Another Sunday, another parable, another vineyard. Deadbeat day-laborers, snooty sons, and now wicked, murderous tenant farmers. The outrage of God’s amazing grace continues. Remember that Jesus is still talking to the religious types – the chief priests and the elders of the people. He’s been building up for this one.
A landowner planted a vineyard; he did all the heavy lifting. Built a wall, dug a press, built a tower, planted the grape vines. Finished. Then he went off and leased the farm to some tenants who had nothing to do but water, weed, feed, and reap the harvest. It was all grace, gift, gratis – the land, the vines, the press, the tower, the wall. Everything finished even before the tenants set foot on the property.
Harvest time comes, and the owner seeks the fruit. One by one he sends his servants. But instead of fruit, the tenants produce violence. They beat one servant, kill another, throw stones at a third. The outrageousness of the tenants is surpassed only by the outrageous optimism of the owner. You’d almost hate to be one of his servants. You sure wouldn’t want to be his son. Jesus reminds the religious of Israel’s violent history of rejecting the Word and stoning the prophets. “When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?”
Does that question from Isaiah ring familiar to your ears? If you’ve attended Good Friday services here, it should. It’s called The Reproaches. Three times we hear God address His own people with broken-hearted grief: Thus says the Lord, “What have I done to you, O my people, and wherein have I offended you? Answer me. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? My people, is this how you thank your God? O my people.”
That’s the broken heart of God over His people who have refused His goodness, rejected His mercy, rejected Him. Baptized, saved-by-grace people who refuse to gladly hear and learn the Word of God but instead shut their ears and shut out God’s prophets and preachers. Who needs the Word when you can have it your way? Who needs to hear God’s Word when you’re completely absorbed with your own words? Who needs to live for God when you are looking out for #1?
Time and time again, the owner sends his servants, looking for fruit from the vineyard he planted. And he receives nothing in return but beaten servants. Finally, in an outrageous, desperate act, he sends his son. Luke adds, “beloved son,” just so we don’t miss the Jesus point of it all. “They will respect my son,” he says.
Who in their right minds would send his own son to people like that? Knowing the son would come back empty-handed? Knowing he would meet a certain death? What sort of father would do such a thing with his only beloved son?
God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)
God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them. (2 Cor. 5:19)
God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in HIm should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
True to form, the tenants see the son coming and say, “Ah, here’s our chance! Let’s kill the son and the inheritance will be ours.” By now you’re beginning to think that these tenants are not only criminal, they belong on America’s Dumbest criminals. Kill the son and the inheritance will be ours? What sort of backward logic is that?
Perhaps not as dumb as it sounds. If a landowner dies and leaves no heirs, the land goes to those who live on it. That’s probably what they had in mind. This is the father’s only son, the heir. If they bump him off, the land is theirs free and clear. And so they took him outside the vineyard and killed the father’s only son, his beloved son.
Now comes a question from Jesus. Watch out, another question! Jesus pulls the spring and sets the pin. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” The trap is set.
What will he do? I know what you’re thinking. Here’s the way I think: “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and rent the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” And that’s precisely how things work under the Law. Do the crime, do the time. You reap what you sow. You get what you deserve. They deserve to die, those damnable tenants. And they certainly didn’t deserve to live on the land.
Jesus looks them squarely in the eye and says, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The kingdom of God will be taken away from you – you religious do-gooders, you commandment keepers, you moralists and legalists, you who bargain and transact with God. And it will be given to a people who will produce its fruits – to tax collectors, to prostitutes, to losers, to people who are burned out on religion, to people who can’t seem to keep their lives in order, to those who have nothing to say to God but “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
There’s a dire warning in this parable, and we do well to heed it. Reject the kindness and mercy of God, and you will lose it all. Israel was God’s nation, God’s chosen people, and elect sign to the world of salvation. Israel fumbled the ball. It turned the mystery of salvation by grace through faith into yet another religion, another way of bribing God, another way to cut a deal with God. Israel was supposed to be a peculiar people, a people who showed the world the way of righteousness, the way of living in freedom as God’s justified children, and instead they acted as though YHWH were another national deity, an idol to be bribed and cajoled.
The Church is a baptized sign of salvation to the world in these last days after Christ’s appearing, proclaiming the Mystery that in Jesus, in His dark death on a cross, all the sin of the world is reconciled, payed for, forgiven. You have been baptized into that death. You are marked men and women, tenants by grace in a land that is not your own. You are a purchased people, bought with the blood of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Do not reject this gift, do not kill the prophets and reject the pastors who preach it, do not despise the gifts of the cross – the Word of forgiveness He speaks to you, the Body and the Blood He gives to you as food and drink.
Sometimes we think God needs us, and without us God is sunk and His vineyard is out of business. Don’t imagine it for a second. He doesn’t need us. He loves us to the death, but He doesn’t need us. We need Him. We need Him because we are those wretched tenants. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.” You don’t like to think of yourself as a “wretch,” do you? Oh, you wouldn’t kill the servants and the son, would you? You wouldn’t be like those awful tenants, would you? You’d never despise preaching and God’s Word, would you?
The good news for wretched tenants is found in the same Rock they kicked out of His own vineyard. “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes?” Straight out of Psalm 118. A psalm of thanksgiving for triumph over the enemy. “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love endures forever.” It’s the “hosanna” psalm. “Hosanna, O Lord save us, grant us success. Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” Words shouted at Jesus earlier in this chapter of Matthew when He rode into Jerusalem atop a donkey.
The rejected Rock, the Rock that was deemed useless, religiously out of square and plumb, not worth a paving stone in the temple courtyard much less a cornerstone, has become the capstone of the world’s salvation. Jesus, the rejected Messiah, the messiah no one wanted or even asked for, the crucified and raised-from-the-dead carpenter from Nazareth, rejected by His own people, rejected by the world has, by His death become the capstone of salvation and the cornerstone of faith.
“Let’s kill the son,” they said, “and the vineyard will be ours.” Those wicked tenants were right after all! They meant it for evil; God used it for good. “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” In the death of the Son, the kingdom, the inheritance is won. In the death of the Son at the hands of religious men, the kingdom is bestowed to a thief. In the death of the Son for our sins, for the world’s sin, the kingdom is won.
Forgiveness, life, salvation, an eternal inheritance, all for you, from the Father in the death of His beloved Son. His rejection means your acceptance. The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. Simply marvelous!
In the name of Jesus, Amen.