What Will the Owner of the Vineyard Do?

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The text for this message our Luke 20:9-20.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
"The Tenants in the Vineyard" by Jan Luyken
Whenever I hear this parable (like many other parables), I end up shaking my head.  Nobody acts the way you would reasonably expect.  Their actions seem foolish, at times, even absurd.  But that is actually the key to understanding any parable: Look for the point of departure from how things are in ordinary, everyday life.  And there are plenty of detours in this one.  We’ll look at them and I think you’ll see what I mean.  But first, let’s look at the context.
With the parables, you always have to pay attention to whom Jesus is speaking.  Is it His disciples?  The crowds?  The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law?  In this case, it is the people who are gathered in the temple to hear Jesus teach, no doubt a sizable crowd because it is the time of the Passover.  Off on the sidelines with their ears carefully tuned to Jesus’ every word, hoping to catch Him with a slip of the tongue, are the chief priests, scribes and elders.  So you might say that this parable is both heard and overheard.  That’s true for us today, too.
At the time of festivals, nonresidents were not allowed to stay overnight in the city limits of Jerusalem because of the large numbers who came to worship at the temple.  Some scholars’ estimates put the figure in the metropolitan area during that week as high as one million people.  So that meant that many of the pilgrims camped on the hillsides that surrounded Jerusalem, which made them easily available for attending whatever important events were happening in the city.  That’s why they happened to be alongside the road as Jesus had entered Jerusalem on the Sunday of the Passover festival, riding on a donkey, in deliberate fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. 
Jesus had been received with acclaim by the crowd, many of whom expected Him to assert Himself, overthrow the Romans, reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, and rule on David’s throne.  They had waved their palm branches and cried out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!”  “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Save now!”  They were hoping for the revolution to begin at any moment.  Instead, Jesus went back to nearby Bethany to stay the night with His friends. 
Jesus returned on Monday and cleansed the temple of the concessionaires who were selling animals and birds for sacrifice and changing Roman money into temple coins.  To them, He said, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers’” (Luke 19:46).
Though it was certainly a potential powder keg in many ways, our Lord did not avoid the unsolicited publicity or religious scrutiny.  Luke says Jesus “was teaching daily in the temple” and that “the chief priests and the scribes and the principle men of the people were seeking to destroy Him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on His words.” 
These religious authorities confronted Jesus, “Tell us by what authority You do these things, or who it is that gave You this authority.”  As He often did, Jesus turned their demand back on them, answering their question with His own question: “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?”  More concerned about maintaining their positions of authority than upholding the truth, they were unwilling to respond one way or the other.  So Jesus told them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” It is in this context that Jesus speaks His parable to the people who were gathered in the temple courts to hear His teaching. 
There was a beautiful vineyard, its vines bending, laden with the weight of rich, swollen grape clusters.  For the owner had planted a good vineyard.  He had chosen a vigorous, hardy stock of vine.  He had well prepared the soil to guarantee a good harvest. 
But all was not well in that vineyard.  When the harvest came, the landowner sent one of his servants to collect the harvest.  But they didn’t give the servant what they owed.  Instead, they beat him and sent him away with nothing.  Again, the owner sent another servant.  And the rebellious tenants also insulted him, beat him up, and sent him away with nothing.  So the landowner sent a third servant, whom the tenants wounded and sent away with nothing.  Such terrible tenants, rebelling against the owner, rejecting the servants sent to collect the crop.  Each rejection escalating in its violence and shameful rebellion.
Desperate, the owner sent his own son, thinking, “Perhaps they will respect him.”  But when the tenants saw the son, they hatched an evil plot: “Let’s kill him, so the inheritance can be ours.”   What shameful tenants!  Yes, a mutiny was afoot in the vineyard!  “What will the owner of the vineyard do to them?”  Jesus asks.  But before they can reply He answers His own question: “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
“Surely not!” Jesus’ listeners say, realizing to their horror that His parable is talking about the history of Israel.  Israel ignored the Word from the prophets.  Israel continued to treat the vineyard as if it belonged to itself and not to God.  And the prophets who called the people to repent faced the people’s wrath.  More than a few suffered death.  Finally, God had sent His beloved Son, and they were not only rejecting His message of repentance and faith, cross and suffering, but a number of them were in the midst of plotting how to overthrow Him as well.         
Our text makes it very clear that the scribes and the chief priests understood what Jesus was saying: “[They] sought to lay hands on [Jesus] at that very hour; for they perceived He had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.  So they watched Him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch Him in something He said, so as to deliver Him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor” (Luke 20:19-20).
But Jesus was not just speaking to the scribes and chief priests or the people gathered in Jerusalem the day for the Passover; He is also speaking to you and me.  And the text forces us to ask, “How are we treating God and His vineyard today?”
God has a dire warning for us.  God’s grace is undeserved kindness because of Jesus, not because of you or me.  Without Christ, there is no mercy, no grace, no forgiveness, and no kindness.  In the parable, Jesus has a warning for the Church, God’s Israel of the New Testament.  You can’t have a bride without a groom.  You can’t have the Church without the Lord Jesus Christ.  You can’t have a Christ without a cross.  Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.  The church today that doesn’t proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness, life, and salvation of the sinner has the same fate in store for it as Old Testament Israel, the same fate as the wicked tenants of the vineyard in our text.
That’s scary isn’t it?  For most churches today don’t preach Christ and Him crucified for our salvation.  That’s boring stuff people don’t want to hear.  That’s not relevant to our post-modern understanding of religion and life.  And so liberal mainline churches preach about social justice and creating a utopian society.  Many, including some who still claim the name “Lutheran,” call into question the veracity of God’s Word as they deny the miraculous and excuse sins like sexual immorality and abortion in the name of tolerance and choice. 
So-called conservative evangelical churches preach about reestablishing a “Christian nation” and offer practical steps for self-improvement and better families.  Churches follow the latest fads and hope that business marketing techniques will “grow the Church.”  Emergent churches discard sound doctrine and turn people inward with mystical practices.  Word of faith preachers peddle a prosperity gospel of health, wealth, and personal success.  Church bodies with traditions going back many centuries still continue to turn people back to their own good works and human traditions for assurance of their salvation. 
Neither are we immune.  For each of us is prone to itching ears that prefer to be scratched, rather than hear the Law and Gospel—the message of Christ crucified for poor, miserable sinners.  But we don’t get to choose what we do as the Church.  We don’t decide what is right or wrong, holy or profane; Christ has already decided for us.  We are but the tenants who can be booted off the property whenever the landowner decides.  God is perfectly free to entrust the proclamation of the mystery of salvation in Christ to whomever He pleases.  The Church, as a visible and audible sign of Christ’s saving death, will always remain in this world.  Our prayer is that we will always be a part of it. 
In our Old Testament reading, Isaiah speaks of a time when the Lord would do a “new thing.”  God would make a way in the wilderness among the wild beasts.  He would put water in the dry desert and give drink to His chosen people.  That would be something new—a new covenant, a new chosen people, a new way, built on the old foundation, but still new nonetheless.  And those who would cling to the old covenant would miss it.  Their ears won’t hear it. Their eyes won’t see it. 
That was the problem of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the Judaizers with whom Paul is dealing in today’s Epistle, and the Roman church in the days of Luther.  They refused to hear the message of salvation by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Christ, but turned the people back to the Law and their own works of righteousness.  They were rejecting the very Cornerstone of the Church.  They were wickedly rebelling against the Lord of the Vineyard.
By God’s choosing, He has given us a place in His vineyard of grace, His Church.  The vineyard is a place brimming with life amid a barren world.  It is an oasis of refreshment in a dry desert.  Here, God blesses us with the life-giving waters of Holy Baptism, which washes away the dirt of our sin.  Here, God nourishes us with His Word.  Here, God gives us to drink wine from the cup of salvation, the blood of His new covenant.  What a great blessing! 
But it is only seen with the eyes of faith.  It is hidden in cross and suffering, the common and ordinary, the despised and weak.  It’s so easy to miss, so easy to misunderstand, when we take our eyes off of Jesus and look to ourselves, to our own selfish desires, our own limited abilities, our own rebellious, sinful old Adam. 
What about you!  Have you treated Jesus and His kingdom as if you are the owner instead of the tenant?  Is the allure of success, as the world defines it, drawing you away from the cross?  Are you looking for a “gospel” that is less offensive to your sensibilities than the one about the sinless Son of God who was bloodied, beaten, and killed for sinners?   If so, be warned!  What was true for the Old Testament tenants of God’s vineyard is also true for you.  When you presume God’s grace, living in fallen, worldly ways, looking no different from the rest of the world, refusing to humbly repent, then only judgment follows. 
Which Jesus do you want?  Do you want a glad-handing, back-slapping Jesus that the Pharisees wanted?  Do you want a Jesus who will affirm and bless what you think about yourself?  Is that the Jesus you want?  Or do you want the Christ of the Scriptures?  Do you want a Jesus who speaks the truth even when it hurts?  Do you want this stern Jesus, the One who didn’t turn His back on sin, but calls sin what it is, and willingly died to save you?  This Savior doesn’t wink at your sinful indiscretions or smile as you turn from Him toward hell.  No, He loves you far too much to do that!  He gives Himself into death and saves you.
In the water and Word, He baptizes you into His death and resurrection.  Now He feeds and nourishes you with His very body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  Each week He calls you to gather with your fellow redeemed to hear the Gospel.  Indeed, today and every Divine Service the very Son of God, your crucified and risen Savior, is here with this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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