Proper 22 – Series A
Last week we asserted that Jesus so angering the political and religious leaders of the day that they would kill him on Friday. He did that intentionally. The Gospels do not portray for us a Jesus who is the helpless victim of the Roman and Jewish political machine; rather, they portray Jesus who is the clear master of the events of Holy Week. His ride into Jerusalem on a donkey was a public relations triumph. He skillfully manipulates the Pharisees’ fear of the crowds and at just the right moment makes sure that his betrayer can and does hand him over to the forces who will bring about his death upon a cross.
But to say that this is God’s desire must also be tempered. Yes, Jesus has come to seek and save the lost. Yes, Jesus has come to die for the sins of the world. Yes, Jesus would save every sinner with this own life blood, but even these most noble intentions of God, this expression of God’s high desire to save people is a derived will, a plan B of sorts. He did not want to do this in the first place; it was not his intention at all. Genesis, if people will tear their minds away from the authority of scripture and creationist debates that rage around its first chapters, suggests that God loved his world deeply before its fall. He sought a living and loving relationship with man before sin entered into the world. God’s primary will was to live in harmonious community with this creation. What Jesus is doing is really God seeking that first will. This is the sacrifice that he makes to achieve that goal. He is restoring the first vision God had for his creation.
Today we will see God weeping over that first loss and all the subsequent losses again. We will see the God who loves his creation and, even when that love is foolish to our eyes, will continue to reach out his rebellious creatures. The parable that Jesus will tell will even open the tantalizing door that there might have been another way for this all to have played out. Now please be aware, parables are notoriously fertile ground from some strange ideas and this might be one of them. And I am thus aware that parables need to be read with great care and not taken too far. But the parable at least opens the door to the idea that had the people of Judah repented and believed in Jesus, this might have played out very differently. How exactly, I don’t know, but the mission of the son in the parable is not portrayed as a sacrificial, or suicidal mission, but as an earnest attempt at reconciliation. I think that is important. God does not want them to kill him, but if that is the only way, then he will go that way.
As we mentioned earlier in this season, the Sundays after Pentecost are designed to bring the people of God into a deeper relationship and understanding of God. This is the strength which will empower the joy of the celebrations of Christmas and Easter which occupy the other half of the year. This is the weeding and the tending which means that the harvest festival is genuinely joyful because the crops were bountiful. I think it is important to keep that in mind when you come to preach this day. By giving our parishioners a glimpse into the heart and mind of God, their holy awe and joy when they kneel at a manger and wonder at an empty tomb next spring will the better. 2
I say that because when they understand the real depravity of what happened in the first century, they will also find themselves in those deeds and when they see the overwhelming love which Christ has for the very people who kill him, they too will be moved to lives of worship, joy, and service.
Gracious God, You gave Your Son into the hands of sinful men who killed Him. Forgive us when we reject Your unfailing love, and grant us the fullness of Your salvation; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This prayer broaches the strange subject of God’s atoning sacrifice through His Son. He gave His Son. In the Old Testament the Israelites were expressly forbidden to do this. The cult of Molech which was the Canaanite cult which practiced child sacrifice was regularly cited as the reason the Israelites were to exterminate the Canaanites.
But God is not entirely consistent in this. Of course we are all familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis, but probably less familiar with the story of Jepthah the judge who foolishly promised to sacrifice to God the first thing that came to him after a victory, and it was his adolescent daughter, his only child. We also have the strange occurrence in Kings when the combined armies of Judah and Israel attacked a rebellious Moab and defeated them all the way to the walls of the capital city. There the king of Moab sacrificed his own son to the Moabite god and it says that the terror of god came upon the Israelites and they left. Just what happened there? I don’t know. Was it a demonic presence? Was it something else? The Bible is full of loose ends and mysteries this way. It suggests that there is much more to God than we can possibly understand and demands of us a great deal of humility. The theologian who implies he or she has figured this out is likely the one we know to be wrong.
In any event, there are a number of interesting clues which suggest this strange salvation mechanism in the Old Testament. Even the grief which David feels over his rebellious son Absolom’s death can be seen as something of the grief which God feels over the sins of his own people. In that passage David wishes that he had died instead.
In recent years this whole sacrifice of the Son image has come under considerable and negative scrutiny from some quarters. When I was at Notre Dame a few years ago there was a young man who rather smugly told me that he did not believe all that atonement stuff anymore. I asked him how it worked otherwise. He got rather fuzzy at that point and I rather had the impression that it was more about disagreeing with his elders than it was about any new insight into the nature of God.
The Concordia Theological Quarterly, the journal of the faculty at Concordia, Ft Wayne, devoted an entire issue to the assertion of this atonement doctrine and if you are encountering others who question it or if you simply want to know more, I would commend it to you. Some 3
articles are better than others, but it is a worthy attempt to wrestle with the issue. I am not sure they fully appreciated some of the concerns that people raise, but they at least got the historical statements and arguments of the Church rather straight. You can find this at http://media.ctsfw.edu/ you will have to surf to the CTQ, and you are looking for 2008, volume 72.3.
Of course this is hardly the first time that someone has questioned the atonement. In the medieval period Anselm wrote a fascinating tract on atonement theology entitled “Cur deus homo” which is still a standard work. You could, if you were really adventuresome, find a translation of that at several Online sites, including: http://www.ewtn.com/library/CHRIST/CURDEUS.HTM
I think the whole discussion and difficulty some have with the atonement is not really about the barbarity of God sacrificing his own Son, but really in the horror of the second part of the prayer. You see, we did it. Just as Jesus was humanity reduced to one, the crowds outside screaming for his death and calling his blood upon their heads were stand-ins for every sinner who ever walked the face of this earth, including me and you. You see, I killed Jesus. I did not pound the nails, no, that happened long before I was born, but it was because of my rebellion, my sin, my brokenness, my problem that Jesus died. And too often I would, in my rebellion, even reject this reality of God’s forgiveness. I am really not much better than those Pharisees sometimes. If I had lived then, even if I would have had the good sense to follow Jesus, I would have been running away like the rest of the disciples on that night in Gethsemane and he would have been alone, without friend or ally as he stood before priest and Pilate. I would not have defended him nor would have I befriended him when they hurled their insults as he hung on the cross. I know myself. I am ashamed.
Isaiah 5:1-7 I have stretched the reading for us. I was struck by the image of people adding house to house. It appears folks were buying up properties to make grand estates, but Isaiah notices that they live alone. In Portland the greedy developers are building what we call “infill” housing. Cramming more and more houses onto the ever shrinking lots, so we are virtually living in de facto apartment blocks.
Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, 4
and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. 6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!
8 Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is no more room, and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. 9 The LORD of hosts has sworn in my hearing: “Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. 5
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath, and a homer of seed shall yield but an ephah.”
In a strange twist of interpretational history, this chapter had, by the time of Jesus, become a great favorite of the people of Israel. You can see that reflected in the psalm for this day which picks up on the Isaiah passage’s metaphor of Israel as a vineyard. Even though Isaiah had originally meant it as a sharp rebuke to the people, they had more or less turned it on its head. The picture of the nation as the precious vineyard of God, beloved and tended lovingly by him, was their preferred image of themselves. They understood that the exile, which had purged them of their idolatry had taken care of the problem. God had pruned them hard and now they were producing good fruit. If you look at the critique of Isaiah, however, God is looking for particular fruit from his vineyard, namely justice and righteousness and finds only bloodshed and an outcry. Remember the Gospel for today is found in Holy Week, which includes a Friday we call Good, when humanity slew the one righteous man who ever lived with a barbarism that no Islamist terrorist in Iraq will ever match.
The people of the time of Jesus were blind to this. They saw that God had indeed caused the wall to be broken down, the gentiles had trampled upon it, and the briers had grown up among its vines, but now, in their estimation, God had returned to love his vineyard. All that wrath of God had been spent on their forebears in the days of the Exile, centuries ago. When the people had been allowed to return, at least in part, God had replanted the vines. And now, they looked for the Messiah to return who would rebuild the wall and pull up the weedy Romans and other gentiles and restore the vineyard completely. They could not imagine that the exile was a prediction itself of the wrath of God to be expressed on another day, much more completely and wholly than even the cruel Assyrians and Babylonians.
They apparently did not read the last verses. The issue with the vines was not that they were contaminated with outsiders, but it was their fruit, violence and bloodshed, an outcry where there should have been righteousness.
Of course the great temptation for people within the church is to imagine that they too are somehow the favored people of God because of who they are, or because of what they have done. We imagine that God looks upon us in some way and has a special little warm spot in his heart just thinking about us. Perhaps we don’t even articulate it but simply know it. After all we are Lutherans and even the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live asserted once that we were right. How much of a higher authority can one find than that? We are the intellectual and spiritual heirs of Luther! Everyone likes Luther, except some less enlightened Roman Catholics. If our vineyard has grown a little weedy and our pews a little empty in these dark days, it is because we have been insufficiently attentive to the purity of our doctrine and the rigor of our catechesis.
But notice what is missing in all that. It seems to me that judgment on the last day is articulated in the Scripture on the giving of a cup of cool water to a thirsty child, not the purity of our theological texts. It would seem that the love which God has for all people bears a fruit in our 6
lives or we are a poor vineyard no matter how pure our thoughts are. Without actions, they are just so much gas in God’s eyes. When was the last time the LCMS was known for its love and compassion instead of its political fighting and cruelty to one another? Was in the days of my grandfather? His father? I am not sure I can remember those days.
It will take Jesus to make this into a text of purest Gospel, but before we get there we must pass through the valley of death’s shadow, the news grows grimmer before the light breaks.
Preachers take note of this. The final words of verse 7 are beautifully done poetry which demonstrate the power of Isaiah the poet. The Lord comes seeking “mishpat” (justice) but finds “mispach” (bloodshed) he looks for “zedekah” (righteousness) but finds “ze’akah” (outcry). Isaiah takes great pains to make his language beautiful. Preachers need to speak well.
Psalm 80:7-19 I have included the opening lines of this psalm as well.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock. You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth. 2 Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh, stir up your might and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!
4 O LORD God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? 5 You have fed them with the bread of tears and given them tears to drink in full measure. 6 You make us an object of contention for our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves.
7 Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved!
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. 9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. 10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. 11 It sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the River. 7
12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? 13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, 15 the stock that your right hand planted, and for the son whom you made strong for yourself. 16 They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your face! 17 But let your hand be on the man of your right hand, the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself! 18 Then we shall not turn back from you; give us life, and we will call upon your name!
19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts! Let your face shine, that we may be saved!
I know why the editors have started with verse four. It fits the theme of the Gospel and OT so well. Israel is the vineyard of the Lord. But it seems like this picking up in the middle also lends itself to a triumphalism. The psalm starts with the psalmist lamenting the fact that God has apparently turned his back on the people. I know the theme is picked up later in the psalm, but it seems like the psalmist is starting us out there.
Philippians 3:4b-14 again, contextual concerns have impelled me to offer the whole chapter. We will start again in chapter 4 next week, so if you are thinking about this as a sermon text, by all means preach the whole chapter.
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 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; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which 8
comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Paul’s exhortation to Joy today intersects with the OT and Gospel reading in a strange and marvelous way. Paul warns the Philippians to watch out for the mutilators of the flesh. Clearly, from the next line, he means the Judaizers who would insist on circumcision for the gentiles too. The real circumcision is of the heart and is evidenced in the worship and glorification of Jesus in the Spirit of God.
But then Paul goes on to a most interesting account of himself. He says that when it came to being a Jew he was one of the best, but as he goes on, you notice that what he really says is that his observance of the law really put him in direct opposition to the very God who gave that law. He thought he was being an “uber-Jew” by persecuting the very Church which God has established in Jesus. When confronted by Christ on the road to Damascus, Jesus asks “Why are you persecuting me.” It was Jesus whose body received the stony blows in Stephen’s martyrdom. Jesus was languishing in the prison cells when Saul had arrested and imprisoned people. In persecuting these people, this great act of obedience to the Law, Paul was actually breaking the Law most profoundly and found himself numbered among the very enemies of God, despite is zeal for the LORD.
This has to be sobering for the Church and its people. Just calling ourselves Christians does not make us God’s friends. Indeed, his enemies often say the same thing. Saul of Tarsus insisted he was persecuting Christians in the name of the same God he would later worship as Paul. The measure of our faith is not in whether we have a cross on our building and Lutheran or Christian in our name, but in the love, the fruit which God’s people bear in their lives. To 9
measure simply on the basis of pure doctrine or anything of the sort is dangerous and misses the point. Saul of Tarsus was terribly right.
With that in mind, Paul can see that everything he strove so mightily for as Saul has been counted as loss. He has changed his name from a great Old Testament warrior king to Paul, a Greek word that means “nothing.” To the Greek speaking ear, his name is “Paltry.” It was all a waste of time. The real joy, the real treasure, is knowing Christ and being as much like him as I can be. As he writes from prison Paul can even rejoice in the fact that Jesus wore chains and was guarded as a prisoner. He is like Jesus even in this. Paul rejoices in all this because he knows the end of the story. Jesus, crucified and pierced on the cross, is also Jesus gloriously resurrected on the third day. So Paul strives to be like Jesus, confident that the same blessed ending of the story applies to him too.
So even suffering is not joy-robbing. Jesus suffered too, in fact suffered much more than I ever will. In my suffering I am tasting a little of what he tasted in that cup which he drank. And in tasting a little of suffering, I am in this way a little closer to my Jesus, looking a little more like him. That is a very good thing, for he rises to heavenly glory and takes a place of great honor and blessing. So I cannot measure God’s love for me by my current situation. If I have much, I thank God for it, if I have pain and suffering, I also am able to rejoice, because I am one with Jesus in this too.
Paul admits that he has a long way to go and he strains for that prize, the prize of being absolutely like Christ. That is good news for me, because if Paul admits he has a long way to go, it is alright if I also must make that admission. But Paul also does not stop and despair of getting there. He strains to the goal. So too, the amazing gift of God in Jesus, the love shown even to a certain rebellious Pharisee, the heir of those who shed Jesus blood, that moves him to a life of service and sacrifice for others. It does not take away the impetus to serve, but it strengthens it, it makes it more urgent.
So the preacher today will want to notice that the Gospel, while removing the acts of the Christian from the whole economy of salvation, does not make them optional or listless. Just because God is not saving me because of my actions, does not mean my actions are unimportant. In truth, they become more important. Now they are the blessed incarnation of his great love. And so they measure the good that he has done. If my actions are small and petty, what does that say about his great love for and in me? Conversely, if my life is marked by sacrifice and service, what does that say about him and his great deed? Not that I am buying something, but that I am wholly owned by the one who gave his life for the salvation of the world. He lives in me!
33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into 10
another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44 And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46 And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
Luther teaches us that God’s kingdom comes, whether we pray for it or not. God’s will is done, whether we pray for it or not. But we pray in these petitions that it is done and comes among us also. This story is really a story of God’s kingdom coming and God’s will being done despite the people for whom it comes and is done. They will eventually kill Jesus later this week, but God’s kingdom is not undone by their terrible deed. In truth, their worst brings out only the best in God as he turns that cross into the mechanism for saving the world.
It is interesting that the leaders of the Jews, the chief priests and Pharisees, feared men more than God. A few months later, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter will appear before them also and remind them that one must fear God more than men.
Jesus immediately follows up the words from last week with even more inflammatory statements. At the end of this, the Pharisees will have their minds made up. This upstart preacher from Galilee must die, at least be silenced in some cell. But they fear the crowds. Jesus is never far from the crowds of pilgrims, many from Galilee who have heard of Jesus or who have perhaps eaten at the feeding of the multitudes or witnessed the healings. They surround Jesus like some great shield. The Pharisees are only too aware of how volatile the situation in Jerusalem at Passover is. One spark could set of this powder keg of emotions and religious and national 11
fervor which was Jerusalem at Passover. These crowds hold Jesus to be a prophet and his arrest might be the spark that sets off the explosion which will bring the Roman legions marching on Jerusalem.
In fact their fears are well founded. In less than 40 years a rebellion will break out, the Roman legions will come marching, and, in the process of reasserting Roman control of Jerusalem, the temple will be burned and, to this day, never rebuilt. It will be a catastrophe for the people of Palestine. Do not judge these Pharisees and religious leaders too harshly. They are trying to avert a political meltdown, in much the same way that, a few years ago, we witnessed politicians trying desperately to avert a financial meltdown. Safely in the middle of a recovery, we can easily forget that we witnessed the jaw-dropping scene of a political heir of Ronald Reagan (G. W. Bush) nationalizing a major company like AIG. It goes against the principles which the Republican party asserts, but in the face of what they perceived to be a disaster, they compromised their principles for what they believed was a greater good.
So too the Pharisees in today’s text are aware that murder and the unjust imprisonment of a man is contrary to their own principles, but in an effort to “save” the people and, more likely, their own positions of authority and wealth, they will compromise those principles. Jesus must die.
I have no idea what is the best thing for the people in power today to do in regards to the economy. I can barely balance my own checkbook. I merely use this an example of how contingencies often force those in positions of leadership to work contrary to their own stated principles. I would exercise great caution in using that illustration in a sermon. Pastors who preach about things they do not understand can come off looking like fools and as a result the gospel is obscured for their hearers. Make sure that you know what you are talking about if you elect to use the current political or economic situation in a sermon. And what is more, remember that often your congregations contains people who hold strong opinions on all sides of an issue and as the forgiver of their sins, you need to minister to all of them on the day after the election. You cannot sacrifice that relationship to score a political point.
But now let us consider what Jesus actually says in this parable. He is obviously using the parable which Isaiah has spoken in chapter five and which the people of Judea in Jesus’ day dearly loved. He takes the parable and reworks it. Now the owner of the vineyard has leased it to tenants in what appears to be a form of share-cropping. When the harvest time arrives the owner sends his servants to collect his share of the crop. (Remember that while grapes have a limited shelf life this could also be in the form of wine or dried fruit, it could also have been simply the cash proceeds.)
A modern vintner’s and viticulturist’s example might help here. A winery places a great deal of trust in the growers. The winery lives or dies by the quality of the grapes that come into their winery. They can make bad wine out of good grapes, but good wine just cannot come from bad grapes. Those are powerful relationships. Jesus is using a relationship here which makes sense in the modern wine growing industry as well. The winery and grower are often friends, 12
colleagues, and partners who are in business yes, but also whose relationships are personal and important to both of them. The grapes sourced from particular vineyards can be integral to a winery’s product profile. No well-run California winery breaks a relationship with a grower lightly.
The tenants refuse to pay the rent, they abuse the servants and send them packing. Repeated attempts are made and the violence and bloodshed escalate until they are killing and abusing these servants. Finally, the owner elects to send his son to collect the rent. Now the reader really must pause here. This is one strange owner of the vineyard because already the rent cannot be worth what the loss of his servants meant. A slave was an expensive acquisition in ancient world. He has lost several already. A sensible manager would probably have simply evicted the tenants and cut his losses long ago. But this is a parable and it is in the goofy behavior of the characters of the parables in which one usually finds the point. Remember the sower who sows everywhere or the farmer who lets the weeds grow in the field or the man who buys the treasure he already has a right to claim.
The owner of the field does something really odd. He sends his son. The tenants then seem to have a complete lapse of common sense. Seeing the heir coming they presume that with him out of the way they will be able to claim the field for themselves. I am not an expert on first century inheritance law, but this seems absolutely nuts to me. I have read commentators who tried to make sense of it, but they have not been convincing. I think there is, in Hannah Arendt’s well-turned phrase, simply a “banality of sin.” It doesn’t makes sense what they do, but then again, when does sin really make sense?
Jesus asks the obvious question. What will the owner of that vineyard do to those tenants? The answer is pretty obvious and their reply even has a nice little pun in it. The wretches will come to a wretched end and the vineyard will be leased to others. Just in case they missed the point Jesus applies the parable rather pointedly. The tenants are the religious leaders who are supposed to be caring for God’s vineyard, the people of Israel. But they are rebelliously refusing to offer up the rent. Now they are about to kill another of the emissaries sent to them by God, just as they have slain the prophets who went before Jesus. But the implication is that this crime is worse than even that. This is not just another prophet, but this is the very Son of God, the capstone of all. If they stumble over him they will be destroyed, crushed by him. Their positions will be stripped away from them and the leadership of the people of God given to others.
Here it is critical to remember Matthew’s audience, the people for whom he wrote this account of Jesus several decades after these events. They are first century Palestinian Jewish Christians who are being persecuted by the next generation of these same Pharisees. Jesus words which predict that God would wrest the vineyard from their hands and give it to others had immediate implication for them. They were watching this happen. We think that Matthew’s Gospel was written to comfort these Palestinian Jewish Christians after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. At that point it appears that the Jewish community lashed out against 13
the Christians in their midst, blaming them for this destruction. We don’t know exactly why, whether they accused them of angering God by some blasphemous worship of this Jesus or whether the Christians simply did not help out in the revolt. In any event, an intense hatred of these Jewish Christians started at this point. But Matthew wants them to see that through the Romans, God had taken the vineyard away from these guys and given it to another.
But what of us? Are we wretched tenants who are not rendering up to God the righteous deeds which are his due? That sounds pretty lawful to me. Where is the Gospel? Can it really be anywhere other than in the son who is given up to die? What is the end of the tenants? The answer the Pharisees give for this is not really Jesus’ answer is it? He somehow turns the twisted logic of the tenants into truth. They kill the son and do indeed become heirs of eternal life. Humanity has slain the one innocent man who ever lived and as a result we inherit heaven. Go figure.
This came from a regular reader of the Notes: While I was in seminary training to be a pastor I was assigned to a local church to help out by being a lay reader, teaching w/confirmation, etc. One of my seminary professors happened to be leading an adult SS class on Matt’s Gospel which Julie & I attended. I opened my Bible to our reading for today & found some notes I wrote in my Bible from this SS class. My professor said that if the absentee landlord doesn’t get his share of the harvest for 3 years, he forfeits his rights to the vineyard & the tenants could challenge his ownership (in court). So if the owner would get disqualified & wouldn’t own it anymore, the son would be the rightful heir & would bring the deed to prove ownership, but if they killed him & destroyed the deed, it would be hard to prove ownership. Jim Voelz, St. Paul’s, Des Peres
1. Honesty dictates that I must number myself among those whose sins occasioned Jesus’ death. He hangs on that cross because I too have rebelled against my creator and rightful Lord.
2. Too often we inside the Church, and especially the leaders of the Church as its Pastors and Servants, have forgotten the real fruit of the God’s vineyard, the Church. We have argued and fought about things which did not matter. We have won meaningless battles and neglected to engage the real enemy. The vineyard has not been as productive as it should have been.
3. Our sinful pride has also sought to claim for ourselves the honor and glory which is due to God. Do we really think that our congregation will grow if I preach a great sermon? Do we count on the program or the music or anything else which I propose to turn around the decline in our membership? There but one who can save this place, and that one is God. I am not God.
4. And when we have sinned, we have defended that sin by the contingencies which surround it. Yet, in so doing, we have rejected God’s genuine reconciliation. He has not offered to pat me on the head and tell me what a good job I have done, he has come to resurrect my lifeless rotting spiritual corpse. I would rather have the pat on the head and the recognition that at least part of me isn’t so bad.
5. This focus on self and attempt to be right has served to rob me and many congregations of real joy. It is as if we are not allowed to be happy until we have it all right. We cannot simply be God’s children, striving for the life to which God is calling us. We confuse our own striving with arriving. We cannot rejoice until we get there, forgetting that our arrival is God’s doing and our striving is its result. The effect on us is to make us gloomy and morose, always remembering our failures and sins and never the beautiful goal to which we are called.
1. Jesus has come to die for the sins of the whole world. He knows what these men will do to him, he knows what these words will inflame them to do, and he does it willingly, for he loves even these wicked tenants of his vineyard.
2. That love did not end on a cross and did not find its only expression in the events of Holy Week. That love would reach out to another persecutor who would become Paul and that love continues to reach out toward the rebellious and willful people who really ought to be on God’s side. Our failures of the past do not mean that God has given up on us. He sent the prophets, he sent the Son, he continues to send and appeal and reconcile his sinful people. This is not a “three strikes and you’re out” sort of situation.
3. And that means that our lives can continue, despite our past, to bear witness to the marvelous love of God. In fact, our past and present sins can even be occasions when God’s light shines most brightly, as they did in the life of Paul.
4. And so Christ speaks hard words to us today. Not that he may kill us but that we may know the death he came to conquer in his own Passover and to know that it was for our own death, spiritual and bodily, that he came to overcome. Imagine a man in a burning home. Confused by the smoke he suddenly confronted by the fireman who has come to rescue him. The command “walk this way!” is indeed a command, but it is also sweetest Gospel. Jesus’ words which point out our own death are both Law and Gospel, for he has come to remove this very death from us. Foolish indeed is the man who seeks to make his own way out of that burning building. Jesus has not come to pat the marginally alive on the head and say “nice job.” He has come to raise the dead, so be dead already.
5. For those raised from the death of sin know a persisting joy, a joy which knows no end and cannot be taken away by our enemy. My life is renewed, though it still must taste of this fallen creation and the death which clings so closely to it, I am not bothered by that. I
am one with the Lord of Life, he has made me so in my baptism and he has united himself to me in his life, his suffering, his death, and gloriously in his resurrection which I too shall share with him.
1. For the Vineyard of the Lord (OT Reading – That the hearer believe that even in difficult times, God’s love for his people is constant.)
This sermon is directed to a congregation going through a tough time. When times get difficult it can be tempting to wonder if God is angry with us or if God has simply given up on us or even if God even exists. The first of these assumes God’s anger, the second assumes God’s apathy, the third assumes there is no God. All three are a form of disbelief and doubt and Christians are not immune from this.
Isaiah wrote to his people as the northern ten tribes were being exiled. His own people would succumb to Babylonian exile some time after his death. He describes what is happening in the north and soon in the south in the imagery of a vineyard. The vineyard has been lovingly prepared, tended, protected, etc., so that the owner of the vineyard expects his good fruit. But the grapes are bitter, sour, wild grapes. If you have ever encountered these, you know what he is talking about. The ancients knew how to graft and often used the more vigorous wild grape root stock. But this time the vineyard does not produce the sweet grapes which have been grafted in, only the worthless sour grapes.
What can the prophet’s beloved do? He will tear down the wall and disrupt the vineyard, allow in the wild animals. He sought good grapes but found only bad. If you use the reproaches on Good Friday you will recognize this.
Isaiah then tells us that the vineyard is the nation of Israel. God’s beloved people. He looked for righteousness but saw only bloodshed. The fruit is bad. He will tear down the wall and the wild Assyrians and Babylonians will rampage through its streets, seizing what they want, destroying much, exiling the people. The unfruitful vineyard will be left desolate.
It sounds like a terrible sermon so far. But the Christian preacher knows something. Those children of Israel who shed blood so quickly will continue to do so. Yes, they return from Exile far more attentive to scripture and the LORD, but they will still be people who perpetrate injustice. One day, about 800 years after Isaiah wrote these words, they will murder another man using the justice system, his name is Jesus. That act of gross injustice will change everything.
God is not rejecting his vineyard. The opposite of love is not hate and anger, but indifference. Listen to the Gospel reading today. Jesus makes use of this parable Isaiah 16
tells. One more parable, he would utter. One more try to call just one more Pharisee or Sadducee to repent and believe. He loved even those guys, right up to the very end when he gave up his spirit, praying for those whose murdered him.
God’s love is that sort of durable. He still has it for you and me.
2. A wretch brought to a blessed end (Gospel and Epistle -That the Spirit of God would move the hearer to place his/her trust in Jesus, who has died for the sin of the whole world.)
The Pharisees to whom and of whom Jesus spoke that first Holy Week were absolutely right, the tenants deserved to die. But this kingdom of God is not about what we deserve. As the spiritual heir of those men, perhaps even present on that day as a student of Gamaliel, Saul the persecutor would continue their terrible deeds against Jesus as the Jewish religious leadership sought to stamp out this Christian movement. (If you back date the conversion of Paul from his own account in Galatians, it appears that his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus happened between 3 and 6 years after the crucifixion of Christ.)
In the readings today no one looks more like those tenants than Saul of Tarsus, by his own admission. But we know that is not how that story ends. God did not bring this wretched man to his wretched and deserved end, he brought him to a blessed end, confronting him on a road to Damascus and turning Saul the Persecutor into Paul the Apostle.
Likewise God has confronted us today. Our own vineyard has not born the fruit of love and mercy for which God established this congregation or for which he planted faith in the hearts of each one of us. You might just haul out the charter of the congregation and list off a few of the lofty ideas which the founding members of the parish had for you. I remember a congregation in Salt Lake City whose seventh item on its list of reasons to form the congregation was to save Danish maidens from polygamists. How do you work that one into the annual ministry plan?
Being reminded of why our congregation exists will likely remind us of our failings. But it may not only be sins of omission here. The parable may bite hard. We too have mistreated the servants whom God has sent us. We have ignored his Word, we have spoken ill of those pastors and teachers and Sunday School leaders and Elders and others who did not measure up to our expectations and demands, or who told us things we did not want to hear. We have flayed them as we sat around the Sunday dinner table or we have never even let them into our lives and have ignored them.
Too often we have been poor stewards his vineyard, and if God thought like we did, that would be the end of the story, but he does not. Yes, the vineyard is wrenched away from those wicked tenants, but oddly enough God takes one of the wickedest of tenants and 17
gives it to him. His grace reaches out to persecutors and rebellious children and even us. We too can be turned around, empowered by His Spirit, given a new life of genuine joy in our service to him. It happened to Paul; it is a story repeated countless times through history. It means setting aside the things of this life, they don’t matter any way. It means dying a death of sorts, but also being raised to a new sort of Life every day by Him. We pray that this kingdom comes and this will is done among us also.
Paul did. He says that the whole life which he used to live he counts as rubbish (Philippians). And the same Spirit who grabbed him by the shirt and opened his eyes in baptism is at work in you. The enemy or stumbling block of this sort of a motion is the miserable smugness that suggests that because we are already in the Church we don’t need ourselves to be converted, changed, or otherwise turned about by God’s grace. It was against just such an attitude that the Danish philosopher/theologian Soren Kierkegaard railed in the 19th century. You might find some excellent reading there. I would recommend Fear and Trembling if you are looking for a good place to start.
We almost have to sing “Amazing Grace” for the salvation given to a “wretch like me” line if we preach this sermon.
3. Grasping for the prize (Epistle and Gospel – that the Spirit of God would give the hearer comfort in the promise that God’s great goal is our salvation and we cannot change that.)
The religious leaders of Jesus day grasped for the power and the continuation of their own positions of authority and influence. When they conspired against Jesus for speaking the truth, they grasped for what made sense to them. It was better in their reckoning that one man die rather than the Romans come in and kill thousands. It was a brutal economy, but it is not outside our own sort of thinking. They were in fact being wise in a worldly sort of way.
But little did they know that their grasping in sin to hold power and glory would coincide with Jesus’ own grasping for their very salvation. The vineyard, the tenants themselves are the precious planting of the Lord. This text reveals Jesus reaching for a different prize in the very same cross which they have arranged for him. The Son sent by the Father loves the wicked tenants, and would not see them destroyed as they deserve. That is why the Son has come and why the owner of the vineyard has behaved so strangely. So he lays down his life for the very men who kill him.
Thus, with Paul now, we too grasp for a prize, not the prize which the world, our sinful flesh, and the rest of the forces allied against God think is not important, but the prize of the Christ-like life. The world cannot understand this economy of Christ – this giving up of self for the sake of others, this suffering for another, this love of enemy, but for the one whom God has so loved, it makes a beautiful sense. It is the new normal we spoke of a few weeks ago. We are not there, reaching that final goal is God’s to give, but its beauty, 18
its light, its joy draws us upward to himself in every act, in every deed which looks a little like Jesus.
We are still grasping people, but now our grasping is aligned with his, because he aligned his grasping in humility and service with theirs so long ago. This makes us once more his precious vineyard. No, as Paul says, we are not perfect, we have not attained to all that God has called us to be, but we are the place where He has gathered his precious people this day. We are his planting, we are the planting of the Lord which bears his fruit this day. God has not treated us as we deserve, but rather God has total confidence in the work of Jesus and His Spirit. He has given us the vineyard, he looks forward to its fruit, he has not done that because he is a fool or because he doesn’t understand us, but because he knows the work of His Son and His Spirit’s presence.
A vineyard in today’s terms, with a winery in the middle of it, on the low end would be 5 million dollars, a large commercial operation would run 40 million dollars or more. God has invested a great deal in this little place, his Son’s precious blood. God knows what he is doing.
4. Confidence in Christ (Epistle – That the Holy Spirit would move the hearer to place his confidence in Christ, not in the false goals of world, self, or anything else)
Our news brings us a great deal of bad and frightening news. The economy continues to appear somewhat fragile. What if all this blows up in our faces? What if the whole thing collapses? What will we lose? Much. Our retirement, savings, homes, all sorts of things will be overturned. What if we simply cannot afford health insurance? What if the Europeans cannot get their act together and the dominos start to fall that all the economists are fretting about this week. What if Ukraine turns into a total mess? What if ISIS or another jihadist group gets its hands on a weapon of mass destruction? What if Ebola comes to this continent?
We don’t need to dwell on this in our sermons, our folks are coming in with these fears to some extent. We simply need to name it. There is much in the world of which we can be legitimately afraid. We don’t want to say that these fears are unfounded. They are well founded!
But despite all the turmoil and insecurity we experience, one thing will not be overturned. There is one confidence which is never misplaced: a confidence in Christ. Paul, sitting in prison has every excuse to despair because his world has collapsed. He is in prison, facing a death sentence. His life might be “poured out” quite literally. Yet he is not afraid. I want some of that confidence and peace, we all want some of that. The confidence which he has evidenced here he is very open about. It is a confidence which resides in Christ. He has not attained the goal but Christ has attained the goal. Paul is striving for the goal but in a wonderful and very Lutheran paradox, he also has already 19
attained it in Christ. He is sinner and saint, he is now and not-yet. In Christ he has attained something, the righteousness of God in Christ. That has been given.
For Paul and for us this suggests that we do not find this confidence in all the good things which we used to consider important: For Paul it was his Jewishness, his education, his work, but all that is now rubbish, it is behind him, it is forgotten in a sense. He is working far harder now than he ever did as a Pharisee, but it is totally different, it is Christ working in him, it is in response to that upward call of God in Christ Jesus. This is no works righteousness which finds confidence in the deeds I do, but it is a deed which flows out of the confidence which Christ has worked in His deed on a cross.
The preacher will want to hit this last part hard. For Paul this was a searing experience which faced him the other way. The zealous Pharisee became a zealous Christian. Our people are too comfortable in some respects. Their tepid deism risks becoming a tepid Christianity. We cannot preach this gracious work of Christ as if it is somehow a license to do even less. Paul strives, not to get righteousness, but because he already has it. Too often we proclaim righteousness and our people check that box off and shuffle off to coffee and donuts after the service, never to do a thing other than serve themselves for the rest of the week.