Matthew 21:33-46 (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Series A)
“The True Son Is the Head of the Corner”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
October 4, 2020
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel lesson recorded in Matthew 21:
33Hear another parable. There was a man who was the master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, built a tower, and rented it out to farmers and went on a journey. 34When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his slaves to the farmers to receive his fruit. 35And the farmers took his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again, he sent other slaves, 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 the farmers, when they saw the son, said to themselves, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and let us have his inheritance.” 39And when they had taken him, they threw him outside of the vineyard and killed him. 40When, therefore, the master of the vineyard should come, what will he do to those farmers? 41They said to him, “He will severely destroy those evil ones and he will rent out the vineyard to other farmers who will give back to him the fruits in their seasons.” 42Jesus said to them, Have you never read in the Scriptures, “The stone which the builders rejected, this one has become the head of the corner; this happened from the Lord and it is marvelous in our eyes?” 43On account of this, I say to you, the reign and rule of God will be take away from you and it will be given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be dashed to pieces and the one upon whom it falls, it will crush him. 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parable, they realized that He spoke concerning them. And they were seeking to arrest Him, but they were afraid of the crowds since they held Him to be a prophet.
Jesus had cleansed the temple by the authority of God Himself. But the chief priests and elders of the people would not recognize Jesus’ divine authority even after they saw it in action. “By what authority do you do these things?” they demanded to know. “And who gave you this authority?” To put it a little differently, “Who do you think you are, Jesus?”
Two weeks ago I was flipping channels and ran across Jesus Christ, Superstar, Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s rock-opera, ever so loosely based on the Gospel of Mark. The question Jesus Himself is portrayed as having to answer is, “Who do you think you are?” The famous chorus asks, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, Who are you? What have you sacrificed? Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?” The crowds regarded Jesus as a prophet, so the religious leaders were afraid to arrest Jesus in front of them. But as for Jesus, He is no clueless Messiah. He is no mere man trying to figure out His place in life. Jesus is the God-Man, the True Son of God who came to do His Father’s will. This is again illustrated in Jesus’ parable spoken to Israel’s religious leaders who wanted to know, “By whose authority?”
Unlike the parable of the “yes-no” kid and the “no-yes” kid that we worked through last Sunday, the parable before us today presents us with a real strangeness. This is no ordinary story about everyday life. No ordinary vineyard owner who leased out his vineyard to tenant farmers ever did such a thing as portrayed in Jesus’ story. If his tenant farmers wouldn’t give him his rightful due of the fruit, he would have outright evicted them and punished them severely for the horrible abuse and murder inflicted upon those servants sent to do their master’s duty. The tenant farmers “beat one, killed one, and stoned one.” That should have been the end of it. The householder should have had these tenants arrested and punished according to the law, just as the chief priests and elders answered Jesus at the end of the story, “He will severely destroy those evil ones and he will rent out the vineyard to other farmers who will give back to him the fruits in their seasons.” But this crazy vineyard owner doesn’t do so at this point. He sent more servants to collect the fruit that belonged to him, hoping that the tenant farmers would have a change of heart. But they didn’t. The same fate met these servants, who numbered more than the first! Again, it should have stopped here, but no! The vineyard owner chooses to be patient and to have mercy. He would send his son because, “They will respect my son.”
As we look at the parable of our Lord, we understand the vineyard to represent Israel. The tenant farmers represent Israel’s religious leader—the chief priests and elders. The groups of slaves sent to collect the fruit stand in for the Old Testament prophets. The vineyard owner is God the Father and the Son . . . Jesus Himself. And this strange, out-of- -ordinary-life story spoken by Jesus ends with the Son of the Father dead. The chief priests and elders of the people have already rejected Jesus. They do not see in His words and works the divine authority of God. They will arrest Him. And they will kill Him.
Jesus appropriated the words of Psalm 118 to Himself. He is “The stone which the builders rejected.” He was, in the words of Isaiah, “despised and rejected by men” (Is. 53:3 ESV). The religious leaders denied that Jesus’ ministry was carried out in the power of the Holy Spirit. They persisted in the sin of unbelief. Just days after hearing Jesus’ parables and knowing that “He was speaking about them,” Jesus was arrested in the privacy of the Garden of Gethsemane in the middle of the night, far away from the crowds that they so feared. Jesus was condemned to death under Pontius Pilate. The religious leaders got their way. Jesus was led “outside the vineyard,” outside the city of Jerusalem, to Golgotha. There He was put to death on a cross. He died. He was buried.
Jesus’ parable had ended with the death of the vineyard owner’s son and with the announcement of certain punishment for the son’s killers and with new tenant farmers chosen to care for the vineyard (ironically spoken by the religious leaders themselves). There would be vindication and exaltation for that rejected stone, the rejected Son. He would receive the highest place of honor—the head of the corner—despite the rage of His foes. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. He is the Victor over sin and death. What the religious leaders refused to believe, what they rejected, was that Jesus, the True Son of the Father, was giving up His life into death by the authority and mercy and grace of God to save them and all people from their sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. From the cross, our Lord prayed, “Father, forgive them.”
That’s the blessing of the reign of God come among people in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The blessings of forgiveness and eternal life, the gift of salvation that Jesus brings—that’s the reign of God. Jesus brought that reign and the blessings of the reign of God to the religious leaders and to the people whom they were supposed to shepherd and care for faithfully. Before their very eyes, the Christ, God’s True Son, worked miracles and preached the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. But these religious leaders rejected Him and God’s reign. And so they rejected its blessings, too.
As then, so also now. There are those who willfully reject the reign of God in Jesus Christ and there are those who receive it by grace through faith. To reject Christ and His saving work, His forgiveness, and eternal life means to lose the blessings of God’s reign and rule. Those who reject our Lord will be rejected and will fall short of the blessings that Jesus longs to give to everyone. Those who reject will fall in unbelief on this stone and they will be crushed. As Jesus said to the religious leaders, “On account of this, I say to you, the reign and rule of God will be take away from you and it will be given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be dashed to pieces and the one upon whom it falls, it will crush him.”
On the other hand, those who receive the reign and rule of God in Christ by faith apprehend the blessings of His reign and then produce its fruit. In Jesus Christ alone is found your salvation from sin and death. Through the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, you receive by faith the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. This is the gift of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, who delivers to us in body and soul the blessings of the reign through Word and Sacrament. With His grace and mercy, God continues to be patient. He spares people the judgment of our Lord’s return so that many more people who have not heard, and those who have rejected, might come to know the True Son of the Father by faith and, by believing, have life in His name (John 20:31). By the Gospel, you have this life, the blessings of God in Christ. By this Gospel, you produce the fruits of the reign of God in your lives.
To say it another way, as we live the life of faith under God’s reign, we are “living sacrifices” to our God. By the help of the Holy Spirit, we dedicate our lives to the Lord as we love and serve our neighbors. Each member of the Church, Christ’s Body, serves with his or her particular gift or gifts. We share with others the blessings of the reign—forgiveness, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness. We proclaim the Good News of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins so that more people may hear this Good News and that the Holy Spirit might use that Gospel message to create saving faith when and where He pleases.
Jesus’ strange and terrible story spoken against the chief priests and elders is certainly God’s Word of Law. It is spoken to show us how dangerous and serious it is to reject the reign of God that Jesus brings to all people. But more than that, this parable tells us that we have a God of mercy and grace who desires, not the death of the sinner, but that the sinner be brought to repentance and faith in the Son whom the Father has sent to be Savior of all. Our Father has loved us so much that He sent His One-of-a-Kind Son to die for us on a cross and rise again from the grave so that, by grace through faith, we might receive the blessings of His reign and rule in the forgiveness of sins and the life everlasting. The once-rejected stone, Jesus the Son, is now the Head of His holy Church. And He has made us members of His Body so that we might produce the fruits of the reign of God and return them to our Father in heaven as we show love and mercy to others in the name of Jesus. Amen.