THE PARABLE OF THE VINEYARD AND THE WICKED VINEDRESSERS
A Sermon by Rev. Daniel W. Heinrichs
Preached in Boynton Beach, Florida September 1992
“Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country” (Matthew 21:33).
The Lord, while on earth, customarily presented His teaching in the form of parables. The characters, situations and imagery in the parables were selected to appeal to His audience. They were things with which the people He was addressing were well acquainted. They were able to draw conclusions and make judgments concerning the conduct of the characters in the parables because they were familiar with the situations presented in the parable from living experience. By means of the parable they were led to see that the same judgment which they rendered, in regard to the people in the parable, applied to a situation in which they were personally involved but which they had not recognized, or else refused to acknowledge.
The parables which the Lord spoke during His last week on earth were especially directed against the corrupt leaders of the Jewish Church. By means of His parables, He enabled the simple to see the state of the church and the quality of its leadership. In this way the Lord set free those who had been in simple good but who had been blind to the corruption of the church and its leaders. Having been freed, they could then be formed into the nucleus of the new church which the Lord came on earth to establish the Christian Church. Simultaneously, the leaders of the church were induced to pronounce a judgment on themselves.
The parable of the vineyard and the wicked vinedressers is clearly a case in point. The Jews were thoroughly familiar with the setting which the Lord outlined. The growing of grapes and the making of wine was one of the chief industries of that region. According to the parable, a landowner planted a vineyard. Around it he planted a hedge to protect it from wild animals or anyone bent on destruction. He built a winepress to process the fruit of the vineyard, and a tower for a watchman to warn of approaching danger. When everything was fully established, he hired vinedressers to work it and care for it in his absence.
But, because the owner of the vineyard was not present, the vinedressers began to think of the vineyard as their own. Because they worked it and cared for it, they credited its success to their own endeavors and thought of it as their own. So when the owner sent servants to receive the fruit, they beat some, killed others and stoned yet others. When the son of the owner came to collect, they killed him, confident that now the vineyard would be theirs.
The Lord then showed them that the church which had been established with their forefathers was the vineyard, and they, the leaders of the church, were the vinedressers in the parable. The prophets who had been periodically sent to turn them from their evil ways, ending with John the Baptist, were the servants in the parable who had been beaten, stoned, and killed. In the light of this parable, the righteous among the Jews were able to see the true quality of the church and its leaders, and so were freed from their domination. At the same time the wicked leaders were induced to pronounce a judgment on themselves.
Let us realize that the Lord’s parables, being Divine, are timeless. They are not limited in their application to specific times and circumstances. They are universal. Certainly, the fact that this parable was included in the New Testament the revelation to the Christian Church is a clear indication that it was given to serve as a warning to that church not to fall into the same grievous error.
It is a matter of spiritual history, revealed in the Word of the Second Advent, that despite this warning, that church did, like the one preceding it, fall away from the true worship of the Lord. The love of rule springing from the love of self perverted the leaders; the loves of the world its riches and its pleasures corrupted the people, and the church failed.
First the sole divinity of the Lord was called into question and finally denied. Thus the cornerstone of the Christian Church was rejected. The saving power of God was claimed by fallible men the priesthood of the church. The sole and absolute authority of the Divine Word was denied; the church’s interpretation of the Word called the living Word was acknowledged in its stead. Man-made doctrines superseded the Word as the source of the church’s inspiration, faith and life. They made the commandments of God of no effect through their traditions. Once again the vinedressers tried to seize control of the vineyard. So the Lord had to come again to establish a church which would render to Him the fruits of the vineyard in season.
As we have said, the truth of the Lord’s Word is timeless. This parable is also intended to serve as a warning to the New Church which the Lord is now establishing. The selfish, worldly loves and ambitions which caused the two former churches to betray their trust are the common heredity of all mankind. It would be a grievous error for us to look on this parable merely as a matter of history. Rather we must, periodically, examine the New Church in its light both the organized church and the church as it exists in each one of us individually. Because the Lord has revealed the internal sense of the Word given us new light from heaven this is now possible as it never was before.
We have seen that the vineyard is the church: historically, the Jewish Church, but in the spiritual sense, apart from time, it means the church where the Word is, by which the Lord is known (see AE 992:7; AR 650). Thus, at the present day, the New Church is the Lord’s vineyard. The hedge around the vineyard is the exterior truths which are easily apparent in the literal sense of the Word, which serves to protect the church from false ideas, philosophies, ideologies and disorders, which come from outside the church (see AE 922:7); for example: humanism, situation ethics and the social gospel.
By the tower in the vineyard is meant the interior truths of the Word which serve for the conservation and protection of the things of the church interior truths which look to heavenly life (see AC 4599:2, 1306:3; AE 922:7).
The hedge has reference to exterior truths because it was round about the outside of the vineyard, and its purpose was to prevent invasion of the vineyard from those without who would do it harm. The tower refers to interior truths looking to heavenly life and the conservation and protection of the church because the tower was within the vineyard and it ascended upward. Thus it directs the eyes upward toward heaven. But it was a watchtower. From its height anything amiss, either within or outside the vineyard could be observed and the alarm sounded. In this connection I would commend to your attention the series of articles in New Church Life on common misconceptions, in the New Church, concerning conjugial love.
The winepress stands for the things that belong to worship (see AC 1306:3), those pertaining to formal worship and also to internal worship, which is of the life the goods of charity and spiritual good (see AR 651; AE 922:7). When one is in spiritual good, that person is in genuine worship the worship of life. Such a person is given a perception of truth from the good in which he is. This truth serves to sustain and refresh the human spirit, just as the product of the winepress refreshes and restores the spirits and bodies of people.
The landowner who planted the vineyard is, of course, the Lord. It is he who establishes the church and provides it with all that is necessary for its growth, protection and maintenance. But the vineyard must have workers vinedressers to care for it, in order that what has been established may bear fruit: the good of life which comes from love to the Lord and charity to the neighbor, expressed in a life of use (see AR 934).
When a church is first established, the presence of the Lord is keenly felt by those with whom the church is being established. This is true with individuals as well and with organizations of the church. They are vitally aware that the church is the Lord’s. They have been outside the church where the goods and truths of the church were lacking, along with the protection it affords against what is false and evil. But, as time passes, it is as if the Lord has withdrawn from the church the owner goes to a far country. The Lord is as it were withdrawn into heaven and the church is left with the vinedressers.
There is a tendency, with those born within the church, to think of the church as “their” church. Instead of laboring for the Lord the owner of the vineyard they labor for the church as “their” church. The goods which they do the fruits which they produce they tend to think of as theirs, not the Lord’s. The Lord is aware of this human tendency, so he sends his servants to remind them that the vineyard and the fruits thereof are the Lord’s. By the servants are meant those who teach truths, and, in a sense abstract from person, the truths of doctrine taught in the church (see AE 122:3).
We are the vinedressers of the Lord’s vineyard! The Writings teach that the “wicked” vinedressers of the parable are those within the church who have destroyed interior goods and truths, although outwardly they appear to have them (AC 4314: 2-5). They are those who acknowledge the church as being important; they serve it, but as theirs. They do not interiorly assent to those truths from the Word which conflict with their life or their ideas.
When truths are taught which conflict with their loves or the ideas which they hold, they reason against them, twisting them so as to make them appear false, or they reject them some they beat, some they stone, and others they kill. They develop hostile feelings toward teachings from the Word as well as toward those who do the teaching (AC 9256). They want to prevent from being taught those truths which make them uncomfortable. It’s their church and they have a right to control and influence what is being taught in the church.
This attitude inevitably arises when people think of the church as “theirs” and not the Lord’s. They do not interiorly acknowledge that the truths of the Word are the sole authority as to what is to be believed and thought, and as to what should be done, and how one conducts one’s life. If this rejection is carried to the point where the Word itself is repudiated – not just specific teachings one doesn’t like – then the Son Himself is killed, and the church perishes in that individual.
Reluctant as we may be to admit it, all of us have been guilty, at one time or another, of trying to explain away a teaching of the Word or interpret it in such a way that we do not have to give up some pre-conceived idea or opinion which we hold, or make a change in the way we are living. We have rejected truths which would convict us of false thinking or evil doing.
For example, last week we preached a sermon on the importance, yea necessity, of regularly reading the Lord’s Word in order to be directly led and taught by the Lord. What was your reaction? “That’s an overstatement of the case.” Or, “The Lord leaves us in freedom to do what we want.” Or, “Reading the Word is, of course, good, who can deny it, but we can get to heaven without it.” Or, “That is the truth!” And if the latter was your reaction, has it changed anything in your life, that is, if a change was indicated? Examples could be multiplied, but every one of us, if we examine our hearts, knows of specific instances in our own lives when we have either not accepted a truth or have not acted upon it. But this is true: if the church is to survive in us individually and survive as an organization; if we are to remain vinedressers of the vineyard, true to our trust then we must interiorly acknowledge that the church is the Lord’s, and that we do not have the right to formulate its doctrines, policies and practices on the basis of human intelligence and worldly experience. These must come from the Lord of the vineyard directly from the teaching of His Word.
There should be, in the church as a whole and in each one of us individually, an unconditional acceptance of the Word as the only authority as to what we believe, how we are to live, and how the church is to be governed. The Writings make the powerful statement that the people of the church “should acknowledge the Word, and found the church upon it” (AR 749). The Lord has established His vineyard and called us to dress it and keep it. Let us fulfill the responsibility given us and live up to the trust placed in us. Amen.
Lessons: Deut. 8:1-3, 10-20; Matt. 2:33-46; AE 922:7
Apocalypse Explained 922:7
In Matthew: “A man, a householder, planted a vineyard, and set a hedge about it, and digged a wine-press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husband-men, who slew the servants sent to them, and finally the son” (21:33). The “vineyard” which the householder planted signifies the church that was instituted with the sons of Jacob; the “hedge” which he set about it signifies protection from the falsities of evil, which are from hell; “and digged a wine-press in it” signifies that it had spiritual good; “and built a tower” signifies interior truths from that good which looked to heaven; “and let it out to husbandmen” signifies to that people; “they slew the servants that were sent to them” signifies that they slew the prophets; “and finally the son” signifies the Lord.