Text: Luke 20:9-20
Beatings. Woundings. Traumatizing. Homicide. The evening news? No. The parable that Jesus told in today’s Gospel.
The scribes and chief priests who heard Jesus tell the parable got it. They understood perfectly well that Jesus was preaching about them and their unfaithfulness as leaders in God’s vineyard, his people Israel. They understood that Jesus was telling them that judgment would come upon them for rejecting God’s one and only Son, the Messiah and Savior of the world.
This parable is hard to preach to you, beloved baptized. It’s kind of a downer. There’s not much Good News to be found here. But we need to hear this parable as a warning to us, today, too. We need to hear this parable as a warning to not ignore nor reject the way in which God has worked and continues to work among us. And therein lies the Good News in this parable … that God is the one who is doing the work. God is the one who does the planting. God is the one who in love sends servants to patiently call his people back to repentance. And God is the one who sends his Son to be the Savior of his vineyard.
God plants the vineyard. He calls people together to be his own. They do not choose him. He graciously chooses them. He created the people and the nation of Israel. Today’s reading from Isaiah describes how God created the nation of Israel and brought them to himself when he rescued them from slavery in Egypt and “made a way” for them and “gave water in the wilderness” (Isa. 43:19) … parting the Red Sea, giving water from the rock. They were his “chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isa. 43:21). He entrusted his people to the care of leaders. Kings and priests in days of old. Sadducees and Scribes during the earthly ministry of the Messiah. They were the ones in charge of worship in the temple and teaching God’s Word. These are the “tenants” in the parable … the ones who would soon send the Son of God to his death.
God plants the vineyard, and then he sends servants. Their task was to see what kind of fruit the vineyard had produced. These are the prophets whom God sent to “gather fruit” … the fruit of faith and works that serve the neighbor in love and mercy. But Israel was unfruitful. They had rebelled against Yahweh. And so the prophets called the people to repentance, to return to the Lord in faith and trust.
The planter of the vineyard, however, is very patient with his people. He wasn’t just done with the tenant farmers after the first servant was beaten. He sent another servant. And another. Three times he sends a servant to the tenant farmers in the parable. God sent many more than three prophets to Israel. It’s not three strikes and you’re out with the Lord. He gave his people numerous opportunities to turn away from their sin and return to him.
Finally, the planter of the vineyard sends his son. He assumes that the tenants will respect his own son. But instead, the tenants treat the son treacherously and try to get his inheritance by killing him. They drag him outside the vineyard and put him to death. In the same way, the religious establishment of Jerusalem sought to kill Jesus. They resented the way he confronted them. They resented the way he accused them of teaching that one could be righteous in God’s sight by keeping the Law. They handed him over to the Roman authorities who led him outside the city walls and crucified him.
Do you see the irony here? The tenant farmers seek to steal the son's inheritance by killing him, but in so doing, they lose everything. Likewise, the leaders of Israel sought to kill Jesus. In so doing, they lose everything. Judgment will come upon them. Jerusalem will be overrun by the Romans (and it was in 70 AD). “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” The Jewish leaders “fell upon” Jesus, and they will be broken to pieces in judgment because of their unbelief. The stones of the temple were toppled by the Romans as God's judgment fell upon the unfaithful nation. The vineyard, God's Kingdom, was handed over to “others.” Gentiles who come to faith in Christ inherit the vineyard.
But there is yet more irony in all of this. It is the treacherous death of the Son of God that brings life and salvation to the world! It was the disobedience of Israel that brought the kingdom to people like you and me. Paul says it this way in Romans 11: “Through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous. Now if their trespass means riches for the world, and if their failure means riches for the Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!” (Rom. 11:11-12) In other words, although judgment fell upon Israel, this does not eternally exclude those who are of Jewish extraction. Both Gentile and Jew alike come to faith now in the same way, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through Water and the Word. He plants faith in you. He grafts you onto Christ the Vine in whom you abide and from whom you draw life. He places you as fruitful plants in his vineyard, the Church. “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith,” Paul writes in Galatians 3. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:26-29). This is the mysterious, unexpected, almost backward way (backward, that is, to us) in which God works. In that same section in Romans 11 mentioned a moment ago, Paul breaks out in wondrous praise of God's mysterious plan and says, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and how inscrutable his ways” (Rom. 11:33).
But God's ways are not so inscrutable so as to be secret. God’s Son was sent for you and for me. This Good News has been declared to the world. It's declared to you every Sunday from this pulpit in spoken Words. It’s given to you from this altar in Body and Blood. Jesus the Cornerstone was broken and crushed for us at the cross. Jesus the Cornerstone crushed the Serpent’s head, silencing his accusing voice. Jesus the Cornerstone breaks and crushes our sinful hearts and selfish wills. We come to him broken, crushed, repentant, acknowledging we can do nothing apart from him. A broken and contrite heart he will not despise, we learn from Psalm 51 (Ps. 51:17). With St. Paul, we are willing to suffer the loss of all things, including our pride, our egos, our wills that think that we have a part in this whole salvation thing. As the apostle wrote, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and considering them rubbish in order to 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 that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:8-9).
God is the one who plants faith in you. He calls you to be his own. You did not choose him. He chose you. God is the one who plants you in his vineyard, the Church. You are those whom he has formed for himself that you might declare his praise (Is. 43:21). God sends servants to you … pastors who are called to be faithful, called to speak God's Word. You are called to hear that Word as if it is the voice of Christ himself, forgiving your sins, putting you back together again, making you new, making you whole, aligning you once again with Christ your Cornerstone so you can do the works which are pleasing in his sight.
God is also so very patient with us today. He continues to nurture and nourish us so that we bear fruit in his vineyard. Like the Prodigal Son in last week’s Gospel reading, he patiently waits for us to return to him when we run away from him. And we can be patient with others when they do not bear fruit as quickly as we would like them.
In closing, think of Patrick. He must have been a patient man. Born in 4th Century Britain to a Christian family. Kidnapped at 16. Enslaved in Ireland for six years. Escaping to his native land, only to return later as a missionary to the pagan Irish. Think of Patrick’s patience living as a slave. Think of his patience preaching to the people of his former captors. I’m sure Patrick didn’t convert the pagan Irish overnight. But he prayed for them. He preached the Gospel to them. He showed the love of Christ to people with whom the Scribes and Sadducees would have had nothing to do. And he gives us a faithful, patient example to follow today.