Obedient Tenants

Obedient Tenants

Grace, mercy, and peace
to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“To whom shall I compare this generation?”

Jesus once asked, rhetorically. He went
on to liken those of that era with spoiled, self-centered children. That is:
Those who had particular expectations of others, but in the end only wanted
things their own way. He might have been talking about the people of any time
span, really. No matter how much we know—or think we know—and no
matter how advanced we might imagine ourselves compared to the generations
which have come before us, we remain both immature and ignorant.

We know so much more
about our world and the universe beyond than did our predecessors. We sometimes
have the same attitude toward people of the past as children who learn
something their parents might not know: We look down our noses at their
supposed lack of sophistication and understanding. We might even laugh at what
we consider their superstitions.

And yet, although they
might have attempted to comprehend and describe the workings of creation in
what to our thinking might seem to be comical ways, at least those of earlier
eras understood that the world around them wasn’t just subject to the
tangible, the perceivable, the measurable, and the explainable. Within our
world, usually hidden from our perceptions but no less real, dwell beings of a
spiritual nature who battle for us and against us. We ought not deny this
simply on account of our not yet seeing or measuring them. To do that would be
every bit as ignorant as it once would have been to deny gravity, or
electricity, or aerodynamics.

What we can’t yet measure
or understand isn’t non-existent; it’s just unknown. Faith trusts
that what God has chosen to reveal to us is adequate for us now. While our
intellect and our egos might seek to know more and more—might even aspire
to “be like God”—our limitations will prevent this until He
chooses the time to bring us into all understanding.

What are we to make of
Jesus’ parables, then? On the surface, they seem tailored to
explain—by way of analogy—things that might otherwise be more
complex than many would understand. On the other hand, we have it said by the
Lord Himself in the gospel accounts that He intentionally spoke to the crowds
in parables because it was not for them to know the secrets of the kingdom of God.

So, which is it, then?
Are parables meant to enlighten, or obscure? To reveal truths, or to keep them
hidden? A parable can bring some people—even those of modest
intelligence—to a better understanding of God and reveal His grace for
faith and salvation. Yet the very same parable can confound others, even
people of brilliant minds, and even make them full of skepticism and anger
toward God. What lesson should we take away from this?

In part, such
inconsistency in comprehension and response to the parables—and by
extension to the scriptures as a whole—is consistent with God’s own
nature, promises, and plans. Our faith is not a result of our intellectual
brilliance nor our lack thereof, but rather rests on and flows from God’s
grace and God’s work alone. Jesus even thanked His Father in prayer that
He had hidden the truths of the Gospel from the wise and discerning, and yet
revealed them to little children—that is, to those who accept His gifts

Today we heard the
familiar parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants. A man plants a
vineyard. He took the initiative. He took the risk. He put up the
resources. Planting a vineyard is not an investment that pays immediate
dividends. It’s a long-term proposition. It’s not like corn or
soybeans or lots of other crops, in which you can plant the seed in the spring,
and expect to harvest a sellable crop that summer or autumn. It takes years to
yield results from a vineyard.

Also, if you’re at
all familiar with vineyards, you know that grapes are very much a
“hands-on” sort of crop. Some crops require relatively minimal
intervention as they grow, but not grapes. To obtain the best outcome, both in
quantity and quality, the vines must be carefully tended. Left to their own,
grapevines will soon grow wild, producing lots and lots of small, dry, sour
grapes. Only with diligent and proper watering, pruning, and fertilizing will
a crop of full, juicy, and sweet grapes be produced.

The man who had planted
this vineyard in our parable entrusted this task to people he had placed in
charge. He expected them to know what they were doing, and to follow his
wishes. While he was away, he waited patiently for his investment to bear
fruit. It wasn’t until he knew it was the proper time that he sent
others to collect what was due him.

It bears mentioning that
the vineyard owner wasn’t being greedy here. He didn’t demand that
the entire crop be turned over to him. Rather, we are told that he sent the
first servant “so
that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard.”

He not only had reasonable expectations, he was willing to share much of the
bounty of his blessings. But the tenants felt they were entitled to all of it,
not just a portion. They hadn’t purchased the land or planted the
vineyard, but they wanted to treat it as if it were theirs alone. Thinking
they were safe from the far-away owner, their behavior toward those the owner
dispatched to request his fair share was both selfish and appalling.

Note the tenants’
escalating wickedness as the vineyard owner sent the succession of his
servants. The first servant, they beat and sent away empty-handed. To the
second, they did the same, but while they were at it, we are told that they “treated him shamefully.”

And the third? They went
beyond just beating and sending; it says that they wounded him, and cast him
out. Just like in our language, in Greek a “wound” is more severe than just
some contusions and scrapes, and to be “cast out” is more of a physical
expulsion than a mere warning to scram.

And then the son is sent,
with the vineyard owner’s hope that he will be treated with respect. The
use of the term, “my
beloved son”
is not coincidental here. Jesus spoke these
words, and the Holy Spirit caused St. Luke to record them, so that there would
be no doubt of whom He speaks. The son the vineyard owner has sent is none
other than Christ our Savior, the one who was called “beloved” by
His Father at both His baptism and His transfiguration.

The son fares no better
with the tenants, and in fact is treated still worse. Out of self-centered
jealousy, he is not only rejected, but killed. The tenants think they have it
all figured out, as if the far-away owner can do nothing about their intentions
and their actions.

Thusly were the
Lord’s servants the prophets treated in their day, and such was the Son
treated when He came to the place that was His. Like the vineyard tenants, we
cannot claim ignorance of who rightfully owns the vineyard. We can treat it
like it is ours, and think it is solely for our purposes and objectives, but it
is merely ours to care for, for a time. Likewise, we cannot claim ignorance of
the owner’s expectations, or set them aside just because we don’t
care for the arrangement.

What we ought to do is
respond positively to the message the owner’s servants bring us, and
render all due respect to him who has allowed us to dwell here for a while.
But we do not. We reject the message, reject the messengers, and therefore
reject Him who sent it. He asks for only a portion of His bounty; the rest is
ours to keep. We ought to trust that He will allow us to receive plenty of the
harvest He has planted.

Woe be unto those who do
not receive and heed the message of God’s servants. They can resist them
and even fight against them, but there will be no victory, no reward, no
ownership in their futures. They may enjoy the fruits of their labor at the
expense of others, but in the end, not only will the vineyard owner come with
terrible recompense, but the Son whom we have killed will return as well.

Repent. Turn back from
your path of wickedness and selfish hoarding of this first, meager harvest.
Eagerly embrace and receive the message which the owner sends you through His
servants. Even more eagerly, receive and embrace the Son whom He has sent. He
means His coming for your good, that you might receive a share of the inheritance,
without any reduction in its fullness for others. It is a gift without limits,
a vineyard without bounds, a harvest of plenty that will never end, never be
used up, never be bitter, never be dry.

There is no 6th
Sunday in Lent. The vineyard is already planted, already bloomed, already
formed its fruit. The Son has begun His journey to visit the tenants, riding
on the foal of a donkey, moving steadily toward you up the road from Bethany. How will He be
greeted when He reaches you? With joyous shouts of “Hosanna in the
highest?” Will you bless the Son of God and son of David, who comes in
the name of the Lord?

Or will you hoard the
owner’s benevolent gifts, thinking none are rightly His, but mistakenly
deluding yourself that it’s all yours with no accountability, no
consequence to your selfishness and disobedience?

The fact is, you have
thrown the Son out of the vineyard, time and time again. You have done your
level best to kill Him, and have even accomplished it. Yet the good news and
the miracle in all of this is that the Son and the Father are patient with you,
generous to you, and seek to restore fellowship with you. The Son is no longer
dead. He lives and now waits with the Father for a new harvest. He has
grafted you into a new vine, one which is rooted in His very own life and
perfection. So long as you remain connected to it, you will be sustained and
nourished. You will grow and thrive, and will continue to receive His power
through Word and Sacrament.

The message the Father
sent you through His servants and His Son has not always been turned aside, but
has taken root in you, and even now bears good fruit. The blood you shed when
you killed the Son is no longer on your hands, no longer hangs over your head
shouting condemnation. Now it flows freely into a cleansing flood that covers
you with a miraculous bloody white garment of righteousness. Now it is
outpoured for you; not spilled on the ground to curse you, but splashed on the
altar to redeem you; gathered in the cup to forgive your sins and the sins of
all who confess Him as the rightful heir.

He is the chief
cornerstone and foundation of your faith. In His mercy He will neither crush
you nor dash you in pieces to your death. He will build you up and knit you
together into the one, holy, Christian and apostolic church, where all the
heirs of the vineyard are gathered together, sharing in the harvest which never
ends, supplying the banquet that never ends.

In His holy name, Jesus.