Beloved. Our present Church year is slowly winding down. Although we are in the long Trinity season, which this year has 24 weeks—a bit shorter than other years, it is not an endless random selection of Bible readings and prayers. Instead, there is a flow and pattern. Last week, we entered a new cycle of the Trinity Season. This cycle is called St. Michael’s Tide. It is named after the Archangel St. Michael. We remember the work of the holy angels as being one of fighting the devil and the demons, as fighting to protect us, our Lord’s dear Christians, and of carrying out our Lord’s will. In this cycle of the Trinity Season, we are reminded of our spiritual battle against the devil and his temptations; we are reminded that we are fighting against the allure of the world that calls us away from faith in Jesus; we are reminded that we are fighting against our own sinful nature.
In a few days is Reformation Day—this year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We celebrated the Reformation as a circuit with the circuit Reformation service yesterday. It was 500 years ago that Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses on the castle church door calling for a debate on the practice and misuse of the indulgences. That got the ball rolling for the Reformation. At the heart of the Reformation is the heart and core of the Christian faith: we are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ. This was not something Luther invented. Instead, it is the basic teaching of the prophets of the OT and apostles of the NT. It is simply the work of Jesus—for us and our salvation.
The devil wants nothing more than to destroy faith in Jesus. That’s why from the very beginning the devil brought about all sorts of false teaching and heresies. That’s why he got people looking to themselves and their supposed good works instead of relying alone on Jesus and His holy life and innocent suffering and death. He tries to lead us into despair over our sins. In short, the devil tries to obscure to us the saving work of Jesus for us and for our salvation. He tries to get us to take our eyes off of Jesus, off of God’s grace to us in Jesus.
That’s why the Reformation is not just that one-time event of Luther nailing the 95 Theses against indulgences that he wanted debated. The Reformation is a daily event in our lives as we, by the strength and leading of the Holy Spirit in us, strive to keep looking to Jesus as our only Savior from sin, death, devil and hell; as we fight against the temptations and allures of the devil, the world and our own sinful self; as we don’t listen to our hearts but cling to the word, promise and work of our Lord Jesus. The Reformation—the daily Reformation in our own life—is still all about Jesus. It was then, and still is today in our own hearts and lives, a spiritual battle.
That’s why today’s readings are so fitting! In today’s epistle we hear St. Paul telling us: Consider carefully, then, how you walk, not as unwise people, but as wise people. Make the most of your time, because the days are evil. For this reason, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. He calls us to watch our heart, our self, our actions. What is this, but a life of repentance and humility! We have to be on guard especially here because it is especially here that we see that those who are most loudly claiming to be God’s people, to be a faithful Christian, are the ones in greatest danger of ultimately rejecting our Lord. If we do not live in repentance and humility but instead take great pride and boast of our apparent Christianity, then we are obviously not taking our sin seriously; we easily fall prey to the thought that one little sin won’t hurt me, that I can pull myself away from sin, that I don’t have to watch my life—I’ll be ok. St. Paul warns elsewhere [1 Cor. 10.12[: Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.
Today’s Gospel reading is also a warning that Jesus gives against abusing God’s grace and patience. Abusing/ taking for granted God’s grace and patience is a temptation from the devil that we must all face and battle. May we always recognize God’s grace and patience toward us sinners and treasure it; may we never use it as an excuse to sin or continue on in sin.
In today’s text, we find Jesus teaching in the temple on Tuesday of Holy Week—a few days after His triumphal entry on Palm Sunday and a few days before His betrayal and arrest. Here, with sharp preaching of Law but in grace, Jesus is calling the religious leaders of the Jews to repent. In fact, right after our text, the holy Evangelist reports: when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived He was speaking about them. Jesus was calling them to repentance for their sin of abusing God’s grace and patience and of rejecting Him as the long awaited Savior. Jesus begins the parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. This is a wonderful way of Jesus describing how God made the Israelites His people—the people from whom the Savior of the world would come. God the Father is that landowner who planted a vineyard, that is He, out of pure grace and mercy, promised Abraham that he would be the ancestor of the Messiah. Through Abraham’s son Isaac, his son Jacob, and his 12 sons the Israelites came—and one of those 12 sons was Judah, from whom would eventually come David and then finally Mary and Jesus. The Israelite nation was that vineyard. God so richly blessed the Israelites, that vineyard—the people from whom the Savior would come. He put a fence around them. A fence protects. With His holy angels the Lord so richly blessed and protected the Israelites. Think of all the marvelous ways He did so—He rescued them from slavery in Egypt; brought through the Red Sea and settled them in the Promised Land. Not only did He protect them physically, but He gave them His holy Law. His holy Law was to keep them separate and distinct from the people around them so that they wouldn’t adopt their ways of sin; through His holy Law God was wanted to prepare a holy people who would be prepared and welcome Him, their Savior when He comes.
Jesus then says the landowner… dug a winepress in it. The landowner was expecting a harvest—a great harvest—and so he had a winepress already there in the vineyard. This certainly points to the temple in Jerusalem the Lord had Solomon build. There the Lord has His word proclaimed to the people. And there you had all the sacrifices performed—the very sacrifices that pointed the people forward to Jesus’ perfect once for all sacrifice for the sins of the world.
Then we read and [the landowner] built a tower. This was certainly a guard tower to watch for either people or animals that would come to destroy the garden. Here in the parable it represents the kings whose duty it was to protect the people from their enemies and to be a godly ruler making sure the temple and worship in it would be carried out.
What happens next? He leased it out to some tenant farmers and went away on a journey. He entrusts the vineyard tenant farmers. That great journey—it would be a good while that the Lord would not let His Face be seen. In His absence, the Lord entrusted the vineyard, His people, His OT Church to tenant farmers, that is, to the religious leaders of the Jews. With all the work God had put into His vineyard, His OT people, it was certainly a great trust that He was showing them. And what becomes of that trust?
Jesus continues: When the time approached to harvest the fruit, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. The landowner—because of the care he showed—didn’t just expect any fruit, but the best fruit. So he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. What was the fruit that the Lord God was expecting from the Israelites, to whom He had shown every grace and given every spiritual advantage? He was expecting sorrow over sin—which His holy Law had shown; He was expecting faith in the coming Savior—which He had promised in His word and whose work He foreshadowed in the temple sacrifices; He was expecting joyous obedience out of faith and love. So He sent His holy prophets to receive that fruit.
And what happened? The tenant farmers seized his servants. They beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Here is the picture of the Israelites who, led by their religious leaders, rejected the prophets who had come from God preaching a message of repentance, preaching a message of faith in the coming Savior. Repentance and faith—that was the fruit God expected from His people—but they rejected the prophets, even persecuting and killing them. So what did God do? Then the landowner sent even more servants than the first time. Here we see the great patience of God. And is that great patience rewarded by the fruits He expected to receive? The tenant farmers treated them the same way.
So in great mercy and patience, what does the landowner/ God the Father do? Finally, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance!’ They took him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. This is where Jesus specifically addresses this parable against the religious leaders of the Jews. Here it is clear that the religious leaders of the Jews had hardened their hearts against Jesus, the Son. They rejected His teaching and they rejected His miracles, which confirmed His teaching. And then there’s that phrase which is so telling: ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance!’ They knew Jesus not just as a mere prophet but as the Son of God, This is the heir, and still they killed Him.
Jesus here also, then, prophesizes His death at the hands of these religious leaders: They took him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him and that He would be killed outside of Jerusalem.
In an amazing irony, Jesus has His enemies pronounce their own verdict on themselves. So when the landowner comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?” They told him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end. Then he will lease out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his fruit when it is due.” We saw that happen as the Gospel went out into the world to the non-Jews so that within a short span Christianity goes from a predominately Jewish religion to one that is predominately non-Jewish. And we see Jerusalem and the temple destroyed 40 years after Jesus first spoke this parable.
The warning for us is clear, dear Christian: we are not immune to falling away from and rejecting our Lord, like the religious leaders here did. Just like the Lord did everything in planting that vineyard for the OT people, so too did He do for us. We’re not Christians because of what we have done but because of what God had done for us and continues to do for us. He brought us to faith in holy baptism, where He washed away our sin and brought us in His holy family. He has nourished us all throughout the years by His holy word and by His body and blood, actually coming to us and uniting Himself to us with His graces and gifts. He also shows us great grace and patience when we sin—richly forgiving us for Jesus’ sake. But we dare not abuse it/ take it for granted. The Lord has done everything for us and looks for the fruit of sorrow over sin, faith in Jesus our Savior and joyful obedience. INJ