October 4, 2020, What Will He Do? Matthew 21:33-46 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000217
Previously in chapter 21 of Matthew’s gospel – the chief priests and the elders had come to Jesus, full of righteous indignation, because Jesus had gone into the Temple and had actually knocked over the tables of the people who were just going about their business selling pigeons and providing correct currency for the Temple sacrifices. He had even made himself a whip and driven the money-changers themselves right out of the building. And finally – and this might have been the most offensive thing of all – he let all manner of people IN to the Temple, blind people and crippled people and little kids making all kinds of noise and even calling Jesus the Son of David, the title that belongs to the Messiah. The chief priests and elders were fifty shades of indignant, and they had come to Jesus demanding to know just where he thought he got the authority for such carryings-on.
So that was the audience for this parable – those were the people Jesus was speaking to, some very riled-up clergymen, and that gives a pretty good idea of the kind of tension that was in the air as he spoke. But the tension must have risen to breaking point when Jesus began telling this parable, and it sounded very familiar to every one of them. “A landowner planted a vineyard,” he said, “and he put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower.” Very few of us have the book of Isaiah memorized, but those chief priests and elders knew their Scriptures, and they would have recognized the words of Isaiah immediately, and they would have known that Jesus was using that image from the prophet when God sent him to rebuke his people for their faithlessness. The beginning of the parable is almost word for word the same as Isaiah’s prophecy. And Matthew says when they heard the parable, “They knew that he was speaking about them.”
In story form, Jesus lays out the whole sordid history of the nation of Israel: how they were unfaithful to God over and over, and how they killed his servants, the prophets that he sent to warn them. He even foretells his own betrayal and death at their hands, when he talks about the murder of the son and heir. Later on, Stephen, one of the first deacons, made the same point, “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed the very ones who announced the coming of the Righteous one, whom you have now betrayed and murdered?”
This is a very bitter story, I think, and all the more so because it is such a thinly veiled parable; it is so close to the terrible reality. Century upon century, right up through John the Baptist, the fate of God’s servants was rejection and persecution and death. The writer to the Hebrews tells about the suffering of the prophets in excruciating detail: “Some were tortured… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated…wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” And just three days after Jesus had this confrontation with the chief priests and the elders he too would be arrested and tortured and put to death.
When he had finished the story, Jesus put this question to those religious leaders, “What do you think is the appropriate punishment for these wicked tenants – tell me, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And this was their answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” It is as if they condemn themselves by their words. But it is the grace of God, not the wrath of God, that Jesus was about to reveal.
On the day of the first Pentecost, Peter once again brought the people of Israel face to face with their guilt for the death of the Son of God. When the Holy Spirit had come and the apostles were out on the street proclaiming the gospel in every possible language, Peter preached a sobering message. “Let all this house of Israel know for certain that this Jesus, whom you crucified, is the one God has made both Lord and Christ.” And when they heard Peter’s word’s on that day, the people in the crowd were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter, “What shall we do?”
And listen to Peter’s answer. Peter did not say to them, “God is going to put you wretches to a miserable death.” Far from it. Peter answered them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” The gracious justice of God is infinitely better than what passes for justice among men.
Some of the people listening to Peter on that day were the very men and women who had stood in the crowd and cried out “Crucify him!” Some of them had stood and watched as the nails were driven through his hands and feet; some of them had called out cruel and derisive things at him as he suffered; some of them had just run away in fear and left Jesus to the mercy of the Roman soldiers. And all this after they had listened to his teaching, after they had been fed by him. All this after he had blessed their children and healed their sick and cast out demons from the oppressed. You are murderers, Peter told them, and worst of all, the one you murdered was the Messiah, the Son of God. That was all true. But Peter didn’t answer them with a word of condemnation. He offered them an invitation: to receive forgiveness of all their sins, to receive God’s own Spirit through baptism, to become beloved members of his family. They had just met grace head on.
Grace is the un-human, un-deserved, un-thinkable, un-expected response that we will always receive when we bring our guilt to God – because the thing that we need to understand is that the people in that crowd were not specially wicked or godless kinds of people. They were people like us, fearful and foolish and changeable and ungrateful and easily manipulated. We dare not assume that if we had been in the crowds in the week of our Lord’s Passion, we would have run to defend Jesus or offered ourselves in his place or done anything noble or courageous or right. We ourselves are sinful creatures, capable of every kind of cruelty and cowardice, given half a chance. The very worst that we see in our fellow human beings could just as easily be in us if we faced the same fears or suffered the same humiliations or were equally deprived of love and security.
When Jesus had finished his parable, he asked the people who were listening a question: “Now, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” When I read this parable, I see this as the key question. Jesus had laid bare in this parable the long, painful history of their offenses against God. The question was, “Do you finally know me, after all these years?” The parable had come to fulfillment; the Son had arrived; the question was – had they come to understand, after centuries and generations, after a long and tortuous history, had they come to understand the heart of the Father, who did not send the Son into the world to condemn it, but to give it life. The Son, who did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. The Son, who said with his last breath, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
Because this is the miracle of grace – that when we come to God, when we tell him we are murderers, we are liars, we are robbers at heart – this is his answer to us: “My beloved child, I have been waiting for you. Come, share the inheritance of my Son.” By the grace of God we can always come before him without fear and without pretense. You will never shock God, and you will never disgust him. You will never exhaust his patience. We can offer him the very worst we have within us; we can admit the darkest secrets of our minds and hearts. Today, in just a few minutes, as you kneel down for Confession, remember the un-human, un-deserved, un-thinkable, un-expected mystery of God’s grace. Remember that when we are cut to the heart by our sin, he does not come to us in wrath, but in love.