The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:7-16; Luke 20:9-19

Presumption is one of the most insidious of sins. We all want to think that we are the most deserving, the most important, the center of our own universes. What we don’t understand is that humility and self-honesty are actually tremendously empowering, and that one of the greatest gifts to us is our capacity to recognize our limits. Consider Frodo: Why is he ultimately successful in resisting the temptation of the ring just long enough to get it where it needs to go? Because from the start he says, I am probably the worst person for this job according to strength, wisdom, or ability, but I’m willing. That humility and self-honesty is his greatest strength, as it prevents him from believing that he is worthy to touch the ring of power, let alone wield it as a tyrant.

Jesus is here speaking to the group of religious leaders known as the Pharisees, and uses a parable, a story that describes a group given great position and power by God, but who fail in their stewardship of it. In verse 9, he gives the setting: Read. This vineyard is the land of Israel, the place that God gave to the Hebrew people to settle in. The land is the Lord’s, which God planted (158 references in Deut. about the land, about half that say, “the land which God is giving you.”) This is God’s land. They are but tenants, people God has allowed to live there as long as they fulfill their obligation. And what is that obligation? To believe in God and to receive his word.

But, Israel hasn’t. They kept the trappings of obedience, or sometimes not even that, and disobeyed and worshiped other gods, oppressed the poor, and did not believe God and his promises to them, seeking rather to fulfill those through violence and greed. As such, when God sent messengers to them, those messengers were cast out.

Who are these messengers? The prophets of the Old Testament, such as Samuel, Elijah, and Isaiah, and how they were hated and rejected for informing the people who received God’s gift that they were failing to believe and obey him. But Jesus goes on and says, “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’”

The analogy here is clear to us. If they have not listened to my messengers, maybe my son, my only begotten Son, the one who represents me and my wishes to them will be listened to and respected. Of course, they don’t respect the Son. They reject the Son as well, and in a double meaning which points to his own crucifixion, Jesus states that they kill the Son. The result? The owner of the land will come and destroy the tenants.

The tenants are the people of Israel. Now we have to be careful here, so we don’t list into anti-Jew rhetoric or thinking, a mistake many in the Church have made before us and by all accounts a sin. It isn’t a racial issue here, but rather, a choice for the whole nation of Israel to either receive God’s word in humility and repentance, or do reject it out of pride and presumption. The wholesale rejection of God in Christ in the crucifixion of Jesus is the final existential decision in the life of the nation, and as the nation failed, so the nation ended. That this is the result of rejecting Christ is made clear in the next verses: But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’?”

This is a reference to Psalm 118, which originally pointed to the temple but which Jesus connects to himself, and then binds it together with this verse: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” The stone that crushes is a reference to Daniel chapter 2, where a stone comes down and crushes a statue that represents all human empires and powers. So what is the meaning? The tenants are those who presume to be God’s people, but who in fact reject God, and the Son sent is actually the cornerstone, and the tenants who reject the Son will not be blessed by the cornerstone, but crushed by it. Jesus Christ is a blessing to those in the Church who follow him, but a curse to those in the Church that do not. The confession of their mouths does not match the belief of their hearts, or they would not be so filled with hate, violence, and pride.

These, supposedly the leading religious figures of their day, realized their part in the story Jesus told, and then sought to fulfill the very thing he said of them. That is why I specifically have restricted its message today to those of us who say we call on the name of the Lord, who say we are blessed and favored by God and yet reject him through what is truly in our hearts and in our actions. How many figures of authority in the churches of today have abused their power in exactly this way? How many of the abused have been shut up and condemned for challenging the authority of the supposed “men of God”? How many regular Christians, compelled by the ministries of the powerful, give them a pass or condemn the words of those who are prophets, because they will “undermine” their ministries? Rachael Denhollander, instrumental in bringing down the predator Larry Nassar in 2016, faced such condemnation in her own church because she raised concerns about their handling of abuse cases, and because she dared to ask, “what is a little girl worth?” Expanded, the question is, “what is a human worth?” And why do we let those who reject our prophets off? No Christian is ever allowed to say with a straight face that any of us are too great to fall.

That is a warning to us: Do we believe ourselves the holy ones, when in fact we look more like the statue in Daniel? That statue represents everything wrong in the world, and against Christ it is crushed. Do we love Jesus? Or, when faced with those whom Jesus identified with, the poor, weak, victimized, and unvalued of the world, do we react with revulsion, rejection, avoidance? Do we believe that power is the ultimate goal to attain? If so, as those who claim to love Jesus, we will be crushed by the rock, because while we claim him we look nothing like him. But I won’t end on this rather negative estimation of the state of humanity. Rather, Hear the Gospel of the Lord:

Jesus Christ brings salvation, which is a gift of God and cannot be earned. This means recognizing that we are not sufficient, and that even within the Church we are susceptible to presumption and hypocrisy, perhaps the greatest of sins. But it also means that we know what becoming truly human looks like: A human being fully alive, meaning a person who is in Christ, whose heart is Christ’s, and so whose life bears witness to the love of Christ. To say we need God is to say that Christ needed to go to the cross for us, and rose again for us.  To say we need God is to become fully alive. So let us all come to the altar, open our hands in faith, and receive God’s gift of life. Amen.

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