Twentieth Sunday after Trinity
The Parable of the Vineyard illustrates in striking terms the long-suffering patience of God toward his wayward children. No one else, no human landowner would ever act in such a way. If you sent your servants to collect the rent and they were beaten, would you send more servants? Of course not. And after your servants had been stoned and killed would you then send your only son to the murderers to offer them one more chance? Never. But this is not a story about landlords and tenants; this is a story about God and his people.
Jesus is, in fact, retelling a parable from Isaiah, chapter five. God is the landowner, and the people of Israel are the vineyard over which he has labored with painstaking care. God planted the vineyard. That is, he gave his people life and breath and the ability to grow and bear fruit. He surrounded them with a wall of protection, the Holy Law of God. He gave his people everything necessary to thrive and prosper. Yet, in Isaiah, God sings a song of lament, asking, “What more could have been done for My vineyard that I have not done? Why then, does it yield only bitter grapes?” (Is. 5:4).
Jesus, retells the parable, but this time it is not the fault of the vineyard that there is no fruit. The vineyard has been entrusted to wicked tenants, and when the time of harvest comes, they refuse to give up the yield that is due. God sends his slaves, that is, his prophets, his apostles, his pastors, to call the tenants to repentance, but they refuse. Instead the wicked tenants mistreat his slaves. They beat one, they kill another, and they stone a third. Amazingly, God does not strike down the wicked tenants—not yet. Instead he sends more and more messengers, who are mistreated in turn. And finally, God sends his only Son. “Surely, they will honor and respect my Son.” We know what happens. Instead of honoring the Son, they concoct a mad scheme to seize possession of the vineyard, “Let us kill the heir, and then we will gain his inheritance.”
The only thing crazier than their scheme, is that the Lord allows it to happen. God knows everything in advance. He knew that his prophets would be killed. He knew that the apostles would be martyred. He knows that his faithful pastors today are likely to be slandered, mistreated, or driven out of the churches to which they are sent. God sends them anyway. And without doubt, God the Father knew what would happen to his only Son. Of course he knew. It was the plan of salvation from the beginning. Even so, God sent Jesus to his death. Why? In order to save his murderers. In order to save us. This is the unfathomable love that God shows to his enemies—mercy beyond belief, long-suffering patience past all human comprehension.
“What more could I have done for my vineyard?” God asks. The answer is: nothing. There is nothing that God could do for the sake of sinners that he has not already done. He held nothing back. He willingly gave up his Son. Jesus is the sum total of God’s mercy embodied in one man, God made flesh. And He is also the end of God’s mercy. In other words, beyond Jesus, there is nothing, only the just wrath of God. Those who reject the Son do find that there is indeed a limit to God’s patience and long-suffering. This parable is a beautiful example of God’s infinite love, but it is also a warning to those who would presume upon the grace of God and reject Christ. For apart from Him, there is no mercy, no forgiveness, no salvation.
Listen to this warning. The Lord God says, “And now let me tell you what I will do to my vineyard? I will trample it underfoot. I will tear down its wall and uproot its vines. I will command the clouds that they do not rain, and I will cause my beloved possession to be burned” (Is 5:5–6). But the ancient Israelites were secure in their sin. “What? Destroy the Holy City? God would never do that! There’s no need to repent. We have this glorious temple built by King Solomon. We have the ark of the covenant. The house of God will never be destroyed!” And so they killed the prophets who were sent to them.
The Pharisees also believed that they were secure. “We are the descendants of Abraham. We are God’s chosen people. So what if we reject God’s messengers. So what if we reject the Son of God himself. God has given us our positions of power and prestige. We have the not-as-glorious temple built by King Herod. The house of God will never be destroyed!” And so they killed the Son of God.
And what about us? What do we have? What is our source of security? There are many so-called Christians who have no regard for the Lord Jesus. With their words and deeds they say, “It doesn’t matter what God says in his Holy Word. It doesn’t matter that my behavior is way out of line with the Scriptures. What matters is that my family has a church lineage that goes back for five generations. What matters is that we have a beautiful building that has stood for 100 years.” The Pharisees trusted in their lineage. The Israelites trusted in their beautiful building. And having these things, they dared to reject the servants of God who were sent to them. They dared to reject Christ himself. And they along with their lineage and their beautiful building and everything else in which they trusted were utterly destroyed.
Dear Christians, take heed lest you become like them. As far as your membership in this congregation is concerned, what is most important to you? What is non-negotiable? What would you rather die rather give up? When you attend a Voters’ Meeting, what drives your decisions, your thoughts, your concerns? Is it the desire to be faithful the Word of God, or are you motivated chiefly by the need to preserve the legacy of your grandparents.
Sadly, as our culture grows more and more godless, many churches and their members have become solely focused on protecting their institutions. This is what the wicked tenants had in mind: “We will do whatever is necessary to preserve this vineyard, this congregation. This is our legacy; this is our inheritance; and we must protect it by any means. If our faithful pastor is not making the church grow, we will mistreat him and cast him out. If the Word of God and all this talk about sin and repentance is driving new prospects away, we will embrace a new message. And if the Son of God himself becomes an obstacle, then he must die that this institution may live.”
Heed this warning. We could have the most beautiful building and legacy in the world. Our church could be packed with new members and young families. Our coffers could be overflowing, and we could be the envy of every other institution in town. But if we don’t have Jesus, we have absolutely nothing. The true church is built only upon the foundation of Christ and his Word. Nothing else will last. Nothing else matters. Nothing else will save. Remaining faithful to Him should be our greatest concern, the guiding principle of every decision, and the aim of our lives. Apart from Jesus, there is only terrible wrath, condemnation, and judgment. But where Christ is, wherever his Word is preached in truth and purity and his Sacraments are rightly administered, there is the truth church on earth—no matter how small and feeble it may appear. And within this Holy, Christian church, we find the infinite mercy of God, poured out even on those who once were his enemies. Where Jesus is, there is forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Amen.