The Wicked Tenants

Text: Luke 20:9-19
Date: Lent V + 3/21/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

The scribes and the chief priests perceived that Jesus had told this parable against them. They were right. But remember that St. Luke told us, “he began to tell the people this parable.” So if the “church officials” could figure out the meaning of the parable, what did this have to do with the people to whom he ostensibly spoke? Put in contemporary terms this parable is a warning for pastors and all church officials. But the people, the laity, the church members are part of the picture, too.

Today’s Gospel tells of some of the teaching Jesus did in the temple on Tuesday of Holy Week. What makes the Lord’s Passion cruel is that quite a large number of people welcomed Him joyfully on Palm Sunday and crowded around him and listened with hope if not faith as He preached and taught in the temple all the way until that Tuesday evening. These hearers were among the crowds that, in a few days, would be joining the mob yelling, “crucify him.”

It was to people who came to hear what He had to say that He told this parable. Of course the scribes and chief priests were standing by and, as it was obvious to all that the parable had them in mind as the “called and ordained” leaders of the people, they were put in a sort of uncomfortable position. This parable is more allegorical than others and the people understood its meaning, namely, that upon Jesus’ coming sacrificial death and resurrection, He is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises; from now on He is the key to understanding all the Old Testament scriptures; there is salvation in no one else but by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

The scriptures frequently refer to God’s people as a vineyard of his planting. In the parable this vineyard was “let out” or “leased” to tenant farmers representing the religious leaders and priests of the people. Those called to serve God’s people in His name with His Word are not the owners but are given a charge to care for the people in the way the Owner has commissioned them, namely, by the preaching of His Word and giving out of His gifts. Today we speak in terms of Word and Sacrament.

As the planting-growing-harvest cycle of the field and vineyard are predictable, and “the time came” that the owner of the vineyard should receive some of the fruit of the vineyard, so now Jesus has in mind the now tight time schedule when, in a matter of only two more days, He would accomplish what He came for—His sacrificial death. God has acted in specific ways in our world and our history according to His own time schedule. The Old Testament reading for today calls to mind the deliverance of God’s people from Egyptian bondage as Moses led them through the Red Sea on dry ground but drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and his army. We recall the words of St. Paul when he wrote, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Or, even better, from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel with his precise description of the days of Caesar Augustus “when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” “When the time came” for His parents to present Jesus in the temple, Simeon understood it was time for God to act, saying, “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation” (Luke 2:29-31a). Jesus is here saying that the critical time is now, in this final week in Jerusalem, where Jesus is destined to die. So also the crucial time comes to each of us whenever the claims of the word of the Gospel are preached. As St. Paul said of preaching, “now is the time of salvation.”

The servants sent by the owner to reap some of the fruits of his vineyard represent all the Old Testament prophets sent to God’s people, and especially the last OT prophet, John the Baptist, sent to gather in the fruits of repentance. As we all well know, however, the scripture is the record of the hardness of heart and refusal of God’s own people to believe. Even these scribes and chief priests, St. Luke said, “rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by” John (7:30). The tenant farmers in the parable beat the first servant and sent him away empty-handed. The second they also beat and treated shamefully, sending him away, again, empty-handed. The third they wounded and cast out, not even sending him away! John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, and now it is time for the Lord Himself, the “beloved Son” to visit the vineyard.

“The beloved Son” calls to mind the voice from heaven at His baptism and again at His transfiguration, “this is my beloved Son.” It recalls Abraham’s beloved son Isaac whose near-sacrifice pointed forward to the bloody, atoning sacrifice of the beloved Son of God. In the parable the tenants dialogue and plot and plan when they see the owner’s son coming. He is thrown out of the vineyard and killed. Jesus will be killed outside the gate of the city.

Jesus Himself now gives the interpretation of this parable. He asks, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to” the wicked tenants who killed his son? Not waiting for a reply He gives the answer, “he will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The picture is clear. Whoever rejects and crucifies the Son deserves only to be destroyed. Even worse, the vineyard of God’s kingdom and blessing—where it had only been “leased” to these wicked tenants, will now be given to new farmers, namely, the apostles and disciples of the Christ in the Church as the new Israel.

The people understood the parable. Some are shocked and maybe even horrified. When these folks responded, “Surely not,” “let it not happen,” “God forbid,” they probably had in mind the entire story, the killing of the Son, the killing of the farmers, and the transfer of the vineyard to others. But it must happen! It must happen that a prophet cannot die except in Jerusalem. It must happen that all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain should now find their fulfillment, their goal, in the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. For here is the great reversal of the kingdom of God, that by His death He destroys death and brings life and salvation to light.

Here Luke tells us that Jesus looked directly at the people and said, “What then is this that is written,” and he recites the words of Psalm 118, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Well it means that the rejected and crucified Christ becomes the cornerstone of the very kingdom of God itself. Jesus would remind His disciples how it was necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory (24:26).

More than that, though, “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” In other words, because of what God has done in Christ, everyone will be broken or crushed. Those who believe on Him, His disciples, are so by way of the brokenness of repentance, raised as new, living stones in Christ, the new temple of God, the new Jerusalem. But those who do not believe will be crushed in the final judgment, evicted from the vineyard and destroyed. It is the crucifixion of Jesus that has become the ultimate stumbling block and determines whether a person will be merely broken or crushed. As St. Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthians, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:22-24).

Only now are we ready for the Great and Holy Week, for we know not only that it means suffering, death and resurrection for the Savior, but it also means suffering the death of repentance and being raised to a new life in Holy Baptism and in daily repentance and faith for us. That’s why we gather, palm fronds in hand, for the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday; and in great solemnity for the intimacy of Maundy Thursday, the wonder, love and silent praise of Good Friday, and the joyful anticipation of the beautiful and moving Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday: Why? So that each of us can say that great confession of the apostle Paul for ourselves, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20). Amen. So may it be.