The Master We Believe In is the Master We Get
Text: Matt. 21:33-46
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
A very common element in many, many stories is the tragic twist of irony. From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, whose timing misses each other by moments and results in tragedy, to the countless ancient myths and tales of bygone cultures, where a character barely misses something important or forgets one detail, all these moments make for good drama. Misunderstandings, missed connections, even though everything else lines up, that one little missed detail means that the story is about to get interesting. We have that here in Jesus’ parable in our Gospel reading today. In it, we hear about a master of a vineyard, who does all the hard work of planting and construction, protecting it with a fence, digging a winepress. He leases it out to some tenant farmers, essentially sharecroppers, who will tend it while he’s away. But when harvest season rolls around and the master wants to collect his share of the fruit, these tenants beat his messenger servants, they kill one, and they stone another. So the lord of the vineyard sends another round of messengers. The tenants do the same thing to them. Finally, running out of peaceable options, the master sends his son, hoping they’ll respect him. But the tenants’ wickedness and greed grows even more, and seeing the son coming to them, they decide to murder him so that they can steal the inheritance.
If we listen to this parable closely, we can hear that this master of the vineyard is no cruel taskmaster. He’s done all the heavy lifting in building and maintaining this vineyard. And when his tenants—who are contractually obligated to give him part of the harvest—when they refuse to hold up their end of the deal, look at how long-suffering he is. They beat up one messenger, so he sends another. They kill that one, so he sends another. They stone that one, so he repeats the whole process again. Even after that, he doesn’t send soldiers or hired thugs to treat them the way they’re begging to be treated. He sends his son. This master is forgiving, to a level we can’t even comprehend. He’s slow to anger. The irony is that the tenants don’t want that kind of landlord. They want to have someone they struggle and strive against. They want to have a master who will send troops, not servants. They’re ready to go to war, to kill, for what they’ve already received from him—a place to live and food to eat.
And then, of course, as the parable reaches its conclusion, there’s irony stacked on irony. Jesus poses the question to the people he’s been telling this parable to. If we go back a few verses, we find out he’s speaking to the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem, those who have been setting themselves against Him for the last few years. After He describes the bloody climax of the plot, when the tenants murder the master’s son, He asks them, “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And then those who have been plotting and scheming how to kill Jesus, God’s Son, those who know that this parable is against them, pronounce their own sentence: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” They know that He’s talking about them, warning them, but in the bitterest of ironies, they just can’t help themselves. They are the tenants and this is the kind of landlord they want.
This is the way of the fallen, unbelieving sinful nature. According to our fallen, earthly nature, we refuse to think there could be a Master, a Lord, that’s so compassionate, so long-suffering, so merciful and forgiving. We think that He’ll be exacting and demanding, like every other master in this world, not giving us to freely enjoy the fruits of His vineyard, but squeezing us for every drop He can get out of us. We expect Him to be strict in His contracts, to demand something before He pays us in return. So our human nature conjures up a Master who’s exacting, who sends cruel foot soldiers instead of messengers, who’s quick to unsheathe His sword and itching for an excuse to collect His pound of flesh. That’s where so many wrong ideas about God begin. From the angry atheists who imagine a cruel tyrant to the Christians who are terrified that if they step an inch out of line that God will forsake them, from the smug philosopher who tries to cram God into his categories and definitions to the believer who thinks that God operates on a quid pro quo, do-this-and-I’ll-do-that-for-you basis, that He’ll only help you once you take the first step toward Him or get your life together first, all of these images of God grow from this wrong idea about who He is: that He’s a strict business manager type of God, a tyrant, just waiting to drop the hammer. It’s why we’re more ready to defend ourselves against God—listing the reasons why He should help us, setting out all the ways we’ve fulfilled the contract, or if we haven’t, then demanding that He honor our excuses and reasons why—more ready to fortify ourselves in the vineyard than we are to receive grace.
And here’s the bitterest irony of all: the God we believe in is the God we get. If our faith is in a God who judges harshly, who’s chomping at the bit for any opportunity to crack down and punish, that’s when we turn away from the compassionate, merciful, true God. When we turn away from the forgiving, gracious God, all we can expect is rejection, like the chief priests and elders of Jerusalem expected when they pronounced their own sentence. For none of us can claim to inherit His kingdom in any way beyond Him giving it to us freely.
But here’s the twist: the Master wants to give the vineyard to you freely. He wants to give it to you without price. He’s already paid for it—He paid for it at the cross—so it’s a gift to you. And when we receive it freely, when we trust in this infinitely forgiving God, this God who gives so freely and recklessly because He wants to, that’s the God we get. That’s the God whose love kindles our own love, whose generosity ignites our own generosity, so that we can’t help but give Him the fruits of His own vineyard. We can’t help but give Him but His own, whatever the gift may be.
The Lord has sent His messengers to you. He’s sent His Son to you. He has died for you. But His death, again, in an ironic twist, was beyond the schemes of those who plotted against Him. His death was according to His own will, the price of His tenants’ rebellion that He was ready and willing to pay. So you are forgiven. Turn from the false, exacting, calculating landlord you imagine. See the Lord who willingly sacrifices Himself for you. Receive the fruits of His cross. Sing your thanks and joyfully give Him what is His, for He’s already given it all to you. In the name of Jesus, the Forgiving One. Amen.