Summary: Jesus confronts every smug and complacent sinner. But Jesus is also speaking to us. For Jesus forces us to ask, “How are we treating God’s vineyard today?”
There was a beautiful vineyard, its vines bending, laden with the weight of rich, swollen grape clusters. For the owner had planted a good vineyard. He had chosen a vigorous, hardy stock of vine. He had well prepared the soil to guarantee a good harvest. Yes, the vineyard had rich, productive vines in the arid soil of Israel.
But all was not well in that vineyard. For the tenants had rebelled against their generous landowner. When the harvest came, the landowner sent one of his servants to collect the harvest. But they didn’t give the servant what they owed; instead, they beat him up and sent him away with nothing.
Again, the owner sent another servant. And the rebellious tenants also insulted him, beat him up, and sent him away with nothing. So the landowner sent a third servant, whom the tenants wounded and sent away with nothing. Such terrible tenants, rebelling against the owner, rejecting the servants sent to collect the crop.
Now the owner sent his own dear son, thinking, “Perhaps they will respect him; perhaps they will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they assumed the vineyard owner had died. And they hatched an evil plot: “Let’s kill him, so the inheritance can be ours.”
If the landowner had died and had no heir, the tenants could claim the land as theirs. If they could murder the son and not get caught, the vineyard would be theirs. Such shameful tenants; yes, a mutiny was afoot in the vineyard!
The story is transparent. Jesus’ parable condenses the history of Israel. Israel ignored the Word from the prophets. Israel continued to treat the vineyard as if it belonged to itself and not to God. And the prophets, who called the people to repent, faced the people’s wrath. They stoned some of the prophets; others they beat. More than a few suffered death. The prophets were despised and rejected, sent away empty-handed.
In the parable, Jesus confronts every smug and complacent sinner, all within earshot of His parable. But Jesus is also speaking to us. For the text forces us to ask, “How are we treating God’s vineyard today?”
God has a dire warning for us. God’s grace is undeserved kindness because of Jesus, not because of you or me. Without Christ, there is no mercy, no grace, no forgiveness, and no kindness. In the parable, Jesus has a warning for the Church, God’s Israel of the New Testament. You can’t have a bride without a groom; you can’t have a church without the Lord Jesus Christ.
What does this mean, as our Small Catechism so often asks? It means this: the church today that doesn’t proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness, life, and salvation of the sinner has the same fate in store for it as Old Testament Israel.
That’s scary isn’t it? For most churches today don’t preach Christ and Him crucified for our salvation. That’s boring stuff people don’t want to hear. But remember this--we aren’t the owners. We don’t get to choose what we do as the Church, the Bride of Christ. Jesus Christ has already decided for us. We are but the tenants who can be booted off the property whenever the landowner decides.
The prophet Isaiah spoke of a time when the Lord would do a “new thing,” as our Old Testament reading said. God would make a way in the wilderness among the wild beasts; He would put water in the dry desert and give drink to His chosen people. That would be something new--a new covenant, a new chosen people, a new way, built on the old foundation, but still new nonetheless. And those who would cling to the old covenant would miss out on the new. Their ears wouldn’t hear it; their eyes wouldn’t see it. Those were the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.
By God’s choosing, He has given us a place in His vineyard of grace. The vineyard is His Church. The vineyard is a place brimming with life amid a barren world. It is an oasis of refreshment in a dry desert. Here, God blesses us with the life-giving waters of Holy Baptism--that Mackenzie received this day--which washes away the dirt of our sin. Here, God nourishes us with His Word. Here, God gives us to drink wine from the cup of salvation, the blood of His new covenant.
But remember this well: we aren’t the owners of the vineyard. We’re just the tenants. And we may not treat His Church as if it’s our own to do with as we please. There’s only one way to live in Christ’s Church--and that’s by following Christ Jesus by faith. He is the true vine; we are but the branches. Only as we are joined to Him, do we yield fruit. It is His Church, not ours. He is the head of the Church.