The last parable

Good morning, Friends!

We’re just one week out from Easter. And I feel somehow as though we’re still not ready for it. We’ve spent the last five weeks together, reading stories from the gospel, about the last events of Jesus’ life on earth. We’ve answered a lot of questions about what Jesus did, and what he said.

Today is Palm Sunday. In churches all over the world today, people are doing processions and pageants. They’re waving palm leaves and shouting “Hosanna!”

That’s what the people in Jerusalem did, the day they welcomed Jesus. The city was jammed. People’s hopes were high.

Everybody loves a parade. We like the excitement, and we like to cheer, even if we sometimes get a little confused as to what we’re cheering about.

The people on that first Palm Sunday thought they knew. They shouted “Hosanna!” over and over again, which in Hebrew means, “God SAVES!”

And they kept it up, over and over again, till the shout rang back from the surrounding hills, till the whole city rocked. “God SAVES!”

All along the parade route, a tiny little procession made its way. Jesus, on an half-grown donkey. A dozen or so disciples. It wasn’t the most impressive parade people had ever seen.

But they wanted to believe. They wanted God to help them. They knew that Jesus was a teacher, a healer, a prophet, a person of truth and courage. They wanted Jesus to be their king, to throw the Romans out, and do away with all the corruption and nepotism and oppression.

It sounds kind of familiar, in a way, doesn’t it?

So, it wasn’t much of a parade. But people took their coats off and spread them along the road, and they waved palm branches and cheered, because they wanted their world to be better.

Just a few days later, people were screaming for Jesus to be crucified. They wanted him to be dragged outside the city walls, beaten half to death, and then nailed to a cross and left to die in public. Just a few days later.

What changed?

Three or four weeks ago, several people in our Wednesday night Bible study asked, “Why would anybody hate Jesus? I mean, we all love Jesus, right? Why would anybody hate him?” People in class were bewildered.

I guess that’s one reason we find it difficult to get ready for Easter. We love Jesus. We don’t get why anyone would reject him. We’d like to take a short cut and skip the rejection and suffering, and get to the happy part of the Resurrection.

Today’s scripture helps us to understand what went wrong. Why at least some people hated Jesus. People in power, people who were afraid, people who didn’t care if what they did was wrong or not. That’s who killed Jesus.

All through his ministry, Jesus told stories or parables. A parable is a story with a point. Jesus told stories everywhere he went, about how God works, about what God does. These were stories about a different kind of kingdom than people were used to. It was the cumulative effect of all these stories, and one story in particular, the last parable, that got Jesus killed.

Here’s what Jesus said.

Jesus went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed.

He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.

“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’

“But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

When the people heard this, they said, “God forbid!”

Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.

Luke 20:9-19

It’s just a story. You wouldn’t figure people would get too upset by it. We’ve all heard a lot worse things said on TV.

Jesus didn’t name any names. He didn’t call for any heads to roll. Why would people get so angry?

Jesus told a story about a guy who owned a farm. He decided he’d rent it out. Found some tenants, thought they’d be all right. Got them all set up. Made lots of improvements. Went away for a while. Left the tenants to take care of the place.

Years roll by, the owner decides it’s time to check up on the old home place. Sends somebody to collect the rent. The tenants wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t pay. So he sends a second messenger. Same thing. Sends a third messenger. Same again.

It’s a pretty simple story. Jesus didn’t explain the parable. Like always, Jesus wants us to figure it out. Jesus thinks that if we figure it out, maybe our faith will be stronger.

So you tell me, in the story, who’s the owner?

God. God set this whole world in place. God made it. We didn’t make it. We don’t own this world. God does.

One of the Psalms says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. . .” (Psalm 24:1)

In the book of Genesis, it says that God made this world to be like a garden. God created every living thing, and God put human beings here to care for the garden, to cultivate it and keep it nice. Over and over again, the Bible says that God is the maker.

So, in today’s story, who’s the owner of everything? God is.

And who are the tenants? We are. We don’t own the world. We’re the caretakers. We’re the stewards. We may forget our role. We may act like we own the world. But we don’t. God does. And we are responsible to God, whether we remember that or not.

So, OK, who are the messengers God sends? Or in today’s translation, who are the servants? The prophets.

In Jesus’ day, the prophets of the Old Testament were the men and women who came with fire in their hearts, the words that God gave them to set the world back on the right track again. People like Moses, Elijah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Amos, and all the rest. Prophets who came for a thousand years. God’s messengers.

Did people listen to them? Sometimes. But not too much. Most people just want to get on with their lives. People don’t want to be bothered by God. They don’t want to be reminded that we’re all tenants and stewards. We kind of think of ourselves as being in charge and owning things.

A lot of the prophets got beat up. A lot of the prophets got arrested and imprisoned. At least one prophet, John the Baptist, got his head cut off. Being a prophet isn’t risk-free. A lot of God’s messengers get ignored, or despised.

Remember, part of the story is that the owner wants to collect the rent from the vineyard. What do you suppose the rent is?

Well, it’s not money. Back in Bible times, rent wasn’t usually paid in cash. Rent was usually paid with a portion of the crop. Most landlords wanted a third to a half of the crop as their share. That was to be paid first, and the tenant lived on what was left over. And the owner expected to receive the best of the crop, not the second-best or what you swept off the floor at the end of the day.

So, what’s the rent? What do we owe God?

It’s our time. It’s our obedience. It’s our gifts and talents. It’s our energy and the best of our thought. It’s obeying God’s teaching. Not a million little rules, but the big ones. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. . .” (Luke 10:27)

“God has showed you what is good: and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

That’s the rent. That’s all God really asks of us. It’s not more than any of us can do.

We pay the rent every time we feed someone who doesn’t have a meal. We pay the rent every time we listen to someone who’s got a burden on their heart. We pay the rent whenever we meet someone who’s sick, or hurt, and pray with them, and walk with them, and hold their hand. We pay the rent every time we meet someone with an addiction, and help them to get free.

We pay the rent whenever we forgive, because after all, God has forgiven us. We pay the rent by paying forward all the good things that God has done for us. We pay the rent when we try to live out God’s teaching, when we try to be the better person in a situation, when we try to do what Jesus would really do. That’s what paying the rent in today’s story means.

Why did people hate Jesus? Why did some people hate him enough to kill him?

Here’s one reason. They thought Jesus was going to upset their cozy way of life. They thought he was going to tear down the walls and temples they built. They thought he was going to turn their world upside-down.

They certainly didn’t want to pay the kind of rent Jesus was talking about. They didn’t want to build their lives around truth, and justice, and peace, and reconciliation. They didn’t want to listen to all this talk about helping the poor. They wanted to be rich, and they thought they owned the place, and could do whatever they wanted with it, even if that meant hell on earth for somebody else.

There’s a very famous church in a city in Germany. The city is called Lübeck. The church at Lübeck was built almost 900 years ago. The church was almost totally destroyed by an air raid during the Second World War, but it’s been rebuilt. Interestingly enough, the air raid took place on Palm Sunday, 1942. There’s a very famous poem inscribed in the church at Lübeck. The poem says:

You call Me Master and obey Me not.
You call Me Light and see Me not.
You call Me Way and walk Me not.
You call Me Life and choose Me not.
You call Me Wise and follow Me not.
You call Me Fair and love Me not.
You call Me Rich and ask Me not.
You call Me Eternal and seek Me not.
You call Me Noble and serve Me not.
You call Me Gracious and trust Me not.
You call Me Mighty and honor Me not.

We call ourselves Christians, but do we really try to do what Jesus said?

Jesus didn’t come to condemn anyone, or to throw anyone out, or to use violence against anyone. Jesus came to ask for what we owe God, to give to God what is God’s due.

Jesus said, “Don’t say it’s not harvest time. I tell you, lift up your eyes, and you will see the fields are ready for harvest! Right now, the workers are out there, receiving their wages and bringing in a crop for eternal life, so that the owner and the worker will rejoice together. . .” (John 4:35-36)

Today’s parable talks about the world as a vineyard. In John 15, Jesus says, “I myself am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He trims off every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes so that it will bear more fruit. . .I am the vine, you are the branches. Just as branches can’t bear fruit by themselves, so you can’t unless you live in me. My Father is glorified when you bear much fruit as my disciples.”

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; live in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will live in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and live in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and so that your joy may be complete. . .” (John 15:1-11)

That doesn’t sound like such a horrible thing. It sounds like a really good thing! It sounds like something we could get behind, and follow, and cheer about.

In today’s reading, Jesus ends by calling himself the cornerstone. That’s the stone that the rest of the building gets built on. The cornerstone of the Temple in Jerusalem was the size of a school bus, and weighed many tons. People said that the cornerstone of the Jerusalem Temple was the center of the world.

But Jesus says that he, himself is the cornerstone. He’s stronger than anyone, and anyone who tries to tear Jesus down will wear themselves out.

And even though the whole city had cheered Jesus when he entered the city on Palm Sunday, when the leaders heard today’s story, they wanted to arrest him right then.

By the end of the week, they did it. They found a traitor, they paid him off, and they arrested Jesus late at night. They ran him through a kangaroo court, and they fooled the crowd into screaming for Jesus’ death.

They handed him over to the Romans, who beat him and mocked him and killed him. And while Jesus hung there on the cross, between two thieves, the same religious leaders mocked him and said, “Call yourself a king? Let’s see you get down from there. You can’t even save yourself!” And they spat at him, and left him to die.

You all know the rest of the story.

Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb. Three days went by. Then early on Easter morning, some women went to the tomb, and they found it empty.

And they came back and told the others. Then more and more people started meeting Jesus. People started to understand what Jesus had been saying all along. They trusted in him. They believed in him!

I hope you’ll all be back here next Sunday, and bring everyone in your family, and invite everyone you know. Because we need to hear this story. We need to live this life. We need to do what Jesus said, and we need to know that’s he’s alive today.

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