In Matthew 21:33-46, Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard. Vineyards were very important in the ancient world. Wine was mixed with water in order to make the water safe to drink; the alcoholic content of the wine served to kill little critters that might be living in the water. And in areas were grapes wouldn’t grow, people grew wheat, hops, and barley and brewed beer instead, serving much the same purpose as wine in providing people something safe to drink.
Vineyards were so important in the ancient world that one of the first things Noah did after he left the ark following the flood was to plant a vineyard. And in the Old Testament laws, God made provision to allow the poor to glean the fruit from other people’s vineyards. That is, land owners were told that they could harvest their fields, but they were not to get every last grape off the vine. That way, the poor could come through and eat what they could. The vineyard, then, was both a blessing to its owner as well as to others, and was very important to the life of the people.
For this reason, the image of a vineyard is used quite often in the Bible to refer to God’s people themselves. This shows the importance of God’s people Israel to the life of the world. The vineyard yields grapes which is turned into wine and sustains the people. And so too are God’s people meant to yield fruit that will be beneficial to the people. Because of who they are as God’s people, they are to serve as a blessing to others. They produce fruit which feeds, cleanses, and sustains.
In Isaiah 5, the Lord tells a parable about a vineyard, referring to the people Israel. God delivered the people of Israel up out of their captivity in Egypt and planted them – like a Vineyard – in the land of Canaan. God removed the stones – the original inhabitants of the land – and provided everything needed for His people. He expected his people to produce good fruit as a result of what he had done for them: works flowing from faith. And yet, this fruit did not come, but instead “wild grapes” were produced; grapes which came about as the result not of faith, but instead as the result of humanity’s fallen works.
What good fruit did God expect for His people Israel to produce? Well, think about where He placed them. Israel is His Church – His people whom He has redeemed through the promise of the Christ. And the Church’s mission is to bear witness to the Lord to all people. So, the Lord placed Israel in the midst of the Gentiles, the nations. He put them in a geographical area that was the transit point for people traveling to and from Africa, Asia, and Europe. He planted His people in a spot where they would be enabled to bear witness to all people of God’s saving actions through the Christ who was coming.
And in doing so, they would be a blessing to all people, spreading outward from their initial planting spot to bring all people into the Church through the proclamation of God’s Word. For there are two types of people in the world. First, the people of Israel which is God’s redeemed people, the Church. Second, the people of the nations, the Gentiles. And the Church’s mission is to bring Christ to the Gentiles, even in the Old Testament.
In fact, God told His people this in Exodus 19, when he told the Israelites His plans for them. He said:
“You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6).
The Israelites were to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation – a nation set apart to bear God’s Word to the world and intercede for the world before Him. For this is what priests do, they go before God on behalf of others.
But, Israel failed to live up to this commission. They produced not good grapes, but rather wild, unkept grapes instead. In fact, they began worshipping an idol – a golden calf – while Moses was still on Mount Sinai receiving the Law from God. The people quickly turned from the one true God to worship part of His creation instead. Only the Levites remained faithful, and so God anointed the Levites as priests before Him. But, all Israel was still His people – His vineyard that He had planted. And He wanted His vineyard to grow and bear fruit. He wanted His people to be His witnesses on earth.
And so throughout history, God sent prophets to the Israelites to call them to repentance and remind them of the fact that they were supposed to be God’s witnesses to the other nations. They were supposed to be special and set-apart. You should have been able to tell who was of Israel by their actions and way of life. They were not to be as the people of the other nations, for the Church Israel was meant to be the voice of God to those who did not yet know the one true God or His promises of salvation through the Christ who was to come.
But, instead of listening to the prophets who were sent by God, the people of Israel instead persecuted them and rejected them. They preferred to live as did the other nations, worshipping idols, serving themselves, and no longer serving as faithful stewards of God’s Church. They rejected the Creator and worshipped His creation instead.
They were as unworthy tenants who failed to take care of God’s vineyard. They didn’t tend it, they didn’t produce fruit, and so God wasn’t happy. He sent more and more prophets, but still the people didn’t listen to them or the Word of God which they proclaimed. God rebuked His people to turn them to Him, and yet most people continued in their stubborn rebellion against Him.
And yet God didn’t abandon His people. Despite their rebellion and their stubbornness, God continued to send prophets bearing His Word to them. But, the people continually rebelled against God and treated His prophets poorly. They showed disrespect to the Word of God and those commissioned to speak this Word to them. So finally, in the fulness of time, God sent His very own Son. “They will respect my son,” He said, because the Son came with the authority of the Father.
The Son of God, Jesus Christ, came to earth – God incarnate, God in the flesh – to bring the lost of Israel back to God. He came to take charge of the vineyard – the Church of God. No longer would the vineyard be entrusted to the unfaithful tenants, instead he would give it to those who would be faithful – those who would bear fruit that would be a blessing to others. But, the elders, chief priests, and Pharisees didn’t want to give up the control or respect they had due to their positions. They considered themselves no longer tenants, but owners of the vineyard. And so, they rejected the Son and they took him just outside the walls of Jerusalem and executed him. They didn’t want him to take control over the vineyard – a vineyard that had been entrusted to them to care for, but which they had come to believe was their own.
So, Jesus’ parable about the tenants was, for the chief priests and Pharisees, a modern-day rendition of the parable in Isaiah. Both parables are directed at those of Israel – the Church – who failed to live up to God’s calling. And in Jesus’ telling, the chief priests and Pharisees ultimately recognize that the parable is about them. Once again, Jesus catches them in a trap of their own making too. For, when Jesus asks them what the owner of the vineyard should do to the unfaithful tenants, they say, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
And this is exactly what happened. God took the vineyard – the Church – from the Jews and gave it to the Gentiles. The Jews – descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob of the tribe of Judah – were supposed to be God’s witnesses on earth, bearing witness to the one true God before the nations – the Gentiles – but they failed in this calling. Of all the people on the earth, they should have been faithful witnesses. They had the prophetic Word which pointed to the Christ, and God preserved them when the other tribes were carried off by the Assyrians and incorporated into the nations, or Gentiles. God preserved them in their captivity in Babylon. God preserved them from destruction by the Persians, Greeks, and Romans. And God came to them in person as the incarnate Christ.
But, the leaders of the people had turned inward to themselves and tried to hoard God’s blessings, rather than proclaiming Christ before the world. They forgot that God is the one from whom all blessings flow. They forgot their true calling and the fact that the vineyard wasn’t there’s; they were tending it for the benefit of all creation.
And so God took it away from them and gave it, the Church, to another. God took the Gentiles – the rest of the nations who at that time were blind to Him and were worshipping animals and trees and spirits – and gave them the vineyard to tend on His behalf. God called the Gentiles into the Church Israel, and in doing so He brought them to faith in Him through His Son. And God worked through them to sanctify them to bear fruit through the spread of the Gospel throughout the world.
And so the Church today is composed of both Jews and Gentiles with Christ as its head. There is no longer any distinction, because all are one in the Church, which is Israel. As Paul wrote to the church in Rome: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:12-13). All who call on the name of the Lord through Christ are part of the Church, the vineyard of God, the Israel of God. So, God Himself has accomplished the mission of the Church. He had charged the Old Testament Church with being His witnesses in order to bring others into the saving promise of Christ. Now, in the New Testament He has done this through the working of His Holy Spirit who has gathered together a people for God’s own possession – a people united around Christ.
So, Jesus’ parable, like Isaiah’s, was a rebuke to the unfaithful stewards of God’s vineyard who had tried to hoard God’s blessings for themselves, rather than being His witnesses. Thus, Jesus’ parable is also a warning to us to never forget who it is who has brought us into the vineyard. It is God’s vineyard, His Church, and we are called into it and commissioned to tend it. And so we are to teach God’s Word and proclaim His Gospel to all people. We are to be God’s beachhead on earth; the Church going out into the world and spreading like a vine through the power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word and Sacraments. In Acts 1:8, Christ commissioned the Church, saying, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The Church is the New Testament Israel; God’s witnesses on earth. In the Old Testament, the people Israel was God’s Church that He gathered together around the promise of the Christ who was to come. People were saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ – a Christ who was yet to come – a Christ looked forward to in hope and faith. But, when Christ came, some people rejected him. They should have regarded him as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises, but instead they killed him.
But, the Lord did something wonderful; this one whom the chief priests and Pharisees rejected became the cornerstone of the Church. He is the rock of our salvation. For through Christ’s death and resurrection, the Lord cemented Jesus Christ as the foundation of the Church. And so we – the New Testament Israel – are saved the same way the Old Testament Israel is: by God’s grace through faith in Christ – a Christ who has now come.
So, all people of all times and all places have been saved one way, the same way – by God’s unmerited grace given for the sake of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection which is received through faith. Christ is the center and fulfillment of all of God’s plans and promises. Through Him we have salvation and reconciliation to God, each other, and indeed creation itself and therefore bear good fruit before the world until he returns.
(Image: Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Westfalen oder Köln, um 1360. ULB Darmstadt, Hs 2505, fol. 41r, Circa 1360; By Anonymous – ULB Darmstadt, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23962835 ).