Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Scripture reminds us that there has always been tension between tenants and their landlords. A group of tourists were being guided through an ancient castle in Europe. “This place,” the guide told them, “is 600 years old. Not a stone in it has been touched, nothing altered, nothing replaced in all those years.” “Well,” said one woman dryly, “they must have the same Landlord I have.”
A large family, with seven children, moved to a new town. They were having a difficult time finding a new home to live in. Many houses were large enough, but the landlords objected to the large family. After several days of searching, the father asked the mother to take the four younger children to visit the cemetery, while he took the older three to find a home. After they had looked most of the morning they found a place that was just right. Then the landlord asked the usual question, “How many children do you have?” The father answered with a deep sigh, “Seven…but four are with their dear mother in the cemetery.” He got the house!
Yes, there has always been tension between tenants and their landlords, and these stories show us that determining who is right and wrong is often a matter of perspective. Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants, however, clearly seems to be teaching us another lesson. But what is it?
Martin Luther once wrote. “The Bible is the cradle, wherein Christ is laid.” He added, “Men are to study and search in it and to learn that he, Mary’s Son, is the one who is able to give eternal life to all who come to him and believe in him.” For example, when Luther preached on John the Baptist, he always emphasized how John’s finger pointed to Christ, and how the church must follow in John’s footsteps and point people to the Lord. That is the beginning of the principle of Solus Christus, by Christ Alone, but there’s more.
Although Luther agreed with the Roman Catholic Church’s emphasis on the centrality of Jesus in the work of faith, there was a practical theological difference which the Reformer also believed needed to be corrected. The Church’s teaching on salvation at the time of the Reformation required the involvement of priests, sacraments and saints to mediate God’s work. Salvation was not by Christ alone. Instead, it was taught that salvation came through Jesus and Mary. Salvation came through Jesus and the Church; Salvation came through Jesus and work of the ordained priests. The Reformers realized the Church’s elaborate system of confessions, works and prayers obscured the person and work of Christ as it was so clearly taught in Scripture. This principle of Solus Christus would become a defining characteristic of Protestantism, and was beautifully articulated in the London Baptist Confession of 1644. “This office of mediator between God and man is proper only to Christ, who is the prophet, priest, and king of the church of God; and may not be either in whole, or any part thereof, transferred from him to any other.” Preaching this principle, however, isn’t always as easy as it sounds- especially when it is in as complex a story as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.
So let us set the scene for Jesus’ parable. Once again today, Jesus is seen speaking to the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem’s Holy Temple. He had arrived in the city to the songs of pilgrims shouting Hosanna, and the crowds were ecstatic to hear him preach. Jesus had already turned over the money changers tables and accused the religious authorities of making God’s holy house the Temple into a den of thieves. The chief priests and elders were furious and so they conspired to work together to discredit Jesus and to trap him. Jesus, however, used his Parable of the Landowner and the Wicked Tenants to trap them, and he began:
“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.” Now we have to wonder: Who was more foolish- the landowner who had built the vineyard, and left it the care of the tenants, or the wicked tenants who brazenly tried to claim it as their own? These were not your everyday, delinquent tenants who paid religiously, but always two weeks late. They certainly were more malicious than those who submitted false references or covered up damage for the sake of their security deposit. Why on earth would these tenants think that they were going to inherit the vineyard? It’s not like that landlord had died. He sent servants, and more servants, and then his own son. How did they know that he didn’t have another, stronger son, or more servants, or an army, or at least a gang of stiffs who would ruff them up? They were simply crazy.
But apparently not half as crazy as the landowner. Consider his response to the tenants. First he sent servants, and they were beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sent more servants— not the police nor an army, just more servants — and the same thing happened again. So where did he get the bright idea to send his son, his heir, alone, to deal with this bloodthirsty lowlife? It’s absolutely fool-hearty. Who would do such a think?
Then Jesus asked the chief priests and elders, “And what will the landlord do when he comes?” Interestingly, Jesus never answered his own question. He allowed them to speak on behalf of each one of us. Jesus asked them, and all they could imagine was violence: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” That is after all how the world works. And that is how many of us are taught to live and act in this world. We are to fight fire with fire. We are to confront violence with more violence. We are to get even- an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But that is not the way the landlord acted. How did he respond to the actions of the wicked tenants? Astonishingly, he sent his son to all those who had hoarded the landlord’s harvest to themselves and abused his servants.
And surprisingly and graciously, that is what God does even today. He sends his son, Jesus, to all of us who have chosen not to fruit of the harvest unto him. And when we, like the wicked tenants, kill him, God raises him up from the dead, and sends him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of the Father’s desperate love for all the world. And through his death and resurrection he brings about life eternal for all who long to work in his vineyard and bear good fruit.
You see, that is the nature of God’s love for his creation. No one…except maybe some fool-hearty landlord so desperate to be in relationship with his tenants would do such a thing, and risk everything to reach out to them. This foolish landowner acts more like a desperate parent, than he does a calculating businessman. He acts more like a loving Father, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child. And when he sends his only begotten son Jesus, he goes alone. There are no priests or saints or representatives of the church who go with him to his death- and brings salvation. He goes alone- Solus Christus- Christ Alone. My friends, that is how passionately God longs for you to be his tenants, living and enjoying the work of his vineyard.
The chief priests and elders didn’t hear that message. Instead they only heard criticism, and the judgement that God would find others who would be good tenants and produce good fruit. Perhaps if they were listening more closely to Jesus, they would have heard his play on words. You may have noticed the odd shift from the vineyards, the son and tenants to architecture and stones. In Hebrew, it is not such a great a shift. The word for son is Ben and the word for stone is Eben. Jesus was referring to himself as both Son and Stone, Ben and Eben. The very stone once rejected by the builders, would become the foundation stone for this new life. Oh, if they could only have seen and heard the possibilities for change that Jesus was offering.
It is just as true today. It is a pity, if the Father’s love for you in Jesus Christ makes no difference in your life. It is fool hearty for you to close the door to Jesus coming with God’s word of love and grace and new beginnings. But many do. I am reminded of the little boy who asked his father, “Did you go to Sunday School every week when you were young?” His father replied proudly, “I sure did, son.” To which the boy answered innocently, “I’ll bet it won’t do me any good either.”
Over 20 years ago as Janna and I were leaving our first missionary post in Latvia, the British Ambassador hosted a farewell dinner in our honor. During a festive toast, we were likened to physical landmarks on the cultural, religious and social landscape. It was a flattering comment, and then the British Ambassador added, “But remember, even the stones upon which the cathedral were built are now buried 30 feet below the earth.” Indeed, the cornerstone, the stone upon which the foundation is laid may not be seen. But that doesn’t make it any less important.
My friends, scripture reminds us that there has always been tension between tenants and their landlords. A man mentioned to his landlord about the tenants in the apartment over his. “Many a night they stamp on the floor and shout till midnight.” When the landlord asked if it bothered him, he replied, “Not really, for I usually stay up and practice my trumpet till about that time most every night anyway.”
Setting Christ as the foundation of your life, like setting a cornerstone is always a choice. So ask yourself, who or what is your life’s foundation? What is that one thing upon which you are building your life, your legacy your heritage? Yes, what is that foundation stone upon which, day by day, you are placing one brick at a time your thoughts and your actions? If it is not Christ alone, then what is your cornerstone? God’s message for all his tenants is this: You can still change. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.