“A man planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time.” When Jesus tells this story in Luke 20:9-19, he is talking about the relationship between God and human beings. God created the world, a “vineyard,” a beautiful garden, and, as our ancient creation story goes, God put the human being, “adam,” in the garden “to till it and keep it.”
Our first vocation as human beings was gardener, tillers and keepers of the garden, God’s wonderful gift of creation. Someone has said, “We have done a good job of tilling, but not a very good job of keeping the garden.” Nevertheless, that’s our job — caretakers of the earth, tenants of the vineyard.
When the season came, the master sent a servant to the tenants in order that they might give the master his share of the portion of the vineyard. Again, this story is about God and us. We are tenants, stewards, accountable to God for what we do with the fruits of the earth and with our lives. We are accountable to God.
But in this story, when it’s time for the tenants to give to the master what is rightfully his, they balk, they hold back, they resist, they rebel. They would rather do whatever they want with the gifts of creation. They would rather use them for their own purposes. This has been the human story for long time.
So the master sends his servants to convince the tenants to do what is right. Here Jesus is talking about the servants God sent through so many generations — Moses and the prophets, who tried to convince the people of Israel to be faithful to God, to refuse to worship idols, to share the fruits of the earth with those who were in need, to establish justice in the land. But so often, like the tenants in today’s story, the people refused to listen.
So, Jesus says, at that point the master decides, “I know. I’ll send my beloved son to them to represent me, to reason with them, to speak on my behalf. Perhaps they will respect him.” But when the son arrives, the tenants kill him, in order to keep the vineyard and its fruits for themselves.
Now this brings me to the heart of what I want to talk about today: Why did Jesus die on the cross? There is a scene in the movie “The Apostle” in which the preacher, Robert Duvall, takes a baby in his arms up in front of the church and uses the baby to demonstrate God’s love. He says, “See this baby, this innocent baby. See this little hand. Can you imagine having so much love that you could put a nail right through this tender hand? I couldn’t do it. But God could! That’s exactly what God did when he gave his son Jesus to die for us – for you and me.
I reject that idea of God. I don’t believe in a child-abusing God. I can’t accept a God who could nail anyone to the cross, not even Jesus.
God didn’t need Jesus to die. And Jesus didn’t want to die. Why did Jesus die on the cross? Jesus died because the rulers plotted against him, because the power structures were corrupt, because the religious leaders were threatened by the direction he was taking the people, because the high priest Caiphus argued in favor of it, because Judas betrayed him, because Peter denied him, because the people were swayed by propaganda and mob mentality, because even the people who believed in Jesus kept quiet, were afraid, and turned away. That’s why Jesus died. Jesus died because people killed him — people not that different from you and me.
God sent Jesus, not to die, but to show the world God’s great love and to show what human life can be in the presence of God. Like the master in this morning’s parable, who sent his son after trying many other things, as a last resort. “I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.”
And what about Jesus? He’s the one who went through the rejection, suffering, agony, and death. How did he feel about it?
Friends of mine who visited the Holy Land told me that one of their most striking experiences was in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is situated outside Jerusalem, between Jerusalem and the wilderness. As my friends stood in the Garden, looking out over Jerusalem, they thought of Jesus on that night , praying in the midst of deciding whether to go into the city, to the certain death that awaited him there. And then looking in the other direction, realizing how easy it would have been for Jesus to take off in the other direction, to freedom and anonymity. His choice was real.
According to Luke, as Jesus prayed there in the garden, his sweat was like great drops of blood falling on the ground. He prayed there in agony, knowing he had a choice. Jesus didn’t want to die. He wanted to live.
But he could see that in order to be true to himself, and to his followers — and in order to be true to God in this particular set of circumstances, he would have to face what awaited him there in Jerusalem. And so he waited and prayed, alone in the garden, and was finally arrested, and taken into the city to his death.
The choice Jesus made is similar to the choice made by Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a follower of Jesus, so many years later, in the twentieth century. He was a world famous German theologian, a part of the underground church that opposed Hitler during World War II. At one point, Bonhoeffer was touring America, speaking at seminaries. He was given great honors. He could have stayed here. But for the sake of the people of his country, he chose to go back to Germany, even though with his high visibility he faced almost certain death. And indeed, he was imprisoned and put to death by the Nazis. But because of the way he lived and died, he ended up converting even some of his prison guards.
The choice Jesus made is similar to the choice made by Shannon Wright, the school teacher who flung herself in front of one of her students when she saw her being targeted. She literally gave her life for the sake of that child. Like Jesus, who gave his life for the sake of others — out of love. It was a very real sacrifice.
As Christians, we have heard the story of the death of Jesus so many times, we may lose sight of the impact of it all. And we hear people talk about it as if it was all God’s idea and God’s plan, as if that makes it all okay.
But that is a distortion of the gospel. That takes away what Martin Luther called “the scandal of the cross.” It takes away the pain, the disappointment, the wrongness of it all. It puts God on the side of Caiphus, the high priest, who said, “It is expedient that one man die for the people.” Like the theology of the preacher in the movie, it paints God as one who would nail someone’s hand to a cross.
Oh no! Let’s not blame God! Let’s not forget that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God.” The scandal is that human beings rejected and killed the very one who came to us full of the presence and power of God, who showed us what God is like and what human life can be. Like the wicked tenants in the vineyard, who killed the master’s son. It was evil. It was a travesty. It was an affront to the goodness of God. That’s the scandal — the scandal of the cross.
The scandal of the cross continues even today! Every time a child goes without food in this world of plenty, every time a species that God created is destroyed, every time an act of violence or cruelty is done, the scandal continues. For surely, God is present in the midst of the suffering world, and in the pain of each of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters here today, as surely as God was present in Jesus Christ. And surely the shocking and painful image of Jesus dying on the cross is a reminder of Christ’s solidarity with all who suffer unjustly, as well as a reminder of the forgiving love of God.
Out of love, “Jesus became obedient to death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him…” The good news is that even human evil couldn’t extinguish the light of God that was in Jesus Christ. Even the worst that humans could do — put to death God’s own son — wasn’t enough to put out that light. But that’s another story — the story of Easter.
We are living on the far side of the story. We know that Christ is risen, that we have been given another chance. We are still tenants, however. God has entrusted the vineyard to us. We are the new tenants and we, too, are called to till and keep the garden, to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, to establish justice in the land. But now we have the master’s son, the Risen Christ, who comes to us in the power of the Holy Spirit, to show us God’s unconditional forgiveness and love, to set us free from all that binds us, and to enable us to live in God’s way.
Who knows? Perhaps we will respect him. Let it be so.