“Whose Vineyard Is It Anyway?” (Luke 20:9-20)

Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 21, 2010

“Whose Vineyard Is It Anyway?” (Luke 20:9-20)

Our text today occurs early during Holy Week, when Jesus is teaching in the temple. The journey to Jerusalem has been completed, and now it is time to pronounce judgment on Jerusalem. Jesus does that in a parable often called “The Parable of the Tenants.” It’s the story of some tenant-farmers who have been given charge of a vineyard, to manage it on behalf of its owner. But these tenants forget the fundamental question–a question we also need to keep in mind–and that is, “Whose Vineyard Is It Anyway?”

So let’s listen to the parable and decode it as we go along. It’s not that difficult of a text to understand. The difficulty is in not repeating the sins of the tenants. But there is also a great blessing for us coming out of this vineyard, so let’s go.

“A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while.” Jesus starts out this parable in familiar fashion. The image of Israel as a vineyard was well known from the Old Testament. The Lord God planted the nation of Israel in the Promised Land, to be his own people in the world. The tenants here then would be the Israelites, especially the leadership of the nation, the religious establishment–like the scribes and Pharisees, the chief priests and elders–in other words, the very Jewish authorities gathered there in Jerusalem as Jesus is speaking this parable. They were the ones in charge of the vineyard.

Another familiar touch from Jesus in his parables is the idea of the lord or master going away on a journey for a long while. The lord puts people in charge of his property to manage it for him, with the expectation that they will be good stewards and act according to his will. The expectation also is that the master is going to come back and see how they’ve done in their stewardship. This is a common theme in several of Jesus’ parables, including this one.

Now in this story, the owner of the vineyard sends a representative to check on how the tenants are doing and to collect what he ought to expect from them: “When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard.” OK, now if things are going as they should, the tenant-farmers will hand over some of the fruit they’ve harvested to the servant, as the rightful return to the master. But no. That’s not what they do.

“But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed.” Whoa! What kind of tenants are these? This is not how they should act! Surely the master will send in some troops and kick those bad tenants out of there, by force! But, now from the master’s side, no, this is not what he does. Instead, it says, “he sent another servant.”

OK, now this time, those hotheaded tenants will not repeat their bad behavior, will they? Well, guess again. “But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed.” The first servant they beat and sent away empty-handed. This second servant they not only beat, they also treat him shamefully before they send him too away empty-handed. These tenants are acting worse, not better.

Even so, the master of the vineyard does not yet bring down the hammer. He sends in a third servant, and, sure enough, the tenants continue with their rotten, rebellious behavior. “This one also they wounded and cast out.”

OK, let’s decode who these “servants” would be. They stand for all the prophets of the Old Testament that the Lord sent to Israel, sent to call God’s people to repentance and faith. That’s the fruit God was looking for. But those prophets Israel repeatedly rejected and even persecuted. Men like Elijah and Isaiah and Jeremiah. These prophets got beat up and abused, thrown into pits, thrown out of town–often by the very political and religious establishment that should have known better. Jesus in this parable is simply telling Israel their own sad story.

Yet the Lord God was patient with his people all these years, all these centuries. God had a plan and purpose at work, and strangely it would come about through suffering. The story in this Parable of the Tenants is a twofold story: one, of the increasing evil of the wicked tenants; and two, of the amazing, astounding longsuffering of the owner of the vineyard, not striking down the tenants long before this.

The story continues: “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’” Here is where it has come to. After sending in one servant after another, and after the tenants repeatedly beating those guys up and throwing them out, the owner of the vineyard decides that, instead of sending in the troops to wipe out the wicked tenants, the owner of the vineyard will send . . . his own son. If those tenants will respect anyone, they will surely respect the owner’s son! You would think!

“I will send my beloved son,” God says, as he sends his Son Jesus Christ into the world. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” So came the voice of the Father both at Jesus’ baptism and again at his transfiguration. So Jesus Christ came to the vineyard, came to the people of Israel. He came in blessing, in healing, in wisdom and acts of mercy. He showed forth God’s divine character and authority, manifesting such abundantly in his ministry. God’s own Son, come in the flesh. “Perhaps they will respect him.”

Perhaps not. While many did hear Jesus’ voice and the call to follow him in repentance, faith, and discipleship, sadly, tragically, many others did not. And Christ’s opponents often were in positions of religious leadership. These opponents were becoming increasingly hostile toward Jesus. Pharisees, scribes, priests, elders–groups that were not always united in other respects became united in their opposition to, and hatred of, this man Jesus. The man they should have respected, they rejected. And this was God’s own Son, his beloved Son. “He came to that which was his own, but his own received him not.”

And so the plot against Jesus is now amping up, ramping up, in full gear, their plot to take him and seize him and hand him over and have him killed. The tension is palpable. You could cut it with a knife. And Jesus is doing nothing to stop it. He is not “making nice.” On the contrary, he is confronting these false leaders with the wickedness and the evil that is welling up in their hearts. This thing must finally come to a head.

“But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’” This mirrors what Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin had recently said, about how they had to get this man out of the way, lest they lose their prestige and their power and their place. Jesus was a threat to their power and their pocketbook, causing all that commotion, exposing their hypocrisy, undermining the religious industry they had built up. “We’ve got to get rid of him, and then all this will be ours!”

But of course these tenants are forgetting the fundamental question for stewards, and that is, “Whose vineyard is it anyway?” At some point, the owner is going to bring the hammer down. And so the parable concludes on an ominous note: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

This is exactly what would happen to rebellious Israel, the nation that rejected and murdered her Messiah. God did eventually send in the troops, Roman troops, and they leveled, destroyed, Jerusalem some forty years later, in AD 70. But God is determined to have himself a vineyard on this earth. And if it’s not going to be Israel, it will be someone else.

And he gave the vineyard to others. The vineyard now is entrusted to the church, God’s chosen people on earth, set apart to do his will and bear fruit for him. So what do we say? “Hooray, and good for us”? “We will be faithful tenants, responsible stewards, managing the vineyard according to our master’s instructions, in accordance with his will.” God grant it. Yes, God grant it.

But the danger here–yes, the danger and the difficulty for us as the church–is that we will be like those tenants of old and forget whose vineyard it is. God preserve us from that! For this is not “our” church, as though we can shape it and mold it into something that pleases us and serves us, other than what God wants it to be. This parable thus serves as a warning to us, both pastor and people, to not repeat the sins of the tenants.

Whose vineyard is it anyway? It is God’s, of course. The fruit the church is to bear and to present to him is that which God wants to see growing among us. Things like repentance and faith. People following Christ their Savior in lives of devotion and discipleship. Brothers and sisters manifesting the fruit of love in their lives. This is the good fruit the Spirit is producing in this vineyard, the church. It’s happening through the ministry of the gospel in our midst. It’s happening through the preaching and teaching that goes on here in God’s house. It happens as God’s children return to their baptism and live in it and live from it. It’s happens as we receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. This is the good fruit growing in this vineyard that God expects to receive. This is what the Lord of the vineyard has designed to happen here.

But the secret and the surprise in this story of the vineyard is that the son the tenants threw out and killed–it was through the death of that beloved Son that we have a gospel of forgiveness to deliver and enjoy. And what forgiveness it is! For the sin of wanting to shape the vineyard to fit our own desires instead of God’s, for the sin of thinking “This is our church, and we’ll use our power to assert our control over it”–for these sins and more, God has been exercising patience with us, not bringing down the hammer, and now he is calling us to repent of our sins and to receive full and free forgiveness in Jesus’ name.

As evil as the action of the wicked tenants was–and it was that–God brought something good out of it. The death of God’s Son brought life to the world. His rejection means our acceptance. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Yes, God has exalted his Son, raised him from the dead, and made him head over the church–indeed, head over all things. And now Christ shares his victory and his vineyard with us. Dear friends, fellow stewards, it is because of Christ that we have a vineyard to tend.

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Published in: on March 20, 2010 at 10:14 pm  Leave a Comment  
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