10/8/17: Where's the Fruit? Matthew 21:33-46
Where’s the Fruit?
Second in the Series: Bearing Fruit
First Lesson: Psalm 80:7-15
Second Lesson: Matthew 21:33-46
Rev. Scott Dickison
As we mentioned last week, the context here in Matthew is important in understanding this string of parables we began last week.
It’s the Monday of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus’ earthy life. He’s ridden triumphantly, if not ironically, through the streets of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He’s caused a scene at the Temple, turning over tables and driving out the folks selling animals for sacrifice. Later, upon seeing a certain fig tree on the side of the road is without fruit, and instead is filled with nothing but leaves, he curses it and causes it to wither right in front of him, as a kind of metaphor for the question he will raise for the religious authorities of his day, and for us in the church today: where is the fruit?
Last week he raised this question in his parable about a father with two sons who are sent out to work in the vineyard. One of them at first says he won’t go but then changes his mind and does. The second son says he will but in the end doesn’t. And when asked which one did the will of the father, the crowd of chief priests and elders can’t help but answer, “The first one.” Doing the will of God has little to do with saying the right thing, and a great deal to do with doing the right thing. And with our parable today the stakes are even higher.
On the surface this is a fairly straight forward allegory for the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The setting is again a vineyard, a common image in Scripture for the land Israel. God is the owner of the vineyard, the people of Israel and especially the religious authorities through the years are the tenants who have been entrusted with this vineyard. The slaves who come to retrieve the harvest only to be seized and killed are the prophets of Israel who were rejected through the generations, and of course the vineyard owner’s son who meets the same fate is Jesus. And finally, the new tenants given charge over the land are understood to be all who follow Jesus.
But we have to be careful here, because many readings of the parable through the years have tended to take a troubling anti-semitic tone that’s not there in the parable itself.
Jesus, of course, was Jewish and never claimed otherwise. And his beef was never with the people of Israel writ large, but instead the religious authorities, whom he saw as corrupt and misguided. Even more, the church for whom Matthew wrote this gospel was very likely a congregation of Jewish Christians—followers of Jesus who understood themselves to be Jewish as well. In fact, they saw their following of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, as a kind of completion of their Judaism. So it’s not that this parable was anti-Jewish. It was told and written by Jews for Jews. It was, however, meant to draw attention to the disobedience of the people of Israel and especially their leaders through the generations, and God’s turning to a new people, the followers of Jesus Christ—be they Jew, Gentile or otherwise. This is a widening of the circle.
And here’s the tricky part that the church has tended to miss through the years. If we as the followers of Jesus claim to be these new tenants, then the responsibility now turns to us to bear this fruit. And that part of the story—you may have noticed—remains open ended. Jesus doesn’t reveal whether or not these new tenants were any more successful than the last. That, it seems, is yet to be seen and is entirely up to us.
As we would have it, we’re the ones charged with bearing this fruit of the Kingdom of God, and so it would serve us well to consider just what this fruit is.
Like the vineyard, fruit is another common image in Scripture. In the Old Testament, it tends to call to mind the goodness and abundance that comes from ordering our lives after God’s command, specifically in economic terms: caring for the poor and vulnerable, treating people fairly and even generously, making sure that every has enough. In the New Testament, the way Jesus speaks of fruit is similar: they’re signs of the Kingdom of God. Signs of the goodness and abundance of the world to come that can be cultivated even now.
And of course, Paul probably has the most memorable words on fruit in allof Scripture when he writes in Galatians about the “fruit of the Spirit.” You know them—you may even know a song about them: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. “There is no law against such things,” he writes. These things, these postures, these habits, these virtues, Paul seems to say, are signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and so, we can say, they’re signs of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God happens, in some small and at times subtle way, whenever we live in the Spirit; whenever we align our living with God’s hope for our lives. Whenever we treat people the way God would treat them—or better yet, whenever we treat people the way God treats us.
Whenever we show love to someone who doesn’t deserve it.
Whenever we choose joy in the face of grief, or seek peace in a world drunk on violence.
Whenever we’re patient: patient with others, with our kids. Patient with ourselves, with the world, with our life, with God.
Whenever we find strength enough to be kind—not just nice, but kind.
Whenever we’re generous—when we develop the ability to open our hands instead of close our fists.
Whenever we’re faithful—faithful to others, faithful to our families. Faithful to our raisin’; faithful to the way our children imagine we are all the time.
Whenever we’re gentle in a world that values brute strength.
Whenever we find self-control, in a world that seems so unhinged.
Whenever we do these things, whenever we produce these fruit, the Kingdom of God is present. You have that power.
Fruits are really remarkable things. Of course they’re delicious, but they serve a different purpose outside our tastebuds. Biologically speaking, the purpose of fruit is to protect the seed of a plant and allow it to reproduce, to spread, and flourish. The flesh acts like a kind of bedding for the seed. Everything about a fruit serves this purpose—even that fruit is tasty. The taste attracts animals to come and eat the fruit and thus disperse some of the seeds when they take it with them.
These fruits of God’s Kingdom work in a similar way, I think. Yes, they’re sweet when you taste them in the moment, but under the surface, they also reproduce themselves. An act of love leads to another act of love. Joy leads to more joy, peace to more peace, and so forth. These things are generative; they spread and live and grow in ways that are at times beyond our control—and thus the Kingdom of God is let loose in the world, to grow and spread, in ways so small they very often go unnoticed. But they’re there.
Bearing fruit is not a passive process. Ask any farmer, orchard owner, or migrant laborer and you’ll learn there’s more to the growth process than just putting seed in the ground and waiting for the fruit to overflow from the basket. Producing fruit takes commitment, attention, time, and effort. You have to work the soil; provide the right amount of water and fertilizer; make sure it has the right amount of light and shade; remove the pests. Sometimes you have to wait years before a plant or a tree will bear fruit. It’s hard work. Which is the part the tenants of our story failed to grasp. Instead of working to produce, they sought to seize, to take what wasn’t rightfully theirs. They tried to skip the important stuff and jump straight to the fruits. But this isn’t how it works. They didn’t understand that the fruits of the Kingdom aren’t accomplished in a moment, but over time, with a steady hand, and an open heart.
And this is what gives me great hope about the church. It’s true that you need not be a part of a spiritual community to practice the kinds of habits of the Kingdom we’re talking about. The church isn’t the only place where you’ll find people of kindness or gentleness or self-control. Not hardly. Praise God you will find people of great love and joy and peace outside the church. You don’t need the church to be these things or these kinds of people. But where you may need the church, and where I know I do, is when I think about being the kind of person I hope to be over the long haul.
There are very few places in the world where you’ll find people committed to living these kinds of lives, bearing this kind of fruit, over the long haul. Planting themselves in a community, and seeing it as their purpose, their call if you like, to do whatever they can to offer as much kindness as they can; as much generosity, as much patience—right where they are. Very few places claim this as their purpose in the world, the reason they exist: to bear this kind of fruit. And even fewer places would take it as their purpose to help you instill these things in your children. It’s a blessing I’m reminded of when I walk through the house and hear one of our boys singing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology as he plays with his trucks. Our when one of them, Billy, who turns four today and has only ever known this church, comes up to me in a way that to me seems out of the blue but is clearly something he’s been considering for a time and says, Daddy, did you know that God made me? And I get to tell him, Yes, Son. God made you with beauty and with purpose.
And yes, the church routinely falls short of this goal—every tree has good seasons and bad—but there aren’t many places in the world, or collections of people, who claim to try, week after week, season after season, year after year.
And in a time in history when so much happens so fast—too fast—when news cycles turn faster than we can keep up, when we move from one outrage to the next, one scandal to the next, one disaster or tragedy to the next, and find ourselves struggling to feel as deeply as we would like about all these things that demand our attention, and the so many other things that don’t, but we’re made to think they do—it’s all so disposable, so temporary, gone as fast as we can turn a page or scroll down a news feed—against all of this, here stands the church, inviting us in for the long-haul. Inviting us to settle into a rhythm that’s been kept for thousands of years, and a tune that people have been playing in this particular place for 191.
Inviting us to slow down, to breathe deep, to take in silence, to let out song. To listen, to give, to confess, to forgive, and then to take these things with you as you go back out into a world greatly in need of them—and not the world in general, but this world, this community, of which we all are a part. Inviting you to bear this fruit right where you’re planted. And then to do the same thing next week, and the week after, and the week after—bearing fruit in a world that’s not always aware. And to do so knowing that others bear these things with you. Isn’t that it? Isn’t that what we need? Isn’t that what the world needs, maybe especially in this moment? We need these fruits of the kingdom of God. But to do that, we need people who will help them grow. What we need is you.