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It was just two Sunday's ago that we listened to Jesus tell a story about a man who owned a vineyard. He hired workers throughout the course of the day and at the end of the day, He paid everyone a full days wages, even those who had only worked one hour. Those hired first complained saying that it was unfair. But the owner replied saying, 'Am I not allowed to do what I choose WITH WHAT BELONGS TO ME.'
Now today, we hear Jesus tell another story about a man who owns a vineyard. It's another story but not another man or another vineyard. This is the same man and the same vineyard. In fact, it's the same man and the same vineyard as the one that we heard the prophet Isaiah speak about in our Old Testament reading this morning.
But in this story, the focus is on the payment that the owner expects from His vineyard. Unlike the previous story where the owner took a pretty hands-on approach to management, here, the owner leases the operation to tenants for them to manage while He leaves the country.
The terms are spelled out pretty clearly in the story. He LEASED it to the tenants. He didn't SELL it to them. If He had SOLD it His involvement with the vineyard and its operation would be over. But He LEASES the vineyard to TENANTS. We'd probably call them 'sharecroppers.' They live in the vineyard and they live off the vineyard. The only obligation that they have to the owner is to make the annual lease payment. And the lease payment is paid in 'FRUIT.' The lease payments are made, not in dollars or denari, but in the fruit of the vine, in cases of wine. After all, that why the owner planted a vineyard. That's what vineyards are supposed to produce.
So far so good. So far, it's all business as usual. The tension in this story happens when the owner wants to collect the payment due. He sends His servants to get the fruit and bring it back to Him. He sent one, but the tenants beat him up. He sent another but the tenants killed him, we're not told how. He sent another but the tenants killed this one by stoning him.
This is terrible. It's completely outrageous. How can they do such a thing? Have they no sense of appreciation or gratitude for the blessings of life in the vineyard? Have they forgotten that the gracious owner has 'given them every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth and every tree with seed in its fruit [and said] 'You shall have them for food'? Have they forgotten that it was He 'who put them in the [vineyard] to work it and take care of it.' (Gen.1:29; 2:15).
Or could it be that they have forgotten that this vineyard is not really theirs, that it doesn't belong to them? Or have they become so attached to their standard of living that they cannot bear to turn any of it over to the owner and they resent the owners attempts to collect His due?
Who are these scoundrels anyway?
They are you and me. Though out both the Old and New Testaments, a vineyard is standard picture language for God's people, His Israel, His Church. We are the tenants whom the master has called by the gospel to work His vineyard, His Church, and to live off of His estate and to produce a the fruit that He is looking for.
And we are the ones who have forgotten that we live and move and have our being in the Lord. (Acts 17:28). And we are the ones who have become so comfortable with our status quo, that when we hear that the master expects us to hand over the fruit that He expects from us, we bristle and cringe, and we say, 'who gives you the right to make demands'?
So just what is that 'fruit' that this owner of the vineyard comes to collect from His tenants? Isaiah describes it like this, 'He looked for JUSTICE' for RIGHTEOUSNESS"
Justice and righteousness is the fine wine that the Lord expects to receive from His vineyard, His Israel, His Church. After all, that's why He planted the vine, that's why He planted the Church. That's what Israel, that's what the Church is supposed to produce.
St. Paul describes the ingredients that go into this fine wine like this, 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.' (Gal.5:22-23).
This is the fruit of the vine that the Holy Spirit has planted in us by the water and the Word of Holy Baptism. And He fertilizes this vine with the body and blood of Jesus in Holy Communion. And Jesus Christ, who is perfect justice and perfect righteousness, cries out, 'I am the vine.' He Himself has been planted in us so that we may produce the same. This is what is due.
But what do we produce? 'Wild Grapes.' Sour grapes. 'Bloodshed' 'An outcry.' We resent the whole idea that God should demand His due from us.
We may not be so barbaric as those tenants in this story. We are more civilized than that. Rather than beating or killing the messenger, we just ignore him.
Is this not terrible. Is this not outrageous.
But if we think that these tenants act so strangely, what about the behavior of the owner? What owner, faced with such ungrateful and rebellious tenants as these, would keep sending servant after servant, only to have those servants returned either badly bruised or in body bags?
And yet, that is just what He does? He sends even more servants. And what do the tenants do to them? They do the same thing that they had done to the others. They will not repent.
So, enough is enough, right? Finally now He'll do what we would expect any self-respecting businessman to do and throw those tenants out of the vineyard, right? Wrong. As Jesus tells this story, He stretches the patience of the owner with His tenants to the point of absurdity. 'Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'they will respect my son.'
A middle eastern bible scholar named Kenneth Bailey recounts an event that took place in the early 1980s in the country of Jordan. One night, King Hussein was informed by his security police that a group of about 75 Jordanian army officers were meeting in a nearby building, plotting the overthrow of the kingdom and assignation of the king. The security forces requested permission to go and surround the building and arrest the traitors. After a long pause the king refused to grant their request. Instead he ordered a small helicopter be brought and he and the pilot alone flew to the roof of the building where the meeting was taking place. The king walked down two flights of stairs, alone and unarmed and entered the room where the traitors were meeting. His words to them were recorded and preserved.
'Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that you are meeting here tonight to finalize your plans to overthrow the government, take over the country and install a military dictator. If you do this, the army will break apart and the country will be plunged into civil war. Tens of thousands of innocent people will die. There is not need for this. Here I am! Kill me and proceed. That way, only one man will die.'
After a moment of stunned silence, the rebels rushed to the king and one by one, kissed his hands and feet and pledged their loyalty to him.
King Hussein demonstrated such incredible nobility by his complete humility and vulnerability before his enemies. And his actions stirred up in his enemies, a sense of justice and righteousness and they paid him what was due. (Jesus Through The Middle Eastern Eyes. Ken Bailey. p.418)
As Jesus unfolds this dramatic story, the owner of the vineyard sent his son, unarmed and unaccompanied into the vineyard to appeal to these tenants to do the right thing. He is hoping that the tenants will sense his incredible patience and humility and respond with justice and righteousness. 'They will respect my son.'
What a noble man this owner is. Especially when we consider that the owner of the vineyard is none other that God, the Father almighty, 'maker of heaven and earth.' And that the Father's son is Jesus Christ.
But unlike the outcome of King Hussein's great risk, this story does not have a similar happy ending. 'When the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.'
This is terrible. It's outrageous. Who are these scoundrels?
They are you and me, for we have all participated in the 'injustice' and the 'unrighteousness' of those who threw the beloved Son of the Father out of the vineyard and killed Him because we didn't want to give Him His due.
And then, as Jesus tells this powerful story, there is still one more visit to the vineyard that is yet to come. 'When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes" There is a day that is yet to come when the owner Himself will come to His vineyard. 'What will he do to those tenants'?
And amazingly, before Jesus can finish His own story, the audience jumps in and answers for Him. They don't want Jesus to finish this story because He's already painted such a ridiculous picture of an owner who's patience and mercy is beyond comprehension, and of a people who's wickedness and greed is unthinkable.
So they finish it the way they believe it should be finished. 'He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.' That's justice. That's righteousness. That's what we expect any sane owner to do with tenants as terrible and outrageous as these.
And so we let that audience answer as it does. And we see how their answer condemns them. 'Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.'
But we would do better, far better, to let Jesus finish this story the way He would finish it. For He is the Son of the Father, sent by the Father to His vineyard. He is the One who, within three short days will be bound and led outside the walls of Jerusalem and crucified at the hands of resentful men and women.
And He is the One, who in just three short days after that, will rise from the dead. And He is the One who will present His Father with the fruit of the vineyard that the Father demands. He has paid the debt that you and I owe, paid it in full. And His payment to the Father is on your behalf.
Jesus presents Himself to the Father and He is the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control that the Father demands from His vineyard. He is the sweetest justice and the purest righteousness and the Father is 'well pleased with Him.' Jesus Christ is the finest of wines.
He has taken the taste of 'sour grapes' out of the Father's mouth. He has turned the Father's frown to a smile and the Father is delighted with you for the sake of His Son.
So, let us finish this story as Jesus finishes it. 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing. AND IT IS MARVELOUS IN OUR EYES.'