Monday, March 22, 2010

Sermon on Luke 20:9-20, for the 5th Sunday in Lent, "Costly Grace"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The parable that Jesus tells today goes by various names: the parable of the vineyard, the parable of the wicked tenants or vinedressers, or as one author suggests: the parable of the noble vineyard owner and his son. However it’s named, the parable is one that speaks a shocking case of rejection, and the even more astonishing response to that rejection. Jesus told this parable shortly after His Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. This was followed soon after with His own rejection by the chief priests and scribes, who were infuriated by His cleansing of the temple and the authority of His teaching. Today we’ll see what His parable told of rejection and also of the mercy and long-suffering of God. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When Jesus spoke this parable, He was borrowing language from Isaiah chapter 5, a “love song” about a vineyard. The vineyard is identified as the house of Israel, and the Lord carefully planted it and cleared it of stones. The song talks about how God looked for the vineyard to produce grapes, but it produced wild grapes. It explains that God looked for justice and righteousness, but instead found bloodshed and an outcry. Jesus borrows the language of this song, and adds some new details, like the vineyard being rented out to tenants or farmers, and that a share of the fruit is expected of them, rather than the vines themselves. In both the song and the parable, the Lord expects to receive fruit from His vineyard, and both times He receives none. In the song, He utterly destroys the vineyard; in the parable, He destroys the tenants but not the vineyard, but leases the vineyard out to new tenants. In any case, it was clear to Jesus’ listeners that the parable was directed at them—specifically those who rejected Him.

Today the Christian church can see itself as the new tenants to which the vineyard has been entrusted. Gentiles and Jews who believe in Jesus are the church, and we’re like a vineyard that God has planted, and expects to receive fruit from. We’re just as much in need of hearing this parable and applying it to ourselves, as were the original Jewish audience of Jesus. The problem of the original wicked tenants in the parable was that they ignored the master’s ownership of the vineyard. They even tried to assume ownership when they thought they’d killed off the last surviving heir of the property, and could acquire squatter’s rights. But before that, they felt no obligation to produce or share the fruit with the owner. This same danger exists for us. That we’d presume ownership of the vineyard, and neglect to bear the expected fruit for our master. We live off the benefits of the vineyard, but give nothing in return for the master.

What sort of “fruit” are we talking about anyway? When John the Baptist similarly confronted the people who came insincerely to baptism, he told them to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). He told the tax collectors to stop their dishonest practices of skimming off the top. He told the soldiers to stop practicing extortion. He told the crowds to share their clothing and food with those who had none. In other words, they were to practice doing good works in keeping with their repentance (Acts 26:20). They weren’t to continue in the sinful practices that they were professing to leave behind. In the same way, our lives are to show the evidence of repentance. We’re called to struggle against our sin, and avoid from open and willful participation in sin. Knowing that we daily will have sins to confess, nevertheless we don’t use that as an excuse to give in to temptation or to continue sinning. Just as the vineyard was taken from the wicked tenants, so also we could lose God’s grace if we continually abuse it.

But we shouldn’t think that the owner of the vineyard—that the Lord of the church is somehow capricious or a harsh taskmaster. In fact, the focus of the parable is really on the nobility and patience of the owner. The parable tells how the owner went away for a long while, and then sent a first, second, and third servant to go collect the fruit from the tenants. Their reaction is an escalating sequence of violence, as they beat the first and sent him away empty-handed; beat the second and on top of that, treated him shamefully; the third one they wounded and cast out. The word for wounded there is “traumatized.” The last was the most severely abused. This was a clear reminder to the audience about how God had sent the prophets to them again and again to warn them to turn away from sin, but how the Israelites had ignored, persecuted, and even killed the prophets (2 Chron. 36:15-16; Heb. 11:32-40).

So what are we to expect the owner’s response will be? He was already remarkably generous in giving them a second and third opportunity, instead of sending in troops to go and destroy the violent men who had abused his servants. By the time the third servant returned empty-handed, we’re expected to hear the owner’s plans to crush these evildoers. But the climax of the story is when the owner is faced with a crucial decision. The question is how will he deal with the anger generated by the outrageous mistreatment of his servants? Will he allow his enemies to dictate the nature of his response? He’s in the position of power and authority, and swift retaliation is the expected response. But is violence the only response to violence and the anger that injustice causes?

Contrary to all expectations, the owner makes this response: “What shall I do? I’ll send my beloved son; perhaps they’ll respect him.” What could he be thinking? The owner’s hope is that the tenants will be moved to righteous behavior by the incredible vulnerability the owner shows by sending his beloved son, alone and unarmed. Perhaps there was some shred of honor and decency that would be stirred within them. The implication is that if they would receive the son honorably, and give to the owner their due fruits, that he would grant them amnesty. He showed unbelievable patience and willingness to forgive by offering the possibility to overlook their mistreatment of his servants, and accept the late fruits. When he said: “perhaps they will respect him,” the situation is describing more than just respect. They’re expected to actually feel ashamed of their actions, and their sense of honor is to be reawakened by his noble gesture. He’s actually taking a huge risk, being willing to undergo even greater loss than he has so far, to give them one last opportunity for grace.

This is the patience and long-suffering of God, that He’s slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ex. 34:6-7; Joel 2:13). God sent His beloved Son Jesus to His beloved vineyard of Israel, to receive the fruits of justice and righteousness, the obedience to His commandments and the sincere worship and loyalty of His tenants. God looks to His church for the same fruits of repentance from our sins, obedience to God and worship. He has given us great and many gifts and blessings. Will our hearts be stirred by the nobility of God’s sacrifice in sending Jesus, and receive His offered amnesty? Will we take the olive branch of peace extended to us by receiving the Son? Will we honor Him and give Him the fruits of His vineyard by repenting of our sin and seeking to do better?

The response Jesus received when He came was anything but a warm welcome. His fate was worse than the prophets who prepared the way before Him. He became the climax in the escalating sequence of violence against the Father’s servants. The costly and unexpected demonstration of the Father’s love and grace was repaid with the murder of His Son. The tenants turned away even the owner’s final offer of amnesty. The real climax of the story of Jesus was when He was crucified outside the city of Jerusalem. There, the Son of God was thrown out of His Father’s vineyard, and crucified. Finally, their fate would be like in the parable, when the owner would come to destroy those tenants and transfer the vineyard to others. At this, the listeners responded, “Surely not!” Where they astonished that the landowner would take the property from them and lease it to others? Can you imagine how you would respond if this had happened to you when trying to collect rent on a rental property, and you or your agent was treated this way? Would you continue to lease it to such people? Jesus’ hearers had too long carried the false sense of ownership instead of seeing themselves as tenants, and were shocked to think that they would lose the place they inhabited for so long. But it was their rejection of the owner’s son that finally destroyed them. Those who received Jesus, both Jew and Gentile alike, became the new tenants of the vineyard.

Today as then, there are no tenants who hold a privileged place, there are none who will not be expected to give the master their share of fruit. The vineyard will be productive, for God is a master planter and His Word is not ineffective. The question is whether we will be faithful tenants, and give back the fruit to our Lord. Will we take all of God’s gifts and forgiveness for granted, and live indifferently? Will we test His patience to see how many times we can get away with refusing His call to bear fruit? That famous bible passage found throughout the Old Testament that says God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” is depicted in the patience and mercy of the noble landowner. It also says that He will forgive iniquity, transgression, and sin. But it goes on to say that He will “by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). The parable demonstrates the incredible lengths to which God has gone, and the costly sacrifice of His Son—all to redeem us. And He will forgive our sins if we seek His pardon. But for those who push away even this offer of amnesty, there is nothing left but to face the reward of their rejection. On such as these, their guilt will remain.

Ultimately this parable is about the acceptance or rejection of God’s Son. We know God’s Son Jesus will return one day. Though He was killed by the original tenants, He rose from the dead. Though they schemed for His inheritance, they failed to get it. Rather, the inheritance of the vineyard—the sharing in the rich harvest of grapes and the fine wine—that inheritance is prepared for those who accept the master’s Son. His death on the cross seals the last will and testament of the Son, guaranteeing the inheritance to those who believe in Him. So gracious is our God, that He has even forgiven the times we refused Him in the past. But now He’s calling us to faithfulness. He’s even given us the gift of His Holy Spirit—the “miracle-gro” to make us bear much fruit. For when we can see the great love of God for us, we’re moved to greater love and service of Him. We’re moved to worship and honor the God who extends such amnesty to sinners like us, and who continues to hold out the offer of mercy to us. Our natural response by faith is like fruit growing from a healthy vine—it doesn’t need to be forced, but comes from being rooted in the Word and bathed in the Son-shine of God’s love. Bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and we seek the pardon and forgiveness of our Lord who truly is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Read Isaiah chapter 5, the “song of the vineyard” which shows the Old Testament backdrop for today’s parable, that would have been familiar to Jesus’ audience. What was the vineyard? Who was the landlord? What major adaptation to the Old Testament story did Jesus make?

2. What fruit did the owner look for? Isaiah 5:2,7; Luke 3:8; Acts 26:20). Who do the servants the owner sent represent? 2 Chron. 36:15-16; Hebrews 11:32-40).

3. Why were the Jews surprised that their vineyard would be taken away? What is the danger of complacency and indifference as Christians?

4. How can we share with God the fruit expected of us? What are the fruits of the Spirit? Galatians 5:22-24; 1 Cor. 12:1-11

5. What is the response we would expect of an owner or landlord who had such wicked tenants and they had refused him a share of his crops/rent 3 times? What’s the surprise of the owner’s response? How did this happen in real life through Jesus?

6. How does the owner/God embody long-suffering and patience? Exodus 34:6-7; Joel 2:13. What costly risk did God take to win our loyalty and faithful service to Him? What is left if we finally reject even this final offer of amnesty?

7. How then shall we live?

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