[Oct. 4] Following up on the discussion on Sep. 27, we proceeded to the next parable (in Matthew 21:33-46), about a man who builds and outfits a vineyard, then rents it out to “vinedressers” or “husbandmen” (depending on the translation). The renters beat or kill all of the owner’s representatives who come to collect the owner’s share, eventually even killing the owner’s son. The religious leaders who hear the parable end up being judged by their own words when they realize that the parable is actually about them. In Jesus’ version, we are not told what the fruit that was to be harvested represents. Nothing in the context suggests that the fruit is intended to mean numerical increase of people in the Kingdom. So what is this fruit?
An important key to finding out what this parable is about can be found in a similar parable written long before by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 5:1-7). It starts with the same vineyard description, though the vineyard itself is blamed for its own yield of “wild” or “bad” grapes. In this case the fruit is described as justice and righteousness, with the bad fruit described as “bloodshed” and “a cry”. In other words, the “fruit” God expected of his people Israel was to be fruits of love and compassion, matched with justice and freedom from oppression.
The omission of the meaning of the fruit seems to suggest that Jesus has the same fruit in mind as did Isaiah. Jesus is saying that the religious leaders of his day were being deposed and replaced by “a people” who will bring forth the fruit of caring concern and social justice from his vineyard, the remnant of Israel (the people who make up the church, now composed of Jewish and Gentile believers). At their head is the “chief cornerstone,” Jesus Christ, who is capable of tripping up or even crushing oppressive leaders.
This story is a warning to any who assume that religious leadership is a blank cheque for making other people do their will. The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day saw clearly that he was referring to their burdensome leadership. Will church leaders today see the hard reality of his words? Or will we also try to squelch the effect of his teaching by teaching a theology of reliance on professional ministers to do the thinking for the congregation? Jesus is Lord. Jesus is watching.
If the fruit of the Kingdom is justice, love and caring concern, then it behooves all followers of Jesus to be looking after others. Jesus replaces religious rulers with “a people” who bring forth this fruit. This “people” seems to refer to his church as a whole, rather than specific individuals who are leaders. When Jesus talks about judging, he usually judges according to whether his people were actively helping people in need (such as Matthew 25:31-46). The activity is not so much religious as it is compassionate. Actually, “religious” activity seems not to count for much unless it’s backed up by concrete helping activity. We may want to consider the parable of the vineyard and renters a word to the wise in that regard.