We are continuing our journey through each day of what many in the Christian community now call Holy Week or Passion Week.  Two Sundays ago, we spoke about Jesus’ decision to make an unmistakable entrance to Jerusalem and weeping that people missed their opportunity to worship God. Last Sunday, we spoke about Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and Jesus clearing the Temple.  In clearing the Temple, Jesus indicted the religious leaders with changing God’s house into a den of robbers instead of a house of prayer as God desired where people could be in worship of God.  Jesus’ actions and words were most unwelcomed by the religious leaders, and they furthered their plot to kill him.  But the religious leaders feared the people who were growing more and more attached and attracted to Jesus.

          Today, we find Jesus coming from rest at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in Bethany and returning to the Temple.  Jerusalem and the Temple were the heart of Judaism this Passover week and what should be the heart of worship of God.

          We spoke about worship in the prior weeks, but it bears mentioning again.  Worship of God is at the heart, the very core, of the relationship between God and humanity.  When God through Moses went to Pharoah to release the Hebrew people, Moses stood before Pharoah and said, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me!” (Exodus 7:16)  Worship is at the heart of our relationship with God.  While God wants, and yes commands us to care for the poor, God does not judge humanity based upon how many social justice initiatives it has or has not pursued.  Instead, God’s judgement comes exists because our worship is absent or corrupt.  And God knows that if we are not acting with generosity and grace towards those in need, it is because there is something wrong with our worship of God.  Jesus, therefore, returns to Jerusalem again and goes directly to the place where worship is publicly expressed, the Temple, there to teach, to warn, and to encourage worship of God.

          In the Gospel of Mark, we would read that the religious leaders were ready for Jesus’ return.  “27 They [Jesus and his disciples] arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. 28 “By what authority are you [Jesus] doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you [Jesus] authority to do this?”  29 Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”  31 They [The religious leaders] discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.) 33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”  Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” (Mark 11:28-33) Jesus gave the religious leaders a simple question that had only two possible answers.  Either John the Baptist was sent as a prophet by God or John created his message and baptismal practices on his own.  It seems clear the religious leaders believed that John’s baptism was of human origin, not of God.  We know this for two reasons.  First, the religious leaders did not believe John’s message of repentance because they did not repent.  But, secondly, they did not want to say John was of human origin because they feared the people who believed John was from God.  So, when caught in a difficult circumstance in which no matter what answer they gave to that question, the religious leaders felt trapped, they did what most people would do.  They lied. They said, “We don’t know.”  Jesus having exposed them as either liars or fools had no reason to engage them in discussion of the source of his authority. And so he said he would not answer their question about his authority to clear the Temple or teach, warn, and encourage.

          Instead of answering their question directly, Jesus sought to explain to the religious leaders his authority and their behavior toward his authority through a parable.  This was unusual because when Jesus spoke in parables he did so to his followers so that the meaning of his teaching to be hidden from the religious leaders because they believed Jesus was not of God but of the devil.  This time, however, Jesus told a parable and did so in a manner that the religious leaders would understand.  I will be using the account in the Gospel of Mark as our starting point.

          Mark wrote, “1Jesus then began to speak to them [the religious leaders] in parables: ‘A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower.’” This briefest of introductions would have been well known to the religious leaders for two reasons. First, there were plenty of vineyards in Israel that looked like the one Jesus described.  They could easily visualize what Jesus has described.  Second, the imagery of the vineyard, wall, winepress, and watchtower was used in the Hebrew scriptures, known well to the religious leaders, as a way to describe Israel itself in relationship to God. For example, from Isaiah Chapter 5 we would read, “My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.  2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines.  He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well” (Isaiah 5:1b-2). It is understood here that God is the one who did the work to create the vineyard and Israel is the vineyard.  The religious leaders would have understood the imagery to the opening of Jesus’ parable and now so do we.

          Jesus continued, “Then he [the owner] rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.  (Luke said the owner went away for a long time.) 2 At harvest time he [owner] sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they [the tenants] seized him [the owner’s servant], beat him and sent him away empty-handed.”  The tenant farmers treated the owner’s representative shamefully, literally punching him repeatedly with their fists, and sending him away without anything that was due to the owner.  The religious leaders would have understood this was criminal behavior and the tenants were in violation of their agreement with the owner.  There would have been a sense of outrage growing among the listeners to the behavior of the tenants.

          Jesus continued, “4Then he [the owner] sent another servant to them [tenants]; they [tenants] struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully” (Mark 12:4). Again, a second servant had been sent and this time they did not just punch the man but tried to smash his skull. The tenants sent the man away without any fruit.  The religious leaders listening to this story must have been rightly infuriated at the behavior of the tenants and thought swift justice and punishment is in order.

Jesus continued, “5 He [the owner] sent still another [servant], and that one they [the tenants] killed. He [the owner] sent many others; some of them [servants] they [the tenants] beat, others [servants] they [the tenants] killed” (Mark 12:5).  By now the religious leaders must have thought these farmers deserve capital punishment for killing these servants.  They must have also thought, “What sort of man is this owner that he keeps sending more and more servants back to these farmers in the hopes that they would change their behavior?  Why doesn’t this owner simply seek the authorities to wipe out these farmers for their murderous behavior?”

Jesus continued, “6 He [The owner] had one [servant] left to send, a son, whom he loved. He [The owner] sent him [the son] last of all, saying, ‘They [The tenants] will respect my son’” (Mark 12:6).  The son arrived at the vineyard and made his presence as the son unmistakably known. The tenants understood this man was no ordinary servant.  This man had the power and authority of the father.  This man, the son, could render judgement upon the farmers for their behaviors. This man, the son, had the power and the authority to remove them from the vineyard.  This man, the son, was the only son.  This man was the only one who could inherit the vineyard from the father.

And so, Jesus said, “7 The tenants said to one another, [The tenants conspired among themselves], ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours’” (Mark 12:7). These murderous tenant farmers conspired among themselves that if they were to kill this son, then the vineyard would be theirs to do as they pleased forever.  They believed they would be safe within the walls of the vineyard.

“8 So they [the tenants] took him [the son] and killed him, and threw him [body] out of the vineyard” (Mark 12:8).  The tenants had not only failed to uphold their end of the contract, but they beat and killed servants of the owner, and then had the arrogance and hatred toward the owner to the degree that they would kill the vineyard owner’s own son.  And then to add insult to the owner, the tenants threw the son’s body out of the vineyard to be exposed to the elements as though he was trash.

Jesus then asked the religious leaders, “9 ‘What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others’” (Mark 12:9).  The religious leaders would have understood that such outrageous and murderous behavior would end in the death of the tenants.  Jesus’ question and answer was not a surprise to them. They agreed with Jesus.  So, what then was the purpose of Jesus’ parable if there was nothing to be learned from it?

The purpose of the parable was to get the religious leaders’ minds aligned with Jesus’ mind on a story, so that Jesus could next show the religious leaders through Scripture how they missed the opportunity God had presented to them.

Jesus said, “10 Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture: ‘‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (Mark 12:10-11).  The Scripture Jesus quoted here is not just some random piece of Scripture.  Jesus’ words, ‘‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; 11 the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes,” comes from the latter part of Psalm 118.  These words are particularly well known to the religious leaders because Psalms 113 through 118 form a hymn called the Hallel.  The Hallel was a hymn sung at religious festivals, like Passover, three times per day.  Jesus was saying to these religious leaders, “You sing these words of Scripture repeatedly every day but you don’t understand that these words of prophesy are coming true before your very eyes.  You have rejected me, God’s cornerstone as thoroughly and completely as the tenants had rejected the owner’s son and the servants before him. You know and agree with the fate of those murderous tenants and now you know your fate as well.”

Mark wrote that upon hearing the Scripture, “12 Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away” (Mark 12:12). 

And so we too come to understand what the religious leaders came to realize that in the parable is that the vineyard owner was God, the vineyard was Israel, God’s people, the tenants were the religious leaders themselves, the servants were the prophets sent by God, and the owner’s son was Jesus.  The religious leaders of Israel had a history of abusing and killing God’s prophets and now Jesus told them they would do the same with Jesus.  But the fate of the religious leaders was death and the responsibility for the vineyard, God’s people, would be given to others.

What are we to do with this parable and this Scripture?  I think there are two things.  First, we might ask, “What became of these Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes?”  The historical truth is that they all perished, and their entire sacrificial system and way of life was destroyed completely.  Why did that happen?  Because they chose to remain under the condemnation of the Law, they rejected God’s Son, and did not accept the grace of God Jesus offered.  Nothing has changed.  The story, the fate, for those who chose to reject God, who refuse to worship God, who mock the grace offered by God through His Son, Jesus, remains timeless and unchanged.  They remain condemned under the Law.  That sounds hard and harsh, but it is not of God’s choosing, it is the choice many people willingly make to remain in unresolved, unforgiven sin.  Jesus’ parable from 2,000 years ago remains a warning to today’s unbeliever.

The second point is this. A new set of tenants became responsible for God’s people and vineyard.  The first of those new tenants were this odd collection of fishermen, tax collectors, and other commoners known as Jesus’ apostles.  The chief cornerstone of the vineyard and kingdom was and remains Jesus Christ, who is the one who offers grace to any, to all, who want to become part of the vineyard, the kingdom of God.  The vineyard, the kingdom, is place in which the fruit is developed and matured.  What is that fruit of God’s vineyard?  It is certainly worship and prayer.  It is certainly confession and supplication to God.  It is certainly the sweet fruit of humility, meekness, hospitality, and encouragement.  It is as Paul would later say, “Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).  The vineyard, the kingdom, is a place of transformed lives because each member of the vineyard has available to them the mind of Christ, through the Spirit of the Lord, who gives an inner peace unlike the world.

Where do you see yourself in Jesus’ parable? Have you rejected the chief cornerstone of the vineyard, Jesus Christ, by not yet accepting the grace He has offered you?  Why? What is keeping you from choosing Christ?  Lay it aside and come into the vineyard of God’s people.  If you have accepted Christ and claim to be within the vineyard, what fruit are you producing?  How are you cultivating that fruit to make it more abundant and sweeter every day?  Let the grace of Jesus envelop and encourage you, giving you zeal and stamina to yield to God the very best of the vineyard. Amen and Amen.