The Parable of the Tenants; A Picture of God's Judgment and His Love
One of the many joys of ministry is watching God use my plans in ways that I could have never planned for. For example, consider the preaching calendar itself. As you’ve likely picked up on, my preferred method is to preach through large chunks of scripture or books of the bible in consecutive fashion, rather than a scripture passage here or there in scattershot form. The reasons here are many, one of which being that keeps me as a pastor and us as a people grounded in what Jesus and the biblical authors talk about and then to talk about it at the frequency they talk about it.
And part of what this approach means is that I’m picking my scripture preaching passages well in advance, like 3-6 months in advance, rather than the week before. And what is so cool to see is how God uses my plans in ways that I could have never planned for. The ultimate example being that the first Sunday in March 2020 when everything surrounding Covid-19 broke loose, our scripture passage that day was on Jesus’s famous words, “Do not worry” a scripture that I picked, or I should say, God picked months before. I could name a half dozen more examples just like that and it is so cool to see how God uses my plans in ways that I could have never planned for, as so often the scripture for any given Sunday so beautifully speaks into our particular cultural or national or community specific moment in time.
And I say all this to say, this is not one of those Sundays. I don’t know what this passage is doing here and why right here, right now. Like who planned this? Me. It’s a parable, an obscure and I think rather concerning parable, known as the Parable of the Tenants, a story that foreshadows the death of Jesus and the consequences and judgment we’ll face should we reject him.
And it’s a passage that in no way seems to match the mood or meet the moment of this past week in any way. As many of you know all too well, this past week has been a tough one for many, confronted with unexpected death and sickness of ones that we love in both our immediate church family and Dillon family. And so, maybe a comforting, hopeful scripture would have been better today.
Or maybe with the joy and celebration of our Annual Congregational Meeting, maybe a joyful and exuberant scripture would have been better here.
Anything but the Parable of the Tenants, right? I was tempted to scratch this one and go a different direction altogether. Instead, I’ll cut my losses by keeping this message on the shorter end.
First, let’s briefly set the stage here with where we are in Luke’s Gospel before I give you my big idea for our message for today.
Here now in chapter 20, we’ve now entered the final week of Jesus’s life. Most recently, we watched as Jesus entered Jerusalem riding in on a donkey on a Sunday, then causing a stir when he turned over the tables in the temple on Monday, and here we are now on Tuesday. It’s where we’ll be for the next few weeks, as Jesus spends the day teaching and telling stories in the temple, in a series of teachings that amaze many, and yet has the religious leaders wanting to put him to death.
And in this series of teachings we have the Parable of the Tenants. And here’s the big idea that I want us to consider over these next few minutes:
Rejecting Jesus may seem like a good move at times, but it is ultimately our worst.
Let me show you what I mean. Let’s briefly identify what’s going on here in this parable:
In short, looking at verse 9 here, you have an owner, who rents out his vineyard to some farmers. He later sends a servant to his vineyard so that the farmers would give him some of the harvest from the vineyard. In other words, an owner sends his landlord to go to his property to collect rent from his tenants.
But the tenants reject him, in fact they beat him and send him away empty handed. The owner then sends another servant, then another, and the tenants still do the same, they beat them and send them away empty handed. And then in verse 13 it says,
13 “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 yet, what do the tenants do? In a desire to seek freedom and control, in a desire to become outright owners of the vineyard they save their worst for last: They kill the beloved son.
And as we step back, here’s the larger story the parable seems to be communicating: That God as the owner, calls his people to be his stewards. And when the servants/landlords come on behalf of their owner, God’s people reject both the message and the messenger, just like God’s people did with countless prophets long ago.
And then when the owner God sends his beloved son, the people reject him too, in fact they kill him. And here I’m sure the lights are flashing at this point. It all points to Jesus, how God sent his one and only Son, but we as his people rejected the message and the messenger himself, even crucifying him on a cross.
Now with all that said, let’s make the turn and consider what this all means for you and me today. Clearly this parable is a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death on the cross. And we can see the connection between Jesus’s audience that Tuesday long ago and how the people of Jerusalem and religious leaders will see to it that he is crucified on Friday.
And here we may understandably think to ourselves, What does any of this have to do with you and me? Like, we weren’t the ones who killed Jesus in a literal sense. And yet, let’s think more broadly here.
Jesus will use this language of rejection later on in our passage saying, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
And so a question we must ask is, why and how do you and I reject Jesus today?
Well, one way in which we reject Jesus is that we reject his Lordship in our lives in a desire for freedom and control. Where notice the rationale of the tenants. When they see the son, they think to themselves, “Great! If we kill the son, then this place will be ours!” In other words, reject Jesus and we’ll have the freedom and control we sometimes crave.
So how does it play out in our world today? Well, consider agnosticism. (To the students in the room: to be an atheist is to be someone who says, “There is no God” and to be agnostic is to be someone who says, “There’s simply no way to prove that there is a God. We just don’t know.)
Aldous Huxley, the philosopher who coined the term agnostic, explains his reasonings for such, saying, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning... For myself, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation ... We objected to the morality of Christianity because it interfered with our freedom.
That is so incredibly sad and yet refreshingly honest. And we too, sometimes in a desire for freedom and control, practice a functional agnosticism all our own:
We say to Jesus, you can have it all, but you’ve got no business telling me what to do with my money. That’s mine.
Or we say to Jesus, you can have it all, but you can’t touch my schedule. That’s mine.
Or Jesus, you can’t meddle with my relationships, you can’t meddle with my family, sure, you can meddle with everything else, but those things are mine.
In a desire for freedom and control, we reject Jesus’s Lordship in our lives and push him off to the side.
In fact, maybe the simplest lesson in this parable is the one that’s hiding in plain sight. God is the owner. We are simply his renters. It all belongs to God. We’re just borrowing it for a while. And the temptation for you and I is to sometimes want to reverse the roles, where we are the owners, and we, at best, so graciously we think, allow God to rent from us.
And so maybe this week, maybe one of the simplest and most practical questions you can ask is, “God, you’re the owner of every square inch of my life. How do you want me to live in light of that truth?”
In the end, rejecting Jesus may seem like a good move at times, but it is ultimately our worst.
Because here’s the shocking turn that made the listeners then and us as listeners now gasp in disbelief: Jesus says that because of this rejection of God’s beloved Son, God will kill the tenants and give the vineyard to someone else.
In other words, we will face his judgment. And the God who we rejected, will then one day reject us once and for all, as “everyone who falls on that stone (that is, Jesus) will be broken to pieces, anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”
Rejecting Jesus may seem like a good move at times, but it is ultimately our worst.
And I’ll finish with this. I promised this one would be short and truth is, with our meeting later today, we’re already asking for a lot of your Sunday and truth is, you’re going to hear plenty from me before it’s all said and done.
So let’s finish with this, the first few times I read this parable all I could see was God’s judgment and wrath and yet in the midst of my study, I was shown how this parable also testifies to God’s patience and ultimately, his love.
You see, the owner doesn’t give up after one servant is rejected and beaten. No, he gives them another chance to listen and obey, just as God did with the prophets long ago. He is patient with us, patiently trying to get our attention.
And the same is true today. Jesus hasn’t come back yet to judge the living and the dead. No, he is patient with us. Trying to get our attention. Trying to get us to change.
For as Peter will say, “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
And then, in the ultimate act of grace and love, God sends his Son. A move that should in many ways blow us away.
After all, what kind of owner would send his beloved son into harm’s way after having three of his servants get beaten up and rejected? It almost seems kind of reckless, like a fool’s errand of sorts. What kind of owner, what kind of God would do this?
Our God would. Our God did. Yes, this parable is a picture of God’s judgment, and yet also one of God’s love, as God sent his one and only son to die on a cross so that we might have life in him.
For as our next hymn will say, “Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain”
And so, as we make our way to the cross over these next few weeks, may we not reject Jesus, the son whom God sent, but instead embrace him as Lord of all.
God, open our eyes both to see our sin, our desire for freedom and control, and open our eyes to see our Savior instead. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.