A sermon delivered by Fr. Justin Clemente to the People of New Creation Church (Anglican) on the fifth Sunday in Lent, April 3, 2022.
God is doing a new thing: Jesus
As you listened to our readings from Holy Scripture today, what caught your attention? What themes and threads did you hear stitched throughout? Above all, here’s the primary thread: God is doing a new thing! In our Gospel passage for this morning, we heard our Lord tell us that the very stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone! (Luke 20:17, quoting Psalm 118:22)
Friends, the new thing God is doing is the death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ. Please note: it still the new thing God is doing. In this age, God has no further revelation to give us. Just more of his Son. And the question that goes out to each one of us listening this morning is: will we be part of that new thing?
And nothing brings this home like the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, or, to steal Ken Bailey’s title, the Parable of the Noble Vineyard Owner & His Son. This parable, prompted by a challenge to Jesus’ authority from the religious leadership of Israel, says it all. Remember that parables are dividing lines and revelatory stories. They reveal who Jesus is, and they divide by revealing where we’re at in relation to him.
Jesus will not directly respond to the challenge of his authority, but he will tell a story! A story of a vineyard, richly planted, but also story of stewardship and leadership gone badly awry. A couple of things to set our bearings at the beginning here: 1) the audience for this parable is expressly stated as the scribes and chief priests in Jerusalem. That’s important! 2) Any time you see a vineyard pop-up, you know this is going to be about God and God’s people. The Old Testament is profuse with vineyard images. In fact, this whole parable is based on Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard, found in Isaiah 5.
Now that we’ve got our bearings, I want to draw out three Lenten lessons for us today.
God is patient and merciful in a way that exceeds all human expectations (vs. 13-15)
Now, that might not be the first lesson you expected from this passage, but it’s certainly there! This is why I suggested another title, because it really is all about Jesus.
Consider this: the noble vineyard owner (God) sent not one, not two, but three servants to receive the fruit of his own vineyard. All three servants were beaten, treated shamefully, wounded, and cast out. These are the prophets of the Old Testament, right up to John the Baptist. The way they were treated (and just go read their stories!) is an offense, not only to them, but to God himself. When the people hear how the servants are treated in the parable, they expect swift comeuppance. So, Ken Bailey writes, “The owner has the right to contact the authorities, who at his request will send a heavily armed company of trained men to storm the vineyard, arrest the violent men who have mistreated his servants and bring them to justice. The abusing of his servants is an insult to his person, and he is expected, indeed honor bound, to deal with the matter. … The question is, what will he do with the anger generated by the injustice he and his servants have suffered?” (Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, pg. 416)
“What Shall I do?” the noble vineyard owner asks. The answer: “I will send my beloved son.” And we should add that clearly the son is alone and vulnerable. That would have been a great shock to all listened. This is the unrealistic and unnerving turn in the parable.
Of course, Jesus is the beloved Son. He comes to his own, and to the world, Incarnate and in-person. Defenseless by choice. The son of the vineyard owner comes this way because he still about peace – he says in verse 13, “perhaps they will respect him.” His heart is patient and merciful. But the Son of God also comes this way because he knows he will make atonement. He will be the one to achieve peace through his Cross.
Our God is wrathful – that is to say, he is settled in his opposition to sin. That is good. That is right. We should celebrate that. But we also read again and again that he is slow to anger. In his book, Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund puts it this way:
The Hebrew phrase is literally “long of nostrils.” Picture an angry bull, pawing the ground, breathing loudly, nostrils flared. That would be, so to speak, “short-nosed.” But the Lord is long-nosed. He doesn’t have his finger on the trigger. It takes much accumulated provoking to draw out his ire. Unlike us, who are often emotional dams ready to break, God can put up with a lot. This is why the Old Testament speaks of God being “provoked to anger” by his people dozens of times (especially in Deuteronomy; 1–2 Kings; and Jeremiah). But not once are we told that God is “provoked to love” or “provoked to mercy.” His anger requires provocation; his mercy is pent up, ready to gush forth. We tend to think: divine anger is pent up, spring-loaded; [and] divine mercy is slow to build. It’s just the opposite. Divine mercy is ready to burst forth at the slightest prick.”
Grace exceeding all expectations – that’s the first lesson of this parable! Even at this late hour – in Holy Week – Jesus will receive all those who come to him. And that is the crucial thing – that makes all the difference. Listening to Jesus and receiving him is the thing that will make this parable either sweet gospel or crushing law. That leads to my second point.
God is no respecter of persons (vs. 15-16)
15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”
Notice first that the vineyard owner destroys the stewards (the religious leadership of Israel) not the vineyard itself. Jesus says the vineyard (God’s kingdom) will be given to others. We need be careful here and resist overly simplistic interpretations of what this means. So, for example, it doesn’t mean that the kingdom is now going to be given to a purely gentile church. Others here means first, Jesus himself (God’s kingdom belongs to him), second, the Apostles (all Jewish!), and, third, everyone who will believe their message regardless of ethnicity.
But here’s the bigger point I want to draw out: God is no respecter of people, denominations, or traditions. The key is in how they respond to Jesus. Is he actually the Lord of the vineyard or not? If any church, any theologian, any tradition refuses to do that, God will remove their candlestick and the presence of the Holy Spirit, just as he did the leadership of Israel. Philip Yancey, reflecting on the growth of the Christian Church throughout history writes this, “As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange phenomenon of God “moving” geographically from the Middle East, to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.”
Look at how the hearers of the parable respond to the predictions of judgment. What do they say? “Surely not!” As if to say, Okay, we kind of understand what you’re saying, and there’s no way that’s going to happen! And yet, it happened, Jerusalem and its leadership was judged and ruthlessly destroyed only some forty years later by the Romans.
Don’t squander your inheritance (v. 14)
The last lesson is this: don’t squander your inheritance. That’s a Lenten word to the church. Look at verse 14:
14 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.’
Jesus is here described as the heir and the son. He is the one who has the inheritance of God’s kingdom and blessing. Hebrews 1:2 says that Jesus is the heir of all things. But rather than loving the son and the heir, these tenants sought to kill him for what they saw as a greater gain. Rather than living in fellowship with the noble vineyard owner, these stewards rebelled to their own destruction.
Spiritually, we may think of the inheritance spoken of in this parable as eternal life in Christ and our heritage of Christian faith. Romans 8:17 says that in Christ we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ – think about that! Some of you have massive amounts of this inheritance pumped into your life. You’ve grown up with it, it’s been passed down through generations of your grandparents and parents, it’s all around you and you can’t get away from it. The word of the Lord to you in this parable is this: don’t you dare squander it or trade it for something else. He gave it to you as a blessing for you and for others, that you would faithfully serve him!
For others here today, you may feel like you have very little in the way of this inheritance and heritage. You grew up with no idea of what it means to know the Lord. You may be one of the first in your family to trust in Christ. The word of the Lord to you in this passage is to make a new inheritance. One that honors the Lord of the vineyard, and offers up the fruits of your life in Jesus to God, the Noble Vineyard Owner.
For all this and more, we give all praise, all honor, and all glory to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.