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Stone: Downfall of the Wicked (Luke 20:9-19)

Luke 20:9-19Sermon Audio

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Days after cleansing the temple, the “chief priests and the scribes with the elders” approach Jesus to question him. In the last several days, especially, Jesus has made a direct and very public critique of how the temple is run. Throughout his ministry, he’s had even more things to say about the religious establishment in Jerusalem. We can only imagine what he’s been teaching in the temple for the last several days that have the people hanging “upon his words.” Those with clear institutional authority – the authority of God’s Holy Temple – want to know under what authority Jesus acts. Jesus answers with a parable.

Now, there are a few things we need to know about this parable to really grasp what’s going on. First, the moment Jesus says “vineyard” everyone knows he’s really talking about God and his people Israel. Just check out the first few verses of Isaiah 5. The first six verses are great, but in seven Isaiah just comes out and says it.

“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7 RSV)

By Jesus' day, this was a well-established metaphor. Servants, too, would easily have been understood to be the prophets of God continually sent to his people and often beaten, ignored, disgraced, and killed. Up to the first few verses of this parable, everyone is listening to a nice, comfortable, rabbinic critique of Israel failing to listen to God and his prophets.

But then, the owner of the vineyard goes and sends his son.

In our Christian hearing of the parable, we immediately know who the son is. Even someone reading Luke for the first time, knows by chapter twenty that the son here is Jesus. What’s interesting in Jesus' telling of the parable, however, is that the first mention of the son doesn’t seem to get a rise from his questioners. As is often the case when Jesus tells a parable to his adversaries, they’re too engrossed in the story or – more likely – trying to find something to condemn him on to really be listening to what he’s saying.

“they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand;” (Mark 4:12a RSV)

What does get a rise from the priests, scribes, and elders — “God forbid!” is the reaction the RSV records — is when Jesus tells them what’s going to happen to the tenants who killed the son. Why? Well, I think in that moment they think they have finally caught Jesus in the act that’ll get him well into the sights of Roman “justice.” Being scholarly Jews, they naturally see the vineyard as Israel. Their shock doesn’t come from the son getting killed, but what happens to the tenants. You see, in that moment, they’re thinking the Romans are the tenants. They’ve taken possession of God’s vineyard until such time as God wills it’s Israel’s time to self-rule again. They think Jesus has finally revealed himself as a revolutionary against Rome. He wants to “destroy” Rome.

Problem is that they’re wrong. Dead wrong. You see, if the vineyard is God’s Holy, elect people Israel. The tenants are those God’s allowed to look after his “pleasant planting” while he’s been away – the priests of the post-exilic temple.

Further supported by what Jesus says in their follow-up questioning about Roman money, Jesus is pretty clear that he’s not here to tear down Rome — not at the moment at least. He’s here to bring his people under new management. The tenants have done a horrible job. They neglected those God loves – the poor, the widow, the orphan – and they’ve led God’s people astray. Cleansing the temple was just the start of what Jesus intended to do. Day by day in his teaching in the temple, Jesus is undermining the credibility of the religious authorities. This is his Father’s temple, his people, and his Good News. The Lion of Judah will be silenced no longer for the sake of a comfortable life in the empire.

Jesus sees the priests, scribes, and the elders' looks of excitement. He knows what they’re thinking.

“But he looked at them and said,” (Luke 20:17a RSV)

I can only imagine that look. I feel it tinged with disappointment, weariness, and deep sadness. It’s all that, with a biting sting. Jesus' response is his “mic drop” moment. Quoting Psalm 118:22 Jesus says,

“The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (Luke 20:17b RSV)

I apologize if I nerd out here a little bit, but I think it’s important. The Hebrew word here for son is ben. The word for stone is eben. ben eben There’s some awesome wordplay going on here. In quoting a single verse, Jesus makes the parable clear. He’s the son and the stone. They’re the bad builders, tenants of the vineyard who’ve just received their eviction notice.

“The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner” (Luke 20:17b RSV)

In the sacrament of baptism we are all grafted in to God’s vineyard. But, even inside his vineyard we continue to find ways to mess things up. — Let us not forget we’re only in the vineyard because we broke the rules of the Garden. — Depraved creatures we are, we stone and kill the prophets over and over again. And yet, God continues to send them to us.

I once studied this parable with some clever folk who sought the “original” version of this parable. They even questioned if this parable was a saying of Jesus' at all. In their estimation the man who planted the vineyard was really, really stupid. After the first servant returned beaten, he should have returned with an armed militia. Sending your supposedly “beloved” son to these hostile tenants was equivalent to child abuse.

Where some might see stupidity, I see through the parable’s allegory a God whose love is beyond my comprehension. Even under the poor care of the hostile tenants, God’s vineyard produces fruit to be collected. God is relentless in his pursuit of his “pleasant planting.” Beatings, wounds, and even death will not stop his advances.

How many here need to hear that God sees your meager fruits? How many here need to know that God knows you? You are not forgotten! How many here need to hear that God stops at nothing to be where you are? Amen? Amen.

When I read parables, I naturally put myself into the story among the “good guys.” When Jesus talks about the blessed poor, that’s me. When he’s talking about the seed in fertile soil, that’s me. I’m the vineyard, I’m the unpaid servant, etc., etc. I’m sure I’m not alone in doing this.

Try, though, to put yourself in the shoes of the “bad guys.” It’ll drastically change how you read the parables. It’ll reveal the unseen logs blocking your vision. What if I’m the rich young ruler? What if I’m the one hearing but not understanding the parables? What if I’m not-only a vine in God’s vineyard, but also a tenant?

In the priesthood of all believers we are the religious authorities of our day. We are tenants and stewards in God’s vineyard. Can we truly say we’re doing a better job than the priests, scribes, and elders of Jesus' day? Are we not repeating some of their mistakes? Do Jesus' words against them not burn our faces as they leave his tongue?

God will suffer poor management of his vineyard for a while. He’ll send warnings when things are going wrong. He’ll send help when we need it. But, God’s patience has its limits. He will righteously judge. There will be holiness in his vineyard.

And, yet from the cross Jesus prays…

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34 RSV)

God judges, yes, but the door is always open for those who will receive him. The wrath of Isaiah 5 is, after all, titled a “love song.”

In this season of Lent, let us reflect on the vineyard and our place within it. Times are hard and often we’re a part of some really bad stuff. Yes, Lent is a time to reflect on the gluttony and wealth of our own lives. “We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” And we have sinned against God, “in thought, word and deed.” Lent is about the dark path towards Calvary and the tomb.

But, even in the darkness there is light. The weight of our sin does not end our story. Those who beat and kill the prophets, those who cause division and strife will not have the final say. Though at times it seems there is no way forward, no further light, as if the powers of world have triumphed over us, there is a stone who shatters sin. There is a son who crushes the Serpent’s head.

In the end, the wicked tenants thought they had gotten away with murder. The son was dead. They rolled a stone over his tomb. ben eben, eben ben.

“I thank thee that thou hast answered me and hast become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech thee, O Lord! O Lord we beseech thee, give us success!” (Psalm 118:21-25 RSV)

The stone will always be the downfall of the wicked.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.