The tenants in the vineyard

Easter is coming up soon! Together with Christians from literally all over the world, we’re trying to remember some of the special, important moments in the Easter story.

It’s easy for us to think about Easter just in terms of us, and our own congregation. We love our Easter lilies. We love the Flowering Cross. We love all the hymns and the special music.

But Easter is way bigger than just our own congregation. It’s a world-wide story. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that through him the whole world might be saved.

Jesus knew that. His closest friends only kind of figured it out. They thought that he was, maybe, coming to save the Jewish people, or to save their nation from the Romans. They didn’t understand the world-wide part of it too well.

Some of the prophets had an idea of what the Messiah was about. Long before Jesus, the prophet Isaiah wrote:

“People of Jerusalem, go out of the city, and build a road for your returning people! Prepare a highway; clear it from stones.

Put up a signal so that the nations can know what the Lord is announcing to the ends of the earth! Tell the people of Jerusalem that the Lord is coming to save you, bringing with him the people he has rescued.

You will be called ‘God’s holy people,’ ‘the people the Lord has rescued. Jerusalem will be called, ‘the city that God loves,’ the city that God did not forsake.'”

Isaiah 62:1-12

When Jesus showed up, the week before Easter, Jesus knew what he was facing. He was facing his own death.

A lot of people came to Jesus and said, “You’ve got to get away from here! They want to kill you!”

Jesus replied, “It wouldn’t be right for a prophet to be killed any place other than Jerusalem. . .”

And Jesus wept over the city. He loved it. He said,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God sends to you! How many times have I wanted to put my arms around all your people, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you wouldn’t let me. So be it! I tell you solemnly that you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Matthew 23:27-40

We all know what’s coming. We’ve heard the story, many times. Today’s Scripture is a part of Easter. It’s the very last parable that Jesus shared with people. It’s the last story that Jesus told.

Jesus began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.

At harvest time the owner sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized the servant, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.

Then the owner sent another servant to them; they struck this one on the head and treated him shamefully.

The owner sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

The owner had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” Jesus asked. “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:
“‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew Jesus had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.

Mark 12:1-12

That last week of his life, Jesus was busy. He was teaching. He was healing. He was speaking out against the evil and corruption he saw. He was confronting the religious leaders. He was doing all kinds of things.

After reading today’s Scripture, part of me wants to say, “No wonder they killed Jesus! No wonder they did him in!”

Jesus didn’t name any names, but everybody understood what he was talking about.

He said that the people of Israel were just like those tenants in the story, who refused to give the owner what was his due.

The land didn’t belong to them. It belonged to the owner. They were there to take care of it. They could eat well and prosper. They could raise families. But their job was to care for what they’d been given, and return it to the rightful owner.

Of course, for anyone who listened to the story, the owner is God. God – the owner – had sent many messengers over the years – prophets, teachers, writers of inspired books, leaders, people of social conscience – and the people of Israel ignored them all.

In fact, Jesus said, they mistreated God’s messengers. They beat them and sent them away empty-handed. Others they treated shamefully. Others were wounded, or exiled.

Finally, the owner sends his son. “Maybe they’ll respect my son,” the owner thinks.

But no, the tenants figured. “Let’s kill the son. Then, it’ll all belong to us!”

The parallel that Jesus was drawing was painfully clear. The people who were listening couldn’t fail to get the point.

What did God want? Was it so very much?

God wanted people to live up to the commandments – to live whole-heartedly the ten teachings that God had given to Moses on Mount Sinai.

And God wasn’t doing this for some selfish reason, either. “Do these and you’ll live!” God said. “Don’t do these, and you’ll die!”

All God wanted was something simple. “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. . .” (Micah 6:8) We talked about that earlier this year.

Jesus himself made it even simpler still. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. . .”

That’s it. That’s all the rent that God, the owner, was ever asking for.

“Love one another, as I have loved you. . .You are my friends, if you do what I command you. . .”

That’s not so hard to understand. It can be a challenge to live up to it. But anyone can understand what Jesus was saying.

Jesus wasn’t killed for the first part of today’s parable. Officially, Jesus was killed on a charge of blasphemy, for claiming to be the son in the story – for claiming to be the Son of God.

But really, what people killed Jesus for was the very last line in today’s Scripture. Do you remember what it was?

“What then will the owner do?” Jesus asked. “He will come and destroy those tenants,” he said, “and give the vineyard to others. . .”

The people who heard the story the first time all said, “God forbid!” It isn’t clear whether they meant, “God forbid that we should be like those wicked tenants! Let’s change our ways, and give back to God the justice, mercy and love which God demands from us!”

Or did they mean, “God forbid that our place might be taken away from us! God forbid that God might choose some other people, instead of us! God forbid that God might pick new people, who do listen to God!”

Some people heard that story, and they interpreted it the first way. They said, “Let’s change our lives. Let’s live the way Jesus teaches! Let’s live God’s way, not our way. Let’s turn back from going down the road to disaster!”

Other people heard the story, and they interpreted it as a threat. They said, “Let’s get rid of this Jesus! God’s commandments don’t mean a thing to us! This Jesus would turn our world upside down!”

This is what the gospel is all about. Some people follow Jesus. Other people reject him. Some people turn around, and other people go right on ahead, their own way.

When the high priest and the rest of his clique killed Jesus, they thought they’d won. They thought Jesus was gone for good.

Well, he was gone. He was dead, and buried in the ground. His followers all ran away. End of story.

Except that Easter says it wasn’t the end of the story. God’s love and life are so strong, that Jesus rose from the dead. And people saw him, and met him. They found Jesus beside them, as they walked along.

They felt Jesus in their hearts. They heard Jesus’ words, and they were set on fire. They saw Jesus in the face of their neighbor. They found the words and the strength to testify about Jesus, when they were in trouble.

Jesus wasn’t gone. He was alive. It was different, but he was here. That’s what Easter says.

Jesus was rejected and killed, in spite of all that he’d done, for years, to demonstrate God’s love and power. He was executed alongside of common criminals. He was buried, in a grave that didn’t even belong to him.

But three days later, Jesus was alive again. And now, it wasn’t just the people of Israel that Jesus was here to save. He’s here to save everyone.

From the mistakes we’ve made, and the wrong we’ve done. From our broken human nature. From the things we should have done, and didn’t do. Jesus is here to save us from everything, and help us to turn around again, and live.

This story is as old as time, and it’s as new as today. It’s been God’s plan, from the very beginning.

There’s no secret about what God is up to. There’s no mystery at all. God sent Jesus, because God loves the whole world. And God wants nothing more than for everyone to be saved.

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