Luke 20:9-19

The 5th Sunday in Lent (April 3, 2022)

Everybody loves a good story.  We revere the storytellers… the Tolkien’s … Tolstoy’s …Kipling’s…Robert Louis Stevenson’s… and J.K. Rowling’s.  They titillate our imaginations, inspire our aspirations and cause us to ponder the struggles, joys and mysteries of our human existence. 

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, give a little speech about such stories. Sam says to his discouraged and very beaten down good friend Frodo Baggins:  “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were, and sometimes you didn’t want to know the end, because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?  But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come, and when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.”

Jesus also told stories.  Scripture calls them parables.  However, quite unlike much contemporary preaching, He did not tell them for entertainment value nor as human interest stories.  His parables were sermons in themselves, complete with solid Law and Gospel preaching.  In fact, the subject of His parables, or stories, is most often Himself: the Stone that crushes or the Stone that saves.

Jesus’ parables were pages right out 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 titillating to the imagination about them.   To be sure they can comfort and encourage the believers but were purposely designed to be quite provocative and pointed warnings of condemnation for those rejecting Jesus.

Jesus once explained His parabolic teaching to His disciples. He said in response to their question as to 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 to 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. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.  Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that 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 should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and 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, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it”( Matthew 13:10-17).

This certainly makes good sense.  After all, the point of critical mass... the place of true life or death decision making for all of sinful humanity... is the cross of Jesus.  Whether one lives eternally in heaven or in Hell is all determined by the truth of Jesus, and that 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 in faith to the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus will be saved.  The preaching Jesus then is both Law and Gospel!

So we see in the parable before us today.  Jesus says, there was a certain man who 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 fruit of the vineyard.  But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  The owner then 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. 

At this juncture, as you can well imagine, the vineyard owner was completely perplexed.  Why would these tenant farmers treat his servants so shamefully?  He was determined, however, to collect his fruit. He tried to take a different approach. Thinking that the farmers would show more respect to one of his own household, the owner sent his only, beloved, son to collect the fruit.  But this plan failed also.  In their wickedness the tenant farmers merely looked upon the son’s arrival as 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 obvious 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. 

It was clear to all in Jesus’ audience that He had directed this parable at Israel’s leaders.   The imagery of Israel being God’s vineyard was well established in Biblical literature, as well as in Jewish tradition.  They were also quite keenly aware that Jesus claimed to be the Son of the Vineyard Owner; that is God.  They knew that the LORD, YHWH, the God of Israel, had over the course of the centuries sent His servants, His prophets, to collect fruit from His people; that is, their repentance and faith in Him.   

In appalling fashion, however, the rulers of Israel ignored every one of God’s prophets, then mistreated them, imprisoned them, stoned them, even sawing Isaiah in two.  Who could escape the inference: God had now in Jesus sent His beloved Son, who the leaders of Israel were already plotting to kill. 

No wonder, then, that when Jesus’ audience heard from Jesus’ lips what the owner of the vineyard ought rightly do to the tenant farmers, they lamented, “May this never be!”  The rejection of Jesus meant a forfeiture of the Vineyard; that is, 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 only became even more embittered against Jesus.  As Luke notes, they wanted nothing more than to lay their hands on Jesus that very moment.  But, they felt constrained from doing so because they were afraid of what the crowd, most of whom received Jesus’ message quite favorably, would do to them.

There are those even today who do not want you and me to give this parable any mind.  They charge that with it Jesus was simply being anti-Semitic, charging the Jews with genocide; the murder of God’s prophets and even 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 hardness of heart and their true inability to truly understand the heart of God. 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). Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, was in His grace truly loving these Semites; these descendants of Shem. With the parable He was rightly pointing the Jewish leadership to their sin that they might repent and to turn to Him in faith that they might be saved from God’s impending judgment and their forfeiture the Kingdom.  His aim was to save them not condemn them.

Charges of anti-Semitism may have persuaded Mel Gibson to take out of his movie the very condemnation that the crowd of Jews at Jesus’ trial willingly brought on themselves when they said,  “May His blood be upon us and our children,” but those words cannot be expunged from the Gospel record.  Neither can it be removed from history that it was Jews, who charged and brought Jesus to Pilate to be crucified.  Yes, it was done at the hands of ruthless Romans, but the fact is that it was the Jews who rejected their own 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, the builders, 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 totally destroyed Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, God’s dwelling place among His people.  The Jews that survived were scattered throughout the nations.  And even though in the collective wisdom of the United Nations, the Jews were resettled once again in Palestine in the 1940's,  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 fuel any anti-Semitic notions among us today.  Rather, it ought to fill us with true 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 ought to stand as 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 being 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.

Let us, then, not be deceived as were those so long ago in Israel. 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 and by His Word of the Gospel and Holy Baptism mercifully grafted you and me, the wild branches, 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 truly repentant of our sins or of embracing in faith the rejected and crucified Son of the Vineyard Owner.

This I’m afraid, however, is exactly what is happening today. Some who call themselves Christians seem to think that they will obtain the inheritance of heaven without the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.  They are systematically pushing Jesus out of their churches... their teachings... their lives.  There is little mention of sin and a need of 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... no sins... no atonement for sins.  They proclaim a Jesus Who is a brother to Mohammed and Buddha; simply one way to Heaven among many other ways.  In so doing, they damn all who believe their heresies.

But, Ladies and Gentleman, let no one deceive you.  The real crisis you face, I face, and our whole world faces, is not the war in Ukraine, nor the flood of illegal aliens flooding over our southern border, nor Climate Change, nor 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 are doing with Jesus.  This is the hard truth... the truth that either condemns or saves is that  Jesus Christ, Son of Mary and also 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 there is 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 truth 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 that we may not be deceived into eternal damnation by all the anti-Christ forces but instead might be saved in the Day of final judgment.  Additionally, may our Vineyard Owner fill us with Christ’s compassion for all Semites and all Gentiles around the world that we might boldly and forthrightly reach out to them with this saving truth of the Crucified so that the whole vineyard might bear abundant fruit in and for Him.  Amen.

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