Spurned love - Matthew 21:33-46
There seems to be no limit to the lengths which people will go in order to be rulers of their own little world. Take the well known atheist Aldous Huxley for example, the author of 'Brave New World.' What was it that made this great intellectual an atheist? Was it that his razor sharp mind ruled out the possibility that there was a God? That the arguments against God's existence stacked up more favourably than the arguments for? Not according to his own confession. This is what he wrote as to why he wanted the world to be one which was at bottom meaningless: 'For myself, no doubt, as for many of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.' And certainly in my twenty years experience as a minister that is what I have often found. The reason many people claim they do not believe in God is because they don't want there to be a God to believe in. But this refusal to let God be God and exercise his right to be the loving ruler of our lives can have its religious forms as well. Here there is not so much an outright denial that God exists, but a remaking of the idea of God so that he becomes domesticated, the sort of God we would like there to be, namely, one who would indulge us without making any demands upon us. But the result is the same, our owner is cut out of our world- we want to manage our own vineyard thank you very much without any divine interference, and just let him try to meddle and all the worse for him.
That, in effect, is the issue that Jesus is addressing in the parable that we are looking at this morning, the issue of spurned love. And like the parable we saw two weeks ago this has a shocking climax.
You will have noticed that this parable is not like the earlier parables of the kingdom such as the sower. Those were more obscure riddles which required a good deal of teasing out on the part of the listeners. This parable is more of an allegory (and that has nothing to do with hay fever!)- it is a much clearer story where each item in the parable has a spiritual counterpart, a little like the Narnia series by C. S. Lewis. The earlier parables of Jesus had points which were more or less 'hidden', these later ones are more or less 'open.' Now why? Well, Jesus is drawing to the end of his ministry. As time has gone by he has steadily been unfolding to his followers both his identity and his mission. The turning point was in chapter 16 and Peter's great confession that Jesus is 'The Christ, the Son of the living God.' Then Jesus goes on to explain that his purpose in coming into the world is to die as a sacrifice for sins and to rise again from the dead. Now he is in Jerusalem and opposition to him is mounting as we see earlier on in this chapter in v 23, where the religious establishment round on him and demand, 'By what authority do you do these things'- having just turfed out the money changers from the temple. Well, this allegory is in part a response to that challenge. This is why he has authority-he is the Son and heir and this is what his own people will do , kill him. And those listening picked up the message loud and clear as we can see in v 45 ' When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus' parables ,they knew he was talking about them.' Then what did they do? Feel guilty and change their ways? Not a bit of it. They simply decided to do the very thing the parable warned they would do- v 46 'They looked for a way to arrest him.' And we have been doing the same ever since. The person and teaching of Jesus have proved so uncomfortable, so demanding that somehow he must be silenced. Silence him by changing his teaching-cutting out bits from the Bible. Silence him by reducing him to just one of a group of religious leaders from which we can take out pick. Silence him by in effect killing him again, destroying his reputation, mocking his morality, saying he was a man for his day but not ours, we have moved on. But as we shall see these attempts at evasion are not only futile but dangerous. So we have three messages we need to hear from the lips of Jesus this morning. A message about the past, a message for the present and a message regarding the future.
First of all a message about the past, vv 33-37. Now vines and vineyards were a familiar part of everyday life. Here we have an account of one which has an absentee landlord given over to tenants who were meant to hand over some of the produce as part of their annual rent. However, they have other plans. They want most if not all of the profits themselves and they are not subtle in making the point. When the rent collector arrives they beat him up. And this goes on and on, until eventually the son of the owner comes along and they seize this as an opportunity to take control of ownership of the vineyard altogether. They take a calculated risk in murdering him ,gambling on the owner being weak willed or elderly or too far away to take decisive action. After all in Jewish law a person who could prove three years' undisputed possession of property could claim ownership of it and these tenants banked on that happening. It is a pretty miserable and vile story isn't it? The behaviour of these guys makes the Mafia look descent by comparison.
But in fact it is far worse than that, because the property of which Jesus speaks is God's property, and those who have constantly tried to cheat him of it are God's people would you believe?. It had been going on for at least 800 years, so In Isaiah 5 we read: 'My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside .He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut a winepress as well. Then he looked for good grapes but it yielded bad fruit.' The wording is more or less identical to v33. Who is Isaiah talking about and so Jesus? He goes on to tell us: 'The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight.' Now do you see how utterly scandalous this is? This is Israel, God's own people who were meant to be his pride and joy, who should have been producing spiritual fruit which in turn should have made all the other nations sit up and take notice so that they in turn would seek after God and find him. But that is not what happened. They decided to rewrite the laws. Sure, they kept up with religious rigmarole but lied and cheated their way through life, took bribes and robbed people of justice, especially the weak and vulnerable. And when God did send prophets-his rent collectors- to plead with them and warn them to change their ways, the beat them up. Isaiah, so tradition has it was sawn in two by a sword. Jeremiah was imprisoned in a pit and on and on it went.
And the tragedy is that it was same in Jesus' day. John the Baptist was beheaded and the greatest of them all, the Son, was simply hated.
But this is not simply a description of Israel is it? It is also a description of our world and our nation and it may well be a description of our lives. The Book of Genesis tells us that when God created man and woman he placed them in a garden he had specially prepared for them. He gave them the privilege of being his co-workers to take care of the garden and to enjoy all its benefits. But that was not enough for them, they wanted to be the sole owners, they wanted to be like God, not so much being law breakers but law makers, they wanted to decide what they wanted to do. The result is what is known as the fall, the downward spiritual and moral spiral which we see in evidence all around us today. What does living without God look like? It looks like Bosnia, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, the Congo.
And as a nation we have been singularly blessed by God in the past, as these people had. For a thousand years Christianity had been the official faith of this land. We have been delivered from paganism in the distant past, from Islam in the Middle Ages, from a corrupt Roman Catholicism in the 16th century and from Fascist and Marxist dictatorships in the 20th century. Christianity gave us our schools, our hospitals, our prison reforms and factory acts. Blessing upon blessing has come our way. But what have we done with them? Thanked the Giver? Hardly. We have taken them for granted, spurned his love ,privatised religion and so our society steadily unravels with new laws now having to be introduced to control 8 year olds! How far we have fallen.
But let me ask, what about you? How kind has God been to you in your life, blessing you with health, a comfortable way of life, maybe a family and certainly friends? But still there are areas you will not let God into, there are secret sins you are busy nursing. The owner of your life might be allowed to have some fruit, but not all that is his by right-religion for you is for Sunday's only. Is that what is happening?
If so, then look again at this story. Do you see how much God is showing his patience with his people-how much he loves them? He sends messenger after messenger and in one last desperate act we read in v37 last of all he sent his son to them (in the original it reads the son-his one and only son) and says, 'They will respect my son.' That is how much God cares for a wayward world and wayward people-he is willing to send his dear, dear son. Do you want any greater evidence of God's love and care for us than that? Maybe. So let's look at what happens to this son- a message for the present vv 38-39
'But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance. So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him'.
What is it that convinces me of the untold potential for human beings to do evil-what theologians call 'original sin'? Is it the cannibalism of Jeffrey Dahmer which we heard about the other week? Is it what you would see if you were to go to Auschwitz today ,the thousands of pounds of women's hair, the gas ovens, the pictures of abused children and clothing stacked to the ceiling? In part yes. But what convinces me most of all about the wickedness which resides in the human heart is that that when it came down to it we murdered our Maker. That is what the cross, the killing of the Son outside the vineyard means. It is the ultimate insult, the supreme gesture of human contempt for the rule of God. It is the final snub which puts the lid on all the snubs that God has received from the human race.
And at this point it would be all too easy to shelter behind the fact that Jesus message was for his own present time-addressing first century Jews. 'Oh yes' we say,' It was all their fault. The Jews, the Romans, we all know how barbaric they were. The crucifixion was such an appalling act of judicial murder, why when I saw Ben Hur last Easter, my eyes were wet with the injustice of it all.'
Do you remember that old Negro spiritual? 'Where you there when they crucified my Lord?' Oh yes we were. Some of us where with the Roman bureaucrats - turning a blind eye to the injustice as some of us turn a blind eye to the evidence for Jesus today. Some of us where amongst the smug religious leaders, impeccable in our orthodoxy, but wanting rid of a disturbing Messiah for the sake of a quiet life. But I guess most of us were with the crowd. Maybe the same crowd that only a few days earlier had been shouting Hosanna, when all seemed to be going well, now shouting, 'Crucify, crucify'. Our hands were not the actual hands that drove the nails into his hands and the wood, but it was our sin which held him there nonetheless. In his mercy he cried out, 'Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.' But this parable shows us the remarkable generosity of that prayer, for they did know what they were doing- v45. If there was any ignorance it was a culpable ignorance. And we living today have even less excuse than they had for we have the whole Bible in our hands, God's complete and clear revelation. We also have had two thousand years of the good that Christianity has done-so for us to walk away from Christ is to add our own personal nail to the cross.
Which is why Jesus gives a message regarding the future vv 40-44. 'Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? 'He will bring those wretches to a wretched end' they replied,' and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.' Who was it that answered Jesus question about the action of the landowner? Well, it was the chief priests and the Pharisees. They had actually brought condemnation upon themselves. Jesus didn't give the answer-they did and so they are without excuse. They can spot a criminal act when they see one, but the tragedy is that they cannot see that it applies to themselves. So Jesus spells it out for them with three references from OT scriptures, which Jesus takes as God's own authority- v42. First, a quote from Psalm 118- 'The stone the builders rejected has become a capstone, the Lord has done this and it is marvellous in our eyes.' In other words, on the building site the builders throw to one side a stone which they think is useless. Then they realise this is the cornerstone, the one stone which holds everything else in place- which God uses to build his new spiritual house-the new Israel, the church. And here Jesus may be engaging in a bit of word play because in the language Jesus spoke which is called Aramaic, the word for 'son' is 'ben' and the word for stone is 'eben'- so the ben which is thrown out and killed, is the eben which is raised up by God to build a house. So here there is a hint that the death of the Son is not the end, but that the scriptures, including Psalm 118 point to a resurrection, so that those who trust the Son receive the blessings of the son- v 43 ' Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people (or nation) who will produce its fruit'- we are back to the parable again. Who are these people? Well, not the present Jewish religious establishment that is for sure. Because they reject the Son God will reject them. But their future is worse than that, hence the next quote which is a combination of a passage from the prophet Daniel (2:44ff) and Isaiah (8:14)- 'He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.' In other words, for those who accept Jesus he becomes a cornerstone which restores them, but for those who reject him, that same stone becomes a rock which will crush them. Same person-Jesus, but he becomes two different things depending upon our response to him-he is either our Saviour or our judge, and the judgement he makes is simply the judgement we know is right- hence v41.
Could I ask you: how do you stand in relation to Jesus, God's Son this morning? Do you welcome him as the rightful ruler? Do you really believe that God wants the best for you and what that is written here in this book? Are you offering up the fruit of your lives to him, saying, 'Lord I want to do this for your glory'? That is what he wants. Or like Aldous Huxley and these good religious folk, are you keeping God at a distance, denying him access? Because one day he is going to demand access, and then it will be too late. Let me tell you, there is no life better than the Christian life, there is no love greater than God's love, there is no greater privilege than being God's tenants- let us pray.
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