Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Parable of the Wicked Servants (Luke 20:9-20)

In the name of Jesus

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Chronologically, the Gospel for this Sunday belongs after next Sunday, after Palm Sunday. So what's it doing on this side of the palm waving and hosanna shouting? Why has the Christian Church (the historical, creedal, liturgical Christian Church) placed this section of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Luke here, this morning, on the Fifth Sunday in Lent? That's a good question to ask this morning as it is on any Sunday in the season of Lent. "How is God in Christ through the Holy Spirit using this passage his Word to better prepare me for the pivotal events just around the corner, beginning with Palm Sunday and cumulating on Good Friday and Easter Sunday? As we heard on Ash Wednesday: "Let us pray that our dear Father in heaven, for the sake of his beloved Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit, might richly bless this Lententide for us so that we may come to Easter with glad hearts and keep the feast in sincerity and truth." (Lutheran Service Book Agenda 483)

May the same Spirit that inspired the prophets and apostles attend us this morning as we hear, read, learn and take to heart the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.

The situation? A day or two after Jesus had arrived at his destination - his final destination. He hadn't left his carry-on luggage on the plane for a short pause before resuming his flight again. This time he knew he wouldn't be leaving Jerusalem to continue another three years of his public ministry. It would all end here. It would all be fulfilled now. And the only luggage he would carry out of the holy city this time around would be what he lugged to the hill outside the city gates: the crosspiece of his won cross and a plackard around his neck announcing the charges laid against him.

Jesus had arrived with fanfare, and although this week he spent the nights outside Jerusalem's walls, every day he walked the city streets, wrapping up his three year ministry in and around the hub of the city's social and political and religious life: the Temple. Jesus had hinted at the finality of this visit to Jerusalem when he had repeated the same action with which he had inaugurated his three year ministry - his cleansing of the Temple.

And now, in a way that would cap his entire public teaching, he would announce to the crowds who followed him one of the most unexpected, one of the most shocking parables that had ever come from his lips: the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Luke 20:9-20)

Well, that parable didn't go over very well . . . . . . Maybe Jesus should have stuck with the sayings about the lillies of the valley or the birds of the air. But now the situation was so much more critical. The time was so much shorter than it had been even a few weeks ago. Everything was now so close at hand. Jesus knew his "earthly story with a heavenly meaning" would not be joyfully received by the vast majority of the Jewish religious leaders, but even though he had meant it as a clear and unavoidable warning for them, his heart was now upon those he wished to strengthen and shepherd, those who were already ripe to produce and place before God's emmisary the fruits of true faith.

We are told in verse seventeen that Jesus looked straight at the crowd. He looked with eyes of compassion and mercy and self-sacrificing concern. And it was to their Word of God-generated faith that he ultimately addressed this parable.

Now at first blush, the meaning given in this parable seems pretty cut and dried. We could outline it in three simple lines: Bad people do bad things to good people sent by the King. Bad people do even worse things to an even beter person sent by the King. Good king comes and wipes bad people out. Fairness and justice prevail. But is this really where Jesus is going with this parable?

Yes, the reaction of the religious leaders who were listening in seems pretty predictable, but wht of the crowd's reaction? "Lord, fobid it!" "May it never be!" "Tell me it will never happen like this!" Why all the shock and inability to accept this parable as a window into the realities of salvation? Because it wasn't all justice and fairness. Something in this parable was far from just and far from fair. That's why the parable took the crowd's breath away, and that's why this parable should do the same with each of us.

Now Jesus would have gotten a much more successful reaction from both the Pharisees and the crowd if he would have first formed a focus group or took a poll, but the script had already been written, the die had been cast long, long ago, back in the Garden with Adam and Eve. God had promised these two and all their children that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent despite the fact that the serpent would bruise the heel of the Man. Jesus was announcing in this parable the way in which this promise would all work out, and it is to that "way" that the crowd drops its jaw.

Jesus is announcing that he is completing what is lacking in Isaiah's "Song of the Vineyard" (Isaiah 5:1-7). Here Israel is depicted as the vineyard that received grace upon grace, but, nevertheless, produced only bitter fruit for the Lord of the Vineyard. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants simply unfolds what Isaiah had already proclaimed. In offering this parable, Jesus completes his public ministry the same way he began it in Nazareth: in pointing to the words of the prophet Isaiah and announcing: "In me this Word shall be fulfilled."

Jesus tells this parable to frame his entire ministry. In it he gives his followers a clear picture of how his followers are to approach his arrest, his trial, his suffering, his death, and his resurrection, ascension and second coming. This is not a parable of fairness and the world's brand of justice, but a parable that reveals the twin themes of humiliation and exultation, rejection and fulfillment. Here we see the unexpected reversal of fortunes as God's redeeming plan unfolds toward its completion in Christ.

More shocking are two elements that make this parable unique to Christ and his unique mission of redemption: the willing desire of the servants to carry out what they've been called by the King to do, and the irrational, reckless, seemingly wasteful will of the Lord of the Vineyard.

Countless Old Testament prophets went out, sent by God, not because they were so blindly obedient but because they put their faith in the irrational, wreckless, seemingly wastelful behavior of their Lord. The prophet's behavior was a direct result of faith saying, "Despite all appearances, it must happen this way. This is the way my Lord's plan of salvation will be fulfilled." In this way the Old Testament prophets foreshadow the sending of the Son, the beloved. He was finally called to go, and knowing full well the probable outcome, he went, whole-heartedly trusting the Word and will of his Father. Jesus rode into Jerusalem resolute. He set his face towards the vineyard and he never looked back.

As Jesus neared the walls of Jerusalem, he undoubtedly knew this was the place where palm branches and cloaks would be strewn for his triumphant arrival. He also knew, however, this was the place where the prophets before him had been dragged and thrown out as they announced, "Give to the Lord of the Vineyard the first fruits of his harvest."

And what were those firstfruits desired by the servants and their King? For a clear understanding we go to the greatest of the prophets, the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. At the Jordan River, John addresses unbelief and faith, judgment and grace, the present and future tenants (Gentiles were derogatorily refered to as "stones" by the Jewish contemporaries of John and Jesus) of his vineyard in these words:

And [John] went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. ’ ” Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:3-14 ESV)

The fruits desired by the Lord of the Vineyard? The first fruits of faith: repentance. That's the major theme of this parable, and that's a major theme of the Lenten season and our entire life as believing Christians.

But not all to whom Christ came were interested in giving the Lord of the Vineyard such fruit. Through the Old Testament prophets and John the Baptist — and ultimately through Jesus himself — God came looking for what was "meet, right and salutary" and found, instead, bloodshed. God came looking for what was proper and true and found only the cry of his mistreated servants (Isaiah 5:7).

On this Fifth Sunday in Lent we hear again that whenever God's Word is sent to us, that divine Word creates a "critical time," a "right season" for the fruits of repentance and faith.

Why did Jesus, hours before proclaiming this parable, weep over the inhabitants of this God-chosen city?

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:41-44 ESV)

They will not, they refuse to recognize the appointed time of God's visitation to the Vineyard in the person of his Son. Lent is to teach us and further our conviction that when it comes to our redemption, there has been and will never be any more critical season than this last journey made by God's Son to his wayward and rebellious people. In this passage Jesus is announcing that the critical season for faith and repentance has ultimately arrived. Now Jesus will take upon himself all the beating and the shameful treatment and abuse and rejection of every prophet sent before him (Romans 15:3). Jesus willingly rides into Jerusalem. God does the unthinkable, the reckless, the incomprehensible. He sends his only-begotten Son, his beloved Son, to the vineyard.

In an act that will fulfill the sacrifice of Abraham's only-begotten, Jesus will be offered up just outside the city walls for the undeserving, unfaithful tenants as a testimony to the kind of treatment Jesus would receive (Hebrews 13:11-12).

It is no coincidence that Christ asks the crowd the same question the king asks in the parable: "What, therefore, shall the Lord of the Vineyard do with those wicked tenants?" Unbelief and rebellion, will, after the time of grace has ended, be done away with, that faith and its fruits might have opportunity to appear. This is the same saving work God has begun in you, at your Baptism. The drowning of the old, rebel nature, that a new, fruit-producing nature might arise and live to God.

This is how the Lord of the Vineyard saves: exultation through humiliation, redemption through rejection, the bringing down of those who believed they had plenty of their own self-produced good works to parade before God, and the lifting up of those who confess they have nothing in their hands save their many sins, all through the lifting up of the Son upon the cross.

In this season of Lent we hear of our Lord's agony in the garden, his shameful treatment at the hands of evil men, and we cry out, "Let it never be!" "God forbid that such an unfair, unjust, unacceptable thing happen!" "So many mistreated prophets sent! And now, the spotless sacrifice comes to be bound and shorn and killed."

Only God-given faith can confess a week before Palm Sunday — Passion Sunday — that the sending of God's beloved was the reckless act of a reckless God. But such is his grace for me and all people. He loved me that much. And for that I will respond freely in repentance and faith and a heart-felt "Amen" to the sacrifice of his very life outside of the holy city.

Jesus comes to you this morning and announces through this surprising parable that only his final journey to Jerusalem, only his own suffering and death, only his sacrifice can rightly interpret this quite disturbing parable (or any other passage of Holy Scripture).

You see, Jesus' rejection will be the very means by which he will become the Cornerstone upon which God's eternal kingdom of salvation will be built. The Stone's rejection by the tenant-builders is the Stone's own glory — its exultation — as he bears the weight of the entire building, of all the building's stones.

Jesus has come to bear the weight of my sins and your sins and the sins of antire fallen people. Let him bear your burden. Let him carry your load. Trust in him and his rejection for you, and with it offer to God the fruits of faith: repentance and trust that truly believes, "Though Christ breaks, he will heal; though he drowns me, he will raise me up to eternal life."

In his abundant mercy and overflowing grace, may God continue to prepare us through his Word for the coming of his very Son to receive not only our firstfruits, but our very souls into his eternal care.

In the name of Jesus. Amen