You Be the Judge


Times New RomanArial

Sometimes in sport's TV they have a commercial where you make the call. A replay will be shown and you're suppose to make the correct call. This 5th Sunday in Lent is like that. It's called Judica from the first word of the Latin Introit: "Vindicate [or judge] me, O God." We're real close to the Passion now, and Jesus in our text calls us to judge correctly.

You be the judge of the Church leaders. In the parable Jesus doesn't say they're tenants of God's vineyard. No, they are farmers. The word the bulletin incorrectly translates "tenants," it first translates correctly as "farmers." Get out of your head any sort of Law relationship or business deal. The word the bulletin translates "rented" is the word for "give up" or "surrender." As God gave it up to Church leaders, so Jesus later in text says He'll "give" it to others.

What's front and center as Jesus speaks to the people about their Church leaders is God's grace to them. They were suppose to tend His vineyard for Him while He was away. This was a relationship of grace not law, of love not legal requirements. Since God was an absentee owner, it's only natural for Him to expect fruit from it. Therefore, in due course He sends a slave to get some of the fruit. But these farmers who have this wonderful vineyard by grace: beat him and send him away with nothing. Another slave is sent, and they not only beat him but treat him shamefully before sending him away with nothing. Then a third was sent whom the farmers wound and throw out with nothing.

Whom were these slaves? The prophets who God sent day after day, time and again to His Church. Earlier in Luke Jesus had said that Jerusalem had killed every prophet ever sent to it. In Acts 7 Stephen can ask, "Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute?", and these Church leaders can't say, "Well, there was this one or that one," because they had persecuted them all.

"You be the judge of your Church leaders," Jesus says to the people. See God's grace to them and see their wholesale rejection of that grace and of His prophets. More than that, see what they will do the Son of the Owner of the vineyard. These farmers who had been given a wonderful vineyard will plot to kill the Son, so they can become the heirs. While the bulletin has Jesus asking the people, "What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them," Jesus really asks, "What then will the Lord of the vineyard do to them?" Let the people not be mistaken; their leaders are prepared to kill the Son of their Lord.

You be the judge of the Church leaders, but you can't really make that call without first judging the Lord of the vineyard. If you still have a landlord - tenant understanding of this parable, you don't see the Church leaders' real crime. It's not uncommon for people in business to refuse to pay rent, to abuse people trying to collect the rent, and even to kill the son of the owner in order to try to take over the business. So if this is a landlord - tenant business deal what the Church leaders did is still wrong, but it's not abominable, it's not horrendous, it's not even all that rare.

What's got you confused is the slaves coming for "some of the fruit of the vineyard." What fruit did the prophets seek? What fruit did Jesus seek? What fruit do godly pastors seek from churches? Did the prophets seek sacrifices? Read you're Old Testament; the Church leaders had loads of sacrificing going on. Did Jesus seek tithes? Read the New Testament; Jesus says the Church leaders did that. Do godly pastors come seeking people to do this or that, to give this or that, to sacrifice this or that for Jesus? If Jesus, the prophets, or godly pastors sought works of the Law, they never would be persecuted. What got prophets persecuted, Jesus crucified, and godly pastors attacked is seeking people's sins.

The prophets all came seeking repentance. They wanted people to give their sins to God. John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, proclaimed, "Repent." Jesus came seeking lost sheep not something from sheep. He sought what He could do for the blind, the lame, the deaf, and demon possessed not what they could do for Him. Jesus, His prophets of old and His pastors of today seek sins and sinners, and this absolutely infuriates Church leaders and anyone else who doesn't believe they have sins. Such people will give you their money, their righteousness, their dedication, their works, their mission mindedness but they have no sins to give, and they absolutely hate anyone who suggests they do.

You be the judge of the Lord of the Church. All He came looking for from His vineyard was sins. "Come unto to Me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest," but the leaders wouldn't come to Him for rest. They would come to work, but not to rest in the forgiveness of sins. "Come buy wine and milk from Me without money or cost," the Lord of the Church called, but they wanted no wine or milk from the Lord that they didn't pay for. They would pay their own way thank you very much. All Jesus wanted was to be their Savior, be the Lamb of God that carries away their sins, be the Ransom for their sins, be their Light, their Door, be their Physician, Friend, and Good Shepherd, but rather than have Jesus be their everything, they had to be something. They couldn't stand being nothing. (Here recall last Sunday's sermon.)

You be the judge of the Lord of vineyard. He Himself asks this in Isaiah 5, "Judge between Me and My vineyard. What more was there to do for My vineyard that I have not done in it?" He gave the vineyard not rented it. He wanted the only fruit that sinners can produce which is sin. He didn't just send a prophet, or some prophets, but as He says in Jeremiah, "Since the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them." God pictures Himself as a nervous Landowner who can't sleep sending more and more help to His people.

Of course, the greatest thing He did was send His Son. You be the judge of such love. Try to get your head or heart around such love. Would you send your dear child to evil, wicked people on a mere "perhaps?" After seeing His prophets misused, abused, and wounded, the Lord says, "I will send My Son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect Him." And don't twist this to mean God sent Jesus to get rent from His Church, the tithe, the good works they should be doing. He sent His Son to save them, to take their sins away, and they murdered Him.

I judge the Lord of the vineyard to have more love for sinners than I dared believe. This love, as a hymn says, does demand my soul, my life, my all, but first it demands my sins, all my sins, not just the ones I think He can forgive, but particularly the ones I think He can't, and especially those things I don't think need forgiving: the things I justify, excuse. Dump all of those sins on Jesus. That's the fruit He's looking for. That's what He was sent to earth to bear, to suffer, to die and pay for.

You be the judge: are you a Church leader who thinks God sent Jesus to get works from you? Do you think Church is about what you do for God? Do you view your giving, helping, or serving as rent payments? Then no wonder you resent Him; no wonder you make excuses not to come to Church. Here God piles on burdens rather than takes your burdens away.

You be the judge: are you one of the Church leaders in the text, or are you one of the people. Jesus speaks this parable about Church leaders to the people. He declares judgment on the unbelieving leaders but promises the Church will still be there for the people. He says, "What will the Lord of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those farmers and give the vineyard to others." But how do the people react? What do the people say when they hear those who've made them feel continually guilty by telling them they had to do more, give more, work harder will be judged? Were they elated that the Church would be preserved for them and the wicked Church leaders punished? No, these poor sheep say, "May this never be."

Now you be the judge of what follows. The bulletin says, "Jesus looked directly at them." What an impoverished translation! This word for look is the one used for Jesus looking upon the rich young man whom He loved. It's the word for that famous look Jesus gave to Peter after the rooster crowed, the look we celebrate in hymns as recalling people to repentance and faith. One commentator says it is a loving, winning look. This is how Jesus looks at these poor people who've just said they don't want the Lord to punish their leaders and give them the vineyard!

So Jesus says to them and to you, "Well, then you be the judge." The Scripture predicted that the builders of the Church would reject Christ the Stone and that nevertheless He would become the most important in the building. Will you stumble and fall at Christ not being your landlord but your Lord, at Him coming to get your sins, to lead you to repentance? If you stumble on this Christ, you will be broken to pieces as were the Church leaders, the temple, and all who held on to the error that the true faith was about sinners doing things for God.

Or will Christ land on you and crush the pride, the self-sufficiency, the sins right out of you? Will He lead you to confess that you have nothing God needs, that all you have are sins which you cannot bear, cannot make better, cannot live with or without? Will you be led to see that Christ has given this vineyard, this Church to you, and here through His Word and Sacraments is all the repentance, all the faith, and all the works you will ever need till kingdom come? You be the judge. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Lent V (3-28-04); Luke 20: 9-19