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Bearing Good Fruit and Good Blessings

Lander Bethel
Special to the Herald Democrat

What does it mean to be fruitful? You might think of the story of creation where Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply. Maybe the story of Abram and Sarai comes to mind when Abram was told they would one day be the parents of a great nation, even after they seemed to be too old to bear children. There are other references to fruitfulness that point in a different direction.

Isaiah speaks about a fine vineyard in the 5th chapter of this prophet. He describes the strong walls to protect it, the good soil to plant vines in, and a tower where someone may watch over it. It becomes evident that Isaiah is referring to the temple of the Lord of hosts as the vineyard. But there’s trouble coming. Everything looks good with new plants growing, but the yield isn’t plump, sweet grapes. Instead, they are wild vines; small, sour grapes that will never develop into something that will make good wine.

The good fruit that Isaiah speaks of that is supposed to come from this vineyard, which is the temple where the faithful people worship, is the fruit of justice and righteousness. The place of worship has produced tiny, sour grapes of injustice. The temple marks the center of the city. Justice, mercy, and righteousness are supposed to flow from the temple and fill the city with this good fruit. But the poor are crushed under the feet of the wealthy. The well-positioned and well-to-do have something pleasant to drink early in the morning, while the poor who produce it for them have nothing.

You who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, will be left to live alone in the land, Isaiah says. His concern is about those who grow wealthier and wealthier with no concern for the poor, those who would actually work in the fields or tend the vineyard to produce good fruit. Isaiah announces that judgment is coming. The people will know destruction at the hands of an enemy – because they have not produced the fruits of justice and righteousness that includes the poor.

Isaiah’s word may sound outdated and too harsh for us. It wouldn’t apply to another time. But when Jesus comes along some 8 centuries later, he begins his ministry by quoting from Isaiah, announcing that he has come to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. It’s the same prophet whose words we read every Christmas, when we say “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” And a few lines later, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…, He will establish and uphold (his kingdom) with justice and righteousness.”

Jesus is concerned about this vineyard, about what fruitfulness may come from the temple of the Lord of hosts. In what became the last week of his physical life, after going into Jerusalem, he went to the temple. He healed people, restored their sight, and taught them about the kingdom of heaven. The Jewish people to whom Jesus spoke, and taught, and offered healing embraced him and welcomed everything he said. They were excluded from the forgiveness they might find in the temple – because the sacrificial animals they were required to buy were too expensive. So, Jesus tossed the tables over that belonged to the moneychangers (where you had to exchange Roman coins for temple coins at exorbitant rates to make an offering).

Jesus’ teachings and actions were upsetting to the religious leaders who were in charge. These were undesirable people who were following him around. They were unclean, they had deplorable diseases, and they were too poor to bother with. If you happen to think that blessings are based on what you deserve, they had all the signs of not being blessed by God. Ailments, impoverishment, being from a foreign land, or unacceptable behavior (like being a tax collector or a prostitute, whether or not you were forced into it), were all signs that you didn’t belong and were not blessed by God.

When the religious leaders confronted Jesus he told them a parable about a vineyard, which appears in Matthew 21.33-46. There were tenants of the vineyard who wanted it for themselves. When the landowner sent people to check on it, they beat them up and killed one of them. It happens three times, with the rank of each group being sent increasing each time, the violence of the tenants increasing in their response, until the son of the landowner is killed.

It’s a brutal story Jesus tells, and probably one we would rather skip over. But he tells it out of concern for the fruitfulness of the vineyard, his concern that the temple of the Lord of hosts would be producing the good fruit of justice and righteousness, especially for the poor.

We often think of Jesus as blessing what is. We may hope and expect that Jesus blesses who we are and what we are doing; that Jesus would bless who we are as a nation and a people. But here we see Jesus offering judgment against those who don’t practice justice or care for the poor. He points us in the direction of being fruitful, of bearing the fruit of the kingdom. The fruit of justice, mercy, righteousness and lovingkindness takes work. It’s in bearing this kind of fruit that we come closer to living out the blessings that Jesus would give to us, a vineyard where the undeserving know justice, the unkempt know lovingkindness, and the wealthy and well-placed practice generous welcome and mercy.

How are we being fruitful? Does it have the taste of justice for everyone or only a few? Is it the ripeness of lovingkindness that will yield blessings for everyone or more limited generosity by which we will be judged?

Lander Bethel is the minister of Grand Avenue Presbyterian Church in Sherman and First Presbyterian Church in Denison. He earned a doctoral degree in ministry from McCormick Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Genna, live in Sherman. They have three sons. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.