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In last Sunday’s gospel lesson, you’ll remember, Jesus told a parable about a father and his two sons. The father asked each to work in the vineyard. One son said he wouldn’t and did. The other son said that he would work in the vineyard and didn’t. Jesus asked His original hearers which of the two sons had obeyed their father. The answer, of course, was the one who obeyed despite his earlier refusal.
As mentioned last week, that parable works for us as a reminder to live out the faith we confess on Sunday mornings. But it also would have had a far more pointed meaning to Jesus’ first hearers. In case they missed it though, Jesus tells another parable on this Monday of Holy Week, which comprises the bulk of today’s gospel lesson. It has a similar pointed meaning for us.
So, let’s look at our lesson, Matthew 21:33-36: “[Jesus says] Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.”
Every one of Jesus’ fellow Jews would have been familiar with the Old Testament scripture to which Jesus refers here. He borrows from Isaiah 5, which is where our first lesson for this morning comes from.
It starts: “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” (Isaiah 5:1-2)
In Isaiah’s song, the “loved one” is God, Who had called His ancient people Israel into being and showered them with grace, provision, and love, only to find that the people sinned, rebelled against God, and treated their neighbors unjustly, failing to love God or neighbor. In other words, they produced bad fruit. This all lay in the background of what Jesus is about to say.
He continues the parable at verse 34: “When the harvest time approached, [the landowner] sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
This is not a parable about giving offerings, by the way. While it's the aim of every Christian disciples to give a percentage of their income--a tithe of 10% is the Biblical model--to God's work in the world, that's not what this parable is about. The God we know in Jesus Christ isn't interested in just 10% of any part of our lives.
And the aim of every Christian disciple is to give 100% of their lives--100% of their time at work, 100% of their time at home, 100% of their whole selves--to God.
As God the Son gave Himself unstintingly for us on the cross, the response of faith in Christ is to give ourselves back to God. God's grace in Christ, saving us from sin and death for all eternity, deserves our total surrender to God in return!
You’ve heard me tell about the couple we knew in Cincinnati who, when asked why they joined a congregation that seemed to have little to offer them, said, “We were looking for a place to serve.”
The tenants in Jesus’ parable were looking to take the whole vineyard for themselves and get the owner completely out of their lives. Like Adam and Eve, they wanted to be their own gods. That’s why they decided to kill the landowner’s son, just as the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike, decided to kill the Son of God on the first Good Friday, just four days after Jesus told this parable.
Jesus continues in verse 40: “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
Jesus, at this point, has the chief priests and the elders right where He wants them. He wants them to make a judgment about the proper punishment for the tenants in His parable, people who represent the priests, the elders, and all of Jesus' fellow Jews in their rejection of God's authority over their lives...in their repudiation and murder of the landowner's son, who clearly represents Jesus.
The chief priests and elders respond: “He will bring those wretches [In the Greek in which Matthew writes, the word translated as “wretches” carries the meaning of “people as totally evil as is possible.Think, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Mao Zedong, Stalin, Putin, that evil, that wretched.] to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
To understand what comes next, we have to delve into another passage from the Old Testament, Daniel, chapter 2.
Here's the situation: It’s seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. Daniel, a Jew, is held in captivity in Babylon. Babylon had conquered God’s people, Israel, and taken some of Israel's best and brightest in chains back to Babylon. The king of Babylon has a dream. Relying not on his own cleverness, but on God, the imprisoned Daniel tells the king, Nebuchadnezzar, both the content of his dream and its meaning.
The dream, in a nutshell, was this: At the dream's outset, there was an enormous statue made of iron, silver, clay, and gold. It was spectacular. Nearby, a rock is quarried from the ground close to the statue. The rock is small at first.
Then this small rock strikes the statue and the statue crumbles into tiny particles that blow away.
The rock meanwhile, becomes a huge mountain and fills the entire earth.
The meaning, Daniel said, was simple: The great kingdom of Babylon was doomed to fail, as were later kingdoms built by human beings. Superpowers come and superpowers go.
But the kingdom of God, represented by the rock in the king’s dream, endures forever!
God will have the last say over the life of this world: not kings, not presidents, not corporations, nor the arrogant, or not even you and me.
If we set out to oppose God or His kingdom of love, we will be on the wrong side of history for all eternity! We will be fools!
All of this lay behind what Jesus says next, starting at verse 42, quoting Psalm 118:22-23: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 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. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
The prophets of ancient Israel came to understand the stone in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream not just as the kingdom of God, underestimated in this world, but also the One Who would bring the kingdom of God into this world, the Messiah.
Like the son in Jesus’ parable of the landowner and the tenants, the Messiah would be “the stone the builders rejected,” Whose power and importance would be disdained and underestimated, but who was and is the King of all kings.
And, by the way, this is exactly how Jesus understood Himself. We try to turn Jesus into a wimp we can control, a kewpie doll we can pull out of our lives' back pockets when we need Him to do our bidding, but stash away when we think that we've got things under control. But the Savior Who overcame death can't be so easily manipulated or taken for granted!
You’ll remember that, after telling the teacher Nicodemus that because God so loved the world that He sent His Son so that all who believe in Him will not perish--will not be crushed by their rebellion against God--but have everlasting life, Jesus also said: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18)
According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus brought a simple message, that with Him, the Kingdom of God, had arrived: ““The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
Jesus is the Rock on which eternity is to be built.
We must either embrace Him as our God or be crushed by our own arrogance. There are no other choices.
At the end of our lesson for today, we’re told that the chief priests and the elders knew that Jesus was talking about them. (Duh!)
That’s because they had built their own kingdoms in which they reigned over the spiritual and civic life of Judea, apart from God. They worked hand-in-glove with the Romans and had cushy lives at the spiritual and economic disadvantage of the people. Jesus was warning them that their days were numbered.
They needed to receive God when He came in their midst--Jesus--or be crushed by their own insolence.
It’s at this moment that the chief priests and elders decide, not to follow Jesus, but that they have to kill Jesus.
So, what does this all have to do with you and me?
Just this. We all have a tendency to work at building our own kingdoms.
We build our careers.
We get the nice house.
We work to get stuff for our kids that they may or may not need.
We pile our 401k’s and 403b’s with reserves.
We guys build our man caves.
Intentionally or not, we find ourselves working to live in and protect our own personal “kingdoms of me.”
But, in truth, the kingdom of me, no matter how big it gets, is destined to crumble.
Our caskets may be lined with silk and gold. Yet we'll still be just as dead when our bodies are set inside of them.
But there’s another kingdom, the kingdom into which Jesus invites us.
These days, it may seem to have been supplanted by the kingdoms of this world: nations, ideologies, religions, sports, politics, leisure activities.
We may see all of these things and think that Christianity is on its way out and that no one will ever revere Jesus again.
That would be a mistake.
None of the kings or kingdoms of this world has ever done or will ever do what Jesus has done for us.
None can do for us and in us what Jesus can.
Jesus, God and sinless, became human so that He could bear the weight of our sin and death on His humble shoulders. When He died, He took the punishment we deserve for sin. When He rose, He made it possible for us to live with God forever. All who turn from sin and trust in Him with their whole selves have life with God, now and always.
Jesus makes all who trust in Him new!
This world may grind us down. The kingdoms of this world in which we may be inclined to trust will be reduced to powder.
But Jesus, the stone which the builders rejected, is the cornerstone on which our eternal lives can be built.
Only He can make us whole.
Only He can give us life.
Only He can give us purpose.
So, today and every day, ask the Holy Spirit to help you build your life on Jesus Christ alone.
- Every single day.
- Every time you read God’s Word.
- Every time you receive the sacrament.
- Every time you pray.
- Every time you go to work.
- Every time you make a decision.
- Every time you're with your spouse or child or friends.
- Every time you go to a ballgame, a party, or a concert.
Always follow Jesus. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]