jesus do. These are the fruits God expects us to produce. And sisters and brothers, it’s what we do that counts. And if what we believe does not translate into what do, if what we believe does not translate into the fruits of the kingdom, then maybe we need to ask ourselves what exactly we believe. Or at least if it’s doing us any good. The work of the kingdom of God will take us into the criminal justice system, the economic system, the educational system, the political system, into our work place and our family dynamics, into our relationships and friendships, and into every area of our lives. This is what discipleship to Jesus involves. This is what the kingdom of God is about. And this will be the basis of our judgment.
But you know, there is no need to be afraid, sisters and brothers. Because whatever form the judgment of God takes, whatever it may involve, if it does its job, it will always leads us back to the loving Abba of Jesus and God’s infinite mercy and grace.
Our good God, help us to understand that your anger at injustice always arises out of a heart of love. Teach us how to love the way you love and to care about the things you care about. Amen.