The chief priests, scribes and elders have pushed Jesus, publicly questioning his authority. Jesus has replied by means of a question for them and a parable for all the gathered people. He caps off the whole confrontation with these stark words. (15-16) What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others. When they heard this, they said, Surely not!
Surely Not! The people cry. May it never be! Heaven forbid that it should come to such a terrible end as the senseless killing of the heir and the judgment on God’s chosen people. Everyone who heard the parable understood its real drift – don’t doubt that for a moment. They just couldn’t believe what they were hearing! Surely, this story can’t be true, can it? This isn’t like Jesus to push back, is it? Obviously it must be an exaggeration, right? Jesus couldn’t be talking about himself and the religious leaders could He? Surely Not!
But indeed He is. As we read: (19-20) The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. Before the words have finished echoing across the temple courts they are already proved true.
But these are good people. Religious people. They couldn’t really go through with such a thing? Surely Not! But that is the point of the parable isn’t it? They had before, and they will again. Throughout the centuries God had sent His servants seeking fruits of faith and repentance. The prophets of God came to God’s chosen people, and what do we see time and time again? The first they beat, giving him a sound thrashing; the second they not only beat, but put up to disgrace before all the people; the third they wound severely, and then cast out of the vineyard. And in every case, the servants leave empty-handed, not receiving what is rightly due their master. The history of God’s people was a picture of wickedness painted with disturbing vividness and distinctness.
The owner of the vineyard is God. And His people had lacked nothing under His fatherly care. He had planted the hedge of His Law around them, He had given them the tower of the kingdom of David, and the wine of the Word of God flowed in streams of unchanging richness. But the great benefits which God showered upon His people were not repaid by them in kind. When God sent them His servants, the prophets, expecting from them the fruit, the obedience they owed Him, these servants were treated with contempt and every form of hatred.
So what is God to do in the face of such rebellion? Why send His beloved Son of course! Surely Not! Can’t He see what will happen? Send His Son? Heaven forbid! Is He really so foolish? Well, … yes … and no … (13-15) Then the owner of the vineyard said, What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him. But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours. And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him
The patience of God is remarkable. “Perhaps” doesn’t mean that God is unsure of His plan. It simply emphasizes His great long-suffering toward Israel. Surely the tenants would not be so lacking in decency and honour as to disrespect the son whose authority stood second to that of his father. Surely, if he were to send his son they would finally feel some shame, and recognize their fault, and respect the owner’s rightful claim.
But they do not repent do they? There is no shame, no recognition of fault. Instead they determine to kill the heir and to put themselves into possession of the property. Acting upon this heinous plan, they took the son, cast him out of the vineyard, and put him to death. And so we come back full circle …
(15-18) What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others. When they heard this, they said, Surely not! But he looked directly at them and said, What then is this that is written: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.
And with such an unsettling image hanging in our mind’s eye we breath a sigh of relief that it was not US Jesus looked directly at when He started talking about stones and such. For Surely, this can’t be more than just a story, can it? A means to move the narrative along to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. At best it could be viewed as an exaggerated account of the sinful world out there, right? Jesus couldn’t be talking about himself and us could He? Surely Not!
But indeed He is. We too lack nothing under His fatherly care. He has planted the hedge of His Law around us to guide and protect us. And the wine and the water and the Word of God freely flow in streams of unchanging richness bringing us forgiveness life and salvation whenever we want it. (And then some!) But when God expects the fruit, the obedience we owe Him, is He not often treated with contempt and every form of hatred.
Surely Not! We protest. We do not plot to kill Him. We don’t seek His life! No … our machinations are far more subtle and insidious. It happens when we give Him only some so we can hold back the rest. It happens when we say yes here (mind) but not here (heart). When we insist that having our lives broken to pieces upon the rock of Christ should be a comfortable affair. When we conspire to let ourselves be broken in only certain ways, or at convenient times. When our Bibles go unread, our prayers go unsaid and our neighbours remain unmet.
Yes our sin – your sin and my sin – little though they seem at the time … our sin is the reason our Lord died. It must always come full back to this once again. Surely Not! Some might protest. Heaven forbid! May it never be! But not us.
Surely So! Let us forever cry. May it always be! Heaven forbid that we ever entertain the thought that it should come by any other means than the willing sacrifice of the heir and the judgment of God’s chosen people placed upon His sinless shoulders. There is simply no other way for any of us. For if we are to inherit the Father’s vineyard the Son must die … and rise again. He must be cast out and killed so that we sinners might finally be brought in and live.
The answer to our sin is not to hide its consequences, or try to conspire against the one who brings them into the light. The answer is to see what the Son does with that sin. He bears it on the cross. He buries it in the tomb. He leaves it behind. He forgives it. All of it. There is no sin so small it doesn’t need forgiving but there is also no sin too great it cannot be forgiven – has not been forgiven in the precious death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The warning is harsh because Jesus in His love does not want the penalty to be worse yet. No … most Surely Not!