I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled.” Isaiah 5.1-5.
What an eloquent and powerful indictment of Israel! How could a people upon whom God had lavished such love and care and attention yield so little fruit … be such a huge disappointment? Yet it was so, and nothing changed over the centuries. Indeed, when Jesus looked at Israel and its leaders he could do nothing but endorse what Isaiah had said. But Jesus gave the story a new twist: “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (Matthew 21:33-39).
You killed the prophets because they reminded you of your failure and lack of fruit, says Jesus. And because I am bringing that same indictment against you, you will kill me too. He was right. They had indeed killed the prophets — “They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword” (Hebrews 11.37); and the reference to someone being sawn in two there is a reference to Isaiah himself whose manner of death is recorded in some non-Biblical Jewish writings called the Ascension of Isaiah. And now they would take Jesus and put him on the cross.
But here is the marvel. They would crucify Jesus not realising that he was in his own person, as representative Israel, the vineyard of God … the vineyard they had failed to be. Once, prophetically, the psalmist had said: “Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine, the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself” (Psalm 80.14-15) — and there in front of them was that very son, yet the leaders of Israel were so blind that they could not see it.
But the disciples of Jesus could, for he revealed it to them. “I am the true vine,” he told them, “and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15.1-5).
The vineyard that was Israel has now become the fruitful vine that is Jesus and his branches are those who have found their source of life in him. If I abide in him, make my home in him, and let the sap of his Holy Spirit flow in me, the truth that comes home to me this morning is that I will bear the “good grapes” … the ones that God once looked for from Israel.
May that be so, Lord Jesus. Amen