Just a couple hours ago, I preached on essentially, this very topic. I'm going to take a few days this week to work through a few things I've been thinking about with Judgment & Grace, and I thought I'd begin with throwing up some of my sermon. As I prepared for this sermon, one thing came through loud and clear - it's often in the midst of what seems like judgment, that we find, if we have ears to hear it and eyes to see it, the grace of God.
Missing the Middle
Let me tell you a story… I’ve always wanted to open a sermon up with that line. I’m not entirely sure why – but as I say it and as I hear it, there’s a part of me that wants to lean in and listen a little differently than when I’m reading or listening to a sports score, or the stock market numbers, or some other mindless data that seems to stream across my face on a constant basis. Story – narrative, is one of the most powerful mediums that we have with which to communicate. Stories have the power to band people together – they have the power to form and shape people to be about a particular mission – for good and for bad. We see evidence of the bad in our world all of the time. We tell stories about people we don’t like, fueled by fear and hatred, hoping to stir up the worst in people for our own advantage. We misuse and abuse stories and they become nothing more than a tool – they become propaganda. On the other hand, we tell stories to fill the empty spaces in our minds and hearts. Instead of living our lives we end up drowning ourselves with stories that we’ve twisted and turned for our own amusement – we turn them into mere fantasy. But when stories are used well, when stories are used in the way they are intended, they have the power to break down the illusions of propaganda and fantasy – the false idols we erect around ourselves. When stories are uses properly, they have the power to open our eyes, to give us hope and to bring us knowledge of the truth.
Jesus knew how to tell stories. While Jesus taught in various ways, stories were one of his favourite mediums. In Jesus’ final week before his crucifixion on Good Friday, Mark’s gospel includes just one story told by Jesus. This one story, this one parable, is included in Matthew and Luke as well, so it’s safe to say that the disciples understood this to be a fairly significant story – a particularly powerful part of Jesus teaching. It’s usually referred to as The Parable of the Tenants – and it begins in Mark chapter 12: He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard...
To give a little background on this – Jesus at this point has had the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he’s made his demonstration in the temple courts by clearing them of the people, kicking out the money-changers and generally disrupting the sacrifices for part of a day, and this lead to the Jewish authorities confronting Jesus and demanding that he declare on whose authority he was doing these things. Jesus, always wanting to reach beyond the situation at hand, tells this story instead. So, it’s safe to say that this story, this parable, is directed initially to the religious leaders and secondarily to his disciples and the other various witnesses.
If you were a Jew listening to this story, it’s not unlikely that you would have identified this story as a parable – as an allegory that has parallels to the whole history of the people of God. It begins with creation – and particularly the creation of the people of Israel: "A man planted a vineyard..."
Vineyard imagery is pretty common in the middle east, and very common in the bible. To Jesus’ hearers, they’d recognize that the man represented God and the farmers Israel & her leaders. God had provided a promised land, filled with milk & honey – everything they would need. God provided for them, cared for them, tended them. But there were also requirements of them in this relationship: "At harvest time he sent a servant..."
At various times in Israel’s history, God sent specific individuals, prophets mainly, to remind the people and to remind their leaders what God required. God required right worship – but even more, God required justice, mercy & kindness. Religious observances were always secondary to acting rightly with your neighbor. Loving others was always part of loving God. Unfortunately, time after time, Israel and Israel’s leaders responded to God’s prophets with ridicule, rejection and even murder. So, God is left with one final option: "He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved..."
Here, we see a subtle prediction of Jesus’ rejection by the people and by the religious leaders. Jesus is going back to answer that question they had of him earlier – where does your authority come from? The religious leaders have already taken on the roll of the tenants and they didn’t even know it. But if they didn’t know it before, they do now. Jesus, through this story, is staking his claim that God the Father has given him his authority, that God has sent him to turn the hearts of the people back to God. But when they reject him – what will God’s response be? "What then will the owner of the vineyard..."
The response of the vineyard owner is what everyone would expect, right? Retribution, judgment, rejection. The religious leaders heard the judgment loud & clear because they knew in their hearts they were guilty, they knew in their hearts they had already rejected Jesus and his ministry. They had staked their claim on the people and they weren’t going to let some two-bit low-life from a middle of nowhere town come in and mess things up. So they left. And they continued to plot a way to overthrow Jesus.
Now, we often call Jesus’ stories parables because they’re easy to follow and they have some kind of moral. But sometimes, the word parable gives the wrong impression. In fact, it would be very easy to read through this story and see only the warning and judgment and miss… and miss the whole point of Jesus story. You see, the disciples, the crowd that were listening, there’s no mention of them being angry, there’s no mention of them being afraid of a coming judgment. My guess – they’re still stuck in the middle of the story. They’re stuck at that pivotal moment when the vineyard owner has sent all of his servants, save one – and he decides, he chooses to send his only son as his final emissary – to these rotten tenants who’ve mistreated, abused and killed all of his previous servants. “What is he doing? Why would he send his son? Doesn’t he know what they’re going to do?” All of these thoughts must have come flooding to mind.
For the vineyard owner, this last act, this one final play is made for the simple fact that he is yet unwilling to render condemnation. He is unwilling to usher down judgment. Instead, in response to the injustice that his servants have suffered, he reprocesses his anger into grace. The risk of losing the vineyard, and even the wretched and evil tenants is still too great, that he isn’t willing to risk all that he has and all that he is. THIS is the climax of the story. THIS is the key point in Jesus parable. It’s not the impending judgment on the tenants – it’s not the word that the religious leaders of the day heard. Certainly – if you’ve already rejected, if you already stand and condemn yourself – if you want to have nothing to do with Jesus, certainly there’s that word there. But, if you have ears to hear it – if you have a heart that is open to receive it – Jesus words are not about judgment and condemnation – they are about love and grace – love and grace that are greater than anything we could imagine. Love and grace that stagger our sensibilities.
We hear a lot of stories. We tell a lot of stories. Whether we realize it or not, these stories have a way of shaping us, a way of forming us. The story of God’s grace, love and faithfulness opens us up to be the kind of people that offer others grace, that offer others love, that offer ourselves in faithfulness.
Author and theologian Kenneth Bailey in his book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, shares a wonderful story about the late Hussein bin Talal, King of Jordan, that he relates to this vary parable of Jesus. What’s great about this story, is that Bailey, two decades after this story took place, was able to confirm that the incident took place – all of the best stories are really true, aren’t they?
One night in the early 1980s, the king was informed by his security police that a group of about seventy-five Jordanian army officers were at that very moment meeting in a nearby barracks plotting a military overthrow of the kingdom. The security officers requested permission to surround the barracks and arrest the plotters. After a somber pause the king refused and said, “Bring me a small helicopter.” A helicopter was brought. The king climbed in with the pilot and himself flew to the barracks and landed on its flat roof. The king told the pilot, “if you hear gun shots, fly away at once without me.”
Unarmed, the king then walked down two flights of stairs and suddenly appeared in the room where the plotters were meeting and quietly said to them:
“Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that you are meeting here tonight to finalize your plants to overthrow the government, take over the country and install a military dictator. If you do this, the army will break apart and the country will be plunged into civil war. Tens of thousands of innocent people will die. There is no need for this. Here I am! Kill me and proceed. That way, only one man will die.”
After a moment of stunned silence, the rebels as one, rushed forward to kiss the king’s hand and feet and pledge loyalty to him for life.
That kind of vulnerability is exactly what the vineyard owner did with his tenants. That kind of vulnerability is exactly what God did in Jesus Christ. That kind of vulnerability is exactly what Jesus invites us to take part in. Because it’s not just a story – it’s a true story – and when we experience that grace & love and faithfulness we are truly alive!