Don: We’ve discussed two parables involving vineyards: One in which the vineyard workers were all paid the same wages regardless of how many hours they worked, and one in which the vineyard owner asked his two sons to go do some work in his vineyard (with one promising to do so but then reneging on his promise, and the other refusing but then relenting).
Here’s a third, the Parable of the Landowner:
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and rented it out to vine-growers and went on a journey. When the harvest time approached, he sent his slaves to the vine-growers to receive his produce. The vine-growers took his slaves and beat one, and killed another, and stoned a third. Again he sent another group of slaves larger than the first; and they did the same thing to them. But afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the vine-growers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ They took him, and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures,
‘The stone which the builders rejected,
This became the chief corner stone;
This came about from the Lord,
And it is marvelous in our eyes’?
Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them. When they sought to seize Him, they feared the people, because they considered Him to be a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)
Notice the thoroughness with which the owner had planned and constructed his vineyard. It had a security fence and a guard tower. It had a wine-press, dug out and ready for the pressing of grapes. He clearly intended for this to be a successful operation. The work in the vineyard (the making of good wine) is a clear metaphor for the work in delivering the message and continuing the mission of Jesus, as described rather well in this sentence:
You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. (Acts 10:38-39)
To “go about doing good” is a picture of the message and the mission of Jesus. The vineyard owner—Jesus—provided the optimum and secure conditions for delivering His message and perpetuating His mission while He went away. “You are planted here,” Jesus was saying, “to do good. That is my mission and yours. To bear maximum fruit I have established a secure, work-friendly, optimum environment and am leaving you in charge while I am away. But I will be back, in the form of my representatives.”
He sent three sets of such representatives to collect his share of the harvest. To the Jews at the time, this would have been as familiar a scenario as share-cropping is today. Tenant farmers pay rent by paying an agreed percentage of the crop yield. The first two sets of representatives were servants from the landowner’s household. They are a metaphor for the prophets and messengers of God coming to share in the distribution of the fruit. But the tenant farmers hoard all the fruit for themselves. The third was his own son, who could be expected be shown more respect, but the tenant farmers showed him no more respect than they had shown the servants.
The judgment against the hoarders was that the kingdom of God be taken away from them and given instead to a nation that produced and did not hoard its fruit. Which leads to our question for today: Does God have favorite nations, peoples, and religions? All religions think that God entrusted them and only them with the Truth. God’s favor for them is recorded in their histories and Scriptures and religious writings and commentaries and interpretations.
Ever since God’s covenant with Abraham, the Jews have believed they are special to God. Their miraculous release from bondage in Egypt to a future in the Promised Land (at the expense of the unfortunate Canaanites who were dispossessed of their land) seems evidence of this. But the pilgrims seeking their own Promised Land in America also saw the hand of Providence at work in providing them with a New World, without much thought for the native Americans dispossessed of their old world. Moslems see their religion as special to God since He made Mohammed His Last Prophet and the Koran His final word, thereby completing, and perfecting the faults and the errors of, the other Abrahamic religions, Judaism and Christianity. The numerous branches and sects of Christianity—Catholics (Roman, Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) and Protestants (Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Anglican, etc.)—all claim to have God’s favor.
What did Jesus mean when He said the fruit of the kingdom would be take away from those who hoarded it and given to those who would not hoard it? Is there such a things as God’s chosen people, and if so what identifies them as such? How does a people apply for the position? No faith will admit that another has been chosen by God over itself. Shouldn’t God make it clear who His people are?
On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky….
And he said to them, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean. (Acts 10:9-16; 28
Jesus clearly told us who His people are:
By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
The Book of Revelation, too, makes clear that God’s people are as diverse as can be—all are included:
After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, (Revelation 7:9-10)
But then, I ask again, what did Jesus mean when He talked about taking the kingdom away from some people? Is God partial to specific peoples and religions or sects today? How can He take something from one and give it to another? Why are there so many religions and sects anyway? Is there a reason? How can we tell if one is better than another? Did Jesus come to start a religion, or to do something else? What about Mohammed? Buddha? Or do religions emerge in some other way? Why are there so many?
We’ve seen from Scripture that God loves all of Mankind equally. His rain and sunshine falls on everyone. Yet each religion thinks God’s blessings fall on it and not on the other religions; that it has the real Truth. Jesus did say, after all, that His kingdom would be taken away from some and given instead to others; and God’s favoritism shows up in other passages of the Bible; for example:
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
“He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
“He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:52-55)
All the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord; I bring down the high tree, exalt the low tree, dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will perform it.” (Ezekiel 17:24)
…thus says the Lord God, ‘Remove the turban and take off the crown; this will no longer be the same. Exalt that which is low and abase that which is high. (Ezekiel 21:26)
“He raises the poor from the dust,
He lifts the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with nobles,
And inherit a seat of honor;
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
And He set the world on them.” (1 Samuel 2:8)
Not least, in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) it is clear that God favors the oppressed and the poor in spirit, etc.
Do we each see ourselves as one of God’s favorites?
Jay: It’s an interesting topic. Certainly, humans define the characteristics they think God wants to see in people—to define His favorite people, then they seek to characterize themselves in alignment with their definition. It seems to me that since “God’s people” would, by definition, be bound neither by time nor culture nor religion as we are, then none of our distinctive definitions will suffice. God’s definition of His people is broad; ours is narrow. From the parable of the Landowner, we know that His people are those who produce the fruit of God’s kingdom.
It seems to me the point Jesus was making is not about the transfer of the kingdom from a group that doesn’t deserve it to one that does, but is simply that the kingdom is only for people who have the right stuff—that is, who have the ability to bear God’s fruit.
Robin: The people in the kingdom are those entrusted with the message. If that makes them proud and judgmental, they no longer deserve their place.
Don: All three of the Abrahamic religions believe that theirs is the authentic voice of God. Do other religions feel that way? What about Hinduism, for instance?
Aishwarya: There are so many Gods in Hinduism, each with its devotees, so that is a difficult question to answer! I’m sure some Hindus consider Hinduism as a whole superior to other religions, though I personally think it’s more a matter of cosmetics than of substance.
David: Jay seemed to suggest that our presence in the kingdom is a matter for us to decide based on the way we behave, whereas in the parable Jesus said clearly that it is not up to us: The kingdom will be actively taken away from us and given to someone else. We will not just passively exclude ourselves; rather, we will be thrown out.
Jay: Does God judge us or do we judge ourselves? Christians consider God to be the judge and that to be judged as “good” we need to present evidence on our own behalf. We tend to see it as a forensic process. Yet what’s the point of a process for a God who already knows everything? We struggle with this issue, and Scripture perhaps tends to confuse in this case.
Robin: Perhaps the parable of the two sons sheds some light on this—a son who refuses to work but repents, and a son who promises to work but reneges.
Don: The parable of the Landowner says that the vineyard (the kingdom) will be opened to tenant farmers who produce fruit, yet even the wicked farmers produced fruit, so that appears not to be the issue. Perhaps the issue is that they would not share the fruit they produced. The issue is: What happens to the fruit?
Jay: Is their fruit good or bad? There are many questions that arise once we introduce the concept of fruit.
Don: Does it mean then that a religion should be judged not on the basis of its beliefs, teachings, and claimed truths, but by the fruit it produces? If so, does this level the religious playing field and make irrelevant the multiplicity of religions?
David: An anthropological argument says that gods were invented by primitive leaders to lend them authority. Most people are followers, not leaders. We seek leadership and guidance, often for pragmatic reasons of maintaining peace, security, mutual assistance, and so on. Ancient China had a large pantheon of minor earth gods, each with limited functions and powers, but it has never had a popular, unitary, deistic religion (Buddha was not a God). Confucianism was developed as a humanistic philosophy to provide guidance and support by codifying the degrees of respect and obedience to be afforded within family and society.
What I am trying to say is that humanity has invented more than one way to guide people in how to live life, from God-centric religions such as the Abrahamic, to pantheon-based religions such as Hinduism and Shintoism, to SBNR (spiritual but not religious) bodies such as Buddhism, to philosophies such as Confucianism and original Daoism and indeed Humanism. These are all the same in the sense of existing to provide guidance on how to live life in society. Fundamentally, they must be altruistic, otherwise there would be chaos and destruction. Whether religious, quasi-religious, or non-religious, these powerful forces have to be, and are, basically good.
Mikiko: Japan had no unifying Scripture and relied like many other countries on human philosophies for guidance. But since:
God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)
…then the Bible, which contains God’s Word—the truth (Your word is truth.—John 17:17) is what should be followed. Christ brought salvation:
…let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:10-12)
The Bible contains God’s Word; other religions and philosophies contain only human words.
David: Just after announcing the judgment to be made on bad tenant farmers, Jesus mentioned a stone, which I think is intended to mean Himself.
Jay: To fall on the stone, as mentioned in the parable, is to sacrifice your self, making you salvageable; the alternative is that the stone falls on you, in which case you cannot be saved.
David: I am not clear on why Jesus brought up the stone at all, though. It seems a non-sequitur, unconnected to a story about producing fruit. It’s also unclear to me whether Jesus approved of the Pharisees answer to the parable.
Don: I think He agreed with their answer but had trapped them into a self-indictment. They realized too late that they represented the bad tenant farmers in the story.
Is it possible to think about God without putting Him into the human context? The 2nd Commandment prohibits the making of images of God. Christians tend to think of images just as idols, statues, yet we imagine God in our own image. We put hands, feet, a mouth, and so on, on Him. We anthropomorphize Him. He warns us about that, yet we package Him up as being like us and “sell” Him to others on the basis of what—for all we know—is a false assumption. Even in the Old Testament, Moses went “behind” God, implying that God has a back.
The anthropomorphic concept grows out of Man’s desire to make religion. Can we have a religion that does not depend on that concept, given that we have no other context than the human and our human perceptions in which to build one? It seems inadequate, error-prone, and dangerous. Does the parable of the Landowner shed any light on this?
Jay: You seem to be asking whether the establishment of a religion breaks the 2nd Commandment.
Russell: We can’t even understand other cultures without putting them in the context of our own, and understanding God goes far beyond understanding another culture. Is it possible to understand God without putting our own spin on Him?
Jay: We’ve made the 2nd Commandment about idols, but if we broaden it to mean “Don’t try to define God” it makes a significant difference, and the parable of the Landowner reflects the impact of using the broader meaning. For one thing, it means we cannot define what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. We anthropomorphize everything to do with God, including His kingdom, His people, and (fair enough!) ourselves.
David: On the other hand, Scripture tells us that about half of us (the male half) were indeed made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 11:7, Genesis 5:1, Genesis 9:6, ) So the Bible lets us have our cake but forbids us from eating it: We are the image of God, but we can’t make an image of God.
Jay: Scripture can be contradictory, or at least puzzling, when we seek to align it with our own concepts. We struggle in trying to make the Scriptural picture of God fit our 2017, Seventh-Day Adventist picture of God. When we try to broaden our picture, alarm bells sound—it seems heretical, it opens the door a crack to let the Devil creep in. If we broaden our picture to one that is not bound by our present time (allowing it to stretch, for instance, all the way back to ancient China) there has to be a common characteristic—of fruit, of God. A timeless, culture-free definition of God is difficult if not impossible to conceive, so we introduce time and culture to make it easier for ourselves to define the indefinable.
Don: Is it not at the central core of all the major religions to provide some sort of moral compass to people? A stabilizing social influence? Is it not their common goal to lead us to “bear fruit”—which means “do good” in the case of all the great religions and sects? They dress in very different ways but they are the same inside, providing the same stabilizing moral guidance to people, with commandments equivalent to the Ten with which we are familiar. If all this is so, then the kingdom of God is indeed very broad—even all-encompassing, as Revelation says.
Aishwarya: I agree that the core values of religion are the same, but the different trappings of religion cause each to stigmatize the others. Dissidents within one religion rebel on that basis too—they don’t like something about the trappings of their religion, so they start a sect of their own. But the core values remain the same. The splintering into many different religions and sects might be the result of focusing on trappings rather than core values.
David: I believe in the core of every religion and every great humanistic philosophy, but I also believe that the message and mission of Jesus—the core of Christianity—is also the core of all the great religions, quasi religions, and non-religious great philosophies. The message is: “Be good and do good.” Judging by the absence in the Gospels of questions such as whether or not we are made in God’s image, Jesus evidently did not care about such questions. They were quite beside His point. The Christian Bible could (and in my opinion most definitely should) be edited down to the actual messages of Jesus in the Gospels. Everything else should be left on the cutting-room floor, because they comprise the trappings that lead to disagreement, disunity, and destructiveness. The trappings produce the bitter fruit of hatred—the very opposite of the fruit of love all our great religions call for at their core.
Aishwarya: But the core should not be open for interpretation. The definition of Love should not be open to question, because that’s how trappings get made!
David: How will we enforce that?
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