God pays the rent we owe so that we can work
Once more Jesus addresses the chief priests and the elders with a parable, a parable that convicts them of pre-meditated murder: “Let’s kill the son to get the inheritance!” If you thought the first parable was bold, the one about the two sons, where Jesus said that prostitutes and IRS men were in a better spiritual state than the teachers of the law. Now he calls them murderers who should come to a wretched end. And not only are they murderers, but He says they’re pretty stupid murderers, thinking that by killing the son of their landlord they will get the inheritance.
It’s foolish enough to think this on the face of it, but when you see how much the master cares about the land he’s renting out, you see it’s just plain moronic. Jesus belabors the point. The man didn’t just build a vineyard and rent it out. He fenced it in and built a watchtower around it. He cares deeply about his investment. And it’s not just for the monetary value, either. We’ll let the cat out of the bag and identify the master as our Lord, God the Father. Further, we’ll posit that the vineyard is the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints. Listen to what the Lord says about His vineyard in Isaiah 5. He calls it “the garden of his delight.” Now, to be fair, Isaiah talks about “the house of Israel and the men of Judah”, so maybe you’ll claim that God’s delight is the nation of Israel, not the Holy Christian Church.
You might try, but you’d be wrong. God was never purely concerned about one race or nation. Not even when He told Abraham about inheriting the land and being the father of nations and kings. It was ever and always about God’s plan of salvation, the blessing for all nations, the good news of a Savior, a bearer of sins in which we can put our faith. And “Abram believed and the Lord credited it to him as righteousness.” Paul tells the Galatians that this is the good news that “God would justify the Gentiles” – non-Jews, us – “by faith.” Faith in Christ who “redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.”
Thus Paul reminds the Romans of what God had already said in Deuteronomy and Jeremiah: it’s about circumcising hearts, not bodies. And when those living and working in the vineyard prove unworthy, when they produce bad fruits, or in the case of the our parable, refuse to give the fruits they owe to the master, then the vineyard goes to someone else. Jesus’ listeners draw that conclusion. “He will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” Jesus agrees. “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The kingdom of God can be lost because it’s not something that you take; it’s something that God gives.
It’s there in the parable. The landowner rents the property to the farmers. The owner gave his property to others. For a price. There’s that living, active faith again. Last week we talked about practicing what you preach with the two sons. Here it’s the familiar image of producing fruit and giving that fruit to God. Not as a payment getting you into heaven, no, never. Not by works, so that no one can boast and all that. But rather, the natural result of being rented land. Renters pay rent. It’s an agreement, a contract. God gives us membership in His Church. We return to Him good stewardship of that Church. For the pastors and teachers, it’s being faithful stewards of the mysteries of God: rightly preaching the Word and administering the Sacraments. For the people, it’s faithful living according to God’s Word. I think of the catechism on the First Petition, “Hallowed be thy name.” “God’s name is kept holy when His Word is taught in its truth and purity and we as children of God lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But whoever teaches and lives contrary to God’s Word dishonors God’s name among us. Keep us from doing this, dear Father in heaven.”
In the parables of Matthew 21-22, Jesus talks about rejecting not only the Son of God by killing Him, as in our parable, but also the kingdom of God (the guests refusing to come into the banquet), and the work of God, as in the son who won’t go out and the workers who won’t produce fruits. Foremost among these things is simple unbelief: rejecting God’s Word about forgiveness through His Son, the way of righteousness the Scriptures teach. Directly connected to that is refusing to see Jesus as the cornerstone or capstone of the whole edifice, the vineyard, the Church. Perhaps we feel safe, for we believe in Jesus and come to font, pulpit, and altar for forgiveness through Word and Sacrament.
But faith without deeds is dead, James says. So does Jesus. Jesus said your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees. You are salt, He said. You are light, He said. You are those to whom God has rented His vineyard, His Church, made so at your Baptism when God killed you to death and brought you to life in Christ, clothed with Christ. He proclaims you such in His Word, “For you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” Notice that last: “belonging to God.” As Paul said elsewhere, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.” Your faith in Jesus doesn’t shield you from the accusations brought against the priests and elders.
In fact, your faith in Christ makes you even more accountable than they are, because you know more than they did. They could at least claim their rejection of Jesus as the Christ, the rejection of the righteousness that comes from God as some sort of fig-leaf of a defense. But you can’t. You know very well in what vineyard you work, who your Master is, and how you got into this vineyard. The Father created you, sent His Son Jesus to die for you, and through the Work of the Spirit made you a renter, a worker in the vineyard, in the Church. If you’re not working, you don’t get paid. If you’re not working, you might as well be beating up and killing God’s servants and Son.
This isn’t just about evangelism, a common application. “You better be telling people about Jesus, or else!” This is your entire life. Every moment, whether inside this building or out. As Luther says in the Large Catechism, the washerwoman with her laundry hangs her clothes to the glory of God. He only parrots Paul who said, “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do it all to the glory of God.” At work, play, school, home and in public service, you are a renter in God’s vineyard called to produce fruits. Not to compromise with the world. Not to pick and choose when and where you produce fruits. God’s always watching, always expecting fruits. As Paul said, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
What an admission. One we must frankly make ourselves. If we had a chart in front of us detailing our motivations and decision making processes, what percentage would be “for the glory of God” or “pressing on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” I suspect we’d find a depressingly high percentage of decisions made not out of service to God, but serving ourselves, with our “mind on earthly things,” paying the rent to ourselves. We may not appear hostile to God, but our silence speaks volumes. Where our treasure is, there our heart is. Our budgets reveal priorities. Our schedules reveal priorities. Our language reveals priorities. Our lives reveal priorities. And they aren’t always, or even often, the kingdom of God. If we aren’t thinking of the kingdom of God, are we really IN the kingdom of God?
But what a Master and Landlord we have. He keeps on sending His servants. He keeps on sending His Son. Even though we beat and kill servants, and beat and killed His Son, He sends. He will not be stopped in sending His Son. Teaching falsely? Living sinfully? Closing a church, ignoring a mission, defunding or not supporting a school, passing by a friend in need of the Word or our help? Still, the servants and the Son keep on coming.
In this parable, God comes off rather doltish, doesn’t He? Of course we understand the first servants. He’s collecting rent. We can even understand another group. But the Son? They’ll respect Him, really? Based on what evidence?
Look at our lives. We sin. We sin some more. We sin again. We reject this teacher or that pastor. We ignore this Word and that passage. We put our own needs ahead of the Lord so often. What evidence is there among us that God should send His Son to us?
None, of course. The Bible calls us dead, blind, hostile enemies of God by nature. Nothing lovable in us caused God’s Holy Spirit to call, gather, enlighten or sanctify us by the Gospel. Just as nothing lovable in us moved God to give His Son as the atoning sacrifice for the world’s sins. All the love rested in God. He gives us His love in Christ. He pours out His love in Christ, who, like the Son in the parable was dragged outside the vineyard, outside the city of Jerusalem, as Hebrews 13 says. The Son, the Cornerstone, the Living Stone, rejected by men but chosen by God. To do what? Hebrews 13 again: “To make the people holy through His own blood.” This is that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me, the price for which God has called us heavenward in Christ: the citizenship in the vineyard, the Holy, Christian Church, which is really citizenship in heaven, and as Paul says, “We eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”
This is what we strain towards, what God pulls us towards. Away from our mischief making and murderous sin, and towards His Son, murdered for us, so that God could give Him to us over and over and over again for our forgiveness, our life in the Word preached and the Sacraments received; God paying the rent we owe to keep us in the vineyard, the Church, where we work for Christ, waiting for Christ to come again and make us perfect. Amen.