Judgment in the Vineyard

A Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; St. Matthew 21:33-36

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who tends to the vineyard with love and care. Amen.

Imagine planting a vineyard – not just growing a few vines along a fence, but the years of work to cultivate the soil, to carefully prune back the vine so that only the choicest grapes grow, to build a winepress and watch towers. It’s month after month of backbreaking labor, and year go by without anything to show for it – until one day, the harvest is finally at hand. Put yourself there: walking through the rows of vine, each one hanging heavy with fruit, a warm breeze blowing on your face. You pick a grape and toss it playfully into your mouth – this, this is what all those years of work have been building toward. You bite down, feel the skin give way with a slight pop…

…and immediately spit it out. It tastes like vinegar.

Row after row, vine after vine, it’s all awful. Years of faithful work are ruined, worthy only of being torn down.

Over the past few weeks, Saint Matthew has played with this same motif from Isaiah as Jesus tells stories set among the vines of a vineyard. Two weeks ago, it was the vineyard workers shocked to find that their wages didn’t depend on the hours they worked. Last week, two sons demonstrated faithful and unfaithful service. Far from rustic and restful setting of wine tasting in Napa Valley or a trip to Château Elan, each of the parables is rooted in the serious business of viticulture has had a twist, but today, we see the biggest twist of all: Isaiah’s vineyard brings forth shockingly bad fruit, and Jesus shows us a fruitful and productive vineyard whose tenants rise up in revolt to kill the landowner’s slaves and son.

Saint Matthew has used these three parables – united around their common setting – to turn our attention toward the cross and the end of time. We’ve jumped ahead a few chapters from where we were back in early September. When we read the story of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and now he has entered the city in triumph. But after the victory parade into David’s city, Jesus did not take his ancestor’s throne. No, the tensions began to rise as Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees and Sadducees spread to the chief priests, Herod, and the Roman officials. And today’s parable reminds us of how the conflict ends: at Golgotha.

But today’s readings also push beyond that – to a time when the vineyard shall be torn down, when the vineyard owner shall return to collect what is owed. Today, both Isaiah and Matthew give warning: that the Lord will come in glory and in judgment.

We so often assume judgment is terrifying – that it’s bad news, at least for some. But this is going to be the theme for most of the texts through November – not to mention the future of the entire cosmos – as we turn toward the Reign of Christ, so we should probably start getting comfortable with it.

For God to set all things right, there is much that we love that may be destroyed. Our greed, our lust, our fear, our arrogance, our mental groupings of who is in and who is out – indulging these may make us feel good or safe for a time, but they lead us to bring forth sour fruit. Disobedience may briefly scratch an itch, but it results only in violence, bloodshed, and death.

When the Lord comes in glory, it will be to uproot the bitter fruit that has taken root in our heart and to restore us along with all creation. When the Lord comes, it will be to overthrow the powers and principalities of this world that insist on preserving their own fallen kingdom. When the Lord comes, it will be to establish the Kingdom of God. When the Lord comes, he will make us bring forth good fruit and place all things under the reign of the Risen Son, Christ the King.


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