If we were to compare all of the parables of Jesus we would see that they fall into two broad categories. They are either based on examples from nature or people. Interestingly, the parables that are based on nature, lilies of the field, birds of the air, sheep and their shepherds, all have a certain innocence and peace about them and typically have a happy ending. But the parables that are based on examples of people, a father and his two sons, a wounded man lying half-dead on the road, an unjust steward, these all have certain darkness to them and include points of conflict and tension and even violence.
That is certainly the case with the parable before us this morning. In fact, of all the parables that Jesus tells, this one may be the MOST violent and upsetting. It ends in cold-blooded murder.
Before we explore this story in detail, let’s be sure to notice that one detail that’s not actually in the story itself, but that hangs over it like a dark cloud. 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 by the tenants of the vineyard.
The story certainly begins on a bright and positive note. “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to the tenants and went away into another country for a long while.”
So far, the story has a familiar ring to it. There’s an echo of Genesis 2 here, where God plants a garden in a place called Eden, and He makes a man to work it and keep it. The Lord soon sees that the man needs a helper to keep up with the work, and so He gives the man a helper which adds a wonderful measure of intimacy and joy to the whole business.
Adam and Eve are TENANTS. They don’t own the garden, they work it FOR THE OWNER. That’s what ‘tenant farming’ is all about. The tenants work the owner’s farm. And in return for their work, they live off of the produce of the land. “You may eat from any tree in the garden…”
But as this parable continues, we also hear the familiar ring of Genesis 3. When the Lord came to His garden in Eden to visit the man at his work, rather than the expected welcome and hospitality He expected, His tenants hid from Him. They refused to give the Lord God what He came to collect from them – their love and devotion, thankfulness and praise. And so, God took the garden away from them.
Which is how this parable ends too. “What they will the owner of the vineyard to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
And so, if we get nothing else from this parable, we ought to see that the BROKEN RELATIONSHIP between tenants and owner has been going on for a very, very, long time, in fact, from the beginning. What we see is that this incredible parable is not simply about the religious leadership of Israel in the 1st century A.D.
We wish it were because that would leave us out of it and we could wag our fingers at those wicked rulers and fervently pray that they get what they deserve.
But when we see how perfectly this parable overlays the Genesis account, we suddenly realize that it’s about all of MANKIND throughout all of HUMAN HISTORY, that is hostile towards God to the point that we will kill Him to get rid of Him.
The problem with the tenants is OBVIOUS. They forgot that THE VINEYARD DOESN’T BELONG TO THEM. They forget WHO THEY ARE – that they are ‘TENANTS’ – and they think of themselves as ‘OWNERS.’
I say, ‘IT’S OBVIOUS’ because this is SO FAMILIAR. We know how it goes. They only wanted to keep a bigger share for themselves and hand over less to the master. Nobody likes to pay taxes on what I HAVE WORKED FOR and that BELONGS TO ME.
They never intended for it to go this far. But what started out as a common case of simple greed, led to violence, escalated to murder.
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 us know this very well. IT’S OBVIOUS. Which is why we’re hardly SHOCKED at any of this?
BUT WHAT IS SHOCKING is the action of ‘THE MAN’ in this story. “A man planted a vineyard…” He withstands one rejection after another after another after another and continues to bear with his beloved tenants so patiently, so hopefully. We look and look for examples in the world in which we live but we can’t find anything that compares to this.
As Jesus tells it this story, He stretches the patience and persistence of the owner to THE POINT OF ABSURDITY. It is NOT OBVIOUS to us why anyone would respond the way this man does to such persistent rejection?
Like the father in the parable we heard last Sunday, we’re ready to say that this man is A FOOL. How can he be SO NAIVE? Why does he risk so much on these wicked and worthless tenants?
But of course, Jesus has not been careless with the details of this story. Nor has He over-exaggerated the patience and persistence of this MAN. It’s all solidly anchored in reality. How many prophets did He send to His people throughout the Old Testament? And how many Apostles in the New?
As the writer to the Hebrews puts it so poignantly, “[they] suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy…” (Heb. 11:36-38).
And then, just when we thought the story couldn’t possibly get any 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 they inheritance may be our.’ And they through him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
And as bizarre as the actions of the owner are here, you and I know that this is firmly rooted in reality. It’s OBVIOUS that Jesus has written himself into this story, just as He does in every parable. He is the “beloved Son” whom the owner of the vineyard sent to his tenants. He is the ‘heir,’ as the writer to the Hebrews says, “In these last days He has spoken to us by His son, whom he appointed the heir of all things…” (Hebrews 1:2)
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 HEAVENLY MEANING, but as ACTUAL HISTORY, 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 destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
And what we would expect them to say is, “It’s about time. Now that makes sense. 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.”
But no, that’s not their response is it? They have gotten caught up in this story as we have. And they have found themselves in the wicked tenants just as we have. When they hear the terrible ending, “He will surely come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others,” they said, “SURELY NOT!”
“SURELY NOT” means, “PLEASE DON’T DO THE OBVIOUS THING. Please don’t act like we do. Please don’t demand an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth like we do. Please don’t give us what we deserve.”
And since we know that this parable is aimed directly at us too, isn’t that our plea as well? “SURELY NOT.” Isn’t that what we mean when we say “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy?” What is the meaning of MERCY but SURELY NOT. PLEASE DON’T GIVE US WHAT WE DESERVE.
He has given us His beloved Son. And listen to me, we don’t deserve Him. But He wants you to call Him “MY GOD, MY GOD.” And He wants to call you, “MY PEOPLE, MY PEOPLE.” And He will do THE ABSURD, THE RIDICULOUS, THE FOOLISH thing to be reconciled with you.
“And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him…” (Col.1:21-22)
“…In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting OUR trespasses against US…,” but against His Son. “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:18)
This is the “new thing” that we heard Isaiah speak to us about in our Old Testament reading. “Behold, I am doing a new thing” that will cause you to “remember not” the former things. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Just listen to the NEW SONG that the TENANTS sing now that they are reconciled to God. “Whatever gain I had, I count as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:8).
Our “SURELY NOT” for FEAR OF the judgment that we deserve – is transformed into our “LET IT BE ACCORDING TO YOUR WORD” for the mercy that You has shown to me.
Our desire to be FREE OF GOD is put to death by the NEW THING that God has done and with a NEW DESIRE we say, “Put me to work in your vineyard, O Lord. Make me Your faithful tenant, my Master. Let me find as much joy in returning to you the portion You desire as the delight I have in the work that You have given me to do.”
That’s how this story is supposed to end, OBVIOUSLY.