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The Greatest Stories Ever Told: The Parable of the Son and Stone
Matthew 21:33 - 21:46
August 6, 2023
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
In the parable of the tenants, Jesus tells a rather dark story about an owner of a vineyard, who after building the vineyard, leaves it in the hands of his tenants. It's a parable that reveals the rebellious hearts of the religious authorities and all of humanity. As we take a closer look, we see it also reveals a greater and more hopeful truth: God will not be stopped in bringing his kingdom to our world.
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If you've been with us this summer, you know that we've been looking at the parables of Jesus. We titled this sermon series, The Greatest Stories Ever Told, and we've said that when Jesus uses parables, he isn't simply telling timeless tales. His stories portray something that's actually happening within his life and within his ministry and within our world. And therefore, he's enabling his listeners to step inside the story and to find their place in it. But even more than that, these parables reveal something even deeper: They reveal our hearts. They reveal our loyalties and our allegiances.
Jesus is often revealing his kingdom—the kingdom of heaven. He's asking in the end, is it good news that my kingdom has come or is it bad news to you? The original listeners were forced to reckon with that reality and so are we. The parables invite us into the reality of the Kingdom of God, and they're asking us, is the coming of King Jesus good news for us? Is it bad news? Is it no news at all? It all depends on who you think Jesus is and what he's come to do.
The parable we're going to look at this morning, most popularly known as The Parable of the Tenants, is received as bad news by those who Jesus is telling the story to, but it's in their hearing of bad news that we will find it to be good news, and one of the greatest stories that's ever been told. Let's give our attention to Matthew 21:33-46.
33“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
42Jesus 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 marvelous in our eyes’?
43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
This is the word of the Lord. It's absolutely true, and it's given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
O God, would you draw near to us as we draw near to you. By the power of your Spirit, stir our hearts that this parable would speak to us, would meet us where we are, would challenge us where we need to be challenged, would bring us comfort where we need to be comforted. We pray that we would see and know that you are a God that loves us and guides us and directs us all by the power of your Spirit. We pray this all in Jesus' name. Amen.
The art of storytelling is a real gift. It's great when you're around someone who knows how to tell a good story. It means that they have good stories to tell. They have good content. They also know how to tell a good story. They have the right pacing. They don't get bogged down in too many details. Lastly, they know when the right time to tell a story is. I find that person to be a treasure and a gift at any sort of gathering or at any sort of party. I also find it to be kind of rare. I often find myself when someone is telling me a story thinking, “I don't know where this person is going with this story, or why are they telling me the story, or I don't know that I want to hear how the story ends.” I never think that of any of you. I never say that to myself when you're telling me stories. I know you’ve thought that because you've listened to me. It's likely if you've been here, you've listened to me tell stories and you've wondered the very same things of me, even perhaps now. That kind of thought is how I feel about this parable as we get going. It's really dark, and it doesn't end well, at least on first glance. We're left to wonder why is Jesus telling this story now? It's going to get him killed.
To situate ourselves before we move forward in the parable, Jesus is telling this parable right after his triumphal entry. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, and the crowds hail him as king. They're crying “Hosanna! Hosanna!” Jesus then promptly goes into the temple of Jerusalem, drives out all the money changers, overturns the tables, and basically brings the entire temple sacrificial system to a complete standstill, which is a big no-no. Now everybody is upset with him. All the religious leaders are completely upset. But then promptly, Jesus leaves Jerusalem and heads to the city of Bethany, only then to return to Jerusalem the next day to curse the fig tree, which is strange. The fig tree immediately dies, which itself is its own parable of sorts. Then, once he gets everyone good and angry, he goes back to the temple where he caused all that chaos. One thing is very clear at this point, Jesus has come to Jerusalem to pick a fight. He's there to challenge all the religious leaders, the scribes, the chief priests, the Pharisees, for their corrupt practices, for the oppression of the poor and the outcasts, and for their rebellion against God.
The tensions are high. Everyone in power is ready to kill Jesus. It's at this moment that he begins to tell these parables. It's rather odd, I think, that as the tension, at least in Matthew's Gospel, increases, as the action intensifies, and as the threat against his life becomes more obvious and more sinister, Jesus pauses to tell stories. You can't help but read these and think, “Jesus, now's not the time for stories. We don't have time for this.” But it actually is the perfect time because as the text we saw last week with The Parable of the Two Sons and with this passage, Jesus is getting at the very heart of who God is. He's getting to the very heart of why he's come, and he’s telling us how we ought to live. That's what I want to look at through the lens of these three things: 1) the grace of the master, 2) the greed of the tenants, and 3) the gifts of the vineyard.
The Grace Of The Master
As Jesus starts this parable, he does what every good storyteller does; he begins to develop his characters. He starts with the master of the house. First, I want you to notice the generosity, the kindness, and the patience of the master in this parable. It can be summed up in one word—grace, the grace of the master. First in the parable, the master of the house, the owner, he sets everything up. He does all the work. He doesn't inherit a vineyard. He doesn't buy the vineyard from somebody else. He plants it. He's creating the vineyard from scratch. He's tending to the vineyard. He's watching it with great care. Then, he puts a fence around it because he wants to protect it. Then, he wants to use the fruit and the grapes to make wine, so he digs out a wine press and builds a tower.
Jesus adds these details to the story because as any great storyteller does, he wants to communicate something about his subject. Jesus is first revealing the generosity of the master of the house, who is of course God. It's important to note that Jesus isn't pulling this vineyard illustration out of thin air. He's using an image and a setting that would not only have been familiar to his original audience, but it would have been charged with deep meaning. Jesus tells lots of parables that have something to do with vineyards, but that's because in the Old Testament, Israel was often described as a vineyard. Here's one example in Isaiah 5.
“Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.”
There are many other places where Israel is pictured as or compared to a vineyard, but what I want you to see is that this imagery is getting at the generosity of God the Father. It's the generosity of the master to prepare, to build, and then to cultivate the vineyard. A vineyard in the Bible is meant to be a place of joy. Vine in the Bible brings joy and celebration and promise, and that's what Jesus is revealing to the chief priests. It's what he's revealing to us. He's revealing the very nature of God.
Jesus is also highlighting another part of God's gracious character: his patience. In the parable, when the time to harvest fruit comes, the master sends his servants back to the vineyard to collect his fruit. The first time it happens, we read that the tenants beat one servant. They kill another, and they stone another. It's a terrible act by the tenants, but notice the master's response. He doesn't come and destroy the vineyard, or just return it and take it over and kick out the tenants, which seems like he would have every right to do. No, he sends more servants. You see this in verse 36. “He [the master] sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” More death, more beatings, more stoning, and in response to that atrocity in verse 37, the master sends his son, but not to level the place, not to exact vengeance, but the master thinks, “If I send my son, they will respect my son.”
At this point, even before Jesus tells the part about the tenants killing his son, we as the audience and certainly those who Jesus' originally telling the story, we are meant to think that all this is just too much. The tenants have gone too far. Why would the master of the vineyard be this patient? If you're familiar with the story of the Bible, you might have picked up on the fact that Jesus is retelling the story of Israel, and he's retelling the story of the world. The Bible tells us that God created the world and in all beauty and in all wonder and in all glory. He created the world as an expression of and as an outpouring of his love. As he creates it, and as he sets everything up, he does this. He sets up and he creates the land and the seas and the sky and then he fills it. He fills his creation, the birds of the air, the fish in the seas, the trees and the plants and the fruits on earth. Then he sets Adam and Eve in a garden, not unlike a vineyard. He puts them in a garden, and he does it out of his generosity. Creation is his gift. Then he calls Israel out of his generous love to be a blessing so that they, being recipients of God's love, being recipients of God's generosity, will be a blessing and an expression of that love to the rest of the world.
Then, as you read on, we learned that Israel and the rest of humanity spurned God's love, forsake his kindness, and squandered his generosity. What you see throughout the Old Testament is God's sending prophet after prophet to call Israel to bear the fruit of repentance. But time after time, they reject them. They close their ears. They turn their backs. They harden their hearts to God. They chase after other gods rather than serve the one who has called them, rather than serve the one who has loved them. That is the story that Jesus tells here in this parable. His story begins with the long-suffering, generous love of God the Father. Jesus is saying here as he's picking a fight with these religious leaders, “If you want to know who I am, if you want to know what I'm about, if you want to know what I've come to do, you must recognize the long-suffering, generous love of God, my Father.” You must see the grace of the master. The same is true of us. If you want to understand who God is and what he's going to do, it's these two realities that the Bible sets before us time after time and page after page and story after story. It's God's generosity and his patience. It's the grace of God as he creates the world. It's the grace of God as he patiently pursues the world in their rebellion. It's the grace of God in order to redeem the world in sending his Son, Jesus, to rescue us that is put on display time after time. It's the grace of the master that Jesus wants you to see as he tells the story.
The Greed Of The Tenants
The other thing Jesus is revealing in this story is the greed of the tenants. You suspect it's greed at the beginning as they act this way towards the master servants, but it's not until you get into the story, verse 38, when the son shows up, that the tenants realize, “This is the heir. This is the heir to the vineyard. Let's kill him, and let's have his inheritance.” It's rather obvious in the telling of the story that the tenants have no right to behave the way they've been behaving, and at the heart of their actions is really greed. It's greed that drives them to grasp and obtain something, in this case the vineyard, that they have no right obtaining. They want to own something for themselves that they have no right owning. They want it for themselves. They want the glory. They want the fruit of the master's labor, and they will do whatever they can, including killing the master's son, to obtain it.
This is the other part of the story that Jesus, because he's a master storyteller, is telling about the world. We've already alluded to it, but the tragedy that lies behind the story of the world, and the reason Jesus tells such a dark story here, is because the response to the kindness and generosity of God is greed. It's greed. It's probably even deeper than that, probably fear, perhaps, that wants to separate the gift, which in this case is the vineyard, from the giver, the master of the house. This is the tragic story of the world that the Bible tells over and over again from Adam and Eve in the garden, who are generously given all things except they cannot eat from this one tree. You can have all of it, but don't eat from this one tree. But they believe the lie of the serpent and take what does not belong to them. They eat the one thing that they were told not to eat. They do the one thing they were told not to do. They want to separate the gift of life from the giver of life. This is what Israel is doing all throughout their history. God rescues them. He feeds them. He gives them land. He raises up leaders, promises protection and blessing, showers them with gifts, but rather than receive those gifts with gratitude, they instead decide to separate the gift from the giver. They want all the blessing, all the benefit, but they want it on their terms, in their timing, and in their way. “Give us the gift of the promiseland, but we want to get there now. Give us the gift of kings and leaders, but we'll decide who will rule over us. We'll decide how we will live. Set us free to rule ourselves and then just leave us alone.” We’re separating the gift from the giver.
Back to our parable. This is what the tenants are doing in the vineyard. They want the blessing and the benefit of the vineyard, all the joy that comes with it, but without the master coming to collect the fruit of the vineyard. Here's the challenge for you and I living in 2023. This is exactly what we are told to do. This is the way that we are told to thrive and flourish and live and find true meaning in the late modern age. Your entire life, every moment of your day, you are being invited and enticed to separate the gift that is your life from the giver of that gift, God himself. The gift of your body, the gift of your mind, your story, your money, your career, your ambition, the gift of your scars, the gift of your wounds, you're being invited and told not to receive it as a gift from God, but to take it and to make it your own. That's the story you woke up to this morning. That's the story that we're all being told because when we take it, and when we make it our own, it gives us the illusion that we are somehow in control, that we have the right to call the shots. We do it as individuals. We do it as a society and a culture. This is the whole point of modernity. The whole point of modernity is to separate the gifts from the giver. Because this is the air we breathe, it's hard to see it when we are doing the same thing. We do this because we tend to view our circumstances from a place of lack. We view our lives from a place of deficit rather than of plenty. We compare ourselves to our friends, our neighbors, and our colleagues. No matter how much we have been given, no matter the gifts that we have received, we can always find more. We can always find someone who has more. There's always more that we need. Someone else is doing better. Someone else has a better story. Someone else has more. After all, why can't we have that? Why can't we have their story? Why can't we have their gifts? Rather than trusting in God's provision, and therefore the grace of the master, we seek to separate the gifts from the giver and grasp for more.
That's what the tenants are doing in the story. That's what the Pharisees and the scribes have done. Just like good modern people, they forgot the generosity of God. They have forsaken his love, and they will no longer listen to the prophets that God has sent. They won't even listen to his son. Which brings us to the final point.
The Gift Of The Vineyard
You have the grace of the master, the greed of the tenants, but lastly, the gift of the vineyard. The story ends in a rather dark manner. It has lots of layers to it, which we won't get into. But the parable ends with the death of the master's son. They take him. They throw him out of the vineyard first, and then they kill him. Then Jesus asked the chief priests and the Pharisees what the owner will do when he returns. The Pharisees, because they know how to hate people and they do indignation so well know exactly what the owner will do because this is what they would do. In verse 41, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
If you go through the gospels, for the first time the Pharisees and the chief priests, they get something right at least in part. They get it right. They get it, and they also don't get it. They're right, the vineyard will be taken away. It is going to be given to others, but what they can't see is that they are the tenants of the story. But even more than that, they can't see the generosity of a God who keeps on giving. They miss the generosity of a God who keeps on giving. They can't see it. The gift of the kingdom of God, the vineyard gets taken away from them. They wanted to separate the gift from the giver, and in the end, they lose both. For generations, God has sent prophets to call Israel to repentance, but they worshiped other gods. They sought security in life in other places. They refuse the gifts that God had sent. At long last, God sends his son, he offers them the greatest gift that he could give, his very own Son, Jesus Christ, and the Pharisees reject him, as they tried to arrest him. Of course, the dark irony of this passage is that they end up living out the very parable that Jesus is telling them almost in real time. It's deeply ironic.
Thanks to Marvel movies, my kids and I now have been conditioned to watch any movie all the way to the end, passed the credits because if you know anything about Marvel movies, somewhere into the credits, they're going to give you a little teaser, a little bit more of the plot that's going to help you understand what's coming next. Now we watch every movie all the way to the end of the credits. That's what is going on in this parable as well. You get to the end of the parable, the son has been killed, the Pharisees assume the owner is going to come and destroy everything. He's going to bring justice and then, there you go, the credits roll. End of the story. Let's go home.
Then Jesus, in verse 42, says this, “Have you never read in the Scriptures,” and then he starts quoting Psalm 118.
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.’”
That seems a little out of place, but it's as if Jesus is adding another part to the story. This parable doesn't end with the master putting everyone to a miserable death. It ends with the son. It ends with the son returning. That's why Jesus says, “You know the stone the builders rejected, the stone they tried to get rid of, the stone that they wanted to cast down and throw away? It's now the cornerstone. Everything is built now on that stone. Everything is going to be built on the stone that everyone thought was rejected.” The point is that Jesus is telling the Pharisees that God is not done giving. His generosity, his grace, his patience, it knows no bounds. It has no limits. You think he's going to give up on the vineyard? You don't know this God. You think that when they kill the son, that that's the end of the story? You haven't been paying attention. You don't know this God. He's the God of the resurrection. Here is Jesus now about to face his own crucifixion, his own death, about to live out his part of the parable, the story of the parable. He's about to be the son in the story, who will be sent out of the vineyard and be executed, and he's telling them if you think you can stop God's generosity, if you think you can stop his plans to renew the world, then you don't know the story that God's been telling. Have you not read in the Scriptures? Do you not know that the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone, becomes something beautiful? You think death is going to hold me down? You haven't been paying attention to the wondrous works I've done. You haven't been paying attention to the power that I've displayed. You haven't been listening to the promises that I've made. Not only is Jesus foretelling his death, and really hastening it by telling this parable to the Pharisees and the chief priests, but he's also hinting at the resurrection. Because of God's generosity, he doesn't let the darkness of the Pharisees' heart or the greed of the tenants from the parable stop him. He's going to give the gift of himself. He's going to give the gift of his Son, the gift of his kingdom to others.
This is the beautiful hope of this rather dark story: that what has already been taking place in Jesus ministry, he's already been doing this. He's already bringing in this new kingdom, and he's already giving it to those who will bear fruit, who will bear fruit of repentance. Jesus' ministry has been drawing people to himself. He's been calling disciples, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, calling the outcasts. He's been giving names to the nameless. He's been giving hope to the hopeless, and he's been saying, “Follow me. Follow after me.” Jesus has already begun giving the gift of his kingdom to those who see their need of him and who see their need of his gift.
It's an astounding difference between the tenants who kill the son in order to keep the inheritance, and now we're being introduced to the son who's willing to give up his life in order to share his inheritance. That's the story Jesus is telling. That's the story that Jesus lives out. Jesus embodies his father's generosity by now sharing his inheritance with you. It's those who can confess the other verse of the Psalm that Jesus quotes. “This was the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes.” It's those who can confess that and quote that, who now receive the gift of the kingdom. That is our confession this morning. “This is the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” We are here to be reunited to our generous God, and to rejoice and to confess that God never stops giving. He gives us a son who died for us, who rose for us in his resurrection, and now rules in heaven for us. He gives us the gift of His Spirit, the great counselor to guide, to direct, and to comfort us. He gives us his church. He gives us one another. He gives us everything. We see it, and we delight in it, that everything we have comes from him.
By way of application as we conclude here, a place to start is just to have this verse that Jesus quotes, in Psalm 118, on your lips and in your mind and in your heart. “This was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” The writer and Pastor AJ Sherrill says this,
“Every moment of every day, the most significant thing happening in the entire universe is the radical availability of God's presence. Yet, in almost every moment of every day, we remain unaware of his generous gifts.”
I think he's exactly right. Practice receiving the gifts of this kingdom and say it over and over again, “This was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” It's important that we take up this task as a church because our natural tendency is to live the way of the tenants in the parable. When given to ourselves, we will be left thinking we don't need nor do we want God the Giver. Just give us the gift for ourselves, we'll take care of the rest. But the grace and the gift of the master, the vineyard, and promises are so much more. He promises so much. He promises never to stop giving so much so that we can then flee from our natural tendency, which is the tendency of the tenants and try and grab and control God's gift for ourselves. We can actually live generous lives. We can bear the light of God's generous life and love to a desperate and seeking world by showing God's grace and his gift to us, gifts that we've done nothing to deserve because after all, their gifts, and we haven't earned them. We can delight in the fact that we serve the master of the vineyard. A God whose generosity never stops, and we can resist the temptation and in our own hearts. We can resist the constant invitation of the world, to compare, to control, to consume for our own sake and for our own survival. We can delight in the giver and the gifts that he gives, and say in every moment, every circumstance, every moment of our lives, “This was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
Our great God and Heavenly Father, would you give us hearts that are so stirred by your generosity, that we wouldn't, in fact, flee and run from any inkling to want to separate you, the great giver, from the immense gifts you've given us. We pray that we would constantly be reunited to who you are and what you're doing, that we would see that everything we have comes from your hands, that we would not despise our own stories, but delight in them because you are the one who is giving and giving. Above all, you've given us your Son Jesus. Help us to delight in him, and help us to celebrate that you are doing this wonderful work and help us to confess that this is the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes. We pray this all in Jesus' name. Amen.