Tuesday, October 4, 2011

16th Sunday after Pentecost - October 2, 2011

Let’s get right at this.  What is this parable about?  What’s the interpretation?  Quite simply, it is a basic history lesson of God’s relationship to his people and how the leaders of the people behaved over the years. 

The vineyard is an Old Testament symbol meaning God’s chosen people, we heard that image used in the First Lesson from Isaiah.  God builds up this vineyard in order for it to bear good fruit.  God chose his people Israel in order for them to bear good fruit.  In other words, to do what was good and right.  God told Abraham, the father of the nation, that his offspring would be a blessing to the rest of the nations.  That was the purpose of the chosen people.  The purpose wasn’t for them to have special privileges, but to fulfill a particular purpose, to bring forth fruit.  So the vineyard means God’s people and they have a purpose, to do the right thing and to bless other people with their actions.

The tenants in Jesus’ parable are the leaders of God’s people; these include both political and religious leaders since there wasn’t a clear distinction between church and state in ancient Israel.  God entrusted the leaders with caring for his people and bringing forth fruit.  The leaders were supposed to teach and lead the people so that the whole nation was doing the right things, living the right way, honoring God with their lives and blessing the other nations with their actions.  The leaders were the ones God entrusted with this responsibility. 

What happened instead is that the leaders were more interested in their own power and privileges than they were with caring for the people.  The Old Testament is full of examples of this.  King Solomon was terrible on this score.  He burdened the people with heavy taxes so that he could live in luxury.  He imported the foreign gods of his many wives and set up temples for them.  Solomon was supposed to be tending the vines, but he was just using them for his own pleasure.  The history of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel also shows this very clearly.  They murdered and stole a man’s land, contrary to the law, just so that they could have a nicer estate for themselves.  They were not good tenants.  They did not care for the people.  They did not teach the people to do right. 

So what did God do?  He sent his servants to the vineyard, to collect what was due to him.  The servants represent the prophets. Prophets, like Isaiah, Elijah and Amos, confronted the leaders, and called on them to do the right thing.  But the prophets were not treated well and their warnings were only rarely heeded.  The prophet Jeremiah was thrown down a well when the king didn’t like his message.  Others were killed or persecuted.  Instead of listening to these prophets sent by God, the leaders kept right on doing what they wanted to do.  In other words, they refused to give God what was his, the fruit of the harvest.  They were using the vineyard for their own selfish ends.

Finally, the owner of the vineyard sends his son.  This means that God sent his son Jesus.  And here Jesus switches from history to prophecy.  God sent his son to call these leaders to repentance and to demand of them the harvest.  “Where is the harvest?  Where is the righteousness of the people?  How have you blessed the nations?”  The leaders of the people, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees, mistreat Jesus, and kill him, so that God won’t interfere with their privileges.  They would rather defend their comfortable lifestyles than obediently do God’s will.  The Pharisees and the Chief Priests are the wicked tenants in the parable.

So that’s the basic interpretation of the parable.  But why has Jesus told it?  What is the purpose of it?  Clearly he is telling it in order to accuse the Chief Priests and the Pharisees.  Jesus is using the Law against them.  “This is what you were supposed to have done...... You were supposed to care for the people.  You were supposed to teach them to do right.  You were supposed to bless the other nations.  But you have neglected your duties.  You have cared more about yourselves and your own privileges than you have with doing the job God gave you.  Shame on you!!!”  Jesus is accusing them to wake them up, so that they will do what is right.  But he has told it to them in a parable, so they don’t immediately understand that they are the wicked ones.

So Jesus asks them, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  As I said, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees have not yet recognized themselves in the parable, and so they answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”  In saying this, they have condemned themselves.  In the parable, they recognize that the behavior of the tenants is terrible.  The problem is that they don’t recognize that their own behavior, in real life, is terrible.  They are willing to condemn others, but they have not held themselves to the same standard.

Now Jesus is going to identify the particular matter where the Chief Priests and the Pharisees have failed in their duties.  Yes, they have failed to tend the vineyard, they have failed to bring forth right conduct from the people.  But there is something worse that they have done.  They have failed to recognize God’s son.  They have failed to recognize that Jesus has been sent to them from God almighty.  They have rejected him.  Jesus uses an architectural image to show this.  He talks about a cornerstone or a capstone, both of which are stones used in building that tie the walls or the arch together.  He says that the builders have rejected the very stone that holds everything together.  Which is to say, the leaders have rejected Jesus, the very one who holds everything together, the one who is the center of faith and life.  The leaders of the people have failed to do the most important thing.  They have failed to recognize the owner’s son.  And for this there is a consequence.  The vineyard will be taken away from them and given to someone else.

Jesus has used the parable and the architectural image to drive home the Law, to show what was required and to condemn those who did not do it.  But what is the purpose of this condemnation?

The purpose is to show them specifically what their error is so that there can be repentance.  This is the function of the law, to show us sin so that we can repent.  The heart of their error is that they have failed to recognize God’s son. 

Now let us shift gears, for this parable is told not only to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees, but to us.  What does this parable do to us?  I think the first question to ask is who we are in the parable.  Are we the people who have been ill served by our leaders?  Or are we the ones who stand accused because we have not given God his due?  Do we stand accused because we have not recognized Jesus for who he is, the one who deserves our complete obedience and devotion?   

Perhaps we won’t all have the same answer.  After all, who is it here this morning that most resembles a chief priest?  That would be me, I suppose.  And so I ask myself, have I testified to you that Jesus is the Christ?  Have I been caring for you and trying to bring forth a harvest for God?  Have I done everything that I am supposed to do?  That is the Law being applied to me.

But what about you?  Am I the only one who has been called to be a religious leader?  No, I’m not.  Each one of you parents has been called.  The people that you are called to lead are your children.  Do you testify to them that Jesus is the Son of God, the cornerstone, the one who holds everything together?  Are you tending them and teaching them to do what is right so that they will produce a harvest for God?  This is the Law which is being applied to you parents. 

And what about you kids......  Do you give God his due?  Do you recognize that your life is not your own to do with as you please?  Do you understand that God demands good fruit from you?  He demands that you do what is moral and right, that you help those in need, that you honor your parents in all that you do.  Do you do this?  This is the Law which is being applied to you.

Now you could rightly ask at this point, “Is there any gospel here?  Is there any good news?”  Yes.  Yes, there is.  But the good news might sound a little strange today.  Here’s what our lesson says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Jesus was rejected, killed, and cast aside.  But he came back.  He’s unstoppable.  You can’t stop him.  Your sins can’t stop him.  Your doubts can’t stop him. 

And to go one step further our lesson says this, “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”  Now this doesn’t sound like good news either, but it is.  Here’s why.  Jesus isn’t subject to your whims and doubts and questions.  He isn’t the one who is on trial; he isn’t the one who has to measure up; he isn’t the one who has to pass the test.  He isn’t some delicate flower who risks being destroyed if we don’t tend him just right.  No, the leaders tossed him out of the vineyard and killed him, but he didn’t stay dead.  The builders rejected him, but now he’s anchoring the whole world and nothing can stop him.  God is going to get those whom he has chosen and no one is going to stand in his way.   

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