The Limits of Mercy - Luke 20:9-19
Sometimes we are imprecise when we talk about God. We don’t mean to be inaccurate but we are. We mentioned last week that sometimes we say, “The Bible contains the Word of God” but the truth is that “the Bible is the word of God.” We say that God “loves everybody” (and in one sense that is true), but the Bible is clear that God hates sin and judges those who sin against Him.
Sometimes we say God’s grace is limitless, or that His mercy is without end. We mean God is gracious again and again and His mercy is extended time and again even though we don’t deserve it. However, these things are not limitless. There are limits to God’s mercy and His grace and this morning we will look at a parable that shows us this in a very graphic manner.
Luke 20:9-19 follows Luke 20:1-8 (I learned this in seminary!) Jesus had just finished a confrontation with the religious leaders who sought to trap Him. I don’t know whether the leaders shuffled away after that embarrassing encounter or continued to listen to Jesus teach. This parable has an obvious association with the hostility of the religious leaders. The tenants of the story clearly represent these leaders.
9 He went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12 He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.
13 “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’
14 “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
When the people heard this, they said, “May this never be!”
The Owner’s Grace
Don’t miss the background to the story. A man (God) planted a vineyard. It was his land and he was the one who put up the needed capital and put in the hard work to establish the vineyard. In every respect he was the owner of the vineyard.
The vineyard represents Israel. Throughout the Old Testament Israel is referred to as the vineyard or vine of the Lord. It was an image that was so clear that the Temple was adorned with vines. Israel as a nation was founded by God. He was the One who called Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and He made them into a nation. He is the one who put Moses in a position of influence and used him to deliver the Israelites in a miraculous way from the hand of Pharaoh in Egypt. God wrote Israel’s law (their constitution), He was the focus of their worship, The Jews were known as God’s “chosen people”.
The Tenants Rebellion
In the story the master went away. He entrusted the care of the vineyard to tenants. In a rural farming community we understand this concept. People may entrust their land to someone else who will rent the land for a flat fee or they will partner with another for a share of the return. That is what happens here. The laborers were given a large measure of freedom to harvest the crop and give a percentage to the owner as “rent”.
God entrusted the spiritual harvest of Israel to the leaders of the people (even though God never really “went away”). These leaders were to teach the people and lead them to a harvest of worship and godly living.
In the story, when it came time for the tenants to pay the rent, they refused. They beat up the servants of the owner who came to collect what belonged to the owner. One of the words to describe the beating is the word “traumatize” to show how brutal these beatings were.
The point is clear: over the years God sent prophets to call the people to repentance and godly living. Instead of cooperating with the prophets (as was their responsibility) they beat them up. Elijah was exiled, Isaiah was possibly sawn in two, John the Baptist was beheaded. In the book of Hebrews we read,
[They] were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (Hebrews 11:35-38)
The Son's Sacrifice
The owner of the vineyard showed incredible patience. He continued to send servants in the hope that the tenants might do the right thing. God continued to send prophets to call the people to repentance.
After rejecting all the prophets the owner determined to send his own son. We are told the owner believed the tenants would respect the son as an extension of the one who owned the land.
That’s not what happened. The tenants apparently thought the arrival of the son meant that the father had died. The law stated that if someone died without an heir, the land could go to those who currently lived on the land. So it’s possible that when these men saw the son they concluded it was an opportunity to own the vineyard for themselves. So, they murdered the Son.
Again the picture is clear. The Son represents Jesus. Please note three things:
Jesus through this parable is claiming to be the Son of God. He did not see Himself as another prophet or good teacher. He pictures himself as the Son. He claims a unique relationship with God the Father.
Again we see that Jesus understood what was going to happen to Him. Unlike the owner in the story God was not taken by surprise by what the Jesus leaders did to Jesus. He knew these men were plotting to kill him.
The desire of the religious leaders to kill Jesus was an act of rebellion against the very God they claimed to serve.
The Owner's Response
The end of the story is at best grim but understandable. When the owner of the vineyard learned the tenants had killed his son He assembled his forces and destroyed the tenants and gave the land to new tenants. Every one of us sympathizes with the actions of the owner. In fact, we applaud the actions because they are just.
The message is clear. As a result of killing the Son, God would withdraw His blessing from Israel (the land would be destroyed by Rome) and the blessing would move to the Gentiles through the preaching of the Apostles. Certainly the believing Jews would continue to know God’s blessing but the idea of the “nation” of Israel being His chosen people would end (even though the Bible indicates it is only for a “season”). The church would become God’s people.
The story as told by Jesus was quite clear. The people understood and said “May this never be!” Jesus opened his Old Testament and showed them that this was predicted back in the book of Psalms.
17 Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written:
“ ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’?
18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.”
19 The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.
Jesus identified the Son (Himself) as the cornerstone or capstone that has been rejected. A capstone (sometimes called a keystone) was the stone in the top middle of an arch . . . It kept the arch from falling in on itself. The point is clear: this one whom Israel would reject was actually the One who holds all things together.
Think about what it must have been like to be a child if you were Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. These guys were probably nerds in High School. While athletes were getting the girls these guys played chess and talked about computer programming. I suspect they were rejected and the focus of some ridicule. Now they are three of the richest men in the world. They founded Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook respectively. I bet these guys actually look forward to going back to their class reunions! They were able to return to their High Schools triumphantly.
These success stories are nothing compared to the story of Jesus. The one who was rejected and executed came back from the dead, sent the Holy Spirit into the world, became the object of devotion of His people, and One day will claim His place on earth as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Take Home Points
That’s the story. It is a story that powerfully affected the religious leaders who listened. Jesus pointed out that these religious leaders who claimed to serve God most proudly were in fact those who resisted the Lord most strenuously.
It is important that we take the story one step further. What is it that we are supposed to learn? What are we supposed to learn as Gentiles hundreds of years removed from the context of the story?
First, we are reminded that we have been given a great privilege. Everything we have is something given to us by God. We are His stewards! We face the same danger as the tenants. We can take that blessing for granted and begin to think that we have gained all this on our own. We can resist our obligation before God and try to overthrow His authority in our lives.
Our responsibility before God is to care for the things and people He has entrusted to us. It is our job to carry the news of God’s kingdom faithfully to others. It is our job to follow His Word and live the way He wants us to live.
It is easy to lose sight of this isn’t it? We become so preoccupied with daily activities and the mad pursuit of personal success that we lose sight of the big picture. Like the tenants we want to live life on our terms, determine our own destiny, pull our own strings, even if it means we must rebel against the Lord who gave us life.
Paul warned his protégé Timothy that this rebellion would take practical forms,
in the last days there will be very difficult times. 2 For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. 3 They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. 4 They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. 5 They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. [2 Timothy 3:1-5]
When we forget that our life if given by God we begin to rebel.
Second, The passage calls us to repent of our compromises and return to the Lord of life. In 2 Chronicles 7:14 we read this invitation,
if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land”.
The passage calls us to do several things
1. We must confess our sin. We must humble ourselves and acknowledge that we are going in the wrong direction. We must see that we are like the tenants. We don’t like to think of ourselves as God-haters but there is a strain of hatred in each of us. We might not admit it but it is revealed in the way we dig in our feet and refuse to live by God’s standards. It is seen in our idolatries (the many things that we place above God in our lives). It’s seen in our refusal to live the way God has commanded. We must repent.
2. We must seek Him. We do this by crying out to Him in prayer to change our heart. We seek Him by searching the Bible for direction. Jesus is the cornerstone or capstone so if we do not build our lives on Him we are building with defective materials on a foundation that will not stand in the Day of Judgment.
3. We must give Him the honor He is due. We must “turn from our wicked ways”. It is not enough to give great testimonies or make great boasts. Anybody can put on a show. Truly honoring God means choosing Him above all others. It means going His way even though the rest of the world is going in another direction.
Third, this story should stimulate our worship. One of the marvels of the story is the incredible and enduring patience of the owner of the vineyard. He kept sending servants. He did not act impulsively but patiently and lovingly. God has not treated us as our sin deserves. He has extended a profound mercy. He is willing to forgive us even when we find it hard to forgive ourselves. Max Lucado writes,
He is patient with our mistakes. He is longsuffering with our stumbles. He doesn’t get angry at our questions. He doesn’t turn away when we struggle. But when we repeatedly reject his message, when we are insensitive to his pleadings, when he changes history itself to get our attention and we still don’t listen, he honors our request [to be left alone].
Note it was not God who made the people unworthy. It was their refusal to listen that excluded them from grace. 
Please hear those last words, “It was their refusal to listen that excluded them from grace.” As long as there is hope He will not give up on you. You may stumble and fall so dreadfully that you believe He cannot love you. You are wrong! He wants to mend your heart. He wants to make you new. He won’t give up on you until you become hardened in your unbelief.
Every believer here today is here because of God’s mercy and His grace. We turned to our own way but God pursued us. He sent faithful men and women to teach and instruct us. He brought into our lives examples of godliness so we could see what it meant to follow Him. He placed us in positions where we could experience His love through the hands of others. He gave us the Holy Spirit to convict us and enlighten us.
It is only right and fitting that we love and worship Him. If you were to receive an incredible gift from someone you would express your appreciation to the giver and you would tell the world about the kindness extended to you. It is natural. It is appropriate. God has given us the greatest gift of all. He has given us forgiveness, a new beginning and a relationship with Him that will go on forever.
It’s possible that God has brought you to this place today because He is trying to connect with you. He wants you to understand what is at stake. He wants you to stop running from Him and welcome Him instead. He wants you to stop fighting Him so that you can know His love.
The tenants in the story never discovered how kind and gracious the owner could be. They never gave Him a chance. Imagine how different the story might have been. These tenants could have had a great relationship with the owner. They might have come to love the Son. They would have been well taken care of.
If you pay attention you will see that many have concluded that God is the enemy before they have even gotten to know Him. They believe God wants to ruin their lives, take away their freedom, and keep them from having any fun. They call God narrow-minded, out of touch, and a killjoy. They don’t know Him at all.
The truth is that He is the wise, loving, merciful, patient, redeeming God. Jesus said He came to give us abundant life. He has not come to ruin our lives – He wants to introduce us to life. We have been settling for cheap substitutes and running from the very source of life. He wants us to know the real thing.
Though life is often hard, God’s grace IS extravagant. But do not make the mistake of believing that His patience will endure forever. One day, (perhaps very soon) He will say, “enough!” At that time He will come in Judgment and the offer of mercy and grace will be taken off the table. Now is the time to turn to Him, while the welcome mat of mercy is still at the door. Stop running away! Come to the One who has been pursuing you and waiting for you. Those who do so will have only one regret. Their only regret will be that they did not turn to Him sooner.