5th Sunday in Lent – 4/2/2022
Everyone loves a good story. We revere storytellers like Tolkien, Tolstoy, Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and J.K. Rowling. They titillate our imaginations, inspire our aspirations, and cause us to ponder our human existence's struggles, joys, and mysteries.
In Peter Jackson's film adaptation of J.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings Trilogy," he has one of the heroes of his story, a hobbit by the name of Samwise Gamgee, gives a little speech about such stories. Sam tells his discouraged and very beaten-down good friend Frodo Baggins: "It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo—the ones that mattered." They were full of darkness and danger, and you didn't want to know the ending because how could it be happy? How could the world return to how it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it's only a passing thing. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and it will shine out clearer when the sun shines. "Those stories stayed with you; they meant something, even if you were too small to understand why."
Jesus also told stories. Scripture calls them parables. However, unlike much contemporary preaching, He did not tell them for entertainment value or as human interest stories. His parables were sermons, complete with solid law and gospel preaching. The subject of His parables or stories is often Himself: the stone that crushes or saves.
Jesus' parables were pages of Jewish daily life: sowing seed, shepherding, fishing with nets, or, as we see before us today, tending a vineyard. But there is nothing humorous or fascinating about them. To be sure, they can comfort and encourage the believers, but they were designed to be exceptionally provocative and provide pointed warnings of condemnation for those rejecting Jesus.
Jesus once explained His parabolic teaching to His disciples. He responded to their question about why He always spoke to the crowds in parables: "To you, it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them (His rejecters), it has not been given." For the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. That is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, hearing they do not hear, nor understand. Indeed, in their case, the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says, "You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive." "For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears, they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed; lest they see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, they should turn, and I would heal them." But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. "Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it" (Matthew 13:10–17).
That certainly makes good sense. After all, the point of critical mass—the place of actual life or death decision-making for all of sinful humanity—is the cross of Jesus. Whether one lives eternally in heaven or hell is determined by the truth of Jesus, which is what these parables proclaim. "There is no other name given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:25). Only those who hold firmly to their faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus will be saved. So Jesus' preaching is both law and gospel!
As we can see from the parable before us today, Jesus says a man planted a vineyard and then rented it out to some farmers to tend for him while he was away. When it was harvest time, the vineyard owner sent his servant to collect from the tenant farmers his rightful share of the vineyard's fruit. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. The owner then sent another servant, who was beaten and humiliated before being sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded and threw him out.
As you can imagine, the vineyard owner was utterly perplexed. Why would these tenant farmers treat their servants so shamefully? He was determined, however, to collect his fruit. He tried to take a different approach. Thinking that the farmers would respect one of his households more, the owner sent his only beloved son to collect the fruit. However, this strategy also failed. In their wickedness, the tenant farmers merely considered the son's arrival an opportunity to have the whole vineyard for themselves. It seems Jewish tradition, as recorded in the Talmud, provided that a piece of property unclaimed by an heir would be considered "ownerless" and could be claimed by the tenants (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke, Tyndale, p. 285). Accordingly, the farmers seized the owner's son, threw him outside the vineyard, and killed him.
Jesus then rhetorically asked his hearers, "What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?" The answer was evident to everyone who had any sense of true justice. Jesus stated emphatically that the wicked tenants deserved to have the vineyard taken away from them and that they should be put to death.
All in Jesus' audience understood that He had directed this parable at Israel's leaders. The imagery of Israel being God's vineyard was well-established in Biblical literature and Jewish tradition. They were also quite keenly aware that Jesus claimed to be the vineyard owner's son, that is, God. They knew that the LORD, YHWH, the God of Israel, had over the centuries sent His servants, His prophets, to collect fruit from His people, that is, their repentance and faith in Him.
Appallingly, however, the rulers of Israel ignored every one of God's prophets, mistreated them, imprisoned them, and stoned them, even sawing Isaiah in two. Who could deny that God had now sent His beloved Son, whom the leaders of Israel were already plotting to kill?
No wonder, then, that when Jesus' audience heard from Jesus' lips what the vineyard owner ought rightly to do to the tenant farmers, they lamented, "May this never be!" The rejection of Jesus meant a forfeiture of the vineyard, the kingdom of God. The Covenant people would be destroyed under the rightful wrath of God, and what had been theirs would be given to someone else, the Gentiles. The thought of such a fate was unbearable!
However, instead of repenting, the hard-hearted leadership became even more embittered against Jesus. As Luke notes, they wanted nothing more than to lay their hands on Jesus at that very moment. But they felt constrained from doing so because they feared what the crowd, most of whom received Jesus' message quite favorably, would do to them.
Some, even today, do not want you or me to give this parable any thought. Some claim that Jesus was anti-Semitic by accusing the Jews of genocide, the murder of God's prophets, and even the murder of God Himself in His Son.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus was not being anti-Semitic but rather pro-Semitic. The fact that they cannot see this is further evidence of their hard hearts and inability to understand the nature of God indeed. Through His prophets, the LORD had always preached to Israel, "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways... O house of Israel?" (33:11). In His grace, Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, was truly loving these Semites, these descendants of Shem. With the parable, He rightly pointed the Jewish leadership to their sin so that they might repent and turn to Him in faith that they might be saved from God's impending judgment and their forfeiture of the kingdom. He aimed to save them, not condemn them.
Charges of anti-Semitism may have persuaded Mel Gibson to remove from his movie the same condemnation that the crowd of Jews at Jesus' trial willingly brought on themselves when they said, "May His blood be upon our children and us." Those words cannot be expunged from the Gospel record. It also cannot be forgotten that it was the Jews who charged and brought Jesus to Pilate to be crucified. It was done at the hands of ruthless Romans, but the fact is that it was the Jews who rejected their king—God's Messiah. No amount of 21st-century historical revisionism or political correctness can change what happened.
This rejection of Jesus has also been acknowledged quite forcefully by God, the Vineyard owner. When Israel as a nation, through her leaders, rejected God's stone, Jesus, they left God no choice but to take the kingdom from them. The stone they rejected became the capstone upon which they were dashed to pieces. In 70 A.D., God completely removed His presence from among Israel. Again, at the hands of the Romans, God destroyed Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, God's dwelling place among His people. The Jews that survived were scattered throughout the nations. In the collective wisdom of the United Nations, the Jews resettled in Palestine in the 1940s. Israel has never known peace with its neighbors, nor has the temple ever been rebuilt. God's rejection of Israel as His covenant people is complete.
But the Jews' rejection of Jesus and God's rejection of them as His holy nation ought not to fuel any anti-Semitic notions among us today. Instead, it should fill us with genuine compassion for a lost people—a people without the Savior, just like the rest of the world that needs Jesus to be saved from the wrath to come.
At the same time, Israel's experience should be a warning to all of us Christians today. After all, their loss has become our gain. As St. Paul wrote, "By their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles" (Ro. 11:11); that is, to us! In His grace and through His servants, the apostles, and prophets, God has now brought the good news of the kingdom to us. Through Holy Baptism and the Word of the Gospel, God has grafted us into the vine, who is Jesus Christ, so that all who believe in Jesus as their Savior, whether male or female, slave or free, Gentile or Jew (Gal. 3:28), are co-heirs with Christ (Ro. 8) of the kingdom. God has graciously rescued us personally through the water of Holy Baptism, making us members of His household, which has been built on the foundation of the Prophets and Apostles with Jesus Christ as the Cornerstone (Eph 2:20). He now calls us His "chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God; that we may declare the praises of Him who has called us out of darkness into His wonderful light" (I Pet. 3:9). He comes among us to serve us the true bread and drink of life—His very body and blood—in His Holy Supper, a true foretaste of His eternal banquet.
So, let us not be duped as those in Israel were so long ago. We, too, need to hear the proclamation of Jesus as both law and gospel. The vineyard was given to us by God's grace in Christ. He cut out the natural branches. By His Word of the Gospel and Holy Baptism, mercifully grafted us into His Vine, Jesus Christ (John 15:1ff; Rom. 11:17). Let us not imagine that we can somehow retain this kingdom apart from being genuinely repentant of our sins or from embracing in faith the rejected and crucified Son of the Vineyard Owner.
That, unfortunately, is what is happening today. Some who call themselves Christians seem to think they will obtain heaven's inheritance without the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. They are systematically pushing Jesus out of their churches, teachings, and lives. There is little mention of sin and the need for repentance anymore. Instead of preaching the blood of the sacrificial Lamb of God, they preach a Jesus who loves and saves everyone, no matter what they believe. Their message is one of no guilt, sin, or atonement for sin. They proclaim a Jesus who is a brother to Mohammed and Buddha, simply one of many paths to heaven. In so doing, they damn all who believe their heresies.
But, ladies and gentlemen, let no one deceive you. The real crisis you face, I face. Our whole world faces is not the war in Ukraine, the flood of illegal aliens flooding over our southern border, climate change, or even the systematic destruction of the moral values of our nation, as detrimental as all of these are to our country and our very lives in this world. The real crisis (from the Greek word for judgment) is what people do with Jesus. That is the harsh reality. The truth that either condemns or saves: Jesus Christ, the Son of Mary and the beloved Son of God, is the only Savior from sin, death, and hell. Jesus is the only true vine. There is only one atonement for your sin: the crucified Jesus Christ. There is only One who justifies you before God the Father, the Resurrected Jesus Christ (Ro. 4:25). Apart from Jesus; there is no forgiveness of sins and no inheritance in the kingdom. Only those attached to Him by faith will have life and bear the fruit of repentance that God desires (Jn 14:6).
Yet, this hard truth of Jesus' parable is also the most comforting for you and me as weak, distressed, harassed, and failing sinners. Jesus alone is our Savior from sin, death, and hell. The Son of the Vineyard Owner has made us heirs of His Vineyard by His blood! His cross and open tomb assure us!
May God preserve the true story of Jesus Christ among us so that we may not be deceived into eternal damnation by all the anti-Christ forces but instead might be saved on the Day of Final Judgment. Furthermore, may our vineyard owner fill us with Christ's compassion for all Semites and Gentiles worldwide so that we can boldly and forthrightly reach out to them with the saving truth of the Crucified so that the entire vineyard bears abundant fruit and for Him. Amen.