“They knew He had told this parable against them”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:8-14
Luke 20:9-19

In last week’s Gospel lesson, after hearing the grumbling of some Pharisees and teachers of the Law, Jesus told a parable. This week, it’s deja vu all over again.

The setting of the lesson is one of the many times when the Jewish authorities came to Jesus asking a question, but not really wanting to know the answer. They wanted to know by what (or whose) authority He was acting and teaching. They asked, “Who gave you this authority?” Jesus asked His own question in return. He tripped them up by asking whether John the Baptizer’s baptism was from God or from men. They didn’t think it was from God, but they knew that most of the people in the crowd thought it was. So, as politicians do, they refused to answer. Consequently, Jesus refused to answer them!

But He told a parable. The parable had the answer to their question, and it also had a point–a very sharp one–and they winced away from it quickly! In the Old Testament, among the many images of the kingdom, we find one in Isaiah and other places that depicts the house of Israel as the Lord’s vineyard. Jesus’ story was about a man who planted a vineyard. These religious authorities knew the implication.

According to the parable, the man rented his vineyard to tenants. Jesus continued: “At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one they also beat, treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.”

The clincher of the story is when the owner sent his son, thinking that they would surely respect him. Instead, the renters killed him. Jesus asked, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” And the obvious answer is, “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The crowd’s strange response was, “May this never be!”

My question is, “May what never be?” If the people knew that the story was about Israel–that vineyard of the Lord–were they saying, “May the Owner, God, never kill them and give His vineyard to others”? Or were they aware of Jesus’ identity and, therefore, saying may the Son not be murdered? Maybe, like most of us, when they saw trouble brewing they just wished it would all go away.

Luke wrote that, after the question was posed, Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.” The quote is from Psalm 118:22. The warning may be based on Isaiah 8:14, or it may be a generic warning about messing with a capstone, similar to something about people in glass houses not throwing stones. The whole thing raises another question for me: “Who is the ‘them’ at whom Jesus looked directly when He asked this? Was it the people who had said, “May this never be”? Or was it the teachers of the law and chief priests who had started the whole discussion? It is altogether possible that the two are one and the same.

Luke concludes the whole conversation with this: “The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest Him immediately, because they knew He had spoken this parable against them.” The only reason they didn’t arrest Him on the spot was that the majority of the huge crowd around Him, whether genuine followers or just curious onlookers, would have reacted negatively to His arrest.

Now that you know the whole story, let me tell you the biggest danger of all. It is in knowing too much of all the right things. St. Paul once wrote about a time in his life when he knew all the right things. He was a Jew’s Jew, even a Pharisee’s Pharisee. He outdid them all in his rightness! But then one day he learned one thing, and he considered every other thing as loss in comparison. Once he knew Christ, nothing else mattered.

If we think that Jesus told this parable only about the teachers of the law and the chief priests, we are no smarter than they were. If we think it might also be a story about us–the present vineyard of the Lord–are we going to get angry, as they did? Or are we going to give the Owner the fruits that He seeks? Then again, what is or was that part about the son of the vineyard owner? Do we also know something about that?

As post-Resurrection people, we are aware of a number of historical facts that influence our interpretation of the parable in a way that was impossible for the Lord’s first audience. We are aware, for example, that the totally outrageous claim of the renters, that they could kill the Son of the vineyard Owner and live to tell the tale–let alone, gain His inheritance–is actually possible. It is not, however, that they or we could ever steal it, or gain it by intrigue and murder. It comes by the willing gift of the Son and the amazing grace of His Father. The startling answer to Jesus’ pointed question, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” is the most wonderful and phenomenal Good News the world has ever heard.

Because of the Son’s sacrifice, and at the Son’s request, the Father will forgive them! When the authorities nailed Jesus to the cross, God the Father most assuredly could have killed them all. But Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing.” Eventually, He did give the “vineyard” to others. He gave it to you and me. The fruits He desires–our mission–is that we are to keep giving it to more “others.”

A group of children, confined to a basement play area on a rainy day, decided to “play church.” One child was the preacher, another the organist, a couple kids were ushers and the rest served as the congregation. One little guy said, “What about Jesus? Shouldn’t Jesus be in church?” The rest agreed, and the little fellow who spoke up became “Jesus.”

“What do I do?” he asked. “How do I play Jesus?” The older children suggested that they tie him to one of the support posts in the basement, and pretend it was a cross. Then the others could all call him names, throw things at him and be mean to him in other ways. The little boy thought about that for a minute and then said, “I don’t want to play Jesus. Let’s just play church.”

As the Lenten season draws toward its conclusion, we are reminded that to leave out the cross is just to play church.

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