The lessons today – from Isaiah, the Gospel, and even our Psalm – all speak in the parable of a vineyard planted by God. In all three versions, it is God who has done the work of clearing the brush, tilling the soil, and building the fence and a watchtower to keep out the wild animals. It’s God who has dug out the huge wine vat for a plump, juicy harvest, and it’s God who has chosen and carefully planted the vines.
In all three versions of this parable, God has done all the work to plant his crop. In Isaiah, the Lord even says straight-out, “what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done?”. Really, the only thing left to do is for the grapes to just grow.
God has given those grapes all that they need and more. Their task, their work, is to simply fulfil their purpose; their task is to grow into what God intended them to be in their very nature.
God’s desire is that, when the harvest comes, those sweet, luscious grapes will come together in that place he has prepared, and sprinkled with the leaven – the yeast – of the Holy Spirit, the wedding feast of the lamb will be supplied with the very finest wine imaginable, so much that every cup is running over.
That’s God’s plan. That’s their purpose. All the grapes need to do is grow.
A Lesson on Blessings
These parables tell us a lot about God, his purpose for humanity, and our hope of eternal life lived to his glory. But today I want to focus on what these parables tell us about blessings: what it means for us to acknowledge that we’ve been blessed by God, and what impact that should have as we grow between now and the harvest, in God’s good time.
As we look at scripture, holding all of the Bible together as one narrative, one grand story of God’s redemption of the world, as our Anglican Articles of Religion expect us to do, I see two big statements that we can make about God’s blessings:
You can’t earn it.
But it requires faithfulness to keep it.
You can’t earn it.
In spite of the many would-be preachers who have made themselves rich by telling people what they want to hear, if we hold scripture together as the Word of God, there is no way anyone can wind up believing that we earn God’s blessings.
Sure, you could pick and choose a few verses here and there and publish it as a trendy self-help book and make yourself millions of dollars while deceiving millions of lost and searching people in the process; but the whole message of these parables, of God’s calling of Israel, of Christ’s death and resurrection, and even Creation itself is simply that God has given freely. God has blessed, God has given us so much first, not because of anything we’ve done to deserve it.
Those tenants working the vineyard didn’t earn it or cause it to be built. God built it for himself, so that his feast would be well-supplied.
No, rather, the great message of scripture is that God gave those tenants a chance not because they deserved or earned it, but because he is generous by nature. God is so recklessly generous – at least from a human perspective – because he wants us to choose him, love him, and serve him freely. If we could earn or buy God’s blessing, we’d no longer love him for who he is; it’d be like the kid who makes a few quick friends only because he has the newest and fanciest stuff.
We can’t earn God’s blessing. He gave the first gift – bringing us into being.
But – and this is important – we are then entrusted with whatever he has given us.
While we believe the inequality between people is the direct result of our disobedience of God, and we believe and trust that, one day, sickness, pain, disease, and decay will be done away, each of us has the task of being faithful with what we’ve been given.
Some have been given much – some, it seems, have more than what they need, and everything they touch turns to gold; some have been given little – born into awful situations weighed down by the ways those around them have missed the mark, and having to learn the hard way that the purpose of life isn’t to get ahead, but to lean on one another and carry one another’s burdens.
In today’s Gospel from Matthew, those tenants had been given much. If God had given them a wooded plot of empty land in Spring, he wouldn’t have expected much of a harvest come Fall; just clearing the brush and building the fence would have been great work in the right direction. And, as we read elsewhere, those who have been faithful with small things will be entrusted with more.
But those tenants had been given all that they needed, so the Lord had every right to expect a full and plentiful harvest. Yet, in the biggest twist yet, those selfish tenants not only failed to hand over the produce; they had totally forgotten that it was a gift in the first place. They had totally forgotten whose field it was, and how it got there.
Sure, in the short term, we might say they were right. They were the ones getting up at dawn and working the field until sunset all summer. They did the work.
But they didn’t cut the brush. They didn’t till the ground. They didn’t haul away the rocks. They didn’t dig the posts and make the fence. They didn’t put in the wine press or build the watchtower. That was a gift, that was a blessing that they had been entrusted with. But they forgot; they were so focused on themselves, that they simply forgot where it all came from.
You can’t earn God’s blessing. But it requires faithfulness to keep it.
Those tenants wouldn’t acknowledge the gift that they had been given. Even when the Master’s Son came, they plotted to kill him rather than hand over what was due.
Jesus said “now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
They said to him, “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”. (Matt. 21:41-42)
The Bible acknowledges, time and time again, that the wicked and greedy appear to prosper, at least from our perspective. The Psalms are full of rich and wonderful laments about how it appears that evil people get ahead because they rely on each other and the traps they have set for the working person; yet, since everyone alive has received the gift and blessing of God, they too will be called to give an account of how they used it, whether to bless others, or to puff themselves up, forgetting what they received as a gift.
Our task then, is to acknowledge the blessings we’ve received, and then to live faithfully, presenting to God the fruit of our labour at harvest time, whatever that fruit might be: whether it’s using our skills and talents to grow the Kingdom of God, whether it’s using our time and energy to free up others to do that work, and all of us together using the fruit of our labour – that’s money, in modern terms – to provide food to the poor, to give people access to the help and support they need, and to support the local church and it’s work as the visible dwelling place of God in our land, calling in all who need the mercy, hope, healing, and peace of God which passes understanding.
But faithfulness is about more than what we do with the harvest. It’s also about what we do along the way.
St. Paul in Philippians tells us to keep our eyes on the prize.
We know we’ve received God’s good gifts. We know he’s blessed us greatly.
But the Master didn’t plant a vineyard for the sake of having a vineyard.
This isn’t a make-work project.
A vineyard has a purpose. You build a vineyard because you want wine. And God’s purpose is to have lots of it: after all, he’s preparing an eternal feast.
So while, on the one hand, we have to be careful not to forget that what we have is a gift from God, at the same time, it’s not enough to say “this is a gift from God” and then sit on our butts. The Master’s still coming to collect the harvest.
No, St. Paul says, we need to keep our eyes on the prize. We need to run the race faithfully. “I press on”, St. Paul says – we press on working the vineyard.
“This one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).
You can’t earn God’s blessing. But it requires faithfulness to keep God’s blessing.
There’s great news here.
We’ve all been blessed differently. Some seem to have much, some seem to have little. But we’re not to be faced backwards, comparing gifts and blessings. We’re to be facing forward, toward the goal, being faithful with what we have.
That’s going to look different for each person.
If our eyes are off the prize, we’ll get stuck, distracted, saying, “look, their vineyard’s so much nicer than mine”, or, “ha, their vineyard’s a mess, they don’t know if they’re coming or going”.
But don’t get distracted. Look forward. Move forward. Remember that what has gone before is a blessing, and our task is to be faithful with it here and now, for there’s work to be done.
And, you know what? That’s when things start to happen.
If we’ve been faithful with little, we’ll be entrusted with more. Don’t get distracted, don’t look around, don’t look back, but look ahead.
And before you know it, the little church is growing; the small balance sheet is entrusted with more; the impact grows as this little vineyard is producing enough fruit to spill over and bless the community, and before you know it, acknowledging the blessings of God, and being firmly committed to the journey ahead, we present to God a harvest bigger and fuller and juicier than we ever imagined, knowing full well that He gave the blessings, He gave the growth, and if we press forward and remain faithful, He will say to us “well done, my good and faithful servants”.
My friends, this little vineyard is really something. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize. Let’s run the race faithfully, always moving forward. Because God has blessed us, we’ve been faithful, and this growing church will be entrusted with more.
To God be the glory, great things he has done. Amen.