Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray, and to give more than we either desire or deserve: Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things for which we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Savior; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Then God spoke all these words:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work.
Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”
1 The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.
2 One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.
3 Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,
4 Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world.
5 In the deep has he set a pavilion for the sun; *
it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
6 It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens
and runs about to the end of it again; *
nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
7 The law of the Lord is perfect
and revives the soul; *
the testimony of the Lord is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.
8 The statutes of the Lord are just
and rejoice the heart; *
the commandment of the Lord is clear
and gives light to the eyes.
9 The fear of the Lord is clean
and endures for ever; *
the judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold, *
sweeter far than honey,
than honey in the comb.
11 By them also is your servant enlightened, *
and in keeping them there is great reward.
12 Who can tell how often he offends? *
cleanse me from my secret faults.
13 Above all, keep your servant from presumptuous sins;
let them not get dominion over me; *
then shall I be whole and sound,
and innocent of a great offense.
14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my
heart be acceptable in your sight, *
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
In three of our texts for today, an important image is played out. The Nation of Israel is portrayed as a Vineyard planted by God.
Each lesson uses this image to make an important point about God’s relationship to God’s people.
In the Isaiah text we hear the voice of God speaking. God says, “I cleared the land, I planted the grapes, I built a tower for protection, I dug out a wine press, I got everything ready;
but the vines did not produce as God had hoped. The vines did not produce good fruit, instead they produced bad; wild grapes came forth, grapes unsuited to the making of good wine.
God looks the situation over and says, “Well, I did the best I could. I’ve done all I can. I can’t pour good money after bad. I’m going to abandon the field. Let the walls and the watchtower crumble. Go somewhere else where I can be more productive.”
Isaiah the prophet’s point is simple: the Nation of Israel had become an embarrassment and God was ready to abandon them.
The Psalm is a response to this abandonment. Verses 8 and 9 retell the same tale: God planting Israel in a new land; “You have brought a vine out of Egypt, you cast out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took root and filled the land.”
But verses 12 1nd 13 show the people’s bewilderment at being abandoned; “Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by may pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.”
And then, in verses 14 and 15, the people plead with God for forgiveness and restoration; “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”
Isaiah and Psalm 80 contain a major theme and plot line of the Hebrew Bible:
God’s showers God’s people with grace.
The people prosper.
The people forget God.
The people become “wild.”
God becomes angry and regrets making or saving or favoring the people.
God allows the people to suffer.
The people cry out for forgiveness.
God heals and restores.
And so it goes: over and over and over again.
Our Gospel lesson from Matthew picks up on these two-story lines; the Nation of Israel as the Lord’s vineyard and the cycle of rebellion and renewal throughout Israel’s history.
In verse 33 Jesus tells the same story as Isaiah and the Psalmist, but he takes it off in a new direction. In Jesus’ version, the owner rents out the Vineyard to tenants and leaves town.
After a while, at harvest time, in Hebrew, literally “the season of fruit,” the owner sends servants to collect the rent.
And the tenants, the sharecroppers, do an astoundingly cruel and stupid thing; they beat one of the servants and kill the other.
And the owner here is amazingly tolerant and, and, well, kind of stupid. I mean, it’s really silly to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. But that’s what the owner does. He sends more servants and they get beaten and killed. And then the son is sent.
How ridiculous is that? I mean, would you send your child into a situation like that? Really now?
And sure enough, the tenants beat and kill the son of the owner.
At this point Jesus stops telling the story, looks at his hearers and asks them to finish the story.
So what would the owner do? And the people say, “Simple, he would come with an army and kill the bad tenants and give the vineyard to good tenants.”
Right you are, Jesus says. “And the Kingdom of God, the true vineyard of the Lord, will be taken away from you!
You who reject the prophets and even the very son whom God had given to people who bear the fruit of the Kingdom.”
It would be easy for us to nod and say “Yes, that’s what happened. Those Jewish people were the bad tenants, so God took away the Kingdom and gave it to us Christians.”
It would be easy to say that. It would also be wrong.
Jesus was not talking to the Jews as a people, as a race, or as a religion. Jesus was talking to the religious leaders, the Chief Priests and Pharisees. The people are the vineyard, the leaders are the bad tenants.
The life of the vineyard, the Kingdom, goes on. And God still seeks good fruit. We in the church must listen to the word of judgment in these Bible lessons.
We must realize how often we fail to listen to and obey God’s Word because we find it an embarrassment in our modern world.
And we must realize how often our failure to bear good fruit, our lack of love and charity, are an embarrassment to God.
The Word of God is a powerful stone, Matthew says in verse 44, pounding on our hearts, shattering our ego and self-serving pride; “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces . . . “
But in that very brokenness lies the opportunity for new life. The Word of God not only breaks us, it also heals us.
The crushing and critical word becomes the cornerstone of our lives, the foundation of a new vineyard, a vineyard which then bursts forth to overflowing with the fruits of the spirit: faith, hope and love.
Once we have come face to face with the ugly truth about ourselves, we are ready to hear the beautiful good news about God and God’s undying love for us in Christ.