Last week, we heard Jesus tell the disciples what was going to happen… again. He told them how they were on their way to Jerusalem, the capital of their dispossessed people and their occupied land. He told them that he would be handed over to the Jewish authorities, who would condemn him to death. He told them that those authorities, in turn, would hand him over to the Roman authorities, who would mock him… and spit on him… and flog him… and kill him.
And he told them that on the third day, he would rise again.
This week, we have fast-forwarded a little bit—don’t worry, there will be a flashback later so that we can get caught up—and we are in Jerusalem… at the Temple… where things are happening… where Jesus is causing trouble.
He’s cursing fig trees and flipping tables and telling parables. And there are people who do not like the parables he’s telling. There are people who are asking, “Who does this guy think he is?”
There once was a man who planted a vineyard. There was row after row of grape vines, and a pit for the wine press, and a fence, and a watchtower. And after he planted the vineyard, he handed it over to tenants, and he went away.
He said, “Tend this vineyard and care for it. I will return for what is mine.”
When the harvest came, the man sent a servant to collect what was his. And the tenants beat him. And when the man sent another servant, the tenants beat him. And when the man sent yet another servant, the tenants killed him. And again and again and again, until all of the man’s servants were saying, “We are not going to go talk to those tenants.”
So the man thought, “These tenants don’t respect my servants. But if I send my son, surely they’ll respect him.” So he sent his son. And the tenants seized him… and mocked him… and spit on him… and flogged him… and killed him.
And now what will the owner of the vineyard do? It’s harsh, but Jesus says that the owner of the vineyard will come back… and destroy those tenants… and give the vineyard to other people. And the son who they killed—the one who they rejected—will be the cornerstone of something new.
When the priests and the scribes and the elders—when the Jewish authorities—hear this parable, they think that he is telling it against them. Maybe they remember John the Baptizer. Maybe they think about how much they want to get Jesus out of the way. But they see themselves in the tenants.
And it would be easy to leave it there. Here is a parable that Jesus tells against the Jewish authorities. It adds to their anger and makes them plot against him. It moves the story towards the cross. And it’s easy to do that because it’s a little bit true.
But, because it’s just a little bit true, it’s also a little bit unfair.
You see, the priests and the scribes and the elders are the priests and the scribes and the elders of a dispossessed people in an occupied land. They know that their position is fragile. They know that the position of the people is fragile. And they’re trying to hold it together the best they can.
They are trying to keep the old traditions alive while the Romans are looking over their shoulders. And it’s hard. And when a troublemaker shows up and threatens to break the fragile peace they’ve made with the world-as-it-is… they take care of it.
Life is a series of compromises between the world-God-is-calling-them-to and the world-as-it-is.
When the priests and the scribes and the elders hear this parable, they want to arrest Jesus, but they’re afraid of the crowd. He is popular. He’s bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming a time of the Lord’s favor. The people love him. So they need a plan.
And they come up with one.
They send some people to him… to talk to him… in front of everybody… and ask him a question:
Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. We’re a client-state that can’t run independently. And the Romans keep playing with us endlessly. Essentially they tax us relentlessly. And as long as we finance them we’re never gonna be free… So, should we pay these taxes to the occupational government that none of us like? Or… y’know… not?
And they think, “If he says, ‘yes,’ then the crowd will turn on him in a heartbeat, and we can arrest him easily. And if he says ‘no,’ then the Romans will demand that we arrest him for undermining their authority. And we’ll have to do it to protect the people. No matter how he answers, we get what we want.”
And he asks for a coin… and they hand one to him… and he looks at it… and he says, basically, “If this belongs to Rome, give it to Rome. If it belongs to God, give it to God. And do that with everything.”
It would be easy to leave it there. It would be easy to believe that this is a parable about the Jewish authorities long ago. It would be easy to believe that this is riddle told by those same authorities. It would be easy to believe that this is an answer given to those same authorities.
The truth is that there are times when we are the tenants. There are times when we are the ones trying to find a way to justify giving the world-as-it-is everything that it asks for. There are times when we are the ones making compromises between the world-God-is-calling-us-to and the world-as-it-is.
And we do all of that for good reasons; or, at least, for reasons that feel like good reasons. I know I do.
There are times when I feel like my position is fragile. I have been entrusted with this life and this church. And the world-as-it-is keeps whispering that if I keep my head down, and my nose to the grindstone, and bring the right people into the church… everything will be okay… everything will be okay enough.
There are times when I am just trying to hold it together as best I can.
That’s true for me, that’s true for you, that’s true for us. As individuals. As families. As a church. Every one of us has heard the whispers. And even if we have never pushed someone down, every one of us has stood by when someone has. All so that we didn’t make a wave or disrupt the system or draw attention to ourselves.
Everyone has made our compromises between the world-God-is-calling-us-to and the-world-as-it-is.
But here’s the thing:
God planted a garden. God planted a vineyard, with row after row of grape vines, and a pit for a wine press, and a fence, and a watchtower. And the whole world—including our very lives—belong to God. And if they belonged to the world-as-it-is, we could give them to the world-as-it-is. But because they belong to God, we must give them to God.
And that can be a wild thing to do. It can be a dangerous things to do. It can be a scary thing to do. Because when we give ourselves to love—love for our neighbors… love for strangers… love even for our enemies—the world-as-it-is might say, “There are the troublemakers. There are the weirdos.”
And mock us… and spit on us… and… well…
But we can have faith that God has provided a cornerstone for a new kingdom. And the Lord is doing amazing things right before our eyes: creating a new world that is wild and dangerous and full of grace.
And if we build our lives—our lives and individuals, our lives as families, our life as a church—on the singular foundation of God’s abundant love, then there will be enough and more than enough; and everyone will find a home together among the vines that God has planted.
Thanks be to God.