I would have sent an army. From time to time in the Scriptures, we discover that God does not act as prudently and as wisely as we might expect. It often seems as though God is not paying attention to critical details as they develop, and so the decisions and choices that God makes can seem foolish to those of us who have a more enlightened sense of practicality and wisdom. From our point of view, as we read through our parable this morning, the land owner appears to be completely off his rocker. None of us here this morning, after sending at least two delegations of servants to collect our due, would be so foolish as to send one of our own children on a collection errand. After witnessing the violence and death that the first two delegations of servants suffered we would have sent an army. Quite frankly, I would not have even sent the second delegation. After learning the terrible fate of the first delegation, I would have sent my army in then. I would have put those wretched, ungrateful tenants to a miserable end right then and there. I’m guessing that most of us here are in agreement with me. Take care of a problem as soon as it surfaces, and be done with it. And all of this is because I am wiser and far more practical than God is, and I am wiser and more practical than God is, because have recreated God into my own image and I expect God to behave as I expect him to behave, and I expect God to act in ways that I act, and furthermore, I expect God to get busy doing some things that he’s been slack about recently, and if he needs to be reminded about what they are, I can certainly fill him in.
Now of course, the words that I have just spoken, with what I hope were understood to be deep and gripping facetiousness, actually represent a terrible, heinous and sinful attitude. We are all created in God’s image, not the other way around, and even though all of us might like to mention a thing or two that God hasn’t been paying close enough attention to, or that God doesn’t seem to be acting all that prudently about, it isn’t our place to do that.
In the first century, landowners were usually very wealthy, and they owned most of the arable land. And because they were wealthy, they often leased their land to others who would farm the land, and then, at the end of the season, the ones who had been renting the land, would pay a portion of their profits to the landowner. In most cases, this worked out pretty well. The landowner didn’t have to worry about the day to day operations of his properties, and at harvest time he could generally expect a good return on his investment.
In our parable this morning, Jesus intentionally sets up the story with that very expectation. It is a very good piece of property, and it is designed to produce a very good crop. It is a vineyard, it has a fence around it to keep out thieves and wild animals; it even has a watchtower, so that the guards can keep an eye out for any approaching trouble makers. And, it is a full-service vineyard because it has a wine press. It is truly high-end property. The landowner has every confidence that it will produce a very good crop. And apparently, the landowner has every confidence in the ones to whom he has leased it, because once the paperwork has been completed, he departs on an extended vacation to another country.
But at harvest time, there is trouble. The landowner sends some servants to collect the rent. And quite unexpectedly, the ones who are leasing the property react violently. They beat one of the servants up, they kill a second one, and they stone a third. And here is where I would have sent my army. I would not have put up with this absurd, unexpected violence. Nip it in the bud and be done with it. Give those miserable wretches their due, and collect my profits.
It becomes obvious, as the parable unfolds, that we are to believe that there is something tragically wrong with the landowner’s thought process. It also becomes obvious that the landowner is God himself, that the tenants are the people of God, and that the landowner’s servants are the prophets of old. All of Jesus’ listeners on the day that he told this parable, knew that the prophets of old had been horribly mistreated by God’s own people. The writer to the Hebrews says that the prophets were tortured, flogged, imprisoned, stoned to death, killed by the sword, and even sawn in two. I think I said a few sermons back, never aspire to be a prophet. Wait instead for the call.
But what is completely unexpected in this parable is God’s behavior. It is either foolish and imprudent, or it is overflowing with love and grace and mercy. And it is here that we must come face to face with God’s love and grace and mercy, because it is so unlike our own, very human approach to justice. Instead of sending an army, God sends yet another delegation of servants and prophets to his people. Having failed once, God is not about to give up. God’s grace is strong and persistent, and perhaps in our own eyes, rather foolish. As we might expect, the second delegation of servants and prophets meets the same fate. They are treated just as obscenely. We could have predicted this. We would have sent an army.
But what is absolutely and totally unexpected is what the landowner does next. He sends his own son, with the expectation that these rogue, violent, murderers will somehow have a change of heart. The landowner says in the parable, “They will respect my son.” Did God really believe that? Was that the divine plan? Did God send his Son into the world so that people would finally respond to his love and mercy and grace? The answer to that question is most difficult because it unveils a great mystery that exposes our own ignorance and foolishness and reveals God’s great, incomprehensible wisdom.
What the parable sets us up to believe initially, is that God did a very foolish thing in sending his own Son. We would not have done that. We would have been able to predict, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that our child would suffer the same fate as the previous messengers. And as we would have expected, the parable bears that out. The tenants, somehow believing that they can gain possession of the vineyard for themselves, seize the son, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.
But God sent his Son anyway. And here we are profoundly and deeply confronted with a wisdom that is all but incomprehensible to our finite minds, and it all has to do with God’s total and absolute grace and mercy. That mercy and grace is revealed when Jesus asks the question, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And those who are listening 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.” Finally, the justice that we all anticipated. We wanted that justice in the worst way, especially after those miserable wretches murdered the landowner’s son. They finally got what they deserved, at least from a human point of view. We all want to believe that there is some sort of limit to God’s grace and mercy, and ultimately there is a limit. Grace and justice are two sides of the same coin.
But in that response that the listeners so appropriately announced, we are also confronted, once again with God’s mercy and grace. God is still leasing out the vineyard. God is still taking chances with tenants. This is utterly amazing! The original readers of Matthew’s Gospel would have realized, with shock and awe and then gratitude that they were the new tenants of God’s vineyard. The shock and awe would have come to them because of the frightening warnings that this parable conveys to all tenants of God’s vineyard. Jesus makes this plain in verse 43: “Therefore I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That’s justice, and justice is always frightening and shocking and awful. It is a straight-forward warning to all of God’s people to heed the word’s of God’s messengers.
But there is also gratitude here. And the gratitude comes with a realization that God’s grace and mercy is still active and at work in our lives. God trusts us implicitly to be the workers in his vineyard. And quite remarkably and amazingly, God is just as patient and graceful toward us as he was toward those miserable tenants in the parable. But as we have seen from the parable we must never presume upon that grace.
None of us here this morning, I am sure, could ever be accused of doing violence against God’s Kingdom. But the hard question for us to ponder is this: While we would never do harm to God’s Kingdom, are we fulfilling the demands of this parable by doing good? We are the current tenants of God’s Kingdom. Are we producing its fruit?