I joked around this week that passage – the wicked tenants – is Jesus the populist. It is Jesus reminding and urging “the people” to pick a new leadership class. The Chief Priests and the scribes have abused and killed the prophets, and they are going to take the son outside the vineyard and kill him too. And they are doing this because they think it will be theirs. That they will be able to substitute their blueprints – their laws – for the law and action of God. God is dead, so it is all ours. (Nietzsche well before his time.)
But as with all such plans, including our modern day supermen, they run into a problem. The Owner will come and kill them. The Owner has planted a new Rock a Cornerstone in Zion. And that rock will not be removed. And that Rock is Christ crucified. There is always a vineyard. Are you in it? It is given by grace, received in faith and abundantly fruitful. And the leadership of it does not hoard the fruit. It does not seek to substitute its own blueprints for the vineyard with God’s. Don’t trip over the stone, build on it.
All of Chapter 20 in Luke is Jesus teaching on proper authority. It is set in the conflict between Jesus and the Temple, and this text is the parable that Jesus uses as the loadstone of the entire teaching. You find true north in regards to authority by pondering this parable.
It happens to be a fortuitous text as the political season moves in strange ways this year. It also comes up at the same time as a situation I have been pondering simmers. This sermon attempts to think through the text and those situations. What it emerges with I hope is a picture of what authoritative leadership looks like. In this world authoritative leadership looks like the cross.
I don’t bring it up in the sermon itself, but Luther once attempted to talk about the marks of the church, how you would find it. His biggest mark was the cross. You will know you’ve found the church when what you are looking at bears the cross. It is only that type of authority and leadership – a leadership that is directed toward God and neighbor willing to bear the burden – that is truly fruitful.
I hope that this is helpful in your meditation. Also, I want to add a note about the recording. This is a re-recording after the fact, because the recording at the time something went wrong. Which is a shame, because the choir sounded wonderful, and we sang one of my top-5 hymns. LSB 423, Jesus Refuge of the Weary. The words are by the original Bonfire of the Vanities Girolamo Savonarola. The author is a cautionary tale. He rose is acclaim and fortune castigating a corrupt authority. He was later hung and burned at the same time. I believe the text of the hymn comes from his prison meditations. It might not be true, but I hear the confession of a man who got lost but came to see the cross anew. A historical support for the limits I attempt to point out in the sermon.
The first part of this sermon is a little snarky-er than usual. Sometimes you read something that just makes you want to say “well, what did you come out to see(Luke 7:24)”. Or in most cases it is more akin to desiring to say something like – well, I can’t refute your experience, and a bunch of people are harmonizing with you, but c’mon, grow-up, actually crack a book, or stop beating up on straw-men and turn to the real sources.” Beating up on American Mega-Church culture and feeling burned by what is obviously a 10K gold earring destined to turn your lobes green as if it were Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin or even Wesley shouldn’t be taken seriously.
But we are reaping the 30 years of that culture in the American church, so we have to. 30 years of shininess distracting from the deep wells. 30 years of assuming the gospel. 30 years of emotionalism (what the reformers called enthusiasm). And we have a bad hang-over or have trouble walking a single block, let alone picking up the breastplate of righteousness, because we are so out of shape. So we have to take it seriously. But that makes me snarky.
After getting that out of my system, the answer is the same as always. Ad fontes, returning to the sources, listening to the voice of Jesus. And the first word that needs to be heard is the gospel proclamation of the resurrection. Can these bones live? Absolutely. Because He is the resurrection. This is what Jesus does.
There are some passages of scripture that are so resonate in the original time frame you wonder exactly how they apply to the people of God. The parable of the vineyard is one of those. The text itself even points at its being told against the Pharisees, Scribes the and the Priests. The entire parable also seems to be a synopsis of salvation history. How do Christians of today legitimately read and apply this parable? Is it possible or is it just something of historical interest?
I don’t think this is only of historical interest. If it was, why would it have made holy scripture? That is what Josephus and Eusebius are for. What this sermon does is take to core problem of the law in the parable and apply it to Christians today. The core problem in the parable is the unwillingness of the farmers, those who maintain the vineyard, to take the Word of the prophets and eventually the Son seriously.
There is a difference between the original farmers and the new ones. The original farmers leased the vineyard. They were bound by the law (a contract). But when the son came and died, and the vineyard was cleansed of the murderers, the new farmers were “given” the vineyard. Our place in the kingdom is not longer by a legal arrangement, but now it is by grace.
We are still sent the word. In the preaching and teaching of the church, in the scriptures, in the sacraments. In the parable words, we are still sent prophets. We are still expected to produce fruit. Not by contract law, but free offering. But the problem is that we neglect and abuse those prophets (word and sacrament) to the point that we might even kill the son. That is where the Hebrews verse comes in. I think to legitimately apply the parable today we are dealing with the 3rd commandment and Luther’s explanation. Do we gladly receive preaching and the word, or do we despise it and avoid it? For someone in the vineyard, the second is a very dangerous choice.