Prophets of Doom
Passage: Matthew 21:33–46
Pastor Ray Lorthioir
Trinity Lutheran Church
W. Hempstead, NY
Based on the Gospel Lesson for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost,
Prophets of Doom
We can see from today’s first lesson that the parable of Israel as a vineyard dates back to a prophecy given through Isaiah — some 700 years before Jesus. In Isaiah’s parable, Yahweh established Israel as His own precious people. But they rebelled against Him. And in the Isaiah prophecy, Yahweh announced that on account of the rebellion He was going to permit His vineyard — Israel — to be completely wrecked. This happened in history when Jerusalem was captured and completely destroyed, along with Yahweh’s temple, in 587B.C. by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. The remaining people of Israel were brought captive to the city of Babylon where they remained in exile for the next seventy years. And it was in Babylon that a remarkable prophecy was fulfilled. Ezekiel 6:9-10, “9 Then in the nations where they have been carried captive, those who escape will remember me — how I have been grieved by their adulterous hearts, which have turned away from me, and by their eyes, which have lusted after their idols. They will loathe themselves for the evil they have done and for all their detestable practices. 10 And they will know that I am the LORD; I did not threaten in vain to bring this calamity on them.”
In pagan Babylon, surrounded by idols, Israel learned how to be Yahweh’s people in the midst of a pagan land instead of caving in to the worship of idols. As a result, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego preferred to be thrown into a fiery furnace rather than worship an idol. And Daniel preferred to be thrown into a lions den rather than pray to any other God but Yahweh. The lessons learned in Babylon established Judaism once and for all. As a result, to this day, colonies of Jews can live anywhere in the world and maintain their religious identity. Nevertheless, it took the disaster of Babylon to break Israel from idol worship.
Now, Just as Yahweh confronted Israel in the time of Isaiah with the parable of the vineyard that predicted the disaster He would bring upon them for their disobedience, so Jesus told a new version of Isaiah’s parable. It was so compelling that His hearers predicted the very disaster that would befall Israel forty years later in 70A.D. That was the destruction of Israel, Jerusalem and Yahweh’s Jerusalem temple in the first Roman-Jewish war.
When Jesus put forward His version of the parable of the vineyard, He changed Isaiah’s parable by making Israel share-cropping tenants. Land is expensive. There are farmers who can’t afford land, but they know how to farm. And there are landowners who don’t know how to farm, or are too lazy to farm, but they have land. The two get together through a special legal contract. The landowner permits the farmer to work his land for a profit. But the farmer must share a percentage of the profit with the landowner as a rent payment for the land. And because cash was difficult to come by, the percentage owed to the landowner was paid with a percentage of the physical grain or fruit from the harvest. Thus, the term, share-cropping. And the crowds Jesus taught in the temple during Holy Week were very familiar with this legal agreement.
So, let’s hear Jesus’ parable again. Matthew 21:33-40, “33. . . ‘There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. “They will respect my son,” he said. 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, “This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.” 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’”
The behavior of the tenant farmers in the parable is most outrageous. It’s also plain evil. Not only are these tenants thieves — unwilling to fulfill the contract — they’ve also made themselves illegal squatters. And in their attempt to steal land, they commit murder.
In our present society we still hear of similar things: squatters refusing to pay rent so that you have to go to court to evict them; people showing up with false deeds claiming to own property that isn’t theirs so that an owner is forced to spend thousands in court to protect what’s theirs. It’s all quite outrageous. It’s all quite evil. Such practices call for justice — even divine justice.
So, when Jesus asked the final question of the parable, it’s quite clear from their answer that Jesus’ hearers were deeply feeling the outrage and cry for justice that such a story of injustice demands. Matthew 21:40-41, “40 ‘Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41 ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,’ they replied, ‘and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.’” With this answer, Jesus’ hearers were unknowingly pronouncing divine judgment and wrath upon themselves.
For, here is what this story actually means. From Isaiah we’ve already got the picture that the owner of the land is Yahweh. Israel is His vineyard. The fruit of the vineyard is righteousness — Yahweh’s kind of righteousness.
From Jesus we’ve got the picture that the tenant sharecroppers are Israel. They owe Yahweh the fruit of righteousness that He rightfully demands as their landlord. The servants sent to collect the rent are the prophets. How did Israel treat the prophets Yahweh sent to them? Not well. They even gave Moses a hard time. But in the final hundred to three hundred years before the Babylonian exile, they often persecuted the prophets sent to them.
Let’s hear the best definition there is of an Old Testament prophet from Jeremiah 23:22. To understand this verse, we have to know that Yahweh is contrasting false prophets with true prophets. And so in this verse He’s speaking of false prophets. Jeremiah 23:22, “But if they [the false prophets] had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds.”
So, one task of a true prophet, even to this day, is to be so in tune with Yahweh’s Law that the prophet turns people from their evil ways and their evil deeds. The true prophet does this by pointing out to God’s people all of the evil in their deeds and in their ways. But being sinners, God’s people don’t much care to have the hidden evil in their hearts exposed. Therefore, we have persecuted prophets even to this day.
But there’s another thing we sinners do. We turn away from true prophets to hear what we want to hear. In such an environment a false prophet can easily set up shop. Again we read in Jeremiah 23:16-17, “16. . . ‘Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. 17 They keep saying to those who despise me, “The LORD says: You will have peace. And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, “No harm will come to you.”’” St. Paul says something similar in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” In truth, there’s a lot of profit to be made from being a false prophet and telling people what they want to hear, not what Yahweh wants them to know.
One of the tasks of the pastoral office is being a true prophet. Indeed, in the Lutheran understanding of Word and Sacrament, the true righteousness of God’s holy Law must be rightly preached so that the Gospel can have its full, powerful effect on hearts. And the preacher doesn’t just preach to others, he’s got to preach Law and Gospel to himself.
All this preaching goes on for only one purpose. It’s so sinners can escape the eternal wrath of their Creator against their rebellion and instead be welcomed as righteous ones into Yahweh’s holy and righteous eternal Kingdom. But sinners can only be welcomed into the Kingdom if they have been made righteous by the blood of Messiah. And this can only happen if sinners have been terrified by the horrid eternal destiny that awaits the impenitent.
But, such a destiny seems far away and unreal. Therefore, all sinners try to justify their sin instead of repent. I do it as well as you. This is why Yahweh gave His Law, so that none of us will be able to justify our sin in His presence. If we’re determined to justify our sin, fine. Yahweh will let us do it right into the gates of hell. But, if by the grace of God we recognize what our sin is, then we can be reconciled both to Yahweh and our neighbor by the grace of God in Messiah Jesus. One prophetic task is to get us to recognize sin so that we may be saved from it.
OK. Back to the parable. We just covered the servants that Yahweh sent to Israel to turn the people back to Him in righteousness. They were Moses and the Prophets. But finally, Yahweh sent His Son to collect the rent. And in the parable Jesus predicted how He would be treated. Matthew 21:38-39, “38 ‘But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, “This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.” 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.’”
With these words Jesus, of course, was prophesying His own death a few days later at the hands of the Jewish leadership. But there’s much more in these words. First, in this parable Jesus dared to declare Himself the rightful heir of all Israel. Because He is Yahweh the Son, Israel literally belongs to Him. Second, He predicted that the Jewish leadership would attempt to rip Israel out His hands and keep it for themselves and that they would succeed. And so it remains to this day. The rabbis shut the door in the faces of any who would seek to enter the Kingdom through Messiah.
And Jesus went on to predict one more thing. But He did so by getting His hearers to prophesy their own doom. Matthew 21:40-41, “40 [Jesus asked,] ‘Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41 ‘He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,’ they replied, ‘and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.’”
A wretched end was made to Jerusalem and all Israel in the Roman-Jewish wars of 67-70A.D. and 132A.D. However, two fourth century historians cite a tradition that the Christians of Jerusalem escaped the first war because Jesus had warned them about Jerusalem’s destruction. Indeed here’s what Jesus said thirty years before the war in Matthew 24:15-18, “15 ‘So when you see standing in the holy place “the abomination that causes desolation,” spoken of through the prophet Daniel — let the reader understand — 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak.’”
So at the onset of the Roman-Jewish war, the believers in Jerusalem remembered Jesus’ words. They all moved to a place in the Decapolis called Pella. Nevertheless, the Jewish church disappeared into history and gentiles filled the church. The vineyard was given to other tenants as it is to this day.
There’s one more thing about verse 40 to recognize. Jesus said that the owner of the vineyard will eventually return to his property. Of course, Yahweh — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — is the owner of the vineyard. He’s the owner of Israel, but not only Israel — all the earth. The return of the owner is the last day of earth’s history. It’s the prophesied Day of the Lord, when all things and all people will be judged by their owner in a final judgment according to Yahweh’s glorious righteousness. Indeed, as we begin to close out the church year, the great Day of the Lord and the return of Messiah is the final theme.
Now, in history there have been many less than final judgments. These lesser judgments are warnings for anyone who is able to receive them. The destruction of Jerusalem was one of these. Granted it’s long ago. However, modern Jerusalem is continually in the news, as is modern Israel. Thus, we’re constantly reminded of what happened to Yahweh’s temple because Muslim sanctuaries stand today where the temple might have stood. And in Israel there are those who desperately want to erect a third temple. Yet, Muslims are saying, “over our dead bodies.”
Therefore, Jesus’ words following the parable need to be considered. Matthew 21:42 “Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the Scriptures: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes”?’” This is a quotation of Psalm 118:23. The next verse is the familiar Psalm 118:24, “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
It’s clear from Psalm 118:23 that Yahweh is going to build something — His Kingdom — even though the human builders He has chosen are going to reject the capstone He has chosen. Therefore, Yahweh is going to overrule the builders. Jesus is identifying Himself as that chosen stone, and the Jewish leaders as the builders who are going to reject Him. Nevertheless, Yahweh Himself is going to overrule the builders and install Jesus as the one and only capstone. And everyone will rejoice.
And so, we end with Jesus’ conclusion in Matthew 21:43-44, “43 ‘Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.’” In plain words Jesus told the Jewish leadership that the Kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to others. These others would produce righteousness for Yahweh. Although it’s often hard to see how the gentile church is doing any better. Jesus also told the leaders of Israel that they would trip over Him and be broken to pieces. But, something more terrible would come. They would be crushed under Him. And so it happened in 70 and 132 A.D.
If you remember, back in the summer we looked at the Apostle Paul’s revelation in Romans chapters 9 through 11 concerning the eventual fate of God’s people, Israel. It looks like up until earth’s final days, there will continue to be a trickle of Jews who will recognize Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah, and come to Him. They will, of course, be included in Yahweh’s final Israel — His Kingdom, His Church. But, then, at the very end, it looks like the teaching of the rabbis will finally be ignored. Israel will finally believe the teaching of the apostles Jesus gave them; the apostles who wrote the New Testament. And when that happens the atoning blood of Messiah will cover many penitent Jews by faith so that they might be received into the Kingdom together with their believing fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and with all the penitent Gentiles.
Indeed, Zechariah foresaw such a day when Yahweh prophesied through him in Zechariah 12:10-12, “10 ‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son. 11 On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. 12 The land will mourn, each clan by itself. . . .’”
Who can pierce Yahweh? Only those whom Yahweh permits. And those who do it will repent that they have pierced their Creator. Therefore, the Day that Yahweh prophesied through Zechariah will be amazing. It will be Amazing Grace as all those Yahweh desires to call into His eternal righteousness kneel at the feet of the One who has delivered them from sin by His wounds.
Brothers and sisters, today, like every day, is a day to put away sin and rebellion. Our Lord calls us to be united with Him in His righteousness through Messiah Jesus. Being sinners it won’t be easy on us or in us. But what is too hard for God’s Holy Spirit?
This past week I saw the amazing testimony of Dr. Linda Seiler, a woman whom the Spirit led out of secret, lifelong gender confusion. There is no brokenness because of sin that is so great that it cannot be forgiven and mended. This is because the Lord Jesus Christ is more powerful than the sinful nature. May His Name be praised forever. Amen.
All Bible quotes are from the NIV.