Proper 22(A): Bad Grapes
By: The Rev. Andrew Chappell
In the opening chapters of Isaiah, the author shares a song about a vineyard. The song tells of a love song for a loved one and said loved one’s vineyard. The vineyard is planted in good soil. In fact, the owner of the vineyard did everything right in the planting and caring of the vineyard. And because the one who did the planting did everything right, the expectations of the harvest were high. But all that came of it were rotten grapes.
The love song changes gears here. From third to first person, the vineyard owner asks the reader: “Why do you think I have bad grapes?” It may be a hypothetical question, because the answer is, “Surely not the planter.” Rather, the fault of the bad grapes falls upon the grapes. The owner of the vineyard then shares exactly what he will do to the entire vineyard. It shall be destroyed.
The author the sums up the whole thing: the vineyard is Israel, the plantings are the people, and the planter/owner is God. The rest of verse 7 goes like this: “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!” (Isaiah 5:7, CEB).
The moral of the story is this: God did everything right by Israel. They did not do everything right by God. What’s left are a bunch of bad grapes.
In Matthew 21, immediately after Jesus has very upsettingly “cleansed” the temple, Jesus tells a number of parables to the chief priests and elders. One of these is a parable about a landowner who plants a vineyard. Sound familiar?
The story begins in a similar way. The landowner plants a vineyard and does everything right. He builds a fence and a winepress and a tower. However, this landowner rents it out to some tenant farmers and leaves for a trip.
Harvest time comes around and the landowner sends his servants to collect the harvest, but the tenant farmers stop them. These farmers grab the servants and beat some of them, kill some, and others they stone to death. Anyone who knows the Isaiah passage can see where Jesus is going. But the story isn’t over. The landowner sends more servants, but the tenant farmers react the same way.
Then, the landowner sends his own son, after all, they would surely respect the son of the landowner. Wrong. The tenant farmers kill him, thinking that they might get his inheritance.
Jesus stops here, mid-parable, and asks these chief priests and elders, “What do you think the landowner is going to do to the farmers?” Perhaps these leaders remember the Isaiah passage, the images of the planter as God and the vineyard as Israel and the vines as the people of God. Maybe they don’t quite understand the layer of the tenant farmers and the servants. Perhaps they see themselves as the servants and the Romans or any other occupiers as the tenant farmers. Maybe not. Either way, they answer, “The landowner will definitely do away with the evil farmers and obviously rent the land to someone else who will be more cooperative.”
That’s when Jesus drops the mic. He quotes Psalm 118:22-23, something about a cornerstone being rejected, anticipating a difference of values between God and Israel’s religious leadership, and then he says a sentence that opens their eyes to the truth of the parable: “You will no longer be stewards of God’s kingdom; rather, the kingdom will be given to new farmers who will produce its fruit.
Jesus affirms their answer. They aren’t wrong. Of course the landowner should find new farmers who will produce fruit and cooperate at the harvest. And that is exactly what God is going to do. The religious leadership have missed their shot. It turns out that they are the ones who have been killing servant after servant (prophet after prophet) and will eventually kill the son of the landowner (Jesus). They have led Israel astray. They have not cultivated the plant well.
The same grapes as in Isaiah are still bad grapes, but the fault now falls on the vineyard workers, tasked with growing and cultivating the vines.
Whenever I read passages like this, I feel a strong sense of fear. Why? I am a minister. I am a faith leader. I am not unlike the chief priests and elders. I am in a position of faith leadership. And because of passages like this, I understand God to take faith leadership seriously.
What happens to those tasked with leadership and farming and raising a harvest when they raise some bad grapes? The landowner will do away with them.
It isn’t too different from a few chapters prior. “Whoever causes a little one who believes to fall into sin, they would be better off drowned in a lake” (Matthew 18:6). Or what about Luke 20, when Jesus actually warns anyone listening about the teachers of the law? “They like to walk around wearing fancy clothes, and they love for people to greet them with respect in marketplaces. The love to have the most important seats in the synagogues and at feasts. But they cheat widows and steal their houses and they try to make themselves look good by saying long prayers. They will receive a greater punishment” (20:46-47, NCV). Jesus is repeatedly hard on leaders of the faith community.
Proper 22 becomes especially difficult to preach about because its subject matter is pointed directly at me! Its hard-hitting points are pointed at me! How can I preach this passage to anyone but myself? I’m not sure. But I will start first worry about the plank in my own eye before becoming anxious about the speck in the eye of any other (Matthew 7:3).
The Rev. Andrew Chappell has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.