Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Have you ever heard that? Have you ever done that? You try logging into your online account – no dice. Incorrect password. So, you type it again. No good. Try it a third time. Nope. Now, you’re a little frustrated, so you type very slowly, deliberately, and punch each key with just a little bit of anger. Still nothing! You’re ready to throw your computer out the window, and then you realize your typing isn’t the problem. You’ve got the wrong password, but you keep trying, expecting something different to happen. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Have you ever done that? Maybe it’s in a relationship. You keep putting yourself out there, showing care and concern, and end up just getting hurt – every time. You try to show someone how much you care about them, only to be shot down and told “you don’t understand me,” but you keep trying, expecting different results. You know the feeling – like you’re banging your head against a wall; or you feel like Sisyphus from Greek mythology, who was cursed for all eternity to push a giant boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again every time and have start the whole process over. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So what are we to make of the vineyard owner in Jesus’ parable today? A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” If that’s true, what can we say about the vineyard owner? The situation in this parable was not uncommon in Jesus’ day. A landowner rents out his tract of land to tenant farmers, they grow crops, and the master shares in the harvest – that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But that’s not what happened here. The vineyard owner sent a messenger to collect his rightful share of the fruit of the vineyard and the tenants sent him back empty-handed and bruise-filled. What would you do at that point? If you were a landlord (and some of you are), how would you handle that? Call the authorities? Take legal action? Those make some sense, but what did the vineyard owner do? He sent another servant. Same deal – no fruit, just fisticuffs. If this vineyard owner had never heard the popular definition of insanity, he probably also never heard the cliché, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” People who abuse your trust aren’t to be trusted, but apparently he didn’t know that, so he sent still a third [messenger], and you can guess what happened.
The master didn’t call the authorities to kick out the squatters. He didn’t get a mob together to go and take revenge. He didn’t send soldiers; he sent servants. He didn’t gather a militia, he sent a messenger. He didn’t arm them with weapons; he gave them words. And how foolish it seems! You’re hearing this parable and thinking, “You know this isn’t going to work, right?” We’ve gotten used to the people in Jesus’ parables not acting the way we think they should, but at this point, things really go off the rails. The master had sent messenger after messenger, and messenger after messenger was rejected, until finally the master does something that appears unreasonably foolish – What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him. And your heart breaks, because you know where this is going. But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
Now Jesus interrupts his own story for some audience participation. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “May this never be!” They could only abuse the master’s kindness and patience so long. Then there would be judgment, and the vineyard would be given to someone else.
Jesus wanted to use this earthly story to teach us a heavenly truth about his kingdom. The people of Israel and their religious leaders had heard the messengers of the Master – from the days of Noah building the ark all the way up to the voice of John the Baptizer crying in the wilderness, with every Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel in between –some of those messengers they beat, others they killed, many they rejected. Now, God the Master sends his own Son to a band of thugs like those well-dressed religious leaders, and watch what happens – a sham trial, a false verdict, beatings, whippings, and a cross. Do you see? The Master will do anything, absolutely anything, to reach his people and reform their relationship with him, but they wanted nothing to do with it. So what about you?
God has sent a constant stream of speakers and a multitude of mouthpieces to wing his words to you, too. Through these prophets and preachers, God was looking for, and has a complete right to expect, fruits of repentance. But sometimes I’d rather silence the Master’s messengers and try to claim squatter’s rights on what I think is mine. The messengers of God come out, looking for the fruits of faith that are rightfully his, but I’ll send them away bruised and bloodied while I cling to sin instead of turning away from it. The servants of God go forth, not with weapons, but with a word from God, and it’s so easy to ignore, especially when I’m tired on Sunday, or when absolutely everything else comes before hearing the word of God and supporting the work of the gospel. Servant after servant, messenger after messenger, word after word goes forth from the God of the universe, and I can’t be bothered to hear it because I’m deafened by the voices around and within me that say, You decide what’s right. You don’t have to listen to every word God says! Some have to be more important than others – so you just do you. In spite of my sinful selfishness, God has kept talking, but too often I’ve shut him out because I’m too distracted by what I think is mine – all the while forgetting that this is God’s vineyard, and everything belongs to him. I deserve to be plucked out of God’s kingdom forever, and so do you.
So, listen up while God is still speaking! Because you need to hear it, and so do I. God is still speaking through his word and his messengers who bring it. The message of God’s law condemns me, cuts me down to size, and convinces me beyond a shadow of a doubt that I can’t save myself. The good fruit worked by the word of God is admitting I am a sinner. So, listen up while God is still speaking! Because you need to hear it, and so do I. The message of God’s gospel speaks a promise into my sin-darkened heart and shows me the Savior from all my sins. The good fruit worked by the word of God is trusting in the promised Messiah as my perfect Rescuer from my sin. This is the life of the Christian, living in the vineyard of God’s kingdom. Every day, I die to myself, my desires, my sins, my preferences, and I am raised to new life with Christ. Every day, I put to death my sinful nature and rise anew with Christ in baptism.
Here we come to a beautiful truth about this parable of the wicked tenants: this story isn’t really about the wickedness of the tenants, though it was wickedly wicked. This story is about the goodness and mercy of the Master. He keeps sending, he keeps speaking, he keeps reaching out to his wayward people so he can bring them back. What grace he shows – he keeps sending messengers, proclaimers of his word to a band of thugs like us who, by nature and by choice, want to silence those messengers calling us to repentance so that I can claim my life as my own and do and live as I please. In Christ, God put himself at our mercy, knowing that we had none. What remarkable grace he shows! God doesn’t give up on you. Instead, he endured absolutely everything to make you his own in Christ. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three, times I don’t have words for that. Fool me four times, now you’re starting to see the nature of the Master’s persistent love.
Jesus teaches us that important truth when he quotes this passage from Psalm 118, The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. Jesus spoke these words during Holy Week, the final days of his earthly ministry. In a matter of days, Jesus would be the living fulfillment of the parable he just told. He is the beloved Son of the Father sent into this world, only to be rejected, taken outside the city, and nailed to a cross. But it was through Jesus’ rejection and crucifixion that God brought about the perfect vindication of his resurrection and placed him as the one and only capstone and cornerstone of our faith.
This is how profound God’s love is for you, for me, and for every sinner – he uses our violence against him to bring out his mercy for us. As we sang in our hymn of the day, our Savior’s love to us is truly “love unknown.” It’s something that human beings could never dream up on our own, because it’s born from the very heart of God. Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be. Oh, who am I that for my sake, my Lord should take frail flesh and die? This is the love of God that keeps sending messengers and proclaimers of his word to bring us back to him. And it all seems so foolish, so humble, so hidden. This is the love of God that endures everything, even the death of his Son, to make you his own. This is the love of God that proclaims wicked tenants like us to be his own beloved sons and daughters through faith in Christ. And so he teaches us to love him more than the world, and to rejoice in being bound to his Son to bring forth the good fruit he works in us. Marvel at the Master’s mercy! God’s not afraid to keep doing the same thing over and over again for you in Christ, and it almost seems insane - he keeps forgiving you, he keeps loving you, he keeps promising you all his goodness for Jesus’ sake. Marvel at the Master’s mercy – because it’s for you!
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.