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If we were to survey of all of the parables that Jesus told, we would discover that these earthly stories with heavenly meanings are based on examples from either nature or people. And if we were to read these parables according to their kinds, what we would see is that they are all, in many ways, alike according to their kind. The parables that are based on nature, such as, the lilies of the field, birds of the air, sheep and their shepherd, these all have a certain innocence and peace about them and they have a happy ending. But many of the parables that are based on examples of people, such as, the father and his two sons, the workers in the vineyard, the unjust steward, the wounded man on the road, these all have an aspect of conflict and tension and even violence to them, and they end in hard ways.
That's certainly the case with the parable before us this morning that is based on the example of people. In fact, of all of the parables that Jesus tells, this one may be the most violent and dark. It ends in cold-blooded murder.
Before we explore this story in detail, let's be sure that we point out the one detail that isn't in the story itself, but which anchors it in reality. Jesus tells this parable on either Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week. By the end of the week, He will be taken outside the walls of Jerusalem and murdered at the place called 'Golgatha.'
The story certainly begins on a bright and positive note. "A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while." That has a hopeful and promising sound to it. A new enterprise is opening up and new jobs available.
They were tenants. The vineyard was leased to them. Which means that they were to work it and take care of it. The usual arrangement was they paid their lease payment to the owner in the crops that the farm produced.
The introduction of this story has a familiar ring to it. "The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east…. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it." (Gen.2:8,15).
It was a bright and sunny day when the Lord planted His garden in Eden and made the man to work it and tend it. And the work was good work. Satisfying work. The kind of work that gives a man a real sense of meaning and purpose and significance. It was important work.
But it was a dark and ominous day when the Lord returned to His garden to visit the man at his work. Rather than the expected greeting and welcome He expected, His tenants hid from Him. And God took the garden away from them.
Which is just about how the story Jesus tells ends too. "What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyards to others."
By the time that Jesus tells this parable in Jerusalem, things have really gone downhill. Man has gone from hiding from God to murdering God. Among other things, the parable illustrates the path of sin very well.
The tenants only wanted to keep a bigger share of the produce for themselves. But that led to wanting to keep it all for themselves. They never set out to commit murder. But what started out as a common case of greed led to coveting what belonged to someone else. Which led to rebellion, which led to violence, which escalated to murder. And which resulted in the loss of everything.
This is the slippery slope of sin that James warns of when he writes, "Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death." (James 1:14-15).
But all of this we know very well. We didn't need a story from Jesus to tell us this. And so the amazing part of this story is not the wicked tenants. We're not surprised by their behavior. We see it every day. We can identify with it ourselves with no trouble at all.
How often have we rejected God's demands for some fruit from what He has planted in us? What fruit you ask? The fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control are the produce of the Spirit that He has planted in us in our Baptism.
* How often have we withheld this precious fruit of the vine – the true vine that is?
* How many people has the Lord sent to us whom we've refused to love or be patient with, or kind or gentle to?
* How often have we heard God's Word make its claim on our life and given it a good beating and thrown it out because we had our own goals and ambitions?
Of course, what these tenants didn't understand was the economic system that this vineyard was set up to operate by, and still operates by to this day. They didn't understand that the One who planted the vineyard had established a divine economy, that works in a, shall we say, rather mysterious way.
In the divine economy, the more you give back to the owner of the vineyard, the more you get out of it. Or as the divine economist describes it, to those who have much even more is given. And the converse also holds true. The more you withhold and keep for yourself, the less you receive. No matter how much you have it's never enough. So, whoever has little, even what little they have will be taken from them.
These are the principles of divine economics. They don't necessary apply to worldly systems that are based on competitive, free market economic systems. But when it comes to the production and distribution of goods and services of the Holy Spirit, the more you give the more you have to give. And the more you give, the more satisfied, fulfilled and contented you are with what you have.
This, these tenants clearly did not understand. And even if we claim to understand these things, we have a very hard time trusting that these divine economic principles really work as they claim to.
No, the amazing part of this story is not the ruthlessness of the tenants.
The amazing part of this story is the love, peace, patience, gentleness and self-control of the owner of the vineyard. What amazes us is His repeated advances to these wicked tenants of his, and the way he bears with them so patiently and seems not to see what we see so clearly.
The way Jesus tells it, He stretches the patience and self-control of the owner to the point of absurdity. Who would ever respond to such brutal rejection like this man does? Jesus has exaggerated the actions of the owner in this story so out of proportion that we say, 'this is ridiculous. No one could be this naive.'
But of course, the absurd behavior of the owner as Jesus describes it, is entirely intentional. Jesus has shown us how sinful man responds to God. Now, He also wants to show us how the Holy God responds to sinful man.
And frankly, the whole thing baffles us. If this is the way God responds to sinners than all we can say is the whole thing is foolishness. It makes no sense. What makes sense and seems right is when we're bad, God punishes us. And when we're selfish, God withholds from us. When we're unloving He will not love us. And conversely, when we're good, He'll be good to us. When we're nice, He'll be nice to us and so forth.
But here what we see is that instead of putting His foot down and showing the tenants who's boss, and giving them what they deserve, He keeps sending His servants. His patience with them is ridiculous. His mercy towards them is crazy. He doesn't reject when rejected. He is merciful even to the merciless. He continues to forgive sinners even while sinners continue to sin.
And then, just when we thought that the story couldn't get more bizarre, Jesus adds this, "Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.' But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, 'this is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours' And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him."
But this is the very part of this parable that you and I find to be the most credible and real. Because we know that Jesus has written himself into this story. He is the "beloved Son" whom the Father has sent to us wicked tenants. He is the "heir" as the writer to the Hebrews verifies, "In these last days He has spoken to us by His Son whom he appointed the heir of all things…" (Heb.1:2).
And we already know very well that the actions of the tenants are rooted in reality. And even as Jesus tells the story, He knows that this final act of rebellion will take place against Him by the end of the week.
And so, knowing that all of this is about to take place, not as an earthly story with a heavenly meaning but as real history happening in real time and real space, Jesus finishes the story with a question. "What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? And then He gives the terrible answer. "He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others."
And when they heard this, they said, "Its about time. Finally the owner is acting realistically and rationally. Now, He's acting like a respectable owner ought to act. He should have put his foot down a lot sooner."
No, that's not what they say is it? They have obviously been caught up in this story as we have. And they have obviously found themselves in the wicked tenants as we have. So when they hear the terrible ending, "He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others," they said, "Surely not!"
"Surely not!" means, "No, please don't act like we do. Please don't demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Please don't give us what we deserve."
And isn't this our plea also? "Surely not!" Isn't that what we say every Sunday when we come before the Lord with "Kyrie Eleison" on our lips? "Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy"? What is the meaning of mercy but, "Surely not!" "Don't give us what we deserve."
And Jesus answers them, and us, like this, "What then is this that is written: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone?' Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.'"
Jesus is quoting a verse from Psalm 118 (22) and two verses from Isaiah 8 (14-15). He is doing a little play on words here. In Hebrew, the word for 'stone' is "eben." And the word for 'son' is "ben." Only the slightest bit of breath makes the difference. Jesus is identifying Himself as the 'son' that the tenants rejected. And the rejected One has become the cornerstone. The One whom the tenants killed has risen from the dead and become the living One.
What Jesus is calling them and us to do is to 'fall on that stone/son.' He will break you to pieces. He will break your greed and your covetousness that withholds His love and joy and peace from those whom He sends to you. Fall on Him and He will break in pieces your murderous hands and mouth that know no patience or gentleness or self-control.
And after you have been broken by Him, He will fall on you and crush you under the full weight of His mercy and forgiveness and love. And He will raise you up again, and set you up in His vineyard again, and again and again. Until that day comes when the owner of the vineyard will send His Son once again. And then He will take all that is His.
Until then, we continue to say, "surely not!"