Jesus Taught what Jesus Learned:
“What More Was There to Do?”
First Baptist Richmond, October 8, 2023 The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 5:1-7; Matthew 21:33-46
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…”
My first trip to the Holy Land was in 1994, and it was pretty much my first trip anywhere outside the United States. I was very excited. A member of my church, a retired pastor, asked me why I was going and I said, “Why wouldn’t I?” It seemed like the opportunity of a lifetime. He said he had spent his whole life imagining those places in the Bible, and he didn’t want to ruin all that by flying to the other side of the world and getting on a tour bus and driving all over Israel just so he could stand in line with a group of other pilgrims to see the gaudy shrine built over the place where Jesus may or may not have done something miraculous. I didn’t think of it like that at all. I said, “I want to see the rugged landscape of Israel. I want to hear the waves lapping up against the shore of the Sea of Galilee. I want to smell the air of the Negev desert. I want to taste falafel from a food cart in Jerusalem. I want to put my hand down deep into the waters of the Jordan River. I want to haggle over the price of souvenirs in an open-air market. In other words, I want to experience the Holy Land with all my senses and just see what it does for my understanding of the Bible.”
Well, it did a lot. I can’t read the Bible these days without seeing those places in my head and remembering those experiences. For example: when I read
today’s Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 5 I remember being on a bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was the middle of the afternoon. We were all a bit drowsy from jet lag and a big, Mediterranean lunch. We were beginning the climb from the coastal plain up to the hill country of Judea. But as I looked out the window I kept seeing these small, rectangular plots of land surrounded by low, stone walls. When we passed close to one I could see that it was a vineyard. I asked our tour guide about the walls. Were they supposed to keep something out? He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Not really. Those are just the stones they had to clear out of the vineyard.” And that’s when I realized how rocky that part of the country was, and how much effort it would take just to clear enough land to plant some grape vines. I could picture someone lugging heavy stones, one at a time, from the middle of the vineyard to the perimeter, stacking them up to make a wall, not so much because he needed one, but simply because what else are you going to do with all those rocks?
So, the next time I read Isaiah 5 I could see it in my mind. The prophet says:
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 watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
That trip to Israel helped me see that digging the vineyard and clearing it of stones was just the beginning. Then you have to plant the vines, build the watch tower, and hew out a wine vat, and if my other experiences in Israel are any indication,
the wine vat would have been hewed out of solid rock. What I’m saying is this: a vineyard would have been an enormous expense of time and effort. It would have been hot, sweaty, backbreaking work. And when you finally got those choice vines planted in that fertile soil you would expect them to produce nothing but the plumpest, sweetest grapes in the land. So, when the prophet says of his beloved’s vineyard, “He expected it to yield grapes,” you think, “Yes, of course he did, especially after all that work!” But the prophet’s beloved is God, and God’s vineyard is Israel. He expected it to yield grapes, but instead it yielded wild grapes.
What are “wild grapes”? I’m so glad you asked! According to the McClintock and Strong Biblical Cyclopedia, published in 1880, “Wild Grape is the rendering of the A.V. at Isa 5:2, 4 of the Heb. word which occurs only in the pl. beushim, בּאֻשַׁים, and indicates a noxious species of plant or kind of fruit. In form the word is a pass. participle of בָּאִשׁ, beosh, which means to smell offensively, as many poisonous vegetables do; and this connects it radically with בָּאשָׁה, boshah (translated as ‘cockles’ in Job 31:40), although the two seem to denote different plants, but both useless.”i After a few more paragraphs of explanation, including the rendering of the word in Greek in the Septuagint, McClintock and Strong conclude by saying, “It seems probable that no specific plant is referred to in the passage; but that the word is simply used as an adjective with its substantive understood, as a designation of bad or worthless grapes. The Lord expected that his vineyard should produce grapes, but it produced only beushim, vile, uneatable grapes.”ii
Jesus taught what Jesus learned, and this is one of the things he learned while he was still just a boy: that the nation of Israel was God’s vineyard, and God had given his people every possible advantage. He had brought them out of their slavery in Egypt; he had carried them in his arms through the wilderness; he had
brought them into a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey; he had said to them, “If you will be my people, I will be your God.” It was his marriage vow. But they had not been his people. They had chased after every foreign god and bowed themselves down at every pagan altar. He had expected grapes, but his people were wild grapes; they were bad, worthless, they “smelled offensively,” and he had no choice but to send them into exile. Everyone knew that story. It made perfect sense to them. But Jesus taught what Jesus learned and in today’s Gospel lesson he has something to teach the chief priests and elders of Israel.
Before we get into the parable itself let me remind you that Jesus is under attack. The chief priests and elders are upset by his lack of respect for their authority. He has ridden into the city on a donkey to shouts of “Hosanna!” He has turned over tables in the temple and healed people in its precincts. He has refused to tell the chief priests and elders the source of his authority, although everyone else seems to know. And so now they stand there, wondering what to do with this troublemaker, when he says, “Let me tell you a story,” the text of which can be found in Matthew 21:33-46.
“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,” Jesus began. “He put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.” As soon as he said it, everyone knew that he was talking about the nation of Israel, because everyone had heard Isaiah’s parable. It was what you might call “common knowledge.” “Then he leased it to tenants,” Jesus continued, “and went to another country.” And that’s when the people listening began to wonder who the “tenants” might be, and to suspect, with a kind of perverse delight, that Jesus was referring to the religious leaders of Israel, the very people who were opposing him. “When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce,”
Jesus said, and the people rightly guessed that the slaves were the prophets of Israel, sent to collect the produce of justice and righteousness. “But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another,” Jesus said, and the people recalled that this is how the religious leaders of Israel had treated the prophets through the years.
“Again he sent other slaves,” Jesus said, “more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.” Sure enough, everyone in the crowd could remember that many of the prophets had been beaten, or stoned, or killed, simply for telling the truth. “Finally,” Jesus said, “he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” And the people in the crowd must have wondered, “Is he talking about himself? Is he the Son of God?” “But when the tenants saw the son,” Jesus continued, “they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’” Which doesn’t even make sense, right? Why would the owner of the vineyard give it over to those who had killed his son? Nevertheless, “They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” And then Jesus asked the question that would cause his opponents to condemn themselves: “Now,” he said, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And the chief priests and elders, still unaware that he was talking about them, said, “Why, 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, “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.” It was only then that the chief priests and elders realized that he was talking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Now, all of this took place nearly two thousand years ago. We weren’t there, and it would be easy to imagine that it doesn’t apply to us. But even the people who were there might have said that it didn’t apply to them. They weren’t the “wild grapes” in Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard. Those were their ancestors from hundreds of years earlier, the ones who didn’t give to God the fruits of justice and righteousness, the fruit he had hoped for when he planted his vineyard. If you read on in that parable you will find that God removed the hedge around his vineyard and allowed it to be devoured; he broke down its wall, and allowed it to be trampled down. Those who knew the story would know that the Babylonian army ran roughshod over God’s vineyard and dragged its inhabitants away to exile. “I will make it a waste,” God promised; “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.” And that’s what happened. The nation of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, was completely and utterly destroyed. But can’t you imagine that when God’s people returned to the ruins some seventy years later they said, “This time we will give God what he wants; we will produce the fruits of justice and righteousness so that he will not have any cause to send us into exile again”?
And when Jesus confronted the chief priests and elders of Israel it was easy for the crowds to stand back and listen, knowing that the threat of judgment wasn’t intended for them. They weren’t the ones who had kept from God the fruit
that was rightfully his; it was these people, the religious authorities. It was to them that Jesus had said, “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the fruits of the kingdom.” But years later, when Matthew’s Gospel was written and shared among the early Christians, they must have realized: “He’s talking about us! The Kingdom of God was taken away from those religious authorities and given to us!” But if that’s true, then even though they weren’t there when Jesus told the story, there is still an important lesson to be learned. And for us, even though we were never the focus of Jesus’ parable, we can come away from this morning’s Gospel lesson realizing, “If the Kingdom of God is taken away from those who will not produce the fruits of the Kingdom, and given to a people who will, then we had better be that kind of people—the kind who give to the King the fruit that is rightfully his!” And what is that fruit? According to Fred Craddock, “the owner of the vineyard is still expecting 1) righteous living, 2) human caring, and 3) courageous witnessing, these three being Matthew’s understanding of ‘fruit.’”iii
Because it’s a little too easy to stand back and listen to Isaiah blast the residents of eighth-century Israel for not producing the fruit of justice and righteousness; a little too easy to sit in our pews and listen to Jesus condemn the chief priests and elders for not giving to God what is rightfully his. What’s harder for us is to realize that now we have been made the tenants of the Kingdom, and that someday God is going to send his servants, and possibly even his own son, to collect the fruit that is rightfully his. On that day can we give him what he wants? Can we hand over bushel baskets full of “righteous living, human caring, and courageous witnessing”?
Take a look around you. Take a moment to appreciate this beautiful
sanctuary. Think about the manicured grounds around this building; our enviable location at the corner of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard; our capable, hard-working staff and our multi-million dollar endowment. Is there anything more God could have done for us that he has not already done? And yet, when he comes looking for grapes, will he find wild grapes? When he comes to collect what is rightfully his, will we give it to him, or will we keep it to ourselves?
—Jim Somerville © 2023