[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio during worship yesterday.]
The questions that today’s gospel lesson puts before us as disciples of Jesus are these: Who has authority over us? And how are we to acknowledge or live under that authority?
There are different kinds of authority, of course. In a verses of Luke's gospel that appear just beyond today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells His hearers to give to Caesar, that is to the government, what we owe the government and to God what we owe God.
Because I feel privileged to live in the United States, I’ve never minded paying my taxes. Justice Holmes said: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” Scripture teaches and Lutherans have always believed in the necessity of government authority. Since not all people voluntarily accede to the authority of God, Who commands us to love God and neighbor, we need government to keep the sinful impulses of a fallen humanity at bay. While it’s right for Christians, in the name of Jesus, to demand that governments be loving and just--the prophets were sent by God to place this very demand on governments and peoples, we also realize that it’s beneficial to our neighbors and to us that governments exist. All of which is why I usually switch the channel any time a commercial for Optima Tax Relief comes on my TV screen: Jesus is clear that if we owe Caesar, we’re to pay Caesar.
But there is a far greater authority, an authority to which all of us--presidents, prime ministers, dictators, bishops, pastors, business people, accountants, teachers, contractors, doctors, lawyers, and everyone else is answerable.
It's the authority of the One Who, after creating the first human beings and placing them in the garden, directed, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) God was asserting His authority. God gives the human race the world and commands us to use it and our whole lives in ways that honor God.
This isn’t always a popular message. Adam and Eve were tempted to sin by the serpent’s promise that if they disobeyed God, they would “be like God.” This is the central ambition of every child born to the human race--except Jesus: to be like God.
And it’s especially the ambition of those to whom the world has given power, authority, comfort, prestige, and money, even in the smallest of doses.
Jesus talks about the common human desire to usurp God’s authority and be gods unto ourselves in today’s gospel lesson, Luke 20:9-20. Let’s take a look at it.
Verse 9: “He went on to tell the people this parable: ‘A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.’”
Jesus has multiple audiences in mind when He speaks.
1. He knows that His apostles are listening and will make us, as we read and hear their witness in Scripture, one of the audiences to what He says. He had promised the apostles that after He died and rose again, the Holy Spirit would help them to recall what He taught and did so that they could understand and teach others about Him as the Lord Who saves human beings by grace through faith in Christ alone (John 14:26; Ephesians 2:8-9).
2. When Jesus first told this parable, He spoke it to a crowd of common people thronged around Him in the temple in Jerusalem.
3. But He also knows that there are others listening in, the religious leaders anxious to hold onto their power to exploit others’ guilty consciences and have authority over them.
Through the parable, Jesus is warning the religious leaders (and all of us who get little doses of authority in this life and may not handle it very well) that the authority that is a a trust from God will be one day be taken from those to whom it's granted unless they repent for their sins and trust in Him as the only One Who can make a human being right with God.
This is a warning to all leaders, whatever their field.
If they’re arrogant or unjust, if they show preference for those who can grease their palms, if they’re bullies, they will have to answer to God.
When you’re the victim of evil leaders--whether at work, at school, at home, or in governments, you may wonder where God is.
But in this parable, Jesus underscores the promise of Proverbs 11:21: “Be sure of this: The wicked will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will go free.”
There will come a day, Isaiah 2:17 tells us, when, “The arrogance of man will be brought low and human pride humbled; the LORD alone will be exalted…”
In the centuries after God made His covenant with ancient Israel, He had sent one prophet and preacher after another, like the vineyard owner of Jesus’ parable sends servants to the renters in Jesus' parable, to tell His people (and the world) to give to God what they owed God for giving them life.
In the Ten Commandments, God tells ancient Israel and the world: “You shall have no other gods before me…” (Exodus 20:2). Yet human beings have a marked penchant for worshiping idols they think will give them the ability to control their lives and get what they want.
Through the prophet Micah, God reminded the people of the world, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Yet, it's an enduring characteristic of the human race that we act unjustly, treat others unmercifully, and walk in arrogance away from God.
In Leviticus 19:33-34, God told His people, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God…” Yet the people of Israel (and the people of the world) have a decided penchant for turning life into a contest between "us" and "them," siloing us ourselves off from those we deem "different" or "other."
In Jesus’ parable, the prophets and preachers of God’s truth, who reminded people of God’s authority over our lives, are portrayed as servants who are brutalized and murdered. It was precisely this human penchant for rejecting God’s servants that caused Jesus to lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.." (Luke 13:34)
In the parable, the vineyard owner is beside Himself with anguish over His tenants, as God is for us. When our kids first learned to drive and took off for work or school for the first hundred times, I remember the anxiety I felt as time seemed to drag as we awaited their return. Parents want their children to grow up, be independent, and do things for themselves. But you can't help but feel anxious as they take their first steps into adult responsibilities. Magnify the feelings of parents by an infinite amount and you can begin to imagine that anguish God feels for us as He places us in the vineyard, that is the world. God risks losing us by letting us go. He risks seeing us turn from, be contemptuous of, or to forget about His authority over us and losing us forever!
To reject God’s authority over our lives is also to reject His authority over our sins, our death, our vulnerabilities, His authority to give us new and everlasting life.
It’s only when we entrust our whole lives to the gracious authority of God that He can give us all that He has in mind to give us through faith in Jesus, all that we can be as grown-up, maturing, confident, adult children of God.
Verse 13: “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (Luke 20:13-15a) Here, Jesus prophesies His own crucifixion. Not interested in yielding to God the authority that they want to keep for themselves, the people of the world, led by the arrogant leaders of the Jews and the governor from Rome, would take Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem and murder Him. They didn’t realize that in voluntarily going to the cross, the sinless Jesus was dying for all human sin and that those who dare to lay down any claim to have authority over their own lives will have life with God that never ends.
Verse 15: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Here, Jesus says that there will be a great reversal, the very kind that His earthly mother Mary had spoken of in The Magnificat. In Jesus, Mary said, “...[God] has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53)
Strangely enough, even the common people who heard Jesus tell this parable, were appalled by it. Our translation tells us that they responded to the idea that human arrogance would be punished by God by saying, “God forbid!” Actually, they say, in the Greek in which Luke and the other writers composed the New Testament, “Μὴ γένοιτο,” a more literal translation of which would be, “Never may it be!” Or, “No way!”
Why would they react like this? Jesus was offering them freedom from the arbitrary authority of self-glorifying human leaders. More than that, He was offering, as He still offers today, freedom from sin and death, freedom from the cruel demands of human authority, replacing them all with His loving lordship over our lives, the freedom to be all that a loving, omnipotent God can make of us for all eternity!
The answer, I think is simple: As children of a fallen race who have only ever known the dog-eat-dog world in which we live, life in the kingdom of God is scary.
We’ve never lived in a world in which we were accepted just as we are and helped to be all that we can be.
We’ve never lived in a world that says if we will die to self, we will live with God.
Accepting life in this upside down world that Jesus brings means that we must give up all pretense of having the authority of God over the world--or even our own lives.
When death comes, as it does to us all, we must finally admit what we sometimes spend our lives trying to deny: Only the God we know in Christ can give us life.
At the beginning of this message, I said that Jesus’ parable forces us to wrestle with two questions: Who has authority over us? And how are we to acknowledge that authority?
It’s the God we meet in Jesus Who, alone, has authority over our lives, no matter how much we may pretend otherwise.
And there’s only one way to acknowledge Christ’s authority: It’s to lay aside all our arrogance and sin and trust in Jesus alone to give us the greatest gift of all, eternal life from the hand of God. Amen