5th Sunday in Lent

  1. Lent 5.22 “A Very Good Plan” Luke 20:9-20

Let’s talk about these vineyard tenants for a minute, shall we? Talk about serious winos, right? They love their vino so much, they literally kill to keep from having to share it. Someone has a little drinking problem, dontcha think? Needs an intervention! So, there’s that. But the bigger problem with the tenant wine-makers—and I can’t think how to say it nicely—is that they’re stupid. 

One of the great joys of Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic “After Virtue” is his showing how the ancient Greek philosophers, like Aristotle, proved (beyond reasonable doubt!) that you simply cannot be both good and stupid. Goodness and Stupidity mix like oil and water, like Duke-Carolina, like Russians and, uh… everyone else. (Speaking of Duke-Carolina… too bad they never play each other in the NCAA. It’d be interesting to see who would win. Maybe, someday 🙂 

Anyway, we see today, with the tenants of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable that, if you are afflicted with stup… ah, weakness and darkness of mind (there’s a nicer way to say it!), you’ll be bad, there’s no two ways about it, which is why we have prayers, collects for those poor people that we may use again this morning, a beautiful example of which was introduced to me only this week by a thoughtful member. Keep those cards, letters, and collects coming!

Now, the problem of badness/stupidity can, theoretically, be tackled from either end and, either way, be (happily) resolved. You can, as Jesus says elsewhere: make the tree good and then the fruit will be good. So you could strive after virtue and your stupidity would, as a result, fade away like a bad dream as you walk those good paths. Or, you could seek for truth and wisdom and as your head gets a little clearer and stronger, your actions and desires would become proportionately less bad. Two ways to skin a cat—not that good people would ever even think of hurting cats! Solvable problems, though easier said than done…

But, back to the tenants in the vineyard… You can see their badness and stupidity are really two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, they are incredibly bad—preferring to harm the servants of their Master who just wants to have a drink with them in the evening; it’s not like he’s coming to take the vineyard away from them, you see. But, on the other hand—they’re also incredibly stupid! 

I mean, just look at this plan of theirs. It’s idiotic! The Master of the vineyard goes to a far country, for a long while. The tenants seem emboldened by his light touch to think he’s forgotten about them and the vineyard and they become possessive. They seem to forget the Master and think the vineyard is theirs. So, when he sends a servant to the tenants to give him a little taste of the vintage, they beat him and send him away thirsty and hurt. Another servant is dispatched. He is beaten, treated shamefully, and sent away empty-handed. A third is sent. Same results. (I suppose, at this juncture, some of you are wondering about the soundness of mind of the Master? The definition of insanity being: doing the exact same thing and expecting different results. We’ll talk about that in a sec…)

The vineyard’s Master thinks, “Hmm. What shall I do? I will send my beloved son (his only one); perhaps they will respects him.” But when the tenants see him, they go, “Hey! This is the sole heir! Let’s kill him and then the vineyard will be ours!” Admittedly, it seems a spur of the moment thing, this plan of theirs. Not a lot of thought appears to have gone into it. It’s kind of an impulse thing. But that’s a marker of stupidity, isn’t it? Not a lot of thought going on; not a lot of books being read, or wisdom sought after…

Still, as a plan (I always marvel every time I read this parable) it is incredibly stupid! And the stupidity seems much more foregrounded than the badness (which seems more incidental). Like Aristotle, Jesus seems to prefer tackling the stupidity first and letting the goodness just kind of flow on, after, rather than the other way around. Which shows that Jesus is clearly a Lutheran, or that Lutherans just get Jesus a little better than our Roman and Puritan do-gooder friends who’re always on about moral rules first! as if wisdom will follow naturally from that, which I’m not saying it never does, but just that way doesn’t seem to be the Scriptures’ normal way of dealing with the bad/stupid problem…

It’s a stupid plan because the Master is obviously powerful. He has armies, resources. The tenants know him well enough to know this. What? You think killing the son will get rid of Dad? That the Father and the Son are very much one substance, indistinguishable, is clear; but they are two distinct Persons—so, you kill the beloved son, then you will have one pretty annoyed Father to deal with!

We see the original audience of the parable is every bit as stupid and idiotic, er… weak and dark of mind, as the tenants in the story. Because when Jesus says “What then will the master of the vineyard do when these stupid, wicked tenants kill his son? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Which seems like duh—obvious!, right?

Not to the people of Israel who first heard the story! They go, “Surely not!” And you’re like, “What do you mean, ‘surely not’?! You’re morons! A rich, powerful Master will seriously fu, ah mess up the people who kill his only son! This is like Fatherhood 101, dumbbells!

Jesus gives them a direct, hard stare, and goes: “What then is this that is written: “The Stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”? Everyone who falls on (euphemism here for “attacks”) that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him. And the lightbulb comes on for the scribes and chief priests, because they realize they are the bad, stupid tenants! And they show how stupid they are because this is what makes them determined to kill Jesus(!)—even though they’ve had fair warning what the consequences of that will be…(!)

But what of the Master? How sharp is he?—sending all those servants, letting his son be killed? What’s he thinking? Well, maybe… that mercy is greater than justice? That Love’s stronger than death? He doesn’t seem to care about money, ownership, or profits. He cares about the tenants, despite our badness/stupidity. Because He knows (as Aristotle also said): you can’t be happy if you’re bad and stupid—so he decides to make us good (for goodness’ sake! 😉

He goes, “That plan is so stupid, I love it! Let’s show our mercy and power by adopting it as our own! When they do their worst, have exhausted their resources, then I’ll surprise them with My best, in return…”

A very good plan!—the Christian Gospel, right? On Golgotha, Jesus flips death, badness, stupidity into a Love stronger than death, into a Folly greater than all the world’s wisdom—into the Truth that upends all rationality!

The Greatest Power is… to make the stupid wise, the bad good. Only God can do this. So, He suffers our baddest, most stupid plan; it kills Him!; and, when we’ve come to the end of our rope, our plans all failed, we see a familiar Stranger ambling after us (as we walk and are sad) with words of forgiveness, mercy—making our hearts burn with joy; Who (with wounded hands) feeds us bread from heaven, then puts a cup of blood (that looks like wine) into our hands, and, as the sun sets, says “Eat and drink with Me.” And darkness turns to light. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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