You're Getting the Vineyard
How can I get you away from this notion that the central teaching of Christianity is God wants you to do something for Him, that God for one reason or another demands His due from you or else? I know you're afflicted with this notion because I hear you say things like, "All I have to do is believe," or, "I just need to repent," or, "God expects me to be fruitful." Yes, God has rented a vineyard to us and expects lease payments. The self-righteous among us believe we're successfully making the payments by faithful giving, Church attending, and working for our Church. The poor, miserable sinners among us have died a thousand deaths in our consciences because we know none of our lease payments are adequate, and so we expect to be pitched out of the vineyard any second now. The people in our text had this same sort of misunderstanding. They had been taught wrongly by their Church leaders, and so they misunderstood who gets the vineyard and why. Jesus tells these people a parable which exposes the error of their leaders.
He takes them back to the Old Testament. The nation of Israel was often compared to a vineyard, one that God planted, protected, and provided for. He did everything for it so that it could produce fruit. He gave it out to the Old Testament Church leaders. No, God didn't "rent" it as the bulletin and most translations have it. He literally "gave it out." Israel did not pay God to stay in the Promised Land. In the Old Testament God specifically rejects the idea that He expected to gain a profit form having Israel in His vineyard. But what about the fact the text calls them "tenants?" Tenants is not accurate; the word just means someone who works the earth, a farmer.
Okay, so what was the "fruit" God came seeking from the Old Testament Church? Ask yourself: What did the prophets come to Israel looking for? Good deeds to take back to God? Money perhaps? Sacrifices? Didn't they come looking for sins? They came preaching a message of sharp Law to expose the sins of those in the vineyard. They wanted those in the vineyard to cast their sins on God. Think about it. What is the only thing we consistently produce? Sin. No matter what I'm doing, where I'm doing it, I continually am bearing the fruit of sin. Isaiah bears this out by testifying that "all our righteousness is as filthy rags." Paul too says, "There is none righteous; no not even one." Martin Luther as well confesses, "We need forgiveness for even our very best works."
Prophet after prophet was sent to the Old Testament Church all the way up to John the Baptist. Read the Book of Jeremiah, and you'll hear this statement 6 times as a damning refrain, "I have sent to you all My servants the prophets sending them again and again." All came looking for the sins of Israel; all came looking for confessions of sins and admissions that Israel could not save herself. But the leaders of the people misused, abused, or killed every single messenger the Lord sent to His vineyard. "How dare you speak to us of sins! How dare you come looking for sins in us! We're holy, righteous, believing Church members! We keep the Law. We do good works."
Now if you're still in doubt that God's prophets only came seeking one thing and that is sins, think about the fact that God is shown to be perplexed in the parable. He should be if all He is seeking is their sins to take away. On the other hand, if He is really seeking to get something good from them, then why should God be perplexed? Don't sinful businessmen regularly seek ways to cheat partners? What's so perplexing about sinful businessmen trying to keep all the profits of the vineyard for themselves since the Owner is far away? That isn't perplexing; that's normal in a fallen world. But God is presented as perplexed because all He wants to do is to forgive their sins. However, the leaders of His Church are insisting they have no sins to send to Him for forgiving. They are believing, giving, and working just fine. What can God do about this? He decides to make one more plea personally through His Son. "Maybe," says God, "They'll turn toward Him. Maybe they'll see that I want nothing more from them than their sins if He tells them."
Still don't believe me that all God wants out of the vineyard is sins? You poor sinners think this is too good to be true, don't you? Answer me this then: How did John point out Jesus to Israel in the first place? With the words, "Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world." And didn't Jesus say, "I came to seek and save the lost, to give My life as a ransom for many?" Didn't Jesus come preaching, "Come unto Me all you who are burden and heavy laden and I will give you rest?" Do you think He was asking them to come to Him heavy with offerings, faith, or good works? You know better than that. He was calling them to come burdened with sins.
What did the farmers of the vineyard do?. They killed the Son thinking they would get His inheritance. But it's kind of like the theme song from the 1970s movie "Billy Jack" entitled "One Tin Soldier." It's a ballad about the people of the valley wanting the treasure of the people on the mountain. The mountain people will share it, but the valley people aren't satisfied with sharing it; they want it all to themselves. So they storm the mountain killing all the mountain people. When they turn over the rock under which the treasure is buried, "Peace on earth is all it said."
The valley people end up with a treasure that is absolutely useless to them, and so it was with the Church leaders of Jesus' day. They had the inheritance of God all right; they had it since the Old Testament. But the free forgiveness of sins meant nothing to them, and they didn't allow anyone else access to it either. They held the people hostage telling them they must make themselves acceptable to God by good works, good faith, or good repentance.
What were the people to do? The vineyard was hopelessly in the hands of those who made the Owner out to be a miser demanding things from them rather than a Savior seeking their sins. The Owner sends His Son in a last effort to get their sins. But the leaders refuse to let go of them, and they do the worst sin of all; they kill the Owner's Son. But the rejection of the Owners's Son leads to the Owner killing the leaders and freely giving the vineyard to others. Our text simply says "to others," but remember the parable opens by telling us Jesus is speaking the parable to the people as distinct from the leaders of the Church.
The people are taken aback. "May this never be," they say! They're faithful followers of Church leaders even though these leaders have held them hostage by not freely forgiving their sins and by demanding certain fruits before assuring them of being in the Church. It doesn't make sense to believe their sins are freely and completely forgiven. I mean think of all of your sins. Does it seem possible that God could just dismiss them? It makes more sense to believe my sins are not freely forgiven than to believe that the pious, holy Church leaders could be wrong, doesn't it?
Now Jesus preaches the Gospel to the people. Our bulletin doesn't give you that impression. It just translates, "Jesus looked directly at them." But that word translated "looked directly at" is the same word used to describe Jesus looking upon Peter after Peter denied Him. You remember what that look did; it brought Peter to tears of repentance and faith. One commentator says this word is used to describe "the loving, reproving, yet winning look of Jesus." This is the same word used to describe Jesus looking on the rich young man whom the Scripture says Jesus loved.
The people think they are being faithful by protesting against the judgement of their leaders and the vineyard being freely given to them. Jesus looks upon them in pity and mercy even as two days from now He will look upon poor, misguided Peter. He then quotes to them from Psalm 118. The very Psalm that was sung at Passover. The very one the Palm Sunday crowd two days before had been greeting Jesus with as He rode into Jerusalem. Jesus says from Psalm 118, "The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone."
Jesus is saying to them essentially what He will say to the Emmaus disciples Easter evening. "It was necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory." Your leaders setting Me aside as some useless, no count rock is proof positive that I am the Capstone that everyone has to come to terms with. Jesus goes on to give the two different ways of coming to terms with Him. Either fall down on this Rock and be broken in pieces, be crushed in repentance, having your own righteousness shattered, or have the Rock fall on you and crush you in judgement the way it will the leaders. "It's not too late for you," is what Jesus is saying. He is making a last call to the people before the leaders pounce on Him, arrest Him, put Him through mock trials, and finally manipulate Pilate to murder Him.
And the leaders know what Jesus is doing. They have always been afraid of the people whenever they dealt with John the Baptist or with Jesus. But this is one of the few times Jesus makes an appeal to the people at their leader's expense. So we read, literally, "And did seek the scribes and the chief priests to cast upon Jesus their hands in that very hour, and they did fear the people because they did recognize that to them (to the people) He did say this parable."
Yes, Jesus told the people that they were going to get the vineyard freely as a result of their leaders killing God the Son. The vineyard the people had been beat over the head with, held hostage with, made to work like dogs in with threats and guilt was going to be given to them freely.
And that's the message for you too. You're getting the vineyard! In two short weeks Christ Jesus is going to go to the cross for all of your sins; even those that you put conditions on before they can be forgiven. You may have been made to feel in the past that God wanted from you this good deed, this offering, this amount of repentance, this degree of faith before you could be forgiven. You may have been held hostage by Church leaders who made you feel you didn't work hard enough in the Church, love God enough, or keep enough of His laws. But Christ is coming to you looking for nothing in you, not works, not hope, not love, but only sins.
Christ is coming to you who are laden with such a heavy load of sin that you can't stand before God; you can only collapse upon the Rock Jesus Christ and be broken to pieces. All your righteousness, all your goodness, all your sins are shattered on Christ. You claim nothing but the Rock; you plead nothing but His death as the reason that the vineyard freely and completely belongs to you. You with nothing but sin to offer are free to romp and play in the vineyard as if God planted it just for you...which of course He did. That's why Christ says in Luke 12:32 it's the Father's good pleasure to give it to you.
Hear this well poor, miserable sinners. God loved you so much that He willingly gave up His only beloved Son to get the vineyard into your hands. That conscience of yours that tells you your lease payments are far behind or insufficient is using lies to convict you. The Father never looked for anything put sins from His farmers. He sent His prophets and then His Son only to take the sins of farmers away from them. The only ones He ever cast out of the vineyard were those who claimed they had no sins to give. But to those with sins God gives not only the vineyard, not only the inheritance of the Son, but the Son Himself. You know, "Take eat, take drink." Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent V (4-1-01) Luke 20:9-19