Trouble at the Festival

It is festival season in Jerusalem and the last thing the chamber of commerce wants is a riot, a scene, a disturbance. During the season of Passover, the crowds--carrying their sacks and luggage and provisions--are gathered from all across the region, and it is important to the festival committee that everything goes smoothly.

Throughout Matthew's gospel, Jesus has been making his way to Jerusalem where the final scenes of the great drama will play out. Matthew keeps building the tension and the soundtrack keeps getting louder. Just before entering the city, Jesus declares there is going to be a disturbance. "He took the twelve disciples aside and said to them on the way, 'See, we are going to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priest and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised.'" (20:18-19)

Finally, the day to enter Jerusalem has arrived. He's the most popular guy in the region. The paparazzi are out; the crowds are swarming. The miracle worker is coming to town, and he's soon going to enter the frenzy of the festival.

The crowd gathers with palm branches and hallelujahs and when he turns the corner on the back of a donkey, nobody is sure what to think.

The religious leaders are probably mumbling to themselves, "Well, one thing is for certain; he is a menace. He has raging popularity and he makes outrageous claims. He's a troublemaker and a heretic and a threat, but we don't want trouble during festival season, not if we can help it."

However hard the Chamber of Commerce and the religious leadership work to tap down the growing tension, at least until the festival is over, Jesus is ramping it up. Jesus is turning up the volume at every corner. He enters the temple and overturns the tables of money changers and drives out the sellers. Coins spilling and livestock lumbering and screeching and dove sellers yelling at the man from Nazareth who just dumped their earnings on the floor. They probably had to call an emergency meeting of the Festival Committee.

Jesus slept out of town that night and on his way back in, he saw a fig tree on the side of the road and cursed the tree for not bearing fruit. It was not fig season. Jesus has a thing about bearing fruit. "In season or out of season, if you are made for producing figs then do what you were made to do."

The day after he upended the tables, he reenters the temple; and this time, the chief priests, the festival committee, the elders, the mayor and the city council, and the Pharisees are all present and they are seething. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they demand. And after telling them one vineyard story, Jesus tells them this one--our text for today. The images are not veiled. Matthew calls it a parable, but it is really an allegory. The things in the story have direct correlations. Most simply, God is the landowner and Israel is the vineyard. The tenant farmers are not the Jewish people as some suggest. They are the religious elite, the religious establishment; they are, well, they are exactly the group standing in front of Jesus right now, the ones with their arms crossed and their veins popping out. Those in the story who come to collect are the great prophets of Israel's history and finally, Jesus is making reference to himself as the one who has finally come to collect some fruit.

The town leaders are hard, fixed, obstinate and resistant to the new revelation of what God is doing in their midst. They are not, however, dumb. They get it--they get what he is saying and they are all the more furious. Matthew tells us that "They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet." (v.46) Remember, it is festival season after all.

No wonder they were ready to put him in chains. Now, he has not just come into town with pomp and celebration and stirring up the folks. He is not just a threat to the festival. He has just looked them in the eyes and said, "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." (v.43) Well, there he goes with the fruit again--Jesus apparently really cares about fruit.

If Jesus is just angry about the resistance of the Jewish leadership, then we have the luxury of hearing this story from a safe distance. It's unlikely that anybody listening is a chief priest or a Jewish religious leader. If Jesus is angry about how the prophets were treated, then our hands are also clean.

But if it is true that Jesus cares this much about bearing fruit, then we might not be off the hook just yet. He says in the story that the landowner sent folks to get the produce. When he asks what the landowner will do after his son is killed, they said that he will put those wretches to a miserable death and then lease to folks who care about harvest. The landowner is rightly angry about how his representatives and his son have been treated, but he also continues to care about the harvest. He wants fruit if that is what a vineyard is supposed to produce: fruit, sweet, tangible, productive food.

Tim Keller, in his book Center Church, makes the case that fruitfulness is the way ministry should be evaluated. Not the corporate measures of success, counting members and giving and the like. But not just the measures of faithfulness, which he characterizes as a ministry of deep commitment "but nothing comes of it." The biblical image, he argues, is not success or faithfulness but fruitfulness. (Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City, Timothy Keller, p.13)

There is fierce judgment in these chapters of Matthew's gospel. Jesus kicks over tables, curses a fig tree for not bearing fruit when it isn't even fig season. He stands before these religious officials saying squarely the "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." If we distance this story by saying, "You tell 'em--those rotten Pharisees," then we might miss the urgent imperative aimed at us. I mean, aren't we the new tenants? If we believe that the Christian church is the vineyards new tenants, then how are we doing? Is our church harvesting the fruit of witness and compassion, mission and transformation? When the owner backs up the trucks to load the harvest, what will my church have to load? Is the landowner pleased with us, the new keepers of the vineyard, or should we feel his judgment too? Whatever has happened in the past, the landowner still likes his fruit. Are we producing the kingdom harvest that the owner was hoping for?

What is your next step? How will you contribute to the coming harvest?

Let us pray. O God of the harvest, we pray that we might be more active participants in your kingdom and all the redemption projects you are a part of. Enliven our spirits to be full agents of your grace in the world. We pray in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.