Many of today’s most popular TV shows are those that welcome and invite audience participation. From sports, where replay after replay invite the viewer to make their own judgment to the myriad of talent competitions and reality TV shows featuring people of questionable talent doing things of questionable value – but hey, you get to decide who stays and who goes. Apparently people like the feeling of power that comes with judging. This fifth Sunday in Lent has historically been called Judica “Judgment” Sunday. Jesus is just days from his cross now, and in our text he calls on us to judge him – and ourselves – correctly.
It’s Tuesday of Holy week. Tuesday of Holy week was kind of like media day before the Super Bowl – Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover and Jesus is in the temple courts accepting interviews and challenges from both friend and foe and teaching the people about the events that would soon be happening. The Jewish leaders question his right to be teaching and preaching and so he tells them this parable. A man planted a vineyard and handed it over to farmers – expecting to get his share of the harvest. He sent a servant to collect what was due him and the tenants beat him and sent him away empty handed. He sent another but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent a third and they wounded him and threw him out. Finally, he sent his son. And they took one look at the son and said ‘this is the heir…let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
As with any parable, correct identification of the characters is vital to understanding the meaning. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess, because Luke tells us: the teachers of the law and the chief priests…knew he had spoken this parable against them. So, this parable is about Israel, with special focus on Israel’s religious leaders. God is the owner. The people of Israel are the vineyard. The teachers of the law and the chief priests are the farmers. The thing that stands out is God’s grace to these religious leaders. They hadn’t purchased the vineyard with their own resources, nor had they earned their positions as farmers. God simply gave it to them. And, naturally, God – the owner – has every right to share in the profits of his vineyard – but sadly, the farmers refused and preferred to pretend as if the vineyard belonged to them, running God’s servants – the OT prophets – out of town.
You be the judge of these religious leaders, Jesus is telling the crowd. See God’s grace to them and see their hate-filled rejection of his grace and his prophets. Even more, see what they are planning to do the Son of the owner of the vineyard. Imagine that. Jesus is speaking to the people and telling them that their leaders are planning to murder him – with the leaders standing right there.
How would you judge them? Ah, but you can’t really make that judgment until you first judge the Lord of the vineyard. Namely, what kind of fruit was he expecting the vineyard – the people – to produce under the care of the farmers – the church leaders? I believe this question is the crux of Jesus’ parable. It demonstrates that this parable is not a fairy tale, this is about real live people and their standing with their Savior; this story is about the Church of all time; this parable applies to the pastor and people of Risen Savior. What kind of fruit did the prophets seek? What fruit did Jesus seek? What fruit do faithful pastors seek? Did the prophets seek sacrifices – obedience to rituals? There was no shortage of sacrifices in the OT, but one of God’s prophets, Samuel, said: does the LORD delight in burn offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22) Did Jesus come after people’s money or possessions? Jesus never once gathered an offering. Does God send pastors today to teach behavior modification, to help bad people become good and good people, better. If that were true, if the OT prophets, Jesus, or faithful pastors today were only trying to coerce people into obeying the Law, they would never be persecuted. Check out some of the most popular mega-churches and mega-pastors today (not to mention every other religion in the world): they demand everything but the shirt off their people’s backs, week after week they give people “to-do” lists and people love them for it. No, what got God’s OT prophets persecuted, Jesus crucified and faithful pastors today attacked is seeking people’s sins.
Throughout the OT all of the prophets had the same message: repent and believe. They pleaded with the people to give their sins to God. Jesus came to seek out the lost sheep – not seeking to get something from the sheep. (Luke 15) He came to serve, not to be served. Jesus still sends men to preach repentance and forgiveness – and this absolutely infuriates several groups of people. There are those who don’t think it’s the church’s or pastor’s business to point out and rebuke their sins and those who think the church should be busy changing the world not changing hearts. There are self-righteous people in every church – who are active and generous and willing – but who are sadly under the impression that their good works cancel out their sins. And yet, the only people they’re deceiving is themselves. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)
So you be the judge. Be the judge of the Lord of the Church and of those he sends to tend to it. He came to the vineyard looking to lift the burden of people’s sins. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28), Jesus invited, but the chief priests preferred to try to work their way into heaven. All Jesus wanted was to be their Savior, the Lamb of God who takes away their sins, but rather than repent of their self-righteousness and build their faith on Jesus, they rejected and killed him. I suppose it might not seem nice to ask you to judge the leaders, but isn’t that exactly what God invites us to do in Isaiah 5: judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? (Isaiah 5:3-4) He gave the vineyard away for free. He wanted the only fruit that sinners can produce…which is: sin. He didn’t just send one prophet or a couple of prophets, but as he says in Jeremiah: from the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. (Jeremiah 7:25) What more could God have done?
Well, there is one more thing. The greatest thing. God sent his own Son to seek fruit in the vineyard. You be the judge of love like that. Try to wrap your mind around such love. Would you ever send your child to people with a reputation for violence and murder – ever send them to Iran or North Korea – on the chance they will welcome them with joy? Because that’s exactly what God did. He saw his prophets abused and beaten and he said to himself what shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.
Don’t we have to judge that the Lord of the vineyard loves us more than we would dare to hope? This is that love unknown that we sing about! It was God’s unknown, unfathomable love that caused him to send his Son into this world not to gather up our good works but to gather up our sins. All of them. Not just the small ones, the “white lies,” or that one time we ran a stop sign or the one time we lost our temper– but the big, black ones, the ones we would never tell anyone about, the ones that keep us up at night. That’s the fruit he’s looking for. That’s what he came to earth to suffer, die, and pay for.
Is that how we always judge Christ and his Church or has work-righteousness taken root in our hearts, too? Do you think Jesus invites you to come into his presence so that he can get something from you? Do you think discipleship is defined by doing good things for God? Do you view your giving, serving, praying, worshipping as rent payments – as things you do to stay in God’s good graces? If so, it’s no wonder you resent him; it’s no wonder that you would find better things to do on Wednesdays in Lent and blow off Holy Week – because in your mind church is where God piles burdens on you instead of taking them from you. But faith built on what we do for Jesus is no faith at all. In fact, it is unbelief; a rejection of God’s grace.
And what will God do to those who reject his grace? Jesus tells us he will come and kill those [farmers] and give the vineyard to others. Isn’t the people’s reaction shocking? How do they react when Jesus tells them that God is going to destroy the leaders who taught that doing good and working harder is the way into God’s favor? Did they rejoice that the Lord would remove these abusive leaders? No, they foolishly shout may this never be! “No Jesus. We’d rather continue to believe that we can earn our way into heaven than accept it as a free gift from you.”
Jesus looked directly at them. The English doesn’t do justice to the emotion contained in these words. This word for look is the one used when Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. (Mark 10:21) It’s the word for that famous look Jesus gave Peter after the rooster had crowed. (Luke 22:61) They were acting like slaves who wanted to remain in slavery rather than accept freedom. And Jesus pitied them.
So Jesus tries one more time to help them judge clearly. He quotes Psalm 118 ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ and adds his own interpretation: everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed. There’s a Jewish proverb that states: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot. If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot. Either way, woe to the pot!” Jesus is telling the people one more time that according to Scripture, the one the Jewish leaders reject is actually the key to the whole building. (The picture is of an arch. If you remove the capstone, the whole thing falls down. If you remove Jesus and his atoning death for sinners from religion, that religion is worthless, it falls to pieces.) The point is that with Jesus there is no middle ground; you will either be broken by him now in repentance and faith or you will be crushed by him in judgment. Either way you must die to yourself; to all thoughts of earning heaven on your own.
You be the judge: where do you stand? Are you offended that Jesus doesn’t come to give you your best life now or to teach you how to be a better person but to call you to repentance, to expose your sins so that he can take them away from you? If this offends you, then you will be crushed just like those religious leaders, the nation of Israel and all who believe that Christianity is about “doing good” and “trying harder” for God. Or, will Jesus land on you and break you, crushing the pride, the self-sufficiency, the sins right out of you? Will he lead you to confess that you don’t have anything God needs, the only thing you own is your sin, to not say “Lord, look at all the good I’ve done” but instead “Lord, have mercy on me”? Will you fall on Jesus and his merits and build your entire life, your faith, your priorities, your family on him? Will you see that worship is not about you doing anything for Jesus but him serving you with his forgiveness, with his own body and blood? Or will you plug your ears to his calls to repentance, will you gamble that God will be pleased with the filthy rags of your best efforts? Will you risk abusing with God’s grace for so long that he finally takes it from you and gives it to others? This is not reality TV where the worst that could happen is you get kicked off the island; the stakes are eternal life or eternal death. You be the judge. May God grant us all the wisdom to judge correctly. Amen.