What kind of faith is saving faith, a faith without works or a faith that produces fruit?
We will understand that saving faith is a faith that bears fruit.
We will look at the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21:33-46 and explore what God requires in his vineyard.
In at least six places the Bible calls wine a blessing from God (Numbers 18:12; Judges 9:13; Psalms 104:15; Proverbs 31:6; Ecclesiastes 10:19; Zechariah 10:7) if used responsibly. A vineyard is a considerable investment of time and effort hence the tradition of a security tower to watch over the vineyard. That is some background to the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33). Tenant farmers murdered two groups of the landowner’s employees and the owner’s son, presumably to claim the land as their own. This purposefully exaggerated story points out the sheer idiocy of killing not only God’s prophets but also God’s Son. What did the landowner want? He wanted to “collect his fruit” and needed faithful tenants. The vineyard is God’s kingdom (vs. 43) belonging to “a people who will produce its fruit.”
Jesus told a parable about vineyards and tenant farmers pressing out grape juice. Historically and culturally it would have been to make wine. Pasteurization and refrigeration were not yet invented. The problem with tenants not paying their rent is not new. This is far worse than normal. These tenants beat the rent collectors and killed the owner’s son in an effort to take ownership. It is an allegory about the murder of Jewish prophets and Jesus. It is also about people seeking to preserve humanly devised controls over the Church and their persecution of messengers of the Gospel who threaten the ecclesiastical structures set up by men. When we place our traditions ahead of Jesus, are we not likewise murdering the Son in a vain effort to take ownership of the Church (Matthew 21:38)? Whose servants are we then?
One of the strangest parts of Matthew 21:39 is that the tenants think that by killing the son, they can possibly inherit the vineyard. It sounds rather like wishful thinking, or perhaps even self-delusion. The owner is absent. He has not been seen for a long time. Maybe he will never return. Perhaps they are asking themselves what they can get away with because they are far from any immediate consequences. Is that similar to our thinking? Do we think that we can get away with something because God does not seem to immediately intervene? How many sins in the church are committed by lay and clergy alike, because we think that God is a long way off? Do we delude ourselves that God is not looking? He may not always choose to act, but God is always looking.
In Matthew 21:40 Jesus spoke of ownership of property. The allusion is that God is the real owner. The laws of eminent domain, sometimes called compulsory purchase or expropriation, give human governments ultimate rights over land and other property. Even land deeds give a person not ownership but tenant rights. Ultimately it is not governments which own our properties but God. We are all tenants of God’s property. Our stewardship of the earth has not always been good. However, the earth is only a temporary home. The more permanent property of the kingdom of God is also in our hands. It is not just Jews who have persecuted God’s messengers and his Son. We too are guilty of disobeying God’s commands to us. As we now become the new tenants, what will he say to us on his return?
A cornerstone or foundation stone is the first stone laid in masonry construction. All other stones are set in reference to it. What ought to be the cornerstone of our faith? Many Christians orient themselves towards the edicts, confessions, canons, writings or videos of mere humans and follow people more than Christ. In Matthew 21:42-44 Jesus said that the stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. That cornerstone of our faith is Jesus. If we fall or stumble at Jesus in disobedience (1 Peter 2:8) we will be broken, and if he falls on us we would be crushed in that judgment day. If we ignore the person and teachings of Jesus, then we have rejected the cornerstone. Who do we allow to set the direction of our faith? Let’s allow Jesus to lead us.
Jesus informed certain Jewish leaders that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them (Matthew 21:43). What does that mean? We often think of the kingdom of God in future terms and miss the important present dimension. The Greek word for kingdom can also be translated as God’s sovereignty and rule. In modern western democratic cultures monarchs may be despised because of their selfish greed and injustice, yet God’s rule is always generous and fair. Jesus’ message was of a kingdom both now and forever. That means that salvation is for now as well as for the next life. God can save us out of our present troubles as well as from death. When we are saved, we begin a special relationship with God, allowing him to rule over our lives, becoming citizens of his eternal kingdom.
What does God want? We are all replacement tenants in God’s vineyard. Some former tenants killed the servants of God and His own Son. Matthew 21:43 tells of our role as the new tenants, to produce fruit. What fruit? Are we producing the fruit of the kingdom? God is not interested in counterfeit fruit, outward pretense, man-made rituals, national conceit or meticulous adherence to the letter of the law. That is the flesh. God wants spiritual fruit. We can tell a tree by its fruit. Do we produce the fruit of the kingdom of God? John the Baptist told the Pharisees to produce fruit in keeping with a change of heart, repentance (Matthew 3:8). Paul wrote to the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).
The evil tenants were specifically the chief priests and Pharisees (Matthew 21:45), but they are also Christians who reject God’s servants, and ultimately all of humanity which has rejected him over and over and over again. Yet, God persists sending his servants. He even sent his Son but we killed him too. Yes, we have rejected him, and our civilization rejects the love of the one who created us. Loving the unlovable is difficult and loving those who hate you is almost impossible, except with God. That’s what he does. He loves us enough to rescue us from ourselves. Our ways are self-destructive. We are incapable of managing this earthly estate upon which we are God’s tenants. He sent his messengers and humanity killed them. He sent his son and we killed him too. How great is God's love!
The ancient Quadriga helps us see the parable of the tenants in four dimensions. The literal meaning is a story of betrayal by murderous tenants, but the story goes deeper than that. Jesus was teaching a hidden meaning that the chief priests and Pharisees knew applied to them (Matthew 21:45). It was an allegory of all those who had killed the servants of God. It was also a prophecy that some would eventually kill the Son of God. The fourth dimension is the moral of the story, how it applies to us all. What about our lives makes us like the evil tenants? How do we figuratively kill the servants of God? Do we undermine the church and the pastors of God’s flock? Do we also figuratively kill Jesus over and over again by living a life of sin?
Saving faith is not a dead faith without works but a living faith that produces fruit. What fruit are we producing for God’s glory? The good news is that God has given his kingdom to a people who will produce its fruit.