The parable of the wicked tenants is one of the crazier parables of Jesus. A man plants a vineyard and leases it out to tenant farmers. He sends servants to collect his share of the harvest, and the tenants beat up the servants and send them back empty handed. Finally, in an act of desperation, he sends his “beloved son,” thinking “they will respect him.” But the tenants, realizing he is the heir, kill him in the long shot hope of getting the land by default. The question: What will the owner of the vineyard do to those wicked tenants? The answer: He will destroy them and give the vineyard to others.
The immediate application of this parable is obvious. The “vineyard” is Israel, God’s chosen people, His nation. The prophet Isaiah depicted Israel as a vineyard planted by God. A planting of undeserved kindness. God does it all. He builds the wall, the watchtower, he plants the vines. Religious Israel is the tenant; having a stewardship of God’s promise. The purpose of Israel was not to be an exclusive religious country club basking in the favor of God, but to be ground zero for God’s grace for the world in Jesus. Israel was supposed to be the nation that lived by grace through faith for the sake of Christ promised, and it was the job of the priests and religious teachers to remind the people of that fact. They lived by mercy not by merit, to be an example to the world to trust in the promise of God and to look for the coming Christ.
Instead, religious Israel became, well, “religious”. Following its own man made traditions while neglecting God’s mandates. Turning God’s mercy into merit, grace into wages, faith into works. They despised the prophets sent by God to preach the Word. They beat and even killed the prophets God had sent them. Jesus Himself remarked that it wasn’t fitting for a prophet to die outside the walls of Jerusalem as He lamented over Jerusalem’s unbelief. God came to His Israel looking for faith, for trust in the promise, for good works that flow out of trust in God’s mercy, And instead He found idolatrous religion in every form imaginable.
Jesus told this parable directly to the religious leaders of Israel who were plotting behind His back to kill Him. He knew what was going on. He knew what was in a man’s heart, and He knew the murderous propensity of religious man. When they heard the parable, the religious leaders were shocked; they understood the implications of what Jesus was saying. The stewardship of God’s grace would be taken away from the blood descendants of Abraham and given to other. To the goyim. The uncircumcised Gentiles. That was the shocker. God was going to take away His vineyard and give it to others. Time was ticking fast. Jesus spoke this parable during holy week, on His way to the cross to die for the world.
Here then is the great mystery of Israel: Israel’s Messiah, the promised One born out of Israel is rejected by Israel’s own religious leaders. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This is Psalm 118 – the messianic king psalm. The Hosanna psalm the disciples sang to Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus, the rejected Messiah, the “loser” in the game of religious “winners,” rejected by scribe and Pharisee and Sadducee, by priest and synagogue lawyer, has become the cornerstone and capstone of our salvation. In other words, God used the rejection of Israel to work the reconciliation of the world and the justification of the sinner.
Now that’s a “new thing,” wouldn’t you agree? Forget the former things, don’t bother with the old things, God says through Isaiah. “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” Water in the wilderness. Drink for my chosen people. A way in the wilderness. The Father takes the rejection of His Son and turns it into salvation. It all hangs on Jesus. “Everyone who falls on that Stone named Jesus will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” You either fall on Him in broken repentance, or He falls on you with the full weight of your salvation rejected. In the end, it’s all about Jesus, and when you’ve said Jesus, you’ve said a new thing.
The apostle Paul had to wrestle with that. You might say that he lost his religion the day Christ appeared to him. We have his first person account in his letter to the Philippians. Paul was trained as a Pharisee. He sat at the feet of Gamaliel, one of the most revered rabbis of his day. When he was on the road to Damascus to round up Christians and have them delivered to Jerusalem, he was convinced he was going God a favor by stamping out this Christian heresy. Then came that fateful day when the crucified and risen Lord Jesus appeared to Paul on the way to Damascus, and his whole religious world was turned upside down.
Listen to how he describes his life as a Pharisee:
If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.
But then Paul goes on to describe his post-Pharisee life: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith….”
This is what it means to fall on the rejected Rock and be broken to bits. “My richest gain I count but loss.” It means that we count everything we have and everything we are as loss, as rubbish, as nothing, in view of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus and being found in Him. It means, as Paul goes on to say, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, we press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Forgetting what lies behind. The old sin, the old Adam, the old ways of religion. Each and every day drowning it all in Baptism. Every day, something new. A new person in Christ, a new you, rises up to live before God in a righteousness not your own.
Here’s the harsh Lenten reality: the old Adam hates to be saved. Our sinful nature resists it. We too are like those ungrateful tenants who have been given much and yet withhold the harvest from God. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10). We too reject the prophets and their word. Oh we don’t have to beat them up, we can just tuck their books away on a shelf and ignore what they have to say to us. We also invent our own religions, seeking ways to justify ourselves and gain the upper hand over God. We too will find Jesus to be a nuisance to our own religious notions as He poked holes in our perfection, insisting on our need to repent, to be forgiven, to trust. Who really wants to be broken? Who wants to admit helplessness?
But the wonder of wonders is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we were yet God’s enemies, He reconciled us to His Father. While we were no better than those murderous tenant in God’s vineyard, God made peace through the death of His beloved Son. While we were dead in our sins, dead in Adam, God made us alive to Himself in Christ – buried us with Him in Jesus’ death, raised us to life in Jesus’ resurrection, seated us in glory in Jesus. In God’s completely upside down way of doing things, the parable turns out to be true – the inheritance is gained through the death of the beloved Son. The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone of our salvation. The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes!
Within a few short days, this parable would become reality as the religious authorities would find Jesus the Christ, the beloved Son of God, guilty of blasphemy for telling the truth of how He is, they would hand Him over to be crucified at that hands of the Roman government. The tenants would kill the beloved Son thinking that they would secure the inheritance. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others, which is precisely what happened. Forty years after Jesus’ death outside Jerusalem, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. The rejected Rock had triumphed, and not one stone of the old religion was left standing on another.
Don’t be deceived by the apparent weakness of Jesus in this world – by His rejection, by His crucifixion. Or by the seeming weakness of the Word, the Sacraments, the church. God’s power lies hidden under weakness, a glorious hidden strength that is perfected in weakness. In the end, His rejection by men means your acceptance before God. His weakness is your strength. His death is your life. And because of Him, and only because of Him, the vineyard of the Lord’s planting is yours as a baptized Child of God. Trust that rejected Rock named Jesus. Fall on that Rock, and He will raise you up and give you life. Of that you can be sure, as surely as He lives and reigns to all eternity.
In the name of Jesus,