Sunday, October 8th, 2023

The Parable of the Tenants

Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God our Father through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.  Let us pray.  O Lord, send forth your Word into our ears, that it may bear fruit in our lives, in Jesus’ name, Amen.  The Lord’s prophet Isaiah told a parable and it began like a beautiful love song. Let me sing a song for my beloved, a song concerning his vineyard, and it described the care with which the speaker tended his vineyard. He dug it, out cleared it of all stones, planted the choices of vines, even built a watchtower to guard it to defend the vineyard from wild animals and from thieves. But in a surprising twist, when he looked for the vineyard to produce good fruit, it produced wild grapes instead, and so Isaiah asked his hearers, “You tell me. What more could have been done for that vineyard? Why did it produce wild grapes instead of good fruit? And then, the Lord’s prophet proclaimed the Lord’s word of judgment. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do to my vineyard, oh Israel. I will remove the hedge of protection so that my vineyard to be devoured; I will breakdown its wall so that it will be trampled. I will stop sending clouds so that it will no longer have rain. I’ll stop tending to it so that it will be overrun by thorns and briars. And that prophecy of judgment was fulfilled when the Assyrian army and the Babylonian armies overran the promised land, trampled through God’s vineyard, destroying it, creating a drought of the life- giving proclamation of God’s word, carrying God’s people off into captivity. You see the Lord’s people did not produce good fruit and so the Lord destroyed the vineyard. He chopped down that tree, leaving only a stump,  but a shoot grew from that stump and hope remained that the tree might once again produce life and fruit. And when that shoot from Jesse’s stump was born, He grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and with people and He spent three years walking through his vineyard looking at what kind of fruit it was producing. At the end of that three years, standing in the temple with all of its decorative fruit and garden imagery, the greatest of our Lord’s prophets told the parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard put a fence around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower to protect it. The chief priests and all the religious leaders in the crowd no doubt heard in Jesus’ parable, echoes of Isaiah. And they no doubt perceive that Jesus was telling them a parable about Israel, but then Jesus changed the parable just a little bit. He added a new character. This master not only planted a vineyard, but he let the vineyard out to tenants and went away. He left his vineyard in the care of another and the chief priest and the religious leaders in the crowd no doubt recognized that Jesus was talking about them. They were the ones who had been given the responsibility to care for God’s people, to tend God’s vineyard, but when the harvest drew near, the master sent servants to collect the fruit, so here also, Jesus adds another new character to Isaiah’s parable. The master sends messengers instead of the visiting himself and so also Israel’s God sent messengers. He sent his prophets to his people. What does people do? They beat one, one killed another, stoned another, and then in an outrageous shift, the master decides to send his own son. The tenants decide to kill him too, to take the inheritance. Now don’t miss what Jesus has done to Isaiah parable. In Isaiah ‘s parable, the problem was that the vineyard was not producing fruit. That’s not the problem here. The problem in Jesus’ parable is not a lack of fruit, it’s the fact that he can’t get the fruit because of wicked and unfaithful tenants. So also, the ministry of Jesus. We heard last week the parable of the two sons. We heard last week about the ministry of John the Baptist. We heard the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the Kingdom of heaven ahead of the chief priests and the religious leaders because the tax collectors and the prostitutes were bearing fruit in keeping with repentance. They were walking in the way of righteousness. The way of righteousness is the way of repentance. The problem in Jesus’ parable isn’t the vineyard. It’s not the people of Israel. It’s the tenants, it’s the leaders. And just because we waited a week in between hearing the parable of the two sons and the parable of the vineyard doesn’t mean Jesus waited a week between telling them. He told these parables back-to-back. Told them to and about the religious leaders of Israel and those leaders knew it. Matthew tells us as much at the end of today’s reading. When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard these parables, they perceived that Jesus was speaking about them and although they were seeking to arrest him, they were afraid of the crowds, because the crowds held him to be a prophet. The chief priests, the Pharisees are well aware that for them Jesus’ parables are a proclamation of judgment. They know they are the brother that did not do what the father asked. They know they are the tenants who killed the vineyard owner’s prophets and even killed his own Son. They know they are the ones who are having the vineyard taken away from them and given it to another. What about us? I’m not a religious leader in ancient Israel, neither are you. God’s people today are not the chief priests. What does this parable speak to us? It’s a parable of a vineyard owner who refuses to give up on his vineyard. One failure after another will not dissuade him. No, he keeps sending servants one after another, even as those servants are rejected, the master just sends more. And the Old Testament reads as a litany of God’s rejected servants because the Israelites did not want to listen. It seemed like no matter what the Lord did the Israelites just did not want to listen. They continued to reject his prophets, continued to reject his messengers, but the Lord persevered. See that’s the thing about perseverance. There’s a fine line between perseverance and stubbornness. Perseverance can be a wonderful quality, or it could be a person’s downfall. I remember from my days of teaching, several students who exhibited tremendous perseverance, even when they were told that it was time to be quiet, they persevered in their desire to talk. Even when they’re told they cannot have their phones out during class, they persevered in their attempts to hide it behind their backpack, in their purse, under their desk, anyway they thought I wouldn’t see it. Even though I told them over and over again that I was there to help them, they persevered in their view that all teachers are the enemy, determined not to interact with any one of us, if they could avoid it in any way. Perseverance, stubbornness. When we are stubborn in our sin, our Lord perseveres coming after us. This parable emphasizes the persistence of the master in continually sending his servants. Sure, he’s not the only one who’s perseverant in the story. The tenants persist themselves. The master had given them the vineyard as a gift, a place where they would be blessed with everything that they needed, even built a hedge around it to keep the danger out. And yet those tenants persist in feeling entitled, in viewing their master as their enemy. They don’t view the vineyard as a gift, they treat it as if it’s theirs by right. And when the servants show up to collect the master’s fruit, the tenants act as if anything they give to the master is less for themselves. And so they killed the servants.Instead of viewing the master who created, planted, and tended this vineyard, instead of viewing it as a wonderful gift of a place to live in, they treat the master as if he’s just trying to steal their grapes. There is a fine line between perseverance and stubbornness. Hard heartedness. Martin Luther once said “As you believe so shall you have.” Another way to put it is you get the God you ask for. One pastor I’ve read explained it this way. If you treat God as if He is someone who is only interested in getting things out of you, depriving you of good things, if you treat God as if anything He gets means less for you, then that is the God you will have. If you treat God as if He is one who can’t be trusted to care for your own good, if you treat Him as a threat or as an enemy, then that is the God you will have. If you expect evil from God, you will receive it from Him. What he’s saying is that if we act as if our Lord is a Lord of judgment, then a Lord of judgements He will be. The tenants don’t get it. The chief priest and religious leaders of Jesus day, they didn’t get it.   And all too often, we don’t get it either.  It’s a simple truth. We don’t have to be under judgment. Our Lord doesn’t give us what we deserve, unless we insist on it. Our Lord wants us to be in his vineyard. After all He is the one who planted us there, and yet if we treat God as an enemy then that is exactly what we will have in Him. Our Lord has given us the vineyard of his church, given us the Holy Spirit for the preaching of his word to create in us the fruits of repentance and faith. And what Jesus is saying in this parable is, that the refusal of the gifts of repentance and faith, treating them as if they were ours by right and not as if they were truly gifts, that results in judgment. This parable is speaking to those who refuse to allow God’s gifts to bring them to repentance. How often is that true of us? How often do we act as if somehow salvation was ours by right, as if somehow God owed it to me. How many times we fall back and rely on our own righteousness instead of relying on the righteousness that comes to us as a gift. The temptation is always there to look at the Lord’s Word, to look at his messengers, as if they’re simply trying to steal something from us. Our Lord gives us the Word of his law, sends his messengers to warn us of our sin, and yet so often we ignore those words. We act as if the law is simply there for other people, but the really bad ones. For the rapists and murderers and the real sinners. We look at our own sins and make convenient excuses, give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We approach God as if we have somehow earned his blessing. We approach God as if we have somehow deserved his grace because of just how lovable we are. But we had better be careful what we asked for, because we just might get it. If we continue to act as if God’s treatment of us depends on who we are, and how we behave, and what we have done, eventually there will come a time when God will treat us based on how we behave, and what we have done, what we deserve. He will knock down the hedge of protection, and he will withdraw the clouds of rain, and he will leave us to our own judgment. So instead, our Lord calls us to live in this vineyard as a gift. Rather than obsessing over what I deserve, we cling to the promise that we have been given. We cling to the promise of forgiveness, the promise of new life, the promise of salvation, freely given. It’s one of my favorite Luther quotes, so no doubt you’ll hear it from me again and again. You get the god you ask for. If you ask God to treat you according to who you are, He will and you won’t like it. He won’t treat you according to the good you think you’ve done, or the righteousness you think you deserve, because He sees through the façade. He’ll give us what we truly deserve, binding our sins to us and taking the vineyard away from us, giving it to someone else. So instead, we ask God to treat us according to who He is, according to His love, according to his mercy. And that’s exactly the God we get. The God who died to forgive the sins of these very religious leaders who were plotting to kill him, the God who died to forgive my sins and yours, the God who plants you in the vineyard of his church, richly and daily forgiving your sins, sustaining your faith with his life giving blood all as a gift freely given to you. It’s a simple message, and a powerful one. We get the God we ask for. When you put it like that, the choice seems obvious. In fact, it seems like no choice at all. That’s exactly the point. That’s the point Jesus wants us to see. Our Lord is here to bless you. Our Lord is here to provide for you. Our Lord is here to give you life. So may our Lord who gave His Son into the hands of sinful men who killed Him, may He forgive us when we reject his unfailing love and may He grant us the fullness of His salvation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.