I came across this story the other day in Readers’ Digest in the dentist’s waiting room. A mother wrote in to say this, “Our 10 year old son Robin would invariably live in a complete mess. His bedroom was a sight to behold. Finally after all the nagging seemed to have failed, I wrote the following note and left it on his pillow:
Dear Robin, I wish I was clean and tidy like all the other rooms in the house. Please could you do something about this? Love, Bedroom.
Next day, to my surprise, I found the room spick and span, and Robin had left a note for me to find. It read,
Dear Bedroom, There you are. I hope you feel better now. Love, Robin. PS You’re beginning to sound just like my mother.
I guess you could say our parents are our earliest landlords. We live in their space. They have rightful authority over us. And yet from the word ‘go’ we show our natural inclination to reject that authority. Which is a picture of our relationship with our ultimate landlord, God. We live in his space, his world. He has rightful authority over us as his creatures. And yet likewise from the word ‘go’ we show our natural inclination to reject. This morning’s Bible passage in our series in Matthew’s Gospel is all about that rejection, its causes and its consequences.
So would you turn in the Bible to Matthew 21? If you’ve been with us in this series let me remind you what we’ve seen. At the beginning of Matthew 21 we saw how Jesus staged that entry into Jerusalem by which he was saying, “I am your rightful King.” And that claim brought him into conflict with the religious leaders of the day. They were supposed to have taught the Bible and lived it out in such a way that people would know what it was to be in relationship with God as King. Instead they twisted the Bible so as to avoid that central demand of putting God first. So they were religious on the outside but unrepentant, still rejecting on the inside. And that is why they found Jesus such a threat. Look at Matthew 21:23:
Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people [the leaders] came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
And Jesus answers their question by telling them a string of three parables. This morning we come to the second one. Like all the parables, the point of this one is to challenge us to see what is really going on at the spiritual level and challenge us to respond positively toward God whether for the first time or the umpteenth time. Three headings for this parable: the Ultimate Rejection, the Ultimate Reversal and the Ultimate Consequences.
First of all: THE ULTIMATE REJECTION
In v33 Jesus said,
Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall round it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.
If you were listening to the Old Testament reading we had, you’ll recognise that that is the story told by Isaiah.
I will sing for the one I love [by whom he meant God] a song about his vineyard [by whom he meant Israel, God’s people]. My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside ... He planted it with choicest vines. He (Is 5:1-2)
Jesus was talking to people who knew their Old Testament backwards and they would immediately have caught on to what he was on about. The landowner is God, the vineyard is the people of Israel and the tenant farmers are probably specifically the leaders.
34When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another and stoned a third. 36Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them in the same way. (Mt 21:34-36)
And so far, that is the story of the Old Testament. Those servants stand for the prophets, the spokesmen that God sent, calling people to live for him - that was the fruit that he expected.
Last of all, he sent his son to them. “They will respect my son,” he said. (v37)
You often hear it said that Jesus never explicitly claimed to be the Son of God. You hear liberal critics of the Gospel say that. In fact Jesus repeatedly said things that cannot be interpreted in any other way, and this is one of them. He’s clearly saying, ‘I’m not just one more in a line of prophets sent by God - I am God’s Son, unique.’
And his coming made possible the ultimate rejection.
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. [This is the guy who owns the place.] Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance. [Let’s have the place to ourselves.]’ (v38)
That is what the leaders of the day, the people Jesus is speaking to, did literally within days of Jesus speaking these words as they had him crucified care of Pontius Pilate.
So what do we learn from the first part of the parable? It’s the story of Israel, which is the story of the rejection of God. Israel was chosen not because she was different from us but because she was typical of us. The story of Israel is the story of every man, every woman.
I remember at infants’ school a visit from the local dentist, who came in with a giant fake jaw and a 3-foot toothbrush to teach us how to clean our teeth. He gave us each one of those pink pills where you brush your teeth, you drop the pill in a glass of water, you rinse and it shows you just how much gunge there is still on your teeth that has not been washed away. God choosing Israel and giving them his law is like the pink pill. It was designed to show up the rejection of God that otherwise would have been invisible in the human heart. The Old Testament law never intended to solve that problem but to show it up.
And so the lesson of the first part of the parable is: our fundamental problem is this deep-seated rejection of God. In computer terms, our default setting is against God. People think that when it comes to believing or not believing in God the fundamental problem is the mind. I was talking to a good friend the other day and he said, “But what about evidence - you’d have to give me evidence. Why has God not made himself obvious?” Israel’s experience gives the lie to that point of view - that it’s the mind which is the problem. These people have a massive privilege - they were on the receiving end of God making himself known. They had God in human flesh in this generation, living amongst them, and they rejected. Because the fundamental problem is not the mind and the evidence, but the will. So, with that same friend I mentioned, I said to him, “Well, let’s talk about the evidence.” We talked about Jesus. We talked about the evidence for the resurrection. I said, “Why don’t you look into it?” He said, “Well, I might later, but not now.” I said, “Why not now?” and he said, “Well, to be honest I feel a real antipathy toward God.” He doesn’t usually use words like ‘antipathy’ - it was very strange, but it was the perfect word to describe what the Bible says is our default attitude toward God.
Those of us who are believers can feel very insecure about all the rejection of the Gospel that we see around us. Matthew was a Jewish Christian writing for Jewish Christians, and the majority of their fellow Jews rejected. He knew that, like us, they would feel insecure. They would wonder ‘Is there something wrong with the Gospel?’ This parable, amongst others, says ‘No. Be reassured.’ All the rejection of the Gospel that we see around us, that we will see around us, this week of Carols by Candlelight and this Christmas, all the rejection of the Gospel, tells you not what is wrong with the Gospel but what is wrong with human nature - that it is naturally God-rejecting. But this passage isn’t primarily about friends like this one I’ve mentioned. He’s an unbeliever. He makes no pretence to be anything else. He’s irreligious. He doesn’t go to church. He doesn’t pretend to be anything but a decent irreligious Brit. This passage is not primarily about people like him. Jesus’ target audience is people like us - it’s people in church. Because there are 2 types of rejection of God - there’s irreligious and there’s religious like the people to whom Jesus was speaking. They labelled themselves God’s people. They were temple-goers; they were Bible-readers; they were Bible teachers; and yet in Jesus’ terms, they gave God no fruit. They so twisted the Bible, so watered down its message, that they essentially neutralised God’s demand on their lives. Which leaves you with religion without repentance. The warning of this parable is that is increasingly the form of sin to which we are most prone if we call ourselves insiders. Our danger is exactly the same, to water down, to avoid the claims of God in the Bible until we’ve neutralised it down to an hour on Sunday and ten minutes reading my Bible in the week. Well, that is easy actually. We forget that earlier in Matthew’s Gospel he records the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus spelt out what fruit really means, where he talks about the pure in heart, who recognise that their motives and their thoughts are under God’s scrutiny 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they live in the light of that. He calls us to forgive as he forgave at a vast pain and cost of dying for us on the cross. He calls us in that sermon to love our enemies, to love the people who are unlovable, who don’t love us back. That’s much, much harder. We want to domesticate that away and say ‘just an hour on Sunday, ten minutes a day.’ But Jesus says, ‘No, that is religious rejection.’ The ultimate rejection …
Secondly, THE ULTIMATE REVERSAL
Remember, Jesus is speaking to those who quite literally got rid of him. In this parable he paints a picture of them as confident that they can get rid of him and get away with it. But Jesus goes on at the end of his parable story,
Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? (v40)
Thinking about the world of the story, these people still have the sense to see that it can’t end at v39 - the tenants can’t have the last word, they can’t get away with it. The owner must ultimately step in and act. So they say,
He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest-time. (v41)
But they haven’t got the sense to see that the same is true outside the story in the real life that they occupy and that we occupy. In v42 Jesus goes on to say what is about to happen in real life.
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures [that is the Old Testament], ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone. The Lord has done this and it is marvellous in our eyes.’” (v42)
Slightly enigmatic stuff. What is that on about? It’s a quotation from Psalm 118. The Psalm comes from a time when God’s Old Testament people were under attack. The people around them were trying to overthrow their king in order to build their own empires. And God had turned the tables, the attackers had failed, and the king had survived. So this bit of Psalm 118 came to be written: ‘The stone [ie God’s king], the builders [ie the attackers] rejected has become the capstone [which is the old word for the most important stone in a building].’ People disagree as to whether it’s the foundation stone or the crucial topping off stone. It doesn’t really matter - it was the most important stone for the building. So the picture is of a building site and there is a stone lying there. The architect’s plan is that that stone is central to what he is building. And various other builders say ‘Well, actually we want to build differently. We want to get rid of that stone.’ So they chuck it out of the building site. Then the architect himself walks onto the site. He turns the tables by rescuing that stone, bringing it back and building on it. That’s the picture from Psalm 118, of God reversing the fortunes of his king. In v42 here Jesus is saying that reversal is about to be fulfilled on an even bigger scale than that. The stone is now Jesus himself, God’s son, our rightful king. The builders are the leaders of Israel, and they are about to crucify him, to throw him off the building site so they can get on with building their lives as they please. And they assume that they can get away with that. Jesus says, ‘Not so. Very soon you will realise the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone and that the Lord has done this.’ He’s actually talking about his resurrection. There are other parts of the Bible, like Acts 4, which make that clear. Jesus is saying, ‘You can reject me but you can’t ultimately get rid of me. I will go to the cross [which he was actually doing to pay for the very rejection that we’re talking about]. I will go to the cross but I will be raised from the dead to that position of first importance in the universe. I’m going to be the capstone.’ That is what happened. Read to the end of Matthew’s Gospel: chapter 27 is about the cross, chapter 28 is about the resurrection. He’s buried; his grave is found empty; he’s seen alive and in one of those final appearances he says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” In other words, you can reject me, but you cannot ultimately get rid of me, and you will ultimately have to reckon with me.
Those of us who are believers need to learn to try to say this kind of thing in today’s so-called post-modern world. Post-modernism says all beliefs are just our own private subjective beliefs so people say things to me like ‘Well, If you believe in God that’s your truth. I’m glad that you’ve got a faith. I’m glad that it helps you. I’m glad that it works for you. But please don’t tell me that I have to believe the same. Don’t start saying that some things are true for everyone. That is just arrogance; that is just imperialism.’
I’ve used this illustration before, but it makes a point. Imagine that we were to go sight-seeing. We went down to the castle and we go up to the roof to look over Newcastle and eventually I say, “It’s time to head down.” You say, “I agree.” And I see you swinging your leg over the parapet. I say, “What are you doing?” “I’m going down.” And I say, “Well, what about gravity? Why don’t we use the stairs” And you say, “Gravity may be your truth. Stairs may be your thing. I’m glad if they work for you.” Now, am I going to be a good post-modernist and leave you to the sincerity of your beliefs? Or am I going to keep talking and argue with you? I’m going to argue with you, because gravity is true for everyone regardless of whether or not they subjectively personally believe in it. And the Lordship of Jesus is likewise true for everyone regardless of whether or not they personally or subjectively believe in it. Jesus is not just there in heaven for me and fellow-Christians, like my virtual reality. He is there. He entered history. He died in history. He rose from the dead in history. And things that happen in history are by definition true for everyone.
So those of us who are believers need to keep making that clear, and saying ‘This is not my own personal, private opinion that I’ve cooked up. It’s something objective and out there that I happen to have become convinced of but it would still be true even if I’d rejected it.’
If you’re not yet a believer I hope you can understand that is what Christians are saying. We’re not saying “This is our opinion and you ought to share our opinion.” That would be the height of arrogance. Like me saying, “I think classical guitar is the best instrument in the world, and you all ought to play it as well.” I happen to, and I happen to believe that, but that would be the height of arrogance. We’re saying, “This is public truth, rooted in the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus. It’s true for all.” That’s why we’re doing all these carol services. If it were just a matter of taste, a lifestyle choice, would we go to all the bother of 8 carol services to invite people to consider it? No, we wouldn’t.
Ultimate rejection, ultimate reversal, and thirdly and lastly …
Finally, let’s look at what Jesus says to the first hearers of this parable.
Therefore I tell you [those leaders of Israel] that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. v43
Their rejection of him led to consequences in how God would work in the world from then on. Up until then he had made himself known through the nation of Israel. That was where the kingdom of God could be found. That was where you could come into relationship with God as King and find out what that meant. From now on, Jesus says, now that Israel has rejected him, the kingdom of God is going to shift. God is going to work not through a nation, but through an international body of believers in Jesus. That is where the kingdom of God is now to be found. And so their rejection precipitated that consequence. But it would also precipitate individual personal consequences for each of them unless they changed their minds.
He [singular] who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces but he [singular] on whom it falls will be crushed. (v44)
This is where He’s speaking to them as individuals. He’s picturing himself as a massive, unavoidable stone in their path, which ultimately at the end of the day, their life, they must meet. Either they will have already come to terms with him, and been reconciled to him, or they will trip over him to their ruin at the end of the day. Severe as it sounds, that is a loving warning.
Doubtless like me you sometimes drive through Northumberland, perhaps to go for a walk, and you see those signs on the A roads ‘57 deaths in 3 years’; a few more miles later ‘57 deaths in 3 years’ and you think, “Why do they spoil the countryside? Why are they trying to frighten me? Why are they trying to ruin my day off?” The answer is ‘They love me.’ Because there is something to be frightened of, that could really ruin my day off. It is the same here. Please let’s not mis-hear this warning. Whenever Jesus is speaking warnings like this it’s not because he wants it to happen, it’s precisely because he wants it not to happen. It is extraordinary that Jesus even at this 11th hour this 11.59 in the day hour, is speaking to those plotting to crucify him a parable which still gives them a window of opportunity to change their minds, be forgiven, change sides. It shows that for any of us here who feel that it is too late, it is not too late. However long or however strong your rejection of Christ has been, he will still have you back if you come. The 'if' is on your side, right up until midnight.
We believe that as we share the Gospel we need to reflect that in our patience, in our perseverance. Others may seem to have rejected the Gospel decidedly and finally, but we don’t know that, and it’s ours just to keep praying, keep holding out opportunities to reconsider the gospel in the hope that their story will end up not in v44 with that ultimate collision with Jesus but in v43 with that reconciliation with Jesus. As people recognise that he is king, I need to give up my rejection of him. I need to receive his forgiveness. I need to start life over again with him where he belongs. Jesus is risen and King. That part of the story is set in stone, to use Jesus’ words. Can’t be changed even if you don’t believe it.
But how each one of us responds to Jesus, how friends and family and colleagues and neighbours respond is the unfinished part of the story. Thank God, that can be changed. It’s our responsibility to take the opportunity to change ourselves and then take the opportunity to tell others to change.