2022-04-03 Lent 5
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen!
Last week we had the Parable of the Prodigal Son, if you recall. We talked about him, the younger of two sons who really made a boneheaded move by demanding his share of his father’s estate – while his father was still alive – and then took off for greener pastures with the cash and spent it all frivolously and sinfully. Then, he realizes that he’s a complete buffoon, repents of his sin and goes back to his father. To which the father responds with a running welcome and a big celebration. And, there was also the older brother, diligent and hardworking and also better looking. We’re told he was a pretty dedicated dude. He stayed with his father through thick and thin, working hard, never giving him back talk or sass. But, when the younger brother comes back from his sinful streak in the far off country, the older brother is pretty chapped. He recalls that for all his years of noble service, he’s never once been given a party to celebrate with his friends. Yet his dead beat brother gets the fattened calf. It just doesn’t seem right.
And yet, the loving Father who responded in mercy to the younger son, also responds likewise to the older son. He doesn’t slap the older son for his self-righteous, pharisaical attitude. He doesn’t call down hell fire and brimstone for his judgment and contempt on the mercy shown to the prodigal. Rather, the loving Father does what he does best. He loves his sons. And that’s the end of it. It’s precisely this last aspect that helps us understand today’s parable about the renters in the vineyard.
We’re told there’s a vineyard. And, that’s not all that new really because we knew there was one before. It had a fig tree planted in it, if you remember. That fig newton plant was setup just beyond the vineyard wall, according to local legend. But this vineyard got overrun by wicked tenants. There’s nothing worse in all of life than bad renters. Anyone with rental properties can attest to this. Over the years I’ve helped several parishioners who were property owners to clean up after particularly rank tenants moved out. Cat pee doesn’t come up out of the carpet all that easily - especially when it’s been there and compounded for years! So up comes the carpet, rip up the underlay, chip up the subfloor! Wicked tenants and their little puddy-tat too! As you’re cleaning up a cesspool of iniquity like that, your mind starts to drift and think about what you would do if you had the chance to meet up with that cat and those tenants! … But then the mirror of Lent reminds us that we too are poor miserable sinners! Repent, it’s Lent!
So we’ve got this vineyard. It’s been planted for a while, probably a few years, and it’s time for the land owner to reap the bounty of the investment. He sends a servant to go collect the goods and low and behold, the tenants are a bunch of jerks! Far worse are they than people who let their cat pee all over the place! They get hold of the servant, punch him in the face and send him back from whence he came. Then, another servant goes with the same result, and still another. Nothing changes. Broken and bloodied servants return to the Master with nothing to show for their beatings. “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do?” (LK 20:13). I know what I’d do to those miserable renting wretches! I’d drop by with a few big burly hired goons. A couple baseball bats. Maybe a board with a nail in it. Sawed off shotgun. Flamethrower. Colony of poisonous fire ants and a big jug of Aunt Jemima! … OK, OK. Repent, it’s Lent!
How does someone who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love respond? He says “I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him. But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’ And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him” (LK 20:13-16).
It’s been said that doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results is the definition of insanity. It sure seems like the vineyard owner is pushing the limits of the insane asylum! And to the world, that’s exactly what this looks like. Insanity. He sends servants, they come back bloody and broken. He sends his son. He gets bloody and broken too, but he doesn’t come back. He is killed for his willing service! But what is the vineyard owner’s goal here? Is it not to see the tenants change their hearts and minds and give him what he wants? When you operate on mercy instead of justice, things get dicey really fast.
This parable is directed squarely a one group of people: the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Chief Priests. All the God-guys of Israel. They are the people throughout the centuries who simply wouldn’t perk up their ears and listen to what God is telling them. Time and time again, God’s people fall away in their sin and iniquity. And time and time again, God sends them prophets, those messengers of repentance. But what will the people do? How will they respond? Will they repent? Will they change their ways? Will they confess their sins? Will they put on sack cloth and ashes? God hopes yes! But all too often the answer is no. Israel killed the prophets sent to her. And finally, they killed the Son, the heir of the Kingdom.
The chief priests and scribes in this parable are the wicked, murderous tenants. And, they are the older brother in last week’s parable of the prodigal son. They’re nose is out of joint. They are jealous that they aren’t number 1 on the popularity roster. Jesus is. They are jealous that now God’s promises of sins forgiven and His grace and mercy aren’t just for the Jews, but rather they are for all people and all nations who would believe the promise. Even the worst sinners who squander God’s riches, but repent and return to the Lord, are freely forgiven by His amazing grace.
But they just don’t get God’s grace. And many times, neither do we. We doubt God’s forgiveness. We question His loving kindness. We wonder if he could truly ever forgive us all the things we’ve done wrong, our deepest, darkest most secret sins. But the answer is simply more grace and a resounding “yes!” God can and does forgive. Jesus’ death on the cross is our guarantee. It looks like pure insanity in the world’s eyes - a dead guy on a Roman Cross - but He is our Messiah and the cross is the way of life and salvation. Jesus is truly the cornerstone of our faith and our whole lives. And the cornerstone comes with this warning label: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (LK 20:18). To fall on Christ is to be like the prodigal son, who was broken to pieces by his sin in repentance. However, as for the older son, the wicked tenants, the pharisees and all the Jewish god-guys, the cornerstone is going to fall on them. And when it does, it will utterly crush them.
This last zinger that Jesus feeds to the god-guys riles them right up. They want to lay hands on Him just like the wicked tenants in the parable! But the feared the crowds. Jesus is still quite popular at this point. We will see next Sunday just how popular He was with the crowds on Palm Sunday. But the wicked tenants keep on scheming in response to Jesus’ word of judgment coming their way.
And that’s the thing with God’s mercy and love. It truly is a “river of fire” like the Old Testament prophet Daniel mentions (7:10). God says to those who love me and repent of their sins, my love for you is light and warmth. But, for those who hate me and close their eyes against my light, my love for them becomes a consuming inferno. But it’s still exactly the same grace, mercy and love, regardless of what side of the river we’re on. The goal of Lent is for us to realize that we in our sins are broken and that as we confess our sins, God’s amazing love for us is truly light and warmth. May the joyous fire of God’s Kingdom be our light and our warmth now and forever more. Amen!