Fruits of the Kingdom

Proclaim Sermons
Homily: Ordinary Time 27
October 08, 2023
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Jesus presents the church as a vineyard, one in which we can engage in fights or in fruitful labor. When harvest time comes, he wants us to be able to give good produce to God..

A cab driver from Ghana took a fare to a suburb of Washington, DC, and then decided to attend a service at a Baptist church in that area. After he walked in, the congregation phoned the police, describing him as a trespasser. He said, "No, I am a Baptist, from Ghana." They insisted he was trespassing. Similarly, when a Cameroonian immigrant visited a Disciples of Christ church in Texas, congregational leaders refused to serve him communion, even though the pastor had just intoned the words, "This is Jesus Christ's table, people shall come from everywhere to it."1

When Jesus was trying to present a clear and compelling illustration of the kingdom of God, he used the story of a vineyard. "There was a landlord who planted a vineyard," said Jesus to the chief priests and Pharisees of Jerusalem. He "put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country." While he was away, said Jesus, "the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another." Then the owner sent his own son, but the tenants "seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him." The tenants treated these visitors even worse than the two American churches treated their visitors from Ghana and Cameroon.

Jesus then asked the chief priests and the Pharisees what they thought the owner of the vineyard would do to those wicked tenants. "He will put those wretches to a miserable death," they responded, "and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time." Jesus gave them a nod and let them know that the story was a judgment on them. "Therefore I tell you," said Jesus, "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom."

Fruits, not roots

Jesus did not care that the religious leaders of Jerusalem had excellent religious credentials. He knew that the scribes and the Pharisees were followers of the great law-giver Moses, with deep knowledge of the words of God. But he warned his disciples to "not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach."2 These religious leaders were like the church members who knew the words of the communion service, but still barred an immigrant from the table. Jesus said that while the leaders of Jerusalem were very good at tithing, they "neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith."3 Jesus was interested in good fruits, not religious roots.

Our church today is the vineyard that Jesus spoke of in his parable, one in which we can engage in fights or in fruitful labor. The challenge before us is whether we will be able to focus more on good fruits than on religious roots, whether we will generate a bumper crop of "the fruits of the kingdom" and whether we will organize our lives around justice and mercy and faith.

The challenge of justice

Presbyterian pastor Cynthia Jarvis says that this parable can convict us, just as it convicted the chief priests and the Pharisees. "Religious institutions," she says, "function in most societies to conserve the beliefs, morals and reigning social order." That was true in the social order of first-century Israel, and it is true in the social order of 21st-century America. But Jesus challenges us to practice justice in a way that can upset the status quo. He wants us to see the image of God in everyone, just as he saw God's likeness in a wide variety of people including a Roman Centurion and a Canaanite woman. "Looking back," says Jarvis, "we remember with shame the church's response to prophetic voices concerning racial injustice and the role of women."4

The church is able to produce the fruit of justice when it gathers people for discussions about difficult issues. In such face-to-face conversations, we can see each other as children of God, instead of as representatives of different genders, races, generations and political points of view. About 20 years ago, a Catholic priest named Gerry Creedon devised an effective approach for talking openly about divisive subjects, one that has provided parishioners with an opportunity to engage in dialogue and listen to the voice of the Christian tradition.

His program worked because the focus was on parishioners listening to one another instead of reacting to one another. "The process of dialogue and conversation is so important," said Creedon, because in face-to-face dialogue, we are forced to see each other as children of God. Looking back into history, we learn that Abraham Lincoln took the bold step of including political rivals in his cabinet. Nelson Mandela maintained a connection with the Afrikaner community in South Africa, even though he had reason to be vindictive toward it. These are healing actions, said Creedon, and they are so important, but "we tend to refuse to be in conversation with our opponents."5 The fruit of justice is produced when we treat everyone as a valuable child of God.

Mercy and compassion

Another of the fruits of the kingdom is mercy. This is a quality that the wicked tenants in the parable did not show toward the slaves who came to collect their landowner's produce, nor did they show it to the son of the landowner. Instead of mercy, they offered these visitors beatings, stonings and even killings.

That sounds a bit like life in America today, doesn't it? Looking around, we quickly jump to the conclusion that our political opponents have agendas that are going to destroy life as we know it. In the church and community, we often assume that people have bad intentions, instead of good intentions. Rather than giving people the benefit of the doubt, we judge and condemn them. On the internet, people are constantly attacking each other on Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms. And this should come as no surprise: The social media algorithms are designed to amplify angry and divisive voices.

Such behavior is contrary to the Christian approach to life. In Christianity, "mercy is God's love for all of us," writes professor of law Stephanos Bibas, "and our active love toward one another, particularly those in need. Christ's supreme act of mercy was his incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, conquering death and the devil .... The father in the parable of the prodigal son exemplifies God's mercy and paternal love for us all."6 As Jesus said to a group of Pharisees, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice."7

When Jesus speaks of mercy, he is using the Greek word eleos, which means mercy, compassion, and pity. Eleos "is derived from the word for olive oil," says pastor James Popham. "Olive oil was used to treat wounds. It was soothing, comforting, and healing."8 This is the mercy that God extends to each of us when we sin, and it is shown in the compassion that Jesus had toward the troubled people around him. Do you remember when Jesus took a boat to a deserted place, only to find a great crowd waiting for him? Matthew tells us that "he had compassion for them and cured their sick."9 Then he took five loaves and two fish, and along with his disciples, he fed a crowd of more than 5,000 people. This is the kind of compassion that we are to show each other, since mercy is one of the fruits of the kingdom.

Faith in Jesus

Finally, we are challenged to strengthen our faith. After telling the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus says to the chief priests and the Pharisees, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes." Jesus is challenging us to put our faith in him, to put our trust in the one who is the cornerstone of our spiritual house. He is the firm foundation of our lives, an eternal rock. As the classic hymn says so well, "Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee."10

None of the fruits of the kingdom is possible without faith in Jesus Christ. As the hymn "Rock of Ages" goes on to say, "Not the labors of my hands can fulfill the law's demands." We are able to do the work of justice because Jesus acts with justice. We are able to show mercy because Jesus shows mercy. And we are able to have faith in Jesus because Jesus himself has faith in God. The only way for us to produce the fruits of the kingdom is to rely more and more on Jesus, on his grace, on his power and on his example.

A Methodist church in Queens, New York, had been racially integrated for years, but it almost split when large numbers of Filipino and African immigrants arrived. Older whites and blacks felt threatened by the newcomers, and a power struggle began between different factions in the church. The fights were as fierce as the battle between the tenants and the slaves in the parable of Jesus. But then a new pastor arrived and challenged them to focus on devotion to Christ -- not devotion to race, language, tribe or nationality -- but devotion to Jesus Christ. Peace was found again when faith in Jesus became the heart of the church.11

We come to the vineyard today, with an opportunity to fight or engage in fruitful labor. Together, let us organize our lives around justice and mercy and faith, and raise a bumper crop of "the fruits of the kingdom."