Sermon Transcript Oct 4th 2020
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ Matthew 21:33-43 ~ Sunday, Oct 4, 2020
During the week leading up to his death on Good Friday, Jesus was in the temple being drilled by the religious and political leaders in Israel. They were indignant that he dared preach and teach in the Temple, and they were demanding that he demonstrate who or what gave him the right to do what He had been doing.
In response to the people, people who were plotting his death behind the scenes, Jesus shares a story about a 1st century venture capitalist, his prized project: a brand new vineyard, and the tenant farmers to whom he gave charge of his big investment. It may seem like a strange story to tell under the circumstances. But for his original listeners the story reminded them of another that they knew well, the lesson from Isaiah chapter 5 that we heard a little earlier in today’s service. Even if that section of Scripture isn’t all that familiar to you, you likely noticed how similar Isaiah’s story sounds to Jesus’ parable.
The Prophet Isaiah describes a vineyard that has been planted on a fertile hill. Rather than contracting it out, the owner himself has done the digging and cleared the ground. He worked the soil and planted choice vines, healthy, good stock, only the best. He built a wall around the vineyard for protection and a watchtower to keep an eye on everything. He hollowed out a rock to hold the wine and age it. And then, after everything was in place, He reflected on all that he had done and concluded with great satisfaction and confidence, “What more could I have done for my vineyard than I have done for it?”
Yet despite his masterful construction and personal care, the owner in Isaiah laments what results: “When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad?” (5:4) Literally it’s, ‘stinking things.’ ‘Disgusting things.’ Instead of good grapes he got ‘sour grapes.’
So what will he do? What would you expect him to do? What would you do if you were the owner of this vineyard? The owner is seriously considering removing its hedge and knocking down its wall and letting it return to the wild untamed plot of ground it had originally been. Why waste another drop of water on it? A good businessman would cut his losses, throw in the towel on this project and never look back.
Isaiah carefully interprets his parable so that even those who are brand new to the story are sure to get the point. “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in” (Isaiah 5:7). This is not really about vineyards and grapes and wine at all. It’s about people. It’s about the people God had chosen to carry his promise to send a Savior to the world. But the people of the promise, turned out to be less than promising.
As the Lord looks at the people he has chosen and cultivated to be his very own, his heart is not gladdened with a rich harvest of fruit from their faith and goodness that flows forth from their hearts. Rather, with great disappointment and sadness, the Lord Almighty shakes His head in frustration at the condition of their hearts and the ways of their lives and laments: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”
Yet the Lord Almighty does not give up quickly. For 700 years after Isaiah told his parable of the vineyard, Jesus takes it up again and supplies the answer to the question that Isaiah left hanging. He builds upon the story and offers an interesting twist. As Jesus describes the landowner, it is clear how eager this investor is to enjoy the harvest of the first crop of fruit. He was looking forward to tasting those grapes, making wine from his grapes, and seeing the profits of all the work he had done. So “when the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit” (Matthew 21:34).
But instead of receiving grapes from the tenants, they receive wrath – beaten, whipped, and killed. Learning of this, the owner does something curious. He sends another delegation. “More than the first” may mean a larger group, but more likely it refers to servants with more authority. He sent the foreman, the straw boss. But again, no grapes, only wrath. It’s an outrageous response by these tenant farmers to this owner who had given them this extraordinary place to live and work.
I want to pause here and ask: does anything about this scene feel at all familiar personally? Are we ever like those tenant farmers? The Lord sends His servants to you, bringing a message that you need to hear. But you don’t like what they have to say. You don’t want to hear it. What do you do? Not that you literally beat or kill them, nothing quite that outrageous, of course! But do you ever turn a dear ear to what God is speaking through them into your life? By the way, those messengers aren’t just the ones who hold a formal title, or who do it as a full-time gig. The messengers God uses are also those who are closest to us, who know us better than most, at times even better than we know ourselves, who have the willingness to be honest with us. The wife who truthfully says to her husband: “You are a workaholic and you are rarely emotionally available to the kids and me.” The husband pours out his heart to his wife, “Honey, the way you use alcohol has me concerned especially since you don’t seem to see the problems your drinking is causing to our family, our friendships.” Or the friend or co-worker who has the courage to say: “I don’t think you should be talking about that person to me. You need to work things out with that person directly.” Or the boss who cares enough to say: “What you’re doing isn’t helpful and it needs to change.” Do you listen up or tune out the honesty of God’s messengers to you? Though we may not literally be shooting the messenger, is turning a dear ear to a message from God really any less outrageous?
As Jesus retells Isaiah’s parable, even more shocking than the response of the tenant farmers are the actions of the owner. Think about it. First he sends servants, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more — not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants of higher rank — and the same thing happens again. And the owner’s next thought is: Maybe if I send my son, these tenants will respond rightly. The approach sounds absolutely reckless. Would you want to be this guy’s son? Does the owner really believe sending his son will get a positive response from these rebellious tenants? This owner sounds less like a businessman and more like a self-sacrificing parent. He will do anything, risk anything, to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child, even put his own beloved son’s life on the line to reconnect with those who have gone astray. What extraordinary patience from a heart of extraordinary love.
But when the tenants seize the son and kill him too, Jesus picks up on a similar question to the one Isaiah had asked 7 centuries earlier: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And those who were listening have become so caught up in the story that they respond instantly, “he will bring those wretches to a wretched end.”
A long time ago, the prophet Nathan told a story about a family with one, precious lamb that a rich man unjustly took from them. And king David, filled with righteous indignation declared that that man should be executed for his injustice and unrighteousness. And Nathan said, “you are the man.”
King David repented. He admitted his guilt, confessed his sin, and asked the Lord for forgiveness and mercy. And he received it. Jesus tells this story to the Chief Priests and Elders of the People. How will they respond? He keeps on telling this story still today. How will you respond?
How patiently the Lord deals with you and me! Each day we sin against him. We so easily give into our sinful desires often without even a moment’s hesitation. We are slow to do the good he places in front of us. But how extraordinary his patience and his love is! He has not given up on you or me. He continues to call each of us to repentance day by day. He calls to us through the written words of the prophets and through our brothers and sisters in Christ. Patiently he leads us to see and to speak what we truthfully deserve: “I confess
that I am by nature sinful. I have disobeyed you and deserve your punishment both now and in eternity. I am a wretch who deserves a wretched end.”
That verdict is likely why this story is popularly labeled: "the parable of the wicked tenants." But the deeper purpose of this parable is mainly to clarify who Jesus is, for those who listen. Who is Jesus according to this parable? Jesus answers the question by quoting another Scripture: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’
Who is Jesus according to this parable? He is the Son who has come to reclaim what rightfully belongs to his Father. But he accomplishes that mission, not by force but by sacrifice. The tenants believe that the way to lay claim to the owner’s kingdom is by killing off the son. And while it is true that the Son of God must die for us to gain a claim in God’s kingdom, we don’t gain that claim by the force of our will or violently rejecting the Son! That’s the way our fallen heart thinks. That by getting rid of Jesus we can claim the spot in God’s Kingdom made vacant by his elimination. How amazing, though, that the very Son whom our natural hearts spurn, draws near to us to give us claim to the Kingdom of God, transforming our hearts to embrace in faith the Son’s voluntary self-sacrifice of himself in our place. Who but the Lord alone could have conceived and carried such a plan! What a marvelous act of mercy, that the One whom our natural hearts reject becomes the One on whom our new hearts now fully rely!
This, friends, is the fruit of the reckless patience of our loving God. Christ drank the cup of the grapes of wrath for us. He opened His hands, outstretched on the cross. He satisfies our deepest desire. The people who first heard Jesus story knew that God plants a vineyard, expecting to enjoy its fruit. Jesus, in his words of judgment to the religious and political leaders that day, says that God will hand the vineyard, the kingdom, over “to a people who will produce its fruit.” He isn’t looking to profit at our expense. He’s saying that we, believers, are the vineyard. But our possessing the Kingdom is not conditioned on our producing sufficient fruit and then turning that fruit over on schedule. That’s not the point, and it certainly isn’t the picture. What Jesus is saying is that we belong to the Kingdom because he has given us a place in it, planting his Kingdom in us, like a vineyard. Like a vineyard, that Kingdom grows, blossoms, blooms, and bears its fruit in us and through us. That fruit flows out of us in our godly ways of thinking, of talking, of acting. This, too, “the Lord has done.” This, too, is marvelous in our eyes. And not just to our eyes, but to all of our senses, as we experience the fruit of the work of God’s own Spirit in our hearts, the abundance of his love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control in our life with God and in our relationships with one another. God be praised for the Kingdom he patiently plants and nurtures within us. God be praised with an abundant harvest of this kind of fruit from us! Amen.