Jan Luyken etching 1649 "The Tenants in the Vineyard"
“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son. Probably they will respect him when they see him" (Luke 20:13).
Everyone loves a good story. And there is nothing like a good story teller. We like to hear stories at our places of work. Children love story time at school or at bedtime.
Stories ignite the imagination into another world, where fantasy and dreams take flight. Aesop’s fables such as the Tortoise and the Hare and the Boy who Cried Wolf have been told since 600 B.C. The very best of stories teach a moral lesson about life that we can learn from. The Tortoise and the Hare teaches us the moral lesson about patience, hard work, and persistence.
The Boy who Cried Wolf teaches about the consequences of lying. Shakespeare gives us stories on romance, love, betrayal and murder. Even the cartoon SpongeBob Squarepants on the Nickelodeon channel has plenty of stories and lessons on friendship, loyalty, humor and so forth.
Yet we ought to be able to tell the difference when the first story teller, God himself, the author of all creation tells us a parable or story. Here, something very different is happening. We are getting much more than a moral lesson. Much more than an old story. It is not for entertainment or mere pleasure. When Jesus provides a parable the whole world stops and listens.
There are moral lessons to be sure. There are interesting players and captivating story lines. Irony and humor abounds when God tells stories through the mouths of preachers and in the Holy Scriptures. Yet that is not the end – it is not the point when Jesus tells a parable.
The Holy Scriptures themselves, and the parable heard here gives us more, for it tells us not “a story,” but “the story.” The story of all creation, of the fall, and of redemption. A parable tells us our life story. It is both a biography of God, and our own biography.
This parable in the Gospel reading, and every parable in Scripture is “non-fiction” – and true to life. God really did plant a vineyard and call us to life. He really did plant us in paradise. He equipped us with everything we needed to be fruitful – to mature as sons and daughters of the living God.
Adam really did fail at loving his wife, and despised the word of God. Cain really did rise up against God’s servant Abel and kill him. When God raised up servants to assist the tenants, they were put to death. The pastoral prophet Zechariah who spoke so sweetly about repentance and the coming Christ was stoned to death, as was the faithful Jeremiah. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah whom served God’s people by pointing to the fruit of the coming Messiah was tortured by being sawn in two.
Ezekiel was killed for being a servant sent to the vineyard. As was Micah, and Amos whom were violently tortured, and the list goes on and on. John the Baptist whom baptized Jesus in the River Jordan had his head cut off for serving faithfully in the vineyard.
The disciples of Jesus, one by one were picked off. To be tortured, speared, and crucified. The story is not a pretty one. The story of the Bible is of murder, war, adultery, rebellion, and Shakespearean tragedy, silencing God’s servants one after the other. Parables do not build up our self-esteem. They expose humanities desperate need for help.
The important thing in the parable of the wicked tenants is not the tenants, not the servants, and not the vineyard. It is not about the arrogance and rebellion. It is not Adam’s failure to love and cherish his wife. It is not just about Cain’s murder of his brother. It is not about the numerous stories of God’s servants murdered by other violent men. The story does not end here.
What truly matters in this story is God, the owner of the vineyard. What matters is the story teller. His tireless and infinite patience that knows no end. When Adam falls the Lord picks him up. When Cain murders, he is marked with a seal of protection. When the servants are silenced or murdered, God sends another one. Another human voice to speak the Gospel and tell of God’s precious love.
When we all fail in the vineyard of our daily lives, the Lord does not leave but comes closer. When we fail at being faithful husbands or wives. Fail at being devoted workers, or sons and daughters. The Lord keeps coming for us. His desire is to help us – to stand us up again to mature and grow in the image that Christ seals upon us. Although enemies of his word and enemies of his servants, he pacifies us with his promise.
Then the owner of the Vineyard, the heavenly Father, said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son.” The story of salvation is that God sends His Son, God of God and light of light, being of one accord with the Father.
Our incomplete story is completed when God enters in. He takes center stage this Lententide. He takes the broken narrative of the whole world and speaks a new reality into existence. For he found it necessary and desirable to suffer for the sins of the world, to take the place of the murderous tenants and the thief of the cross. The suffering Christ asked the Father to forgive His own executioners.
He takes broken hearts and binds them. He takes our broken stories and narrates them with his own righteousness. He binds up the sins of our youth. Christ came for those lost. The lost Adams, and the murdering Cains. He came for the prophets and He came for those who killed the prophets. He comes for us. We, who hardly trust him at all. We, whom live nervous and anxious lives, plagued by guilt and uncertainty.
He narrates the story of all whom hear. We have peace with God, because the crucified one lives. He dries our tears and calms our frenzied hearts. And he takes us to sleep in His peaceful parable – our story of being comforted and forgiven - called to a life of true freedom, with all blessedness and innocence. The temple curtain has been ripped from top to bottom and the glorious story may begin. A new heaven and new earth break forth and angels gather around about the table. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord and blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven.
Our Lord Jesus Christ has given His life for us. And in him we have our very being. All parables begin and end at the cross of Christ. Our life story begins and ends at the cross of Christ. No fairy tales and mere lessons here. Just our story of being wrapped up in the love of Christ from this day, now, and until eternity. In the name of Jesus. Amen.