45. The Vineyard Owner

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 45.  The Vineyard Owner

Mt 21:33,34  “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.

Two parables about a vineyard owner. The first one, that we have just seen, focused on the employment strategy of the owner. This parable now confronts the Jews in the most specific way possible with their historical reputation and what they are about to do: it is all about the owner’s representatives, culminating in his son. The pattern or structure of Matthew in these chapters show Jesus in his final week before his death, teaching in the temple precincts there in Jerusalem, at the very heart of Judaism, and when we come to this particular parable, and what follows it, we find the most striking indictment possible of the Jews and of Judaism, it’s religious face. We need to look at the parable itself first, but then see it in the whole context of the Bible.

So, first, the parable itself.  Again, as with all of Jesus’ parables, the basic storyline is very simple and easy to understand. There is a vineyard owner. He builds up and creates a good vineyard. He rents out the vineyard to various farmers and then goes traveling. The rent he will charge will be a part of the harvest and so when harvest comes he sends his servants to collect his share. However, “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.” (v.35) i.e. three times he has tried to collect his legitimate return.

He perseveres: “Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.” (v.36) The tenants continue in their folly, because surely there is going to come some accounting but, no, they live for the moment and keep on killing his representatives. “Last of all, he sent his son to them. `They will respect my son,’ he said.” (v.37) His hope is that although they abused and killed his servants, surely they would not dare do that to his son. However, “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, `This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (v.38,39)

So there is the story and so Jesus turns to his listeners and asks, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (v.40) The fascinating thing about these parables, and Jesus involving the crowd, is that he doesn’t give them anywhere to go except to face the truth: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” (v.41) The answer is obvious and they give it. Any sensible person would agree with the outcome – there will be an accounting and these terrible tenants will get what they deserve. But he won’t leave his vineyard empty, he will rent it out to others who will pay up at harvest time.

Now Jesus is going to pile on another analogy on top of this parable but we’ll save that for the next study. Now we need to observe the bigger picture. We have said in previous studies that Jesus came to a prepared nation, a people who, in their heads at least, knew something of their history because they would have been taught it in the local Synagogue. This parable, perhaps more than any other, has an Old Testament parallel and it must be because of that that Jesus uses this picture.

Isaiah used exactly the same picture: “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.” (Isa 5:1,2) if you read on the Isaiah passage you will see that the Lord used that picture to complain that Israel only brought forth bad fruit (Isa 5:3-7) and because it did He would flatten it. Again, it was a most terrible indictment of Israel and one of which modern-day Israel would be aware. Now Jesus takes that same well-known picture and takes the emphasis away from the fruit to the servants the owner (God) had sent.

As the first Christian martyr, Stephen, finished his potted history of Israel he concluded with such scathing words he sounds more like an Old Testament prophet denouncing Israel: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him– you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:51-53) It is exactly the same denunciation that Jesus implies here in this parable, but which has now been fulfilled now he has himself been killed.

So here, in the temple precincts, right before the listening leaders, Jesus tells this terrible parable that faces Israel with its history of killing off God’s prophets, and prophesies that the Son also will be killed. And all this happened while the Jews were in fact plotting to kill Jesus (see Mt 12:14, 26:4, Mk 3:6, 11:18, Jn 11:53). This parable not only spoke of the past, it also genuinely prophesied the near future.

The tendency through history has been to use these events to condemn the Jews but the truth is that although they were God’s chosen people to display Him, they also displayed the inherent tendency of every single human being to Sin – to self-centred godlessness.  We are all alike; they just had the greatest chance to show it – and they did! This parable is not about a specific activity to do with the kingdom of God, it is all about the propensity – revealed through the Jews – that we all have in ourselves to be godless, to focus on our own wants and needs. If you struggle to face this awful truth, ask the Lord to open your eyes to see it, for once you do, you understand how essential the Cross was and how vital is our reliance today on the Holy Spirit. Dare to pray it.

Advertisements

43. Hiring Workers

Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 43.  Hiring Workers

Mt 20:1,2   For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard

This is one of those parables that particularly seems to confuse people and raise questions, and yet it is remarkably simple in the basic story:  A landowner wants people to work in his vineyard and goes out at regular intervals throughout the day to recruit more workers and agrees to pay them all exactly the same amount, a single denarius, regardless of how long they will work. Now this is what confuses people for those employed early on only get a denarius for the whole day while those employed right at the end of the day and who appear to only work for an hour, get exactly the same, one denarius.  How unfair, people say, surely those who worked longer should be paid more! The main content of this fairly long story is found in verses 1 to 9 and then we find this complaint being made obvious: So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, `and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.” (v.10-12)

Now Jesus has the owner responding, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (v.13-15)

Now I think this is a classic case of misguidance by Jesus because although it is absolutely true, the bigger issue, which we all have to face is that every person contracts with the ‘owner’ (God) in a unique way. On his side He gives us His forgiveness; on our side, we have noted in previous studies, we have to come empty handed in complete surrender and for different people that will mean different things. For the child who takes Jesus ‘as their friend’ at five say, that surrender is childlike and simple and, at that point at least, costs little. For the criminal at thirty who comes to Christ and realises he has to confess all and make restoration, his throwing himself on Christ’s mercy may mean going to prison. Every person comes uniquely to Christ. Yes, the basics are the same – repentance, surrender, forgiveness, cleansing, empowering etc. – but what that means is different for every one of us. What I have to be forgiven is almost certainly different from what you have been forgiven, and the consequences of my salvation will be different from the consequences of yours.

So yes, then there is the whole matter of what God then makes us. Some people appear little gifted or appear to have little faith, while others appear to have amazing gifting and amazing faith. God knows exactly what we can take and use (and doesn’t give what would ruin us) and no amount of pleading will change it. We may demand, “I want to be an apostle!” but His response might be, “I haven’t given you the faith and wisdom for that because I know that in your case that sort of role would blow your head off with pride and end up destroying you.”

No, this parable is remarkable in the clarity of what it says when you come to look at it. Each employee is just grateful for being ‘employed’ and that’s it. They agreed to the payment, simply to have some work. Call it a contract if you like and they are bound by it. Perhaps a denarius was the going rate for a whole day’s work and thus every person employed as the day went on, was a greater and greater example of the owner’s generosity, just as he said. The truth is that God didn’t have to take us into His kingdom. It was only possible because of Jesus’ death on our behalf, and that was entirely initiated by Him and comes as a free gift to us. When we are forgiven, God could leave us exactly as we were (but forgiven) but He chose to give each of us His own Holy Spirit, His free power resource for every one of us. He needn’t have done that, but He did. It was pure grace, pure mercy. None of us ‘deserved’ it, but He gave us these things anyway. The ‘owner’ is ‘generous’.

It doesn’t matter if you came to the Lord when you were five, say sixty years ago, or only two years ago when you reached sixty. The whole package is there for both. Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages to both conversions. The one who came to Christ as a child has had a whole life to grow and develop in Christ and has this been kept free of the dark things of life, while the most recent convert might have gone through many bad things and be very badly scarred spiritually. However, on the other side of the coin, the one who came to Christ as a child, often feels they don’t know what it was like being forgiven big things while the recent convert is full of praise and thankfulness because they know the depths from which they have been saved. Yet, as both stand before the doors of heaven, they stand there in total equality. It doesn’t matter how long, humanly speaking, they have been in the kingdom, they are both children of God with a wonderful eternal inheritance to come.

But then Jesus concludes this passage with a bombshell: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (v.16) What! What does that mean? Jesus doesn’t explain but leaves us to meditate on it. OK, according to the story of this parable, those who were taken on first end up being grumpy, complaining and envious and think badly of the Owner. They are the ones with the least relationship with him. On the other hand, those who had been taken on last, thought this was going to be a day of poverty and yet found they were taken on and paid exactly the same as the earlier workers and they would be rejoicing wildly about their good fortune and feel really good about the Owner.

About the woman who poured scent over his feet, a woman clearly known as a sinner (Lk 7:39), Jesus said, “he who has been forgiven little loves little.” (Lk 7:49) and that after he shared the Parable of the two men who owed money to a moneylender, one a lot, the other a little, and then the moneylender forgave them both and cancelled their debts (Lk 7:41,42) where Jesus asked the simple and obvious question, “which of them will love him more?” (v.42b) In my earlier illustration, the later convert (and bigger sinner) is last in arriving but first with gratefulness. It is a simple challenge to each of us who have known Him a long time, to seek understanding and thus ever be thankful. The moment you stop being thankful is the moment you lost sight of the wonder of your salvation.

Perhaps we should add that to that teaching of, “the last will be first, and the first will be last,” the recognition that often the ‘first’ in the world’s eyes, the rich and famous, are often the last to turn to Christ, while the last, the poor and insignificant, are often the first to turn to Christ. It is an upside down world!

27. When Jesus Returns

Meditations in 1 John : 27 : When Jesus Comes

1 John  2:28   And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.

John has, in this letter, been encouraging the church to stand firm in the truth, obeying God’s commands, expressing God’s love, resisting the spirit of the world and the distorted ‘truths’ of those who have left the truth and formed their own doctrines that were different from the apostles’ teaching. Above all he has been encouraging them to stand firm in their relationship with the Lord, fellowshipping with the Father and the Son. The Christian faith is to be a mix of responding to the will of God as revealed in His word, and responding to His will, as the Holy Spirit prompts, energises and guides and teaches us. This latter element comes out of the fellowship with have with the indwelling Spirit, the presence of God within us.

Now it is that John gives us another reason to hang on in there, resisting the world, sin and the enemy. We will never know when Jesus is coming back but we must always be ready for it. Let’s just focus on his Second Coming for a moment.

In his general teaching Jesus told a parable about the owner of a vineyard who went away, had dealings from a distance with the tenants he left in charge of the vineyard, but then eventually returned (see Mt 21:33-41) But he also taught more specifically about it: as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man,” (Mt 24:27) and “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory,” (Mt 24:30) and When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.” (Mt 25:31)  The same thing was stated very explicitly by the two angels when Jesus ascended: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)

It was also taught by the early church, for example, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God,” (1 Thess 4:16) which is in the context of Jesus’ words about his coming again. In his second letter he also wrote, “Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come.” (2 Thess 2:1,2)

So John is speaking into familiar teaching: Jesus will come back – so when he does, ensure you live in the way I have been speaking about “so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him.”  It is very similar teaching to that of Jesus when he said on one occasion, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:8)  Living in this fallen world is often confusing. Things happen and we wonder why. Things go wrong, people get ill, have accidents, even die and we wonder why. Injustice occurs and we wonder where God is.  People come with strange teaching and confusion hangs in the air. The fact of the matter is that God is working in His world all the time but often it is not possible for us, it seems, to discern what He is doing. Do you remember Jesus said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day,” (Jn 5:17) and of course the apostle Paul wrote, “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him,” (Rom 8:28) which suggests that the Lord is always working on our behalf. But the truth is that we may not be able to see what He seems to be doing in our circumstances sometimes. So all around us things happen which often involve us, and the big question always is, how will I respond to this?  If Jesus returned in the middle of these trying circumstances, how would he find us acting? Will he find us holding on in faith, refusing to give way and live like the rest of the world, grumbling and being all out for self, or will he find us doing the things the Spirit has been leading us to do?

I’m not sure if it is a good illustration but it comes to mind in this context. One of the funniest examples of being caught out by Jesus when he turns up occurs in John 21 when the disciples had been told by Jesus to go to Galileeand wait for him there. So they go and they wait … and wait… until eventually impatient Peter says, “I’m going out to fish.” (Jn 21:3) Some of the others join him and they spend the night catching nothing. Come the morning Jesus appears on the shore and tells then to throw the net out on the other side and they catch a great haul. When they get to the shore they find that Jesus has already made a fire and he’s already cooking fish!!!  Jesus calmly instructs them to pull their catch in and come and eat and it is not until after the meal that he helps Peter confront his recent past.

What I like about that illustration is that he didn’t chide them for their impatience but instead he blessed them with a big catch and then fed them. Will Jesus find me doing my own fishing – or his fishing, when he returns? I hope it will be doing his works but I’m sufficiently aware of my own shortcomings that I have to say that I know it will need to be with his grace. May we be “confident and unashamed” when he returns!

10. Everything Done

MEDITATIONS IN ISAIAH – No.10

Isa 5:4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it

I have observed that when you have a negative person, when they look upon a situation they ignore the ten good things and focus on the one questionable thing. It’s like that with Scripture. People come to the Old Testament and focus on acts of ‘judgment’ and ignore everything else. My plea is for balance in reading. I say this in the light of this song that we now find in Isaiah 5. Isaiah sings this song: I will sing for the one I love.” (5:1a). He expresses his love towards God. “A song about his vineyard.” In his song Isaiah pictures God’s people as a vineyard. He pictures his “loved one”, the Lord, as a vineyard owner: “My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.” (5:1b)

Indeed, there could be no complaint from Israel on that score, the Lord had put them in a land that was described by God as follows: “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Ex 3:8) When, eventually, Israel’s spies went into the land, they came back: “bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs.” (Num 13:23) as a token of the good provision of the land, and they testified, “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.” (Num 13:27). Oh no, it had been a land of plenty.

Listen to what the Lord did to it: “He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well.” (5:2) In other words He did everything necessary to produce a good working vineyard, one that would produce much wine – for that is the purpose of a vineyard. He tended it well He had every expectation of it. He had done all He could for it. But to no avail: “Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” How tragic! What a waste of time and effort! Have you ever had the experience of going to a garden centre and buying a plant, taking it home and carefully planting it, only for it to fail to grow or grow distorted? It’s a very disappointing experience, especially when you put fertilizer in the well prepared ground and carefully tended the plant. Your expectations come to nothing!

It is then, within this song, that Isaiah has the vineyard owner asking His people to judge between Him and His vineyard: “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” (5:3) and so we come to his question in our verse today: “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” (5:4). It is a valid question. The challenge of verse 3 needs to be heard: Judge between God and Israel. Are you going to blame God for what happens to Israel? Did God make Israel sin? No, of course not! Did God weigh the balances against Israel? No, of course not! The Lord had done all He could do for them, to set them up to give them a good future and had promised them blessing upon blessing if they stayed close to Him.

Listen to the simple requirement for major blessing: “If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God” (Deut 28:1,2). God hadn’t come waving a big stick; He had come with the promise of blessings: “You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock–the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks.” (Deut 28:3,4) That’s how the promise of blessing started and it carried on for the first 14 verses of that chapter. Yes, there were warnings to follow, but only after all the promises of good were laid out.

The critics tend to forget all of this when they peer into the Old Testament. The Lord came to Israel with a simple requirement: they followed His design-rules for living (the Law) so that they would be blessed as they lived according to His design, the way He had designed human beings to live. There was nothing onerous about this, they weren’t being put in chains, they were simply shown how to live in peace and harmony, and when they did that, it would enable the Lord to bless their activity and make it even more wonderful. Yes, at the heart of those design-rules were the reminder to keep the Lord at the forefront of their thinking, but there was nothing egotistical about the Lord in requiring that. He simply knew that Israel needed a focus or origin to refer back to and that was to be Him. He wanted a relationship with His people. Love wants to relate!

Why, some might ask, if God who knows everything and knows the future, did He form Israel, knowing they would fail. Two answers. First, there were always some who didn’t fail. Merely because many turned from Him, it didn’t mean that they ALL turned away. The Lord always had some who held to the plan. Second, in the eternal plan, no one can ever say they were not given a chance. God’s desire is that every single person finds Him and comes back into the original design place, but for those who do not, they will never be able to say, you didn’t give me a chance. The Lord will have always been there for every single person doing what He can, without over-ruling their free will, to bring them to Himself. Yet there will always be ‘Pharaoh’s’ who will harden their hearts against Him and refuse His overtures, but they will never be able to say on judgment day, you didn’t give me a chance, because He did!