Friday, October 03, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 21:33-43, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost. "The Son's Inheritance"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon today is based on the Gospel reading, Matthew 21, the parable about the vineyard. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Old Testament reading and the Gospel reading for today are almost perfectly matched together, as you may have noticed both speak of a master who planted a vineyard. They talk about the care and attention the master gave in establishing and preparing His vineyard to bear good fruit. He cleared the land of stones, planted the vineyard in fertile soil, dug a winepress, built a watchtower to guard it, placed a hedge or wall around it to protect it, and entrusted it to the care of tenants to work it.

The Isaiah passage tells us what the vineyard is. “The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of His delight” (Isa 5:7). So the vineyard represents God’s chosen people Israel, an elect nation, and how He established them by planting them in the land of Israel. He hedged a wall of protection around them, put them in a rich land, and prepared everything for them to flourish and bear much fruit. God questions, “What more could I have done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” He had every reason to expect a good harvest of fruit. This shows God’s gracious generosity in providing for His people, even though they had done nothing to deserve it. He was watching out for their interest, and shielding them from harm. In the parable, the landowner goes away on a journey, while His tenants are entrusted with the land. Like a sharecropping agreement, the landowner expected a share of the crop at harvest time. So He sent His servants to collect.

At this point the parable becomes quite surprising. First the landowner sends out a series of servants to collect the share of the crop, and one is beaten, another is killed, and the tenants stone the third. Amazingly, He continues to send even more servants than before, but they are all treated the same way. What could this mean? God sent numerous prophets to Israel to warn them of their sin, to turn them back from the threat of punishment for their disobedience. It was God’s mercy and patience that kept giving them yet another chance, to delay their punishment yet one more time, as prophet after prophet came to turn them back to God. In the history of Israel, these words were written: “The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:15-16). So the Israelites had a record of ignoring and mistreating their prophets, just as the tenants abused and killed the master’s servants. A few years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the New Testament evangelist Stephen addressed the men of Israel about this very subject. He said, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered” (Acts 7:52)

Of course Jesus is the Righteous One whom the prophets foretold, and who is the Son of the landowner in the parable. Looking back at the parable, it continues to astonish. Not only did God, the landowner, repeatedly send His servants the prophets to Israel. But after they had all been mistreated, He then sent them Jesus, His Son, reasoning that surely “They will respect my Son.” We hear this with disbelief. What could He be thinking? Doesn’t He know what will happen to Him? But what is equally astonishing, is that the Son could ever come to His Father’s vineyard and not be received! How could the Son of the master, who had so carefully planted and prepared this vineyard, and entrusted it to tenants, now be so violently rejected? What sort of alienation or divorce must have happened between the tenants and the master, that they could turn so violently against Him? It is the alienation of sin, our human rebellion against God, that so blinds our eyes from recognizing the One who comes for our help and for our good, and sees Him instead as an enemy. Of all the kindness that the master had shown, and all the patience and even bearing with their abuse of His servants, when the Son came to them, He was rejected and killed. Let us learn not to turn away from the One who comes for our help and our good.

Truly did John write of Him: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13). Jesus, who made all things, came to His own people, and they didn’t receive Him. He came for their good, but they viewed Him as an enemy and killed Him. The parable says the tenants plotted against the Son, saying “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” I’ve always puzzled over this part of the parable. It’s completely illogical that they could have thought to gain the inheritance by murdering the Son and heir. How could they think the landowner would give them the property if they murdered His Son?

Recently I read a note in my study Bible that explained that according to Jewish law, if no heir came forward to claim a piece of property, then it was declared ownerless, and others could claim it. In the parable, they must have assumed that the owner was dead, and that was the reason the Son had appeared—in order to claim His property. So greedy thoughts of gaining the Son’s inheritance arose in their heads. And it turned ugly, as they threw the Son out of the vineyard, and killed Him. Again Jesus’ listeners did not realize He was now speaking about how He Himself would be taken out of Jerusalem and crucified, yet another prophet persecuted and put to death—but this One more than a prophet—He was the Son of God. They thought they could seize the inheritance, take it for themselves.

Relate this to how the Jews thought they could sacrifice Jesus in order to try to keep the “inheritance” of the land of Israel. The ruling council of the Jews, called the Sanhedrin, feared that the Romans, who ruled them, would take everything away from them, if everyone started following Jesus. Recorded in John, the Sanhedrin convened a conspiratorial meeting, and said: “What are we accomplishing? Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life” (John 11:46b-53).

Unwittingly, they fulfilled the words of Jesus’ parable. They tried to secure the inheritance for themselves by killing Jesus, God’s Son. And since the listeners were still unaware that this was being spoken about them, Jesus asked them what they thought would happen when the master of the vineyard came Himself, after they had killed His Son. Standing in someone else’s shoes actually made it easier for them to see the injustice of the situation. They quickly pronounced a just verdict—that the master would put those wretches to a wretched end, and give the vineyard to others who would give Him His share of the fruit in the time of harvest. So it was that the guilty pronounced their own just verdict, and proposed a solution—that the inheritance be given to others. “They killed Him that they might possess the inheritance; and because they killed Him, they lost it”.

And neither did they count on the Son rising from the dead! No one who plots to kill expects their enemy to rise to life again! And so they would face their own verdict. And they who could not be heirs by earning it or by seizing it, would give way to those who must become heirs by grace. To the Gentiles, to us(!) the kingdom of God was opened! To we who had no share in the inheritance, who were not even tenants in the vineyard—to us the promises would be given—for all who receive and believe in the Son of God. We have become heirs of grace, inheriting the kingdom of God, and being joined to Jesus, the Living Vine, through whom we bear the fruits of the kingdom. We are branches of that Living Vine, bearing fruit to be given to the Lord in due time. That fruit is the fruit of repentance, the mark of being joined to Jesus, the Vine, and having His love transform us. The kind of love, that so far exceeds our own, that drove God to sacrifice all to bring back the lost.

God’s plan in sending His Son to the vineyard seemed to make no sense, with a certain sentence of death awaiting any prophet who came to call Israel to repentance. But only after we’ve seen Jesus betrayed to the cross, suffering, dying for our sin; only after we’ve seen Him praying for the forgiveness of those who “know not what they do”; only after His rising from the dead on the third day—can we begin to see God’s purpose in this. Only God saw that Jesus’ death would seal and deliver His inheritance for us, both Jew and Gentile. Jesus, God’s Son, had an inheritance to bring, and His death put His “will” so to speak, into effect. And He didn’t give it to those who earned it, for none were worthy, and He was rejected by His own people. But through His death and resurrection, He willed His inheritance to all who receive Him by faith, both Jew and Gentile alike.

Scripture reminds us to be thankful that we have been grafted into the Living Vine, which is Jesus, but not to become arrogant or proud toward the Jews who were broken off (Rom 11). God still has power to bring back even the Jews who reject the Son and are cut out of the inheritance; they can still become heirs of grace by repentance and receiving Christ. And by trusting in Jesus, the rejected Son, they are grafted back into that Living Vine. Since through Jesus’ rejection we are welcomed into the vineyard as “tenants” and heirs, we lay hold of Jesus’ merciful forgiveness that is extended to us by faith. By faith in Jesus, the Son, we receive the Son’s inheritance undeservedly. For we who receive the Son, who believe in His name, have been given the power to become children of God, and co-heirs to His inheritance. So let us work with joy in His vineyard, until the time of harvest. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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