Bible Passage: Matthew 21:33-43 Pastor: Pastor Berg Sermon Date: October 8, 2017
The tension that filled the crowd as Jesus spoke was substantial. The church leaders that dotted the landscape weren’t used to being on this end of the rebuke. Things had not been going their way lately. They never imagined that Jesus would have the nerve to clear out the Temple a second time. They were jealous of the crowds he drew as he preached and taught without their blessing. They were stunned that he dared to openly rebuke them with his parable of the two sons. Maybe it would just be best if they walked away from the situation, live to fight another day. But then Jesus spoke up again. “Listen to another parable…”
Jesus had arrived just two days earlier on the back of a donkey with fanfare reserved for kings. He’d come with pomp and circumstance that had the crowds stirred up into a religious fervor. The leaders, the Pharisees and teachers of the Law were afraid of the people. They wanted to make Jesus go away, permanently. This is Tuesday of Holy Week. Jesus knew it was his last opportunity to preach and teach. He knew what was coming. He knew what was about to take place. Imagine the emotions running through his heart as he tells this story, this story about himself.
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. He leased it out to some tenant farmers and went away on a journey. When the time approached to harvest the fruit, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” Jesus begins this second parable with a familiar setting. In fact, it’s the same setting as the last two parables we’ve heard. We’re back in the vineyard. And this vineyard had everything it could possibly need to succeed. It was protected. It already had a winepress to process the grapes. It even had a watchtower to further protect the harvest. You would think that the owner, who invested all of the time and resources himself, at his own cost, would take all of the resources himself. But no, he rented it out, only asking for a portion of the harvest each year in exchange for using this state of the art facility—which was really not that much to ask.
So the harvest came and the owner sent some of his servants to collect his portion. They didn’t come with a show of force. They simply came to collect what was expected. And that’s where the story take an unexpected twist. “The tenant farmers seized his servants. They beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then the landowner sent even more servants than the first time. The tenant farmers treated them the same way.” In a shocking display of aggression, the tenants didn’t just turn the servants away and send them back empty handed. With each successive servant, the violence escalated. Beat…killed…stoned. And it wasn’t just the first batch. When the owner sent more servants than the first time, they treated them the same way.
Can you see the crowd gasping at each horrific detail? Can you feel them tense as the anger boils up inside? Surely justice will be served? Surely this owner will strike back with equal ferocity! And that’s what they waited for Jesus to say. But then Jesus said something different, something shocking. Despite what had happened—repeatedly—the owner hoped these tenants would change their minds. He was willing to forgive them. He was willing to be faithful to them in spite of their unfaithfulness to him. He had a plan. He would send the one man who would surely command their respect: his son. How could these tenants not see the faithfulness, the patience and mercy of the owner sending his son? Surely they would be compelled to change by this display of undeserved faithfulness and love.
But the crowd knew this wasn’t going to end well. This wasn’t that kind of a story! Jesus had brought them here…on purpose. He could see the outrage in their eyes. And so he brought them right to the breaking point. “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance!’ They took him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.” Murmurs overtook the crowd. Nostrils flared in anger. Mouths hung open in shock. How could this happen? What kind of world do we live in? How could they take advantage of such kindness and patience, such faithfulness? But Jesus wasn’t done. It’s was time for the tables to flip again on that Tuesday of Holy Week.
“So when the landowner comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” They told him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end. Then he will lease out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his fruit when it is due.” Of course he would, right? Of course that’s what would happen. That’s what common human decency would say. Punishment had to be handed down. Justice had to be served. It took that crowd no time at all to decide what the right course of action would be.
But to their immense surprise, Jesus was once again speaking about them. They had condemned themselves. These Pharisees and teachers of the Law, who had realized that the parable of the two sons was about them, got sucked in again. By the time they realized Jesus was talking about them, it was too late. Jesus had again allowed them to condemn themselves.
The details of the parable are clear. The landowner is clearly God the Father. The vineyard is the people of Israel, a picture God regularly used for them in the Old Testament. The wall of protection was the Ceremonial and Civil Laws that God had handed down to keep Israel separate from the rest of the nations so it would be obvious that these were the people God had promised to Abraham. These were the people from whom Messiah would come. The tenants are the leaders of the Jews. The servants who were sent to collect the fruit were the Old Testament prophets. Is that really how Israel treated God’s prophets? Stephen said before he himself was stoned, “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit! You are doing just what your fathers did. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? The killed those who prophesied the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers…”
The landowner’s son is obviously Jesus. Jesus tells this parable about himself, about how he came, about how he was about to be treated. Jesus, three days before his death, talked about how they would kill him. They would take him outside the walls of the vineyard to kill him. Jesus was crucified outside the gates of the city. Jesus knew what was going to happen. Yet, in his faithfulness, he still tells this parable to give these leaders a chance to repent. How likely is it that a man would lose so many servants and then send his son to try and collect his share of the harvest? Not likely! Yet, Jesus tells this unlikely story to show the incredible faithfulness of God in dealing patiently with his people. It is truly mind boggling that God would send his Son into the world after seeing how his people had treated his prophets! Yet, that’s exactly what God did, because that’s what God had promised!
But the people still rejected him. “Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes?“That is why I tell you the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces its fruit.”
This is a chilling story—especially when you put yourself in the place of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Far too often, we have neglected and mistreated the prophets in the same way that Israel did. No, we may not murder them physically, but how often haven’t we neglected them who still speak to us in God’s Word? How often haven’t we tossed aside the messengers who come seeking the fruit that God desires and deserves? Are we giving God his fruit? Are we giving to God what rightfully belongs to him? This is a questions about attitude. This is a question about priorities. We are no better than the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law when we disregard God’s Word, when we knowingly ignore what he says for our lives today. The death sentence that these leaders pronounced on themselves is the same sentence we deserve.
But what we deserve is not what we receive. God in his infinite mercy and patience and faithfulness to his promises sent his Son, his only Son to us. Jesus didn’t just tell a story, he lived it. Jesus, the owner’s Son, was sent to the Lord’s vineyard to die. He had to die, because it was only through his death that the vineyard could be reclaimed. He was tossed out of the vineyard to die so that you might be brought into the vineyard to live. And now, in an equally inconceivable act of faithfulness, God has brought us into the vineyard of his mercy, and has given us everything necessary to make it fruitful. He has given us the good news of Jesus in his Word and Sacraments. And all he asks of us is that we be faithful too. All he asks is that we give him what is rightfully his. All he wants is fruit.
Are we giving God his fruit? Are we responding to the great faithfulness of God by producing fruits of faith for him? We most certainly are! For we know that’s what happens when faith comes into contact with the gospel. It naturally produces fruit. And your fruit may look different than mine, but it’s fruit just the same. And fruit produced from a heart of faith and offered to God in thanksgiving is all that God desires. We don’t produce fruit to earn God’s love. Jesus already made us God’s children. We don’t produce fruit to earn God’s favor. Jesus has already given us his perfect life. We produce fruit to say thank you! And we can do it in every aspect of our lives, no matter where God has placed you.
Take a moment today to think about all that God has done for you, all that he’s given you. And then take a hard look at your fruit. Are you giving God what he deserves based on what he’s given to you? And then, look back at what God has done for you and motivated by that love, by that faithfulness, recommit yourselves to giving God the fruit that is his, the fruit that he is so patiently waiting for. May God help us for Jesus’ sake. AMEN