What If the Earth Was God's Vineyard? (Matthew 21:33-46)
by Shanell T. Smith
Dare to go there with me, if you will. What if we imagine God's vineyard as described in Matthew 21 to be this beautiful world we inhabit? What will happen if we reject it - if we continue to treat it with disrespect, fail to listen to its natural woes, dismiss the warning signs it gives us? What if God is keeping score? Oh. Dear. Might I remind us all, that if we do not tend to this earth, we are only inevitably hurting ourselves and the lives of future generations?
This is why, like never before, over one thousand groups and individuals, including various faith groups, businesses, peace activists, social justice groups, schools, and environmentalists from all over the country united for the largest climate march in history on Sunday, September 21, gaining international attention. The People's Climate March, held in New York City, was the perfect moment to take a stand, create a buzz, and create the much-needed public influence and pressure as NYC prepared to welcome decision-makers from across the globe to discuss this very topic.
World leaders gathered for a momentous U.N. summit on climate change on September 23 hosted by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The goal of this summit: to move governments to action - to compel them to seriously consider the importance and consequences of climate change, particularly the need to reduce global warming pollution and discuss substantive solutions. This is a strategic move and a much-needed prelude to the UN Climate Conference to be held in Paris in 2015 where a more concrete global action plan is to be developed.
U.N. Summit bottom line: We must take care of this world. Jesus' bottom line: We must take care of God's kingdom, which to many, is one in the same. While teaching in the temple, and in the presence of the chief priests and the Pharisees, Jesus tells the parable about a landowner who built a vineyard and rented it to some farmers (now his tenants) upon his relocation. Each time he sent his servants to collect his fruit from the tenants, violence ensued. "They beat one, killed another, and stoned a third" (Matt. 21:35).
Although they were only renters, they acted like they owned the vineyard and had ill-regard for the landowner and his servants. The text tells us that the landowner underestimated the tenants and sent his own son to collect his fruit - thinking that "they will respect [his] son" (Matt. 21:37), but they brought him to his demise attempting to take his inheritance (Matt. 21:38-39). The tenants did not think through their actions. Although they killed the heir to the vineyard, the landowner was alive and well and now will return not just for the fruit of his vineyard, but for vengeance for the fruit of his loins! "He will bring those wretches to a wretched end...and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants..." (Matt. 21:41).
The vineyard is the kingdom of God, the renters are the chief priests and the Pharisees (Matt. 21:45), and Jesus just declared that it will be taken away from them and "given to a people who will produce its fruit" (Matt. 21:43). And just so they don't get any ideas, Jesus gives them a warning: "Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed" (Matt. 21:44). Jesus is this stone referenced in Matt. 21:42 and he has become the cornerstone. Take care of the vineyard because it belongs to God. Take care of God's son - who has come to gather the fruit - because God is watching.
What if this earth is God's vineyard and we are the tenants? We may not have beaten, killed, or stoned anyone as described in the parable, but what type of violence have we inflicted against the earth - whether through various human technologies leading to water and soil pollution, improper waste management, or our simple disregard of its care? How will we respect its resources, make deposits in its well-being instead of only making withdrawals, respond accordingly to its needs, and ensure that the earth is healthy and sustained for future generations?
Jesus was talking about the kingdom of God. Some might say that the earth is where God's kingdom resides. Many might agree that our future (whether in terms of salvation or the earth's preservation) is on the line, and we would do well to invest in it. As evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of people from many different faiths who participated in the march, the stern theological warning of Jesus might just hold weight with all of us, no matter what our faith. After all, all of us who inhabit this world - its tenants - should want a "just, safe, [and] peaceful world" (here's the link: http://peoplesclimate.org/about/) - an earth that is worthy enough to be called "God's vineyard."
Faith groups join in the People's Climate March
Bible Study Questions
1. If we are tenants of God's vineyard, what are we doing to produce fruits worthy of God's harvesting?
2. Are you implicated in the parable of the tenants? If so, how, and what are you going to do about it?
3. How can we become better stewards of this earth? What can be your contribution?
For Further Reading
4. On the People's Climate March, check out http://peoplesclimate.org/
5. On how to get involved, see the Climate Week NYC, check out http://www.climateweeknyc.org/
6. On the UN Climate Summit, check out http://www.un.org/climatechange/summit/
7. On Matthew 21 from four different perspectives (theological, pastoral, exegetical, and homiletical), check out Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Volume 2 (Chapters 14-28), eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).
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