MAtthew 21 33-46 2008 Study and Sermon
Pentecost 21 (Proper 22), October 5, 2008
Old Parable, New Ending
Sermon Theme: Let us be the new ending of the old parable: placed in God’s vineyard by grace, let us render its fruit and receive his Son.
Text: Matthew 21:33–46
Other Lessons: Isaiah 5:1–7; Psalm 80:7–19; Philippians 3:4b–14
Goal: That hearers will rejoice at being placed in God’s vineyard, be warned by the example of the wicked tenants, render the fruit of the vineyard, and receive God’s Son rejected but raised for our sins.
Rev. Peter K. Lange, STM, senior pastor, St. John Lutheran Church, Topeka, Kansas
Beginning last Sunday and continuing through these waning Sundays of the Church Year, the appointed Gospels are all from the week leading up to our Lord’s death. Today’s Old Testament Reading from Is 5:1–7 is important background for the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel text, as is especially evident from the LXX version of Isaiah 5. Clearly Jesus—and his hearers—have Isaiah’s tragic “love song” in mind as he introduces our text. The Collect should have a similar impact on us; it connects the Gospel parable, in which God’s people reject Christ, to us: “Forgive us when we reject Your unfailing love.” By God’s grace it is a prayer he answers by granting us the “fullness of [his] salvation.”
This is the second of three parables spoken by Jesus shortly after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (cf. last week’s Gospel, 21:23–27 [28–32]; and next week’s, 22:1–14). All three parables are spoken, in succession, after the chief priests and elders of the people had questioned Jesus’ authority (21:23). By this late point in Jesus’ ministry, the division between him and the leaders of the Jewish people is sharply drawn. Our Lord’s imminent death, resurrection, and sending of the Spirit at Pentecost (“When . . . the owner of the vineyard comes,” v 40) are important for understanding Jesus’ words to the Jewish leaders.
V 33: “Vineyard . . . dug . . . winepress . . . tower.” The details are unmistakably drawn from Is 5:1–2. Besides being one of three parables in a row, this is also one of three vineyard parables in the Gospel of Matthew (20:1–16; 21:28–32).
V 34: “He sent his servants.” A reference to the Old Testament prophets.
V 35: “Beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” Note the progressively harsher treatment of the servants. Death by stoning was an even more shameful way to be killed.
V 36: “Other servants, more than the first.” Again, a progression from the first group of servants, now to more servants, then finally to the son of the vineyard owner.
V 37: “Finally he sent his son.” Likely the son brought and could exercise legal authority that the first servants could not.
V 39: “Threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” So, too, Jesus was killed “outside the gate” (Heb 13:12–13). (See also Lev 24:14, 23; Num 15:36; Deut 17:5.)
V 41: “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death.’ ” By this statement the Jewish leaders condemned themselves, just as King David did with his reaction to the parable spoken by the prophet Nathan (2 Sam 12:5–6).
V 42: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” From Ps 118:22 (the appointed psalm for Easter Sunday in the one-year Lectionary; quoted also in the Introit for this day).
V 43: “A people.” Not just Gentiles in general and all-inclusive (since this is a singular form of the noun), but rather the Church, which is comprised of Gentiles as well as Jews. (See the comments below.)
V 44: “And the one who falls . . .” Some manuscripts omit this verse.
V 45: “The chief priests and the Pharisees.” This, along with v 23 (“the chief priests and the elders of the people”), indicates who the audience is.
The two main subjects of the pericope are the master of the vineyard (i.e., the Lord) and the vineyard tenants (i.e., the chief priests and the Pharisees, vv 23, 45). The text speaks of what the Lord has done (established a vineyard, supplied it well, sent servants and his Son to receive its fruit) and what he will do (return to his vineyard, take the vineyard away from its wicked tenants and put them to death, let out the vineyard to other tenants). The parable also speaks, implicitly, of what the unbelieving leaders of the Jewish people have done and will suffer as a result of what they have done.
However, this pericope is certainly not only about the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day. The application to us today is that we have been placed in the same tenant shoes as the Jewish leaders originally were. Rather than repeat their mistake, we should be warned by their error so that the kingdom is not taken from us also.
In other words, with respect to the tenants, there is a two-sided interpretation—first, the fact of what actually happened to the Jewish leaders, and second, the continuing warning of what could happen to us if we prove unfaithful tenants. With respect to the Lord, however, there is no double interpretation. He remains “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8). Both his loving acts and his just expectations remain for us today.
In short, the Law is this: the Lord demands that the tenants of his vineyard (i.e., his kingdom) render the fruit of his vineyard. The fruit of the vineyard is repentance and faith, along with perfect love toward God and neighbor, which faith produces. The Lord also demands that those in his kingdom receive his Son and also other messengers, whom the Lord sends in his name. Just as God did with the Jewish leaders who rejected him, so will he put to a miserable death and take his kingdom away from all who reject him.
The Gospel is that by his sheer grace, the Lord has established a vineyard (i.e., his kingdom) and wonderfully supplied it with gifts that will enable an abundant harvest. Though the tenants of God’s vineyard/kingdom rebel against him, in love God sends his own Son to restore his vineyard and its tenants. And though the tenants reject and kill the master’s own Son, the Lord raises up his Son and makes him the chief cornerstone. By God’s grace, the Lord has placed us in his vineyard/kingdom today. And he continues to send his Son to us and to our listeners through the ministry of his Holy Christian Church.
V 43: ethnei: The rare singular form of the noun (cf. only Mt 24:7) supports the interpretation that the kingdom of God will be given, not generally to the Gentiles, but to a more defined, unified, and singular group, e.g., the Church. A. J. Saldarini (Matthew’s Christian-Jewish Community [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994], 58–63) observes that ethnos often refers to a voluntary organization or small social group (cited in W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 19–28: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, International Critical Commentary Series [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004], p. 186, note 71).
Introduction: Believe it or not, some of the best sermons might come from out of the files. If it was good years ago, why not preach it again? If it worked last time, why shouldn’t it work again?
Fact is, this sermon isn’t out of the files, but in our text Jesus does essentially draw upon an old sermon, a musical parable the prophet Isaiah had sung seven centuries earlier. Jesus wasn’t above using something that had worked once before. Only problem was that this old parable hadn’t seemed to work last time. This time, Jesus wants a completely different result. Will he get it?
2. Will the old parable—Isaiah’s—bring a new ending when recast by Jesus (v 33)?
a. Jesus draws his parable from a love song the Lord sang through Isaiah seven hundred years earlier (Is 2:1–4).
(1) The vineyard Isaiah was singing about was Israel and Judah, God’s chosen people.
(2) God had loved them with a rich land, protection from enemies, his continuous presence in temple, and, best of all, the promise of the coming Messiah.
b. But this love song turned tragic.
(1) His vineyard brought forth wild grapes—idolatry, injustice, bloodshed—anything but rightly bearing the torch of a coming Savior to the world.
(2) Even when God sent a line of prophets to warn them, they failed to bear fruit.
(3) So what would the Lord do to his vineyard? He would lay it waste (Is 2:5–6).
c. Unmistakably, Jesus’ recasting of Isaiah’s tragic love song is intended to be about the Jewish leaders of his day (vv 34–41).
(1) They were heirs of the promise—still the nation through which the Messiah would come, still blessed with God’s presence, still warned by God’s prophets.
(2) And God expected them to bear fruit—to welcome the Messiah and show him to the nations.
d. Would the Jewish leaders heed Jesus’ new telling of the old parable, or would they repeat the tragic ending of Old Testament Israel?
(1) The last messenger of the master, the Son, was now among them, and they were plotting to kill him.
(2) No, they would not repent, the stone would fall on them, and they would be broken to pieces—the same ending as the first time the old parable was told (vv 42–46).
1. Will the old parable—Jesus’—bring a new ending when retold today?
a. Two thousand years later, Jesus’ words are now the old parable for us.
(1) Like God’s people of old, we, too, have been placed in God’s vineyard/kingdom by his grace.
(2) In this kingdom, God lavishly supplies us with those things that nurture fruit (i.e., his Word and Sacraments).
(3) He continually sends us his servants—pastors—just as God sent the Old Testament prophets.
(4) Above all, God sent us his Son.
b. We retell this old parable among us today to move us to render the fruit of the vineyard and receive those whom he sends to us, especially his Son.
(1) The fruit of the vineyard is repentance, faith, and the love toward God and neighbor that flows from faith.
(2) All of this is what Christ, God’s Son, came to nurture in us.
c. Too often, we also fall into the same tragic ending of the old parable.
(1) We show ourselves to be unfaithful tenants of God’s kingdom whenever we do not demonstrate love toward God and neighbor as the fruit of faith and whenever we do not receive God’s Son, who comes to us through Word and Sacrament.
(2) Too often we fail to bear this fruit of love for God and neighbor in the vocations into which he has placed us. Give examples.
(3) Such sin renders us deserving of losing the kingdom and being put to eternal death.
d. But God sent his Son, Jesus, to save the vineyard and its tenants.
(1) Jesus was perfectly faithful in his vocation and mission to seek and save the lost.
(2) Though he was rejected and killed, God raised him from the dead and placed him as the cornerstone of his Church.
Conclusion: Today you are blessed, once again, that God’s Son is coming to you through his Word and Sacrament. Therefore,
Let Us Be the New Ending of the Old Parable: Placed in God’s Vineyard by Grace, Let Us Render Its Fruit and Receive His Son.