The People's Court
In the opening episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation humanity is put on a trial by an omnipotent being to determine whether they are worthy to go on existing. So in this incidence the court doesn't belong to the people. The people aren't the judge but they are being judged. It is a people court not the people's court. In our text, it's both.
In a court you have evidence, Jesus brings the evidence before the people. "He went on to tell the people this parable," the text begins. A man planted a vineyard and your insert says he "rented it." This is a word used in commercial Greek. It's only used in the New Testament in this parable. The word can mean "rented," but "to give out of one's house," and "to give out, give up, give over," are the first two meanings. Furthermore, at the end of the parable Jesus says the Lord of the vineyard, not the owner, "the Lord," gives the vineyard to others. "Give" there is the ordinary word for it, and it's parallel to the first giving. The evidence I'm putting before you is that this is no business relationship. This is a relationship of pure grace, total gift. It's the Lord's vineyard. He planted it at His risk, money, and labor, and He gives it freely to others.
Exhibit A is the gift of the vineyard. Exhibit B is the Lord sending to the "farmers" for the fruit of the vineyard. He doesn't send to "tenants" as the insert translates; it's the same word used at the beginning: farmers. The Lord of the vineyard sends to the farmers for them to give, same word as will be used later for giving the vineyard to others, some of the fruit. Who did the Lord send to the farmers? We know the last one He sent is "My Son whom I love." This Greek phrase reproduces the Father's public words to Jesus following His Baptism three years earlier. Everyone hearing this parable knows that Jesus is the Son. That makes the 3 who were sent before Him stand for the various prophets right up till John the Baptist. Stephen on trial asked the Jewish leaders, "Which of the prophets haven't your fathers persecuted?" And they couldn't offer one name.
Be clear on what the Lord sent His prophets to collect. What is the fruit of sinners? Sins. They came for the people's sins. They came preaching repentance; give the Lord your sins, your guilts, your wrongs. The religious leaders gave their money in the form of tithes; they gave their obedience in the form of sacrifices, but they refused to give the Lord their sins; they refused to believe they had them or that He could deliver them from them.
Exhibit A is the gift of the vineyard; Exhibit B is the Lord sending preacher after preacher to the church leaders and then finally sending His Son; Exhibit C is what they did to them. They beat them, but still the Lord sent not judgment but another preacher. They treated them shamefully, but still the Lord sent not wrath but another preacher. They threw them out of the vineyard with nothing but wounds, and still the Lord send not condemnation but His own dear Son. Exhibit C is the cross. There's the Heir of the vineyard; there's the last attempt of the Lord to collect the sins of the Old Testament Church leaders. There He hangs on the cross pumping out His lifeblood having been tortured, abused, and mocked for saying, "Come unto Me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest."
The verdict is in. Jesus gives it: The Lord will return, destroy those farmers, and give the vineyard to others. Doesn't that seem just? But there is a twist in this people's court, and the twist is the people; not the church leaders, not the fat lazy shepherds of the people but the people themselves disagree. They say, "May this never be!" This is the strongest oath you can utter in Greek. The King James conveys this by translating, "God forbid," though the word "God" isn't there. "Surely not," is how the ESV renders it.
I've told you time and again that the people though abused and misused by the leaders of the church still followed them and supported them. In the Passion Reading we read two Wednesdays ago it was the church leaders who first shouted for Jesus' crucifixion; this past Wednesday it was the people with one voice shouting, "Crucify! Crucify!" Here Jesus has laid out before the people God's evidence and God's verdict against their leaders, and incredibly the people say, "Surely not!"
You know what they deserve to hear from Jesus now? "Then you be destroyed with them; then you share their sin of rejecting every preacher the Lord ever sent; then you share their guilt of killing the Lord's beloved Son. Then you be sunk into the depths of hell for eternity by the sins that you refuse to give Him." But there's another twist in the people's court. It's in this phrase, "Jesus looked directly at them."
This is not the usual word for looking at someone. We've already heard it once in a Wednesday Passion Reading. After denying Jesus for the third time and after hearing the rooster crow, the text says, "And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter." This word is also in the account of Jesus and the rich young man. After the man has shown himself to be mired in his sinfulness, we read, "Jesus looked at him and loved him." One commentator says this word refers to "the loving, reproving, and yet winning look of Jesus'" (Marshall, in Buls, Exegetical Notes, Series C, 42). Only in the case of Peter does the look lead directly to repenting. The rich young man went away without Jesus; the people here will side with the leaders cast out of the vineyard and call for Jesus' death; the question now is what about you people?
The people siding with their leaders against Jesus show they are mired in the same sins and need more law. Jesus goes into a quote from Psalm 118, one of the main Psalms they all sung at the Passover that is only days away in the text. The "son" in the parable becomes the "stone" in the quote. Reject this stone and you will be broken to pieces or crushed into dust. But there's a twist even in this foreboding pronouncement. Who every tripped on a capstone or on a cornerstone as other translations have it? If a capstone or cornerstone is in its proper place no one can be broken or crushed by it.
After the evidence has been presented and the verdict is in, if the verdict is "guilty," there's an opportunity to appeal. The guilty people, however, don't make the appeal in this case; Jesus does. In just days the people will witness the farmers of the vineyard do their last and fatal rejection of God's grace. They will see them hand over to death the beloved Son of the vineyard Owner. They will see their leaders reject the Capstone casting it aside out of it's proper place where it can be easily tripped over.
Jesus appeals to the people and to you too, to see Him in His proper place. Although they will kill the beloved Son of the vineyard Owner, they won't destroy Him. In fact, Jesus has been prophesying all along that this is what He came for. He came to give His life as a ransom in place of others. He came to be the Lamb of God that carries away the sins of the world. All the people know lambs that carried sins died. Jesus rejection, ridiculing, and dying was all part of God's plan. His perfect Son was the wrath removing sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Rather than a stone that falls and crushes, Jesus in His proper place is the Rock of ages that clefts for sinners. Remember how Moses begged God to continue to be present with the people although God said He wouldn't after they made the Golden Calf? Then Moses begged God to show him His glory for Moses knew God's glory was forgiving not judging. "The Lord responded, It will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by.'" Then the Lord passed by declaring His glory was to be "'compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth; who keeps loving-kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin. Yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the 3rd and 4th generations.'"
On the cross the Rock of ages will cleft. Water and Blood will come from His side flowing into font and chalice washing sins away, covering the guilt of sinners, feeding them for life everlasting. You don't want the Rock of ages to cleft for you? You want to be like the church leaders who refused to give Jesus their sins, their guilts? You want to reject the proper place of Jesus as the Capstone or Cornerstone of life? Fine the Rock won't cleft, and there it sits like a big stone for you to trip over or to fall on you. And if it does it will bring with it the weight of guilt from 3 or 4 generations back, and can you even bear up under the guilt of just your own?
This text is all about you the people. It begins with saying "Jesus went on to tell the people," and it ends highlighting once more the people. It says literally, "And the scribes and the chief priests were seeking to cast hands upon Him in that very hour, but they feared the people because they knew that to them He spoke this parable."
To you the people, Jesus makes His appeal today: Be not like the church leaders who thought they could stop the Son by rejecting Him and killing Him. Be not like the church leaders who had no sins to confess, to give when Jesus came looking for them. Be not like the church leaders who stumbled over Jesus because they refused to see Him in His proper place as Savior and Lord.
In the Star Trek series, the people showed themselves worthy by good, noble, selfless deeds. Before the true God these people would have been broken or crushed as the church leaders were. Only those who have no goodness, plead no nobility, and offer no good deeds are worthy of having the Rock of ages cleft for them. May this parable be for you not a people court where you are on trail but a people's court where you judge yourself worthy of the vineyard Jesus wills to give to the unworthy. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday in Lent (20100321); Luke 20: 9-19