Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2019

Berett Steffen

Jesus tells today’s parable standing in the Jerusalem temple, surrounded by skeptical people and downright p.o.’d priests, scribes, and temple bigwigs. This is exactly the kind of audience Jesus likes, because he gets to tell his most incriminating and convicting parables (which also happen to be my favorite parables).

He tells them about the owner of a vineyard, who left said vineyard in the care of some vinedressers. And when the owner sends servants to collect some of the wine at vintage-time, the vinedressers beat them up and send them back to the owner with nothing. After three such incidents, the owner sends his own son, in the hopes that they might at least listen to him. But when the son shows up on the vinedresser’s front stoop, they conclude that it would be best to kill him, since he’s the inheritor of the estate, and if they kill him, then the inheritance will be theirs, and maybe the owner will stop bugging them.

You’ll notice right away that this parable doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. First of all, why do the vinedressers beat up the servants? Obviously, the servants weren’t there to take all the wine, just a tithe, since, you know, the vinedressers don’t even own the vineyard. That’s kind of how a lease works. Pretty generous, I’d think. Also, what kind of father sees that everyone who goes to his vineyard comes back with a black eye, and then concludes that the best option would be to send his son over there? I mean, that’s got to be the worst plan of all time. I don’t really think that it came as a shock to anyone that things didn’t turn out so well. Was anybody surprised? And also, the vinedressers’ reasoning for killing the son is absolutely ridiculous. I mean, maybe I could understand if they wanted to send a strong message to the owner, but no. They honestly believe that if they kill the son, they get his inheritance. Here’s a question for the lawyers and attorneys: If I murder someone, do the parents of the murder-ee have to make me the beneficiary of their will?…No? Well, that’s what these guys seem to think.

So, this parable doesn’t make much sense at all. But that’s exactly the point. The purpose of the parable is to show how ridiculous everybody’s acting. The ridiculousness of the vinedressers is matched only by the ridiculousness of the owner. The whole situation is ludicrous. But therein lies the meaning.

This sort of interpretation isn’t especially popular nowadays. The loyal churchmen in the more fundamentalist evangelical churches like to turn this parable into a rousing call to accept Jesus into your heart. They’ll flap their loose-leaf NIV’s at you and say: “You don’t want to be destroyed like those evil vinedressers, right? So, you’d better make sure that you give the son a proper welcome when he shows up at the door. Otherwise if the owner’s wrath doesn’t get you, the son himself just might crush you into powder with all his cornerstone-y might.” They turn the parable into a how-to guide. But Jesus’ parables are never a how-to. They’re descriptive. They describe the reality in which we live.

This sort of “how-to” interpretation really misses the mark because it neglects the most important part of the story: that the owner of the vineyard sends his son to evil people for the purpose of reconciliation. Now, I know the verse says “hopefully they will respect him,” but in Greek the word means “to be reverent, and to be drawn into reconciliation.” The owner sends his son for one reason: to forgive the sins of the vinedressers. And now you see the implications. Now you see why Jesus preaches this way to the crowds and the temple hierarchy. The priests and the scribes were given the authority to take care of the people of Israel. They were supposed to perform the sacrifices and preach according to word of God. But throughout Israel’s history, they chased after other Gods (by Jesus’ time, the gods Moloch and Ba’al had fallen out of favor and were replaced by subtler gods like fame, pride, and money). When this happened, God sent the prophets to call them to repentance. But rarely, if ever, would they listen. Instead, they’d beat them down, throw them in prison, and/or kill them. They could have repented and received forgiveness, but they didn’t. And now that the Son of God himself has come into the vineyard of Israel, they’re so wrapped up in their selfish desires that they’ll have no choice but to kill him. They want the inheritance, which is his kingdom, and all the high and lofty benefits that come with it.

And you see that after Jesus finishes telling them this parable, they’re furious. They know that he’s talking about them, but they’re so angry that, instead of repenting and listening to his words, they immediately want to arrest and kill him. Apparently, they didn’t see the irony. And apparently, they didn’t pay too much attention to Jesus’ warning at the end of the parable: “[The owner] will come and destroy those vinedressers and give the vineyard to others.”

They just don’t realize that the kingdom of God doesn’t work the way they want it too. The kingdom of God isn’t concerned with earthly wisdom, power, or fame. Instead, it pleases God to be wise and powerful in ways that to us seem foolish and weak. Paul says in 1 Corinthians that Christ is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. God loves foolishness, because foolishness and mercy go hand-in-hand. To the rational mind, it’s absolutely ridiculous that the owner of the vineyard should suffer insult after insult, that he should keep sending servants even after the vinedressers had made their attitudes crystal clear. And then, after all that, to send his son? It seems very un-wise of him.

But this is because we love to make ourselves spiritual authorities. After all, that’s the original sin, and as much as we might try to escape it, it still hangs on to us. It’s very tenacious. Deep down we want to be like God, which means we want to run the vineyard ourselves. We don’t want to be just the hired help. We want a complete takeover. We don’t want to receive gifts; we want to seize the gifts with our own hands and by our own power. And more often than not, we love the gifts more than the giver. What we’ve received from God is never good enough. We’re greedy, and we always want more. We want to do something. We want to be gods ourselves. That’s humanity’s ridiculous desire.

But God alone is God, and he’s already done all there is to do. To the world absorbed in its own sin, what God’s done is absolutely scandalous. The fact that the father would even think to offer forgiveness in the face of such obstinacy makes no sense in itself (that’s just bad business practice). And the fact that he would send his only son to his certain death in order to forgive the same sinners who killed him, even after all the trouble he’s been put through, is unbelievable. But the father doesn’t care about what the world thinks is right and good. He sends his only Son Jesus Christ into a world enslaved to its own desires and bound by its own foolishness. His Son was innocent; he was absolutely blameless and without sin. But nevertheless, he suffered at the hands of sinners and was nailed to a cross.

It was our sin that killed him. So in a way, we’re not so different from those wicked vinedressers. But in a strange and inexplicable twist, we sinners, and the sinners of all times and places, actually do receive his inheritance. Who would have thought? And this inheritance isn’t something we’ve worked for, but a pure and gracious gift of God. What greater gift has ever been given? How much more undeserving could we have been? But our Lord Jesus Christ suffered, died, and was raised for our sakes. Because God in his wisdom knows that a ridiculous amount of sin requires a ridiculous amount of mercy. Amen.