I would like to look at a few different readings this morning, beginning with the second reading for Morning Prayer in which Jesus tells the parable of the vineyard (Luke 20:9-18):
A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty. And again he sent another servant: and they beat him also, and entreated him shamefully, and sent him away empty. And again he sent a third: and they wounded him also, and cast him out. Then said the lord of the vineyard, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son: it may be they will reverence him when they see him. But when the husbandmen saw him, they reasoned among themselves, saying, This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours. So they cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What therefore shall the lord of the vineyard do unto them? He shall come and destroy these husbandmen, and shall give the vineyard to others. And when they heard it, they said, God forbid.
And he beheld them and said, What is this then that is written, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner? Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.
And the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people; for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. † Amen.
“They perceived that he had spoken this parable against them.” The chief priests and the scribes were no dummies. They knew the origin of this story in Isaiah (5:1-3). But in that version, the vineyard is Judah and the Lord is the keeper/owner who has prepared the place to yield Him fruits—fruits of good works. But instead, the owner laments that it only brings forth wild grapes. The tragedy of Israel is the tragedy of a failed vocation. And it is the story of us.
The Jews understood that God chose Abraham so that in his seed, in his descendants, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. In Abraham there was a step taken to an answer to the sin and rebellion of Adam. The Lord called Jerusalem to be a city set upon a hill to which all the nations of the earth might come and receive true judgment—justice and mercy. Isaiah (60:3) and Malachi (1:11) speak of this:
The Gentiles shall come to thy light, and Kings to the brightness of thy rising.
For from the rising of the sun even unto the going down of the same my name shall be great among the Gentiles; and in every place incense shall be offered unto my name, and a pure offering: for my name shall be great among the heathen, saith the Lord of hosts.
The hope expressed in the prophets is that the conduct of the people of Israel would be a witness to the goodness and majesty of their God so that the Lord would be magnified. Instead, His chosen people robbed their own widows and orphans, stole land from their poor, and enslaved one another contrary to the detailed rules He gave Moses about the forgiveness of debt. They also had periods where they even sacrificed their offspring by fire to various “gods”. [Horrible things, yes, but in the not too distant past, Americans enslaved one another for profit. And nowadays we kill our unborn children when we think they will be too burdensome.]
God called Israel to be His Son, to walk with Him, to reason with Him, to be engaged with Him. He called them out of Egypt, but all but two men—Moses and Joshua—retreated from the Divine Intimacy. And after those two died, there was no one that continued that relationship until, at least partially, David. Instead, the Israelites retreated to what they preferred and understood much better—a contractual business relationship: They would show up with “X” amount of cows, sheep, incense, and dry goods, offer them up in a prescribed way and, in return, God would hold them guiltless for the inscrutable sins that they just couldn’t help but commit.
Oh, and they would do the same for whatever other powers and principalities seemed worth appeasing. What? Wait? That’s a sin, too? But everybody does that! I don’t want to be too hard on the Israelites and I don’t think we are an improved version of humanity. I know I’m not. Most days, I would rather have a list of procedures—even intricate ones—to follow to “secure my future” rather than contact the incalculable.
So the people of Israel failed at fulfilling the promise that God had declared for them. And the blessings of the vocation that had been promised to the prophets had likewise not come to pass. But enough of them stubbornly, through exile, lean years, and oppression by foreign tyrants continued to trust that God would fulfill his promises to them, that He would be faithful to the covenant with Abraham to counter the sinful trajectory of mankind and save the world. Even though they had been mostly faithless, they still trusted that God would fulfill his promises. He assured them, through His prophets, that He was faithful. So in what did they hope? What had God promised? Four things:
- He promised that they would live on their own land in peace. God had promised an end to their exile. This was intimately connected with the remission of the sins that they (as a people) and their rulers had committed that had gotten them tossed off the land in the first place. Under the influence of the prophets, they saw—however belatedly—that it was their collective, “national” sin that had gotten them exiled. Moses and the prophets told them that their exile would end when they repented of their sin and were forgiven.
- Secondly, they knew that a great prophet was supposed to come. Moses had told them in Deuteronomy (18:15):
The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken…the Lord said: I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.
3. Thirdly that a Messiah would come from the line of David. And this Messiah would rule over the heathen, the Gentiles, and receive tribute from all the foreign lands. Over the centuries, the person of Messiah and the prophet like Moses kind of blurred together.
4. Fourth, a new covenant was going to be made with the people of God and it was going to look a lot different than the old one based on animal sacrifice. Six hundred years before Jesus, Isaiah indicated that the time for animal sacrifices was coming to an end (Isaiah 1:10-20). Instead, a new covenant was going to be established (Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Ezekiel 36:24-26). God promised that the hearts of his people would be changed, they would receive His Spirit, and that they would serve him willingly and exclusively.
Now, the Jews in the first century who took all this seriously, or even mostly seriously—and there were a lot of them—were restless. Their society was in constant ferment and tension. Why? Because they perceived that—even while living in their own land—they were still in exile. They were still being ruled by pagans. This must mean that God had not forgiven their sins. No Messiah had yet appeared, though the Jewish world of the first century was charged with Messianic expectation and a dozen pseudo-Messiahs were promoted but then abandoned after disappointing expectations.
Jewish idea of rulership at that time were strongly (and naturally) influenced by their recent experience with Rome. They thought that their Messiah was going to rule in a manner similar to that of the Roman Emperors with the exception that he’d be for them and against their Roman oppressors. The zealots among them envisioned Israel as dominating the Mediterranean world. They were openly searching for a Messianic leader that would oust the Romans—of course by force, the Messiah IS the Son of David, after all (think how many people he had killed) and restore the Jews to their “rightful” position as the ruling people of the world. Such were the expectations when Jesus was born.
He learned a different lesson growing up, though—from both the scriptures and prayer. He saw things other people didn’t see. He learned lessons from the prophets such as Hosea (6:1-6):
Come, and let us return unto the Lord…After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight…For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.
While the Jews understood only in part, Jesus grasped the whole of his Father’s plan for His people. The Jews read selectively, always concentrating (again, quite naturally) on the parts that appeared to hold great promise for themselves: Unlike Jesus, they didn’t see how bits like Isaiah chapter 52 and 53 fit into the Messianic vocation:
Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high. [Okay, they probably had no problem understanding that part] As many were astonished at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man and his form more than the sons of men; So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.
Who hath believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed? [See, Isaiah, didn’t expect that many people would grasp this picture] …he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth…he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken. And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth…by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Jesus saw that Jews of that time didn’t appreciate, and therefore misdiagnosed, the problem. Rome (presently) and the various heathen empires of the past did oppress the Jews, but they weren’t the real oppressors of the people of God. The real enemy, the one that lay behind every foreign and domestic oppressor. The one that oppressed (nearly) every man, woman, and child born was not the paltry Roman suppression of the Jew but the yoke of Sin and Death, as well as certain cosmic powers that worked to spread fear across humanity. The Jewish conception of Messiah was too small. They wanted someone who would take on the Romans and establish Jerusalem as the chief city of the world. What the Jews and the Romans and all the rest of the peoples of the Earth really needed, though, was a man who would take on all the malice of Satan and all the power of Death and emerge victorious over them both so that we might follow Him hereafter. That was the necessary task that was undertaken willingly by the incarnate Son of God. This was His mission that He had to fulfill. His destiny.
Jesus saw how the Satan had come to dwell in the Jews, the People of God, to prevent them from accomplishing their vocation to be a shining city on a hill. Paul argues in Romans 7 that God gave the Jews the Law so that it could become a lens focusing sin on Israel so that it could “become exceeding sinful” in the house of the chosen people of God.
I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they shall slay and persecute: that the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation; from the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zecharias, who perished between the altar and the temple: verily I say unto you, it shall be required of this generation. (Luke 11: 49-51)
And so sin concentrated there, that it might be expiated by a man who summed up all of Israel in Himself. Someone who could rightfully represent the children of Abraham, the seed of Israel, and the Son of David: one who called himself the Son of Man. He took up the vocation of his people and took all that piled up sin on Himself and succeeded where no other could. He defeated Satan in the temptation in the wilderness and from then on cast out evil spirits right and left, showing that he had broken the kingdom of the demons. The final enemy he had to confront was death, but he trusted he would win:
Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment I have received of my Father. (John 10:17-18)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. † Amen.