The text and a link to today’s message on Jesus’ parable that made the religious leaders of Israel exclaim, “Surely Not!?!!?!” is below. A few of the changes that I made this morning are in brackets, but probably not everything. We find this parable of the vineyard tenants in Luke 20:9-19. Next Sunday we will pick up with Luke 20:20-26 and then the following Sunday we will fast forward to the last five verses of Luke 22. A full schedule for Lent is available from the previous two sermons such as the one at this link.
An unbelieving philosopher once declared: “God is dead.” But many religious leaders live as if this were the “gospel truth.” You may think, “Surely Not!” It’s true a few argue that God died when Jesus was crucified. And a few more may say we have killed God by ignoring Him as a culture. And there are even those who preach that God doesn’t exist or, if He does, then He has set things into motion and is sitting back and watching everything unfold from a distance. But much more common today is the preacher who functionally says “God is dead,” whether they fully realize it or not, by denying the Scriptures are the written word of God. Thus many sermons do not and cannot proclaim an authoritative message. It is as if God does not have anything to say to us today. Instead, such messages often put the authority of Scripture alongside or even under the authority of modern philosophy, science, psychology, or any number of other popular sources. Thus God, because He isn’t allowed to speak for Himself, can be made to say whatever “good news” religious leaders think is progress or whatever protects our own interests. And this is nothing new. We will see from the parable that the religious leaders of Israel treated Jesus as if God were dead. These were the same religious leaders that many of the people of Israel thought were men of God. As we read the parable, remember that a vineyard in Scripture is often symbolic of Israel. Indeed, in this parable the tenants of the vineyard are like the religious leaders of Israel. Listen to Jesus warn the people of Israel to keep their distance from their religious leaders who treated Him as if God were dead. Luke tells us,
- The religious authorities in Israel acted as if God was distant and then dead.
- They acted as if God was distant when God sent His servants the prophets and even John the Baptist to them. In the parable the man who owns the vineyard is like God the Father. I already mentioned that the vineyard is a common image in the Bible for the people of Israel. In Isaiah 5, for example, the prophet began a song saying, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill” (Isa 5:1). Unfortunately, the vineyard yielded wild grapes. So the vineyard keeper removed the hedge protecting the vineyard and let it be trampled. Isaiah explains that the vineyard was the house of Israel and indeed what happened in that song is what happened to the house of Israel. Likewise in this parable the vineyard symbolizes the house of Israel and now the tenants are the religious leaders of Israel. And the man’s servants who came to gather some of its fruit are like God’s servants the prophets. All of this was pretty obvious to those who heard the parable when Jesus said it. Jesus told a story that sounded a lot like what was happening in the history of redemption. First, there was the Exile. We usually think about the Exile in terms of the people being forced by foreign invaders to move out of the Promised Land. And from a historical perspective that is what we call the Exile. But from a much deeper and theological perspective the Exile, as I have been explaining on recent Sundays, was when God left the Temple. God left the Temple like the man in the parable went into another country for a long while. Meanwhile, God entrusted the Temple and the people of Israel to its religious leaders. [Jesus was teaching the people this parable in the Temple courts, cf. Luke 20:1ff.] Those leaders were like the tenants in the parable. And when the time came for them to produce fruit, God sent His servants the prophets, including most recently John the Baptist, to collect some of the fruit. The fruit being the fruit of repentance. But the religious leaders of Israel beat the prophets and sent them away empty-handed. Jesus told the parable in a prophetic pattern of three plus one: thus three times the man sent a servant and three times the tenants wounded and cast out the servant. They acted as if God was going to stay in exile and was not really able to send judgment upon them. (He was almost dead to them. And this pattern made it obvious that they were not going to change for the better.)
- [So when God sent His beloved Son to them, they acted like God was indeed dead.] Shockingly the man in the parable sends not a fourth servant [or an army – or if just one servant—His military Champion] but instead his own beloved son saying, “Perhaps they will respect him.” This is an unexpected turn of events. Everyone hearing the story has to be thinking, “No! Don’t send him! You know what they did to your three servants.” But the man, who is like God, sends his beloved son, his only son, who is—of course—like Jesus. And when the tenants see the son they think to themselves, “This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.” Likewise the religious leaders of Israel thought, ‘Finally, God is dead and now His Heir is coming to claim His vineyard which will be ours if we just kill the dead owner’s only Son.’ So when God sent His beloved Son to them, they acted like God was indeed dead. Now if you can put yourself in the peoples’ sandals for a moment [since Jesus said this parable to the people] you must be able to see why they would think that there is no way that their religious leaders will act like God was dead. We are still early in the last week of Jesus’ life at this point. Jesus had just entered triumphantly into Jerusalem while the crowd said, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” He is the son of David, the son of God. He is the Messiah king. To think that their religious leaders would go so far as to seek the death of the Son of God. “Surely not!?!!?!” They too would have responded to the parable with the same words as their religious leaders. But they were not responding to only what Jesus said the owner of the vineyard would do to the tenants but to the whole idea—especially the idea that the tenants would kill the beloved son. They did not yet understand the bigger picture. But Jesus proves His prophetic parable by appealing to the Hebrew Scriptures for He is the stone that will be rejected by the builders. He is telling the people of Israel that the religious leadership of Israel will throw Him outside of Jerusalem and kill Him. But their religious leaders instead of repenting of their plans when they heard the parable, Luke shows us that the religious leaders of Israel hardened their hearts for the scribes and chief priests sought to lay hands on Him at that very hour but they feared the people. (Indeed, the religious leadership of Israel believed that God was distant and then dead. And they acted upon those beliefs. They did not understand that God is long-suffering. They did not appreciate that God was giving them every chance to repent and submit to His rule. Instead, they let their power corrupt them. Really the parable is all about power.)
- The parable is about how the religious authority of the scribes and chief priests will be transferred to the apostles.
- Jesus was a threat to the religious leadership of Israel and now He wanted them to know it. He had just cleansed the temple driving out those who had turned the temple into a den of robbers. This got the result He wanted, the chief priests and the scribes began to seriously seek to destroy Him. They even came demanding to know what gave Jesus the right to do and say these things. They were in charge of the temple. And they were not going to take this public threat to their power lying down. So Jesus continued to publicly undermine their authority by driving a wedge between these leaders and the people by asking the scribes and chief priests, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” These religious leaders did not believe John and bear the fruits of repentance but they knew that if they said “from man” then the people would stone them. So they answered that they did not know where John’s baptism came from. And then Jesus told this parable. The religious leaders of Israel were merely tenants keeping watch over the vineyard. But John, like the prophets before him and greater than the prophets before him, was a servant of the Lord. As a servant, John came with the authority of his Master. And Jesus came with greater authority yet, He was the beloved Son of the vineyard owner. With this parable Jesus actually answers their question, “By what authority do you do these things?” His Father in Heaven had given Him that authority. And none of this was lost on the scribes and the chief priests. They knew that the parable was against them, it was only their fear of the people that kept them from arresting Jesus on the spot. Thus for the scribes and chief priests there was no turning back from their ultimate goal – they were going to eliminate this threat to their power – just as Jesus said in the parable – they were going to kill the beloved Son.
- But Jesus was not just a threat to the religious authorities, He would make good on that threat. The people would think, “Surely not!!!!” How is it that the son of God, the Messiah King, would die and still win the power struggle? And the religious authorities themselves certainly thought that when He gave up His Spirit to the Father on that cross that they had won this power struggle once and for all. But Jesus tells us that the owner of the vineyard will come and destroy those tenants who had the son killed and give the vineyard to others. Even more shocking was the way that this happened in history—God sent the unclean pagan Roman army to destroy Jerusalem much like He had sent foreign armies to conquer and take Israel into exile hundreds of years earlier. This event was part of a transfer of leadership. The parable teaches us that the religious leadership of Israel would be transferred from these tenants, who will be destroyed, to the apostles. Changing images we read that the stone that the builders rejected would become the cornerstone. The cornerstone was the stone that will bear all of the weight of a new Temple. This was a picture of the resurrection of Jesus. He continues, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” What Jesus is doing here is telling the people to keep their distance from the leadership of Israel. He will make good on that threat – those tenants will be destroyed – and you do not want to be near them when it happens. Instead, of identifying with the leadership of those who killed the Son you will want to follow the apostles of the risen and reigning Son. (While the religious leadership of Israel would continue to try to trap Jesus so that they could have Him crucified, Jesus had caught them with this parable. He laid bare that they thought of God as dead and that their goal was to take the vineyard for themselves. We must agree that the owner of the vineyard is just to destroy the tenants and those who stand with them. And we know that this happened. But the parable still catches people today.)
- The parable ensnares those leaders today who reject Jesus’ authority and any who identify with them too closely.
- It may be hard for many to believe that there would be leaders in the church today who reject Jesus. Surely not?!?!?!?, you might think. True, it may not be common for religious leaders today to openly take the side of the scribes and chief priests who handed Jesus over to His death. But it is much more tempting for those who claim to treasure and preach the gospel to abandon the apostles’ teaching for their own authority and work to preserve their own interests and power. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, there is a power struggle continuing today and it isn’t just happening in liberal churches—it is unfortunately way too commonplace in conservative evangelical churches and the cause of much conflict.
- But we must also believe that God can remove all such tenants and give the vineyard over to the one true apostolic church. You do well to avoid taking sides with religious authorities who reject the authority of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles. But you do even better if you also submit to Jesus and His word with all of your heart and serve others instead of lording it over others. We may not realize it, but we might as well be saying that God is dead or that Jesus is dead when we listen to Oprah or any of the so-called experts on the news as if that were as good as searching the Scriptures. And even if we search the Scriptures for our answers, as the scribes and chief priests no doubt thought they did, we have to ask ourselves are we willing to submit to what is there or are we going to twist it to protect our own interests or to gain power over others? Your Father in Heaven is not distant nor dead. Jesus, the beloved Son, is your Lord, He is your King. And Jesus is coming again. Amen.