Text: Luke 20:9-29
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The most common view of God today is that He is powerful, wise, kind, and also safe. While He is confessed to hold all the power of the universe in His hands, from blackholes to the beat of a butterfly’s wings, the general perception of God is that no harm could ever come from Him. Perhaps it’s because we live in an age where so much of the risk we face is mitigated that we’ve subconsciously come to this conclusion. Or perhaps it’s a cultural phenomenon for us, our unique situation in the world—financially secure, with no existential threats for nearly a century. But no matter the reason, most people in our corner of the globe at this moment in time, believe that God is safe, harmless. There might be a slap on the wrist from Him once in a while, but no major threat could come from Him.
Those in Jerusalem in our Gospel reading certainly thought that way. Their reaction to Jesus’ parable—a parable that also often makes us a little uncomfortable—shows that they expected no harm could ever come from God. The parable is about a man who leased his vineyard to tenants, who after harvest, refused to give him his share of what grew there. He sent messenger after messenger after messenger, asking for what was his by right. But they refused, violently. Finally, at wit’s end, the owner sends his son, hoping that they’ll at least respect him. But the wicked tenants see the son coming. They figure that if the heir is dead, the owner will have no other option than to make those who are already in the vineyard his heirs. So they drag the son out of the vineyard and kill him.
Now we get to the part that makes us—and the good people of Jerusalem—squirm. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Jesus asks. They already know the answer. They’ve seen it coming from a mile away. Jesus answers His own question: “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” And now we get to the shock. Those who heard the parable gasped, “Surely not! Surely he wouldn’t do such a thing! How could he? How could that even be possible?” For they knew exactly what the parable was about. It was a thinly veiled reference to Israel’s sordid past; their track record of rejecting prophet after prophet after prophet. The parable itself was a prophecy about how they would drag the beloved Son of the Master out of the vineyard of Jerusalem and kill Him outside the city walls on Calvary. So when Jesus explains what will happen to those who had been entrusted with what was the Lord’s, when He reaches the bleeding sharp conclusion of the parable, they cry out, “Surely not! God would never do such a thing to us!” And from that moment on, the scribes and chief priests looked for a way to get the Master’s Son out of the vineyard and crucify Him under the authority and jurisdiction of the governor, Pontius Pilate.
The problem was not that they had misunderstood Jesus or had no idea who He was. It was clear from His works, from His teachings, from the fulfilled prophecies that He was the Messiah. Their problem rather, was that they knew exactly who He was, but they didn’t like what He was saying and doing. The didn’t like being told that they were unfaithful tenants of the vineyard; stewards who had more faith in the places and things God had entrusted to them over and against God Himself. They didn’t like being told that they were wrong, especially not about the way they had been doing things for years, even generations. They believed that they could wave off God forever and there would be no consequence. They were doing just fine on their own. There could never be any severe consequence to the way they had been doing things, their lives, their teachings, their faith in their own righteousness and goodness and correctness. But then, in 70 AD, not quite a generation after Jesus’ ascension, before all those who had seen and heard Him speak these words had died, that’s exactly what happened. Rome came and destroyed Jerusalem and decimated her residents. The temple was torn down. The vineyard was given to others.
How often does that become our mistake as well? It’s easy to point to the scribes and chief priests and talk about their sin. But we also believe that God could never do anything like that—not to us. We live in safe, comfortable places. Any misfortune that happens, we can chalk up to random bad things happening or the sins of others. But Jesus confronts us today—much closer and more personal and in our faces than we’re used to. For we know who He is. We just confessed that He’s God of God, Light of light, very God of very God. We believe that will come again to judge the living and the dead. But do we consider that we’re included in that? That we are part of the living and dead who will be judged? Do we believe that there’s no way that we could have possibly done any better with the things He’s entrusted to us? Do we truly believe that we can’t do any better, with money, with time, with kindness, with gentleness, with our children, with our coworkers or friends, with the truth? Do we not also wave Him off, wave off His messengers when they remind us of these things, act as if what we have is ours and not His, not a trust, not something leased to us? We also gasp “Surely not!” when a message from God seems a little too jagged, a little too hard, a little too close to home.
We’re getting closer to the end of Lent, when the cry of “Repent!” becomes clearer and more urgent. It’s easy enough to point to the sins of others that led to Jesus’ death—the jealousy of the scribes, the fear of the Sanhedrin, the cowardice of Pontius Pilate. But it’s also time for us to recognize that it’s our own sins too that have led to Jesus being crucified. So Jesus shines the brightest, harshest light on our thoughts, words, and deeds because He’s about to suffer and die for those things. He wants us to recognize our deep need for Him and His mercy, His grace. He wants us to come out of the vineyard with our hands up. He wants to show us our rebellions so that we can see them clearly taken off us and laid on Him. He wants us to see the self-centered sins that have been removed from us and put on His shoulders. He wants us to see that He’s dying for us too, to save us, to redeem us, to pay what we wouldn’t, to pay what we couldn’t. He showing us that He forgives us as much as He forgives anyone else, for we need it as much as anyone else.
The stone the builders rejected is about to become the cornerstone. Jesus is about to become the foundation of our faith. He’s about to make God’s love and forgiveness as real as it can be, in flesh and blood. So two paths are laid before us today when it comes to this Cornerstone, two ways to receive these words from Jesus today as we prepare for Holy Week. The first way is this: everyone who tries to stand up on their own under this Cornerstone, those who want to justify themselves, those who want to find their own way apart from what the Master of the vineyard wills, on them this stone will fall and it will crush them, pulverize them. That’s judgment. That the way the scribes and chief priest chose. They chose to stand on their own and on them the stone fell.
The second way set before us today is this: Everyone who falls on this stone, who drop to their knees, who fall down on their faces in humility, who ask the Lord of the vineyard for forgiveness and mercy—they will be broken, it’s true. Pride will be broken, hearts will be broken, wills will be broken. But a broken and contrite heart God will not despise. God is able to pick up the pieces and put them back together into something new, something different and beautiful. There’s a Japanese art called kintsugi, where an artist will take broken pieces from a vase or plate and put them back together using something beautiful and eye-catching, like gold dust-infused lacquer or sparkling silver glaze. It makes the broken thing into something new and stunning. That’s what happens to those who are broken when they fall on the Cornerstone Jesus, who are broken in repentance and sorrow over their sin, their rebellion. Those on this path are made new—new hearts, new minds, new tenants to whom the Lord of the vineyard is overjoyed to lease His paradise.
We’re put together in Christ. As we approach Holy Week, point not only to the sins of others, the mistakes and shortcomings of all those other people—your neighbors, your kids, your spouse, your pastor, your friends, society, your church. Look instead to what Christ is doing for you. Look at how He’s calling you away from rebellion, away from the judgment that’s waiting at the end of that path. Look to Him for forgiveness, peace, mercy, and love. For it’s there that you’re made into a new tenant, given to live in His vineyard, joyfully offering fruits of repentance and faith to the one who has given us everything, even His own inheritance of eternal life. In the name of Jesus, who died for you. Amen.