Producing Fruits of the Kingdom of God

The text for today is Matthew 21:42-43:

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?’  Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”  Here ends the text.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

He plants a vineyard.  Sets a fence around it.  Digs a winepress.  And builds a tower to watch for thieves and robbers.  So far so good.  Sounds like the song of the vineyard from Isaiah.  Then the owner makes his first mistake.  He leases it to tenants.  He’s asking for big trouble.  He should keep the vineyard for himself. 

Then the owner compounds his error.  He decides to go off to another country.  He takes a trip, an extended holiday.  Idiot.  Everyone knows that if you want things done right you’ve got to do them yourself.  You’d better watch over the tenants’ work otherwise they’ll take advantage of you.

What does this owner expect?  Is he crazy?  Must be!  After all, he expects the tenants to do their work well without direct supervision.  He expects them to give him his portion of the grapes. 

So the vineyard owner sends his servants to get his fruit.  “Scram.  Beat it!” is the tenants’ response.  They will not share any of the harvest with the owner.  That means less for them.  And why should they share?  Who’s going to make them?  An owner who takes vacations in another country isn’t much of a threat.  And so the tenants take his servants and beat one, kill another, and stone another.

You’d think the owner would get it by now.  Nope.  He sends other servants, more than the first.  And they [do] the same thing to them. 

And then the owner makes the most lame-brained move of all time.  “He sends his son to them saying, ‘They will respect my son.’”

Respect the son?  Not these tenants!  This is their big chance.  An absentee landowner is nobody to worry about.  And if they get rid of the son, then all their problems are solved.  The vineyard will be theirs for keeps.  So they do the unthinkable.  They take the son, throw him out of the vineyard, and murder him.

Then comes the big theological question: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 

“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,” is the chief priests’ and Pharisees’ answer.  And that reveals something about their mindset.  They expect God to act as they would.  Selfishly.  Harshly.  Tit for tat.  Quid pro quo. 

Luther puts it very well.  “As you believe, so you have.”  In other words, if you treat God as one who deprives you of what you believe you have coming, one who takes what is His and pays back evil for evil… then that’s the God you have.  If you treat God as one who can’t be trusted to care for your good, if you treat Him as a threat… then that’s the God you have.  The evil you think of God, you’ll receive from Him in judgment.  There’s nothing capricious about God’s judgment.  It acknowledges what is the fact with a man and deals with him accordingly. 

To bring this message home, the Lord asks: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Of course the chief priests and Pharisees had read this.  They were, after all, Israel’s leaders and teachers.  These verses are part of Psalm 118, the last psalm of the Passover collection, which spoke of the Messiah and His deliverance.  They would be singing this psalm in their observance of the Passover Supper in just a few days.  Of course they had read this passage—many times.  But what of it?

Jesus answers: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.  He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” 

Suddenly it clicks.  The chief priests and the Pharisees perceive that Jesus is speaking about them!  And they don’t like it one bit!  They plan on how to arrest Jesus, but they have to be careful about it because of the crowds who hold Him to be a prophet.  Imagine that!  They’re afraid of what the people will do.  They ought to be more afraid of the One who has the power to destroy sin and body in hell.

But that rejection and irrational behavior follows a long established pattern throughout history.  The Lord makes Israel His people.  By His power He leads them out of Egypt.  He makes a covenant with them.  He puts them in a vineyard called the Promised Land.  And He promises to send the Savior—His Son.  

Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord sends His prophets to Israel.  Time and time again, they will not listen to the call to return to the Lord.  By Isaiah’s day, this rebelliousness is so bad that the Lord calls Israel a vineyard of wild grapes, and warns of impending destruction for their sin.

Nevertheless God is faithful to His promise.  The Lord sends His Son.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, Jesus comes as Savior of the world.  He performs miracles and healings.  More than that, He speaks the truth, warning people of sin and announcing His forgiveness.  He admonishes them for false religion, and He urges them to repent before it is too late.

That very week, the chief priests will have the Son of God arrested.  Setting aside the Law of God, they’ll unjustly condemn Him to death.  Then they’ll take the Son outside the city walls and nail Him to a cross, in effect, boldly declaring: “We’re getting rid of the Son; but we’re still planning on keeping the vineyard.” 

The aftermath is a matter of history.  Having rejected the Son, the officials turn all the more zealously to trying to please God by their own efforts.  This leads, more and more, to an outright rejection of the Roman Empire as well.  Forty years later, Rome has enough and Jerusalem is leveled.  The walls are destroyed and the vineyard is no more.  The tenants reject the rules and the son, but want to keep the vineyard.  In their sinful rejection they lose both. 

The Pharisees foolishly believe that the Lord will not judge them for Jesus’ death.  In fact, so blind are they that they believe God will approve.  They think they’re doing God a favor.  This is how blinding sin is, how foolish unbelief becomes.  It calls right “wrong” and wrong “right,” evil “good” and good “evil.” 

But there will come a day of reckoning.  When you reject the Son, there is nothing else that the owner of the vineyard can do.  You’ve cut yourself off from your very means of salvation.  Jesus warns His opponents that they will only end up destroying themselves.  God’s judgment on them will be swift and terrible and final and inescapable.  As you believe so you have.

“Rotten Pharisees!  Serves them right!”  That could be our reaction to this text.  But then we would be missing the point.  While Jesus’ words were addressed to the Pharisees on that day, they no longer apply to that particular group.  They’ve been dead and gone for nearly two thousand years.  Their time for producing the fruits of the kingdom of God is long past.  Harvest time came and went the moment they drew their last earthly breath.  But this sermon is not addressed to the Pharisees.  It is addressed to you.  You must not focus on their sin, but yours.  The fruits of the kingdom of God that are being called for are yours!

What fruit?  Certainly not good works or the keeping of rules and regulations.  The Pharisees, for all their shortcomings, were experts in this area.  Humanly speaking they were paragons of virtue.  Good neighbors and upstanding citizens.  They’d put any one of us to shame.  But that would not save them.  God doesn’t grade on a curve.  Being better than the next person is not good enough.  The standard for a place in the kingdom of God is perfect righteousness.

What fruit, then is called for?   In a word… repentance.  Turning away from sin and back to God.  Turning away from insisting that God do things our way and instead, trusting in Him, and His grace and mercy, patience and steadfast love.  Repentance is contrition and faith.  Repentant believers are those who are sorry for their sin, and who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior.  

Repentant sinners believe that God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ has fulfilled the Law for them.  Christ has lived the perfect, righteous life that you could not live.  He suffered the rejection and pain that you deserved so that you might be reconciled to His heavenly Father.  On the cross, He exchanged His perfect righteousness and obedience for your sin and disobedience.  In the death of the Son, you have what the tenants sought, an inheritance, only this one is eternal, a place in God’s kingdom now and forever. 

Repentance is a matter of life or death.  A matter of heaven or hell!  Or, put another way, repentance is a matter of Law and Gospel.  Those who ignore the Law’s call to repent will suffer the full penalty of the Law’s condemnation.  Those hearing the call to repent, however, find refuge from its accusation and condemnation in the Gospel’s promise of forgiveness. 

In Proverbs we read: “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will find mercy” (28:13).  St. John writes: “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

That’s why repentance must not be seen as something done once or only occasionally when one experiences a spiritual crisis.  Repentance should be part of daily Christian life and prayer, for we sin daily and we sin much.  That’s why in his famous Ninety-five Theses, Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ He wills the entire life of believers to one of repentance.”    

So you in the vineyard.  How goes the digging?  The watering?  The weeding?  What of the harvest?  Are you producing fruits of the kingdom of God?  Are you living in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance?  Are you receiving God’s grace through His Word and Sacrament?  Are you coming to the Lord’s Table regularly to receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith?  Are you hearing with the ears of faith the Absolution of Christ, through His called and ordained servant? 

If you are—keep it up!  Continue to share the Lord’s joy.  Revel in His marvelous grace.  Bask in His mercy.  Be covered with His righteousness.

If you’re not producing the fruits of the kingdom of God—repent.  It’s never too late.  That’s the great thing about repentance.  There is always the chance to repent as long as you live and breathe.  Even in the midst of rebellion, our loving Lord continues to reach out with His grace.  Even a sizeable number of Pharisees ended up repenting. 

You’ve already heard from one of them today in our Epistle.  By God’s grace, St. Paul—a Pharisee and persecutor of Christ—was led to contrition and faith.  He began to produce fruits of the kingdom of God.  Instead of trying to destroy the Church, he became a master builder of the Church, laying a foundation with his preaching of Jesus Christ, the stone the builders rejected.

We might marvel at the faithless rebellion of the chief priests and Pharisees.  “How could they be so foolish to reject their Savior?”  But we shouldn’t.  Our own lives, and the lives of those within our own fellowship, show we are capable of the same.  The refusal to repent, to admit one’s guilt, or accept another’s forgiveness leads to hardened hearts that commit the most heinous sins and justify them as necessary to serve God.  Characters will be assassinated, reputations ruined, the smoldering wick of faith snuffed out, all in an attempt to gain power, maintain the status quo, to have one’s own way, or to preserve one’s self-righteousness.

No, we shouldn’t marvel at the Pharisees failure to repent; we should repent of our own selfish ambition and greed.  We should repent of our own rejection of the Lord’s outreach to us, the times in which we’ve despised His means of grace in pursuit of our own plans or goals.  We should repent of the times we’ve pictured or portrayed God as a strict lawgiver and judge, rather than a gracious Lord.

What we should marvel at is God’s steadfast love and grace.  God is a generous giver.  His is an incredible again and again generosity.  Giving His vineyard, that is, His kingdom, over into our hands.  Sending His beloved Son Jesus Christ into death that we might have life. 

Call it crazy.  Call it reckless.  But that’s God’s way with sinners.  He won’t give you what you deserve as a sinner—unless, of course, you insist on it.  If you treat God as a threat or as an enemy, then that is what He will be to you.   But that is not what God wants.  In His marvelous grace and steadfast love, the Lord has brought you into His kingdom through the Word and water of Baptism that you might produce its fruits of repentance.  You are restored with the Lord at His table now and in the fullness of His kingdom.  Indeed, you are forgiven all of your sins.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.           


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