Sermon: Finding Your Place in the Kingdom

Stories are powerful vehicles for shaping a community.  But when his nation’s story becomes misinterpreted in the first century, Jesus retells it by placing himself at the center of that story.  

Finding Your Place In The Kingdom

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Listen to another parable: 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?”

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.”

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’?

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.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.” – Matthew 21:33-46 NIV’84

Right Story, Wrong Interpretation

The parable that Jesus taught in the passage we just read seems very obvious to us.  Here is how we interpret the story:

The landowner of the story is God, the God of Israel. The vineyard that has been planted and nurtured by the landowner is the nation of Israel.  The tenants are the rulers of Israel both in the past and in Jesus’ day.  These rulers include the religious leaders of the day.  The servants the vineyard owner sends to collect the harvest are the prophets whom the evil tenants kill.  The son of the landowner is obviously Jesus, whom they also seize and kill.  In other words, this story is rebuke of the rulers of the nation, both political and religious, who have betrayed their calling to be the people of God, who have failed to produce the fruit of the kingdom of God, and who will lose their place which will be given to others.

Now, to a certain extent the religious leaders understood exactly what Jesus was saying, they just didn’t agree with his interpretation.  Not only did they not agree with the way Jesus characterized them, they saw Jesus as the threat to the nation’s stability, way of life, and religious practice.

In this passage we have the age-old account of one story and two interpretations of it.  The Pharisees would have said that they were preserving the way of life, the worship of God, and obedience to the Law of God in the face of overwhelming assault from Rome, the culture of the first century, and pagan influence.  Jesus obviously did not see it that way.

One Story, Two Interpretations

Let me give you an illustration of how one story can have two interpretations.  When the Roman general Pompey conquered Palestine, overthrowing the Hasmonean dynasty in 63 BC, he immediately wanted to confront the Israel’s God.  After all, the great Pompey, under the protection of the Roman goddess Roma had just defeated the Jews, which indicated that the god of the Jews was not as strong as the gods of the Romans.  It was kind of an ancient world version of  “my daddy can beat up your daddy” argument.

Pompey enters Jerusalem, finds the Temple, and barges into the Holy of Holies to confront the God of the Jews.  But once inside the most sacred room of all Judaism, Pompey looks around and finds no image, no statue, no representation of the Jews’ God at all.

Of course, we understand the reason for there not being an image of God in the Holy of Holies.  The 10 Commandments expressly forbid the making of any kind of “graven” image to represent YHWH, Israel’s God.

Pompey, of course, doesn’t know this.  All Pompey knows is that Rome has an image for all of its gods.  Therefore, if no image of a god exists it must be because the people do not believe in any god, and are therefore atheists.

See how the same story can be understood in two different ways?  That is the point of this parable.  Jesus is telling the Pharisees, and by extension all of the rulers of the Judea, that they have misunderstood the story of God and Israel.  And because they have misinterpreted the story, they have done the opposite of what they should have done.

The Story From Isaiah 5:1-7

The most powerful stories are the stories that are woven into the culture of a nation, into its very social fabric.

We have stories like that here in America.  What would the American story be if we did not have the story of the Declaration of Independence being written and signed?  And of course we all know John Hancock, and his story, because of his signature written larger than others.

What would the American story be if we didn’t have the story of Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin, self-taught by the fire of his family’s hearth, and rising to become president of the United States?  That story is the story that above all others that convinced a young America that anyone could grow up to be president.

And what would America be like without the stories of defiance?  The best example is the rousing speech from Patrick Henry that concludes, “Give me liberty of give me death!”  Those seven words are burned in our nation’s psyche and because of the value they represent, we as a nation support the struggle of people everywhere for freedom.

But at times the story gets confused.  For instance, it is a well-known fact that the United States government supported Saddam Hussein when it served our purposes.  We don’t tell that story because it doesn’t fit with the bigger story we believe characterizes our country.

We also don’t tell the story of how the Declaration of Independence really applied only to white males.  Women and slaves did not count in this great experiment we called democracy.  Thankfully we have corrected, or at least have attempted to correct, those parts of our story that don’t fit the greater story we tell about our nation.

But you get the point I am trying to make.  In the face of concrete facts to the contrary, human beings can rationalize, ignore, or rearrange current stories to make them fit the story they believe they are living.

That’s exactly what happened within Judaism of the first century.  The story that Jesus was telling was actually taken from the scroll of Isaiah.  We know it as Isaiah 5:1-7.  And, when you read that passage of scripture, what Jesus was saying becomes even clearer.

Listen to these verses:

1 I will sing for the one I love

a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
5 Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
6 I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”

7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t the only person who would have understood instantly that he was paraphrasing this story from Isaiah.  Isaiah writes this “song” and then explains what he means.  The Pharisees, who were renown for knowing and interpreting Scripture, would have known immediately that Jesus was taking an old story, and reinterpreting it to blame them for the troubles of the nation.

But they still didn’t get it all.  Isaiah was writing these lines just years before the Temple, the first Temple built by Solomon, would be destroyed and the nation taken into exile during the Babylonian captivity.

Jesus was not only signifying that the nation and its leaders were to blame for their current state, but he was also extending the story and including himself in it.

And Jesus includes himself as the son of the vineyard owner, or the Son of God.

If that isn’t enough, to further make sure they get his point, that he is the Messiah, and that he, Jesus, has come to set things right, he also quotes from Psalm 118.  The psalm is one that was sung in procession going to the Temple.  It begins this way:

1 Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.

2 Let Israel say:
“His love endures forever.”
3 Let the house of Aaron say:
“His love endures forever.”
4 Let those who fear the LORD say:
“His love endures forever.”

On the way to the Temple, the worshippers are praising God.  But then the song turns to prayers for deliverance, and draws to a conclusion with the admission of the singers:

19 Open for me the gates of righteousness;
I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
20 This is the gate of the LORD
through which the righteous may enter.
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.

22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
23 the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

Of course, the Pharisees would also have understood that reference, but Jesus carries it one step further.  He brings in a passage from the book of Daniel, an apocalyptic vision from Daniel that shows the Messiah bringing judgment on all the kingdoms that oppose the work of God.  In Jesus’ day this would include the rulers of the nation.

Jesus talks about the stone the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone, or in some translations the capstone. The idea is the same in either reference.  The cornerstone was that from which all the other dimensions of the building were built.  If the cornerstone was not carefully hewn, if its dimensions were off, then the entire building would be built wrong.  That’s why a faulty stone was rejected.

But Jesus is not a faulty stone, he’s the true cornerstone.  But he is also the stone referred to in Daniel’s vision — the stone that shatters the kingdoms that oppose the kingdom of God.

Listen to Daniel 2:

31 “You looked, O king, and there before you stood a large statue—an enormous, dazzling statue, awesome in appearance.32 The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. 34 While you were watching, a rock was cut out, but not by human hands. It struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. 35 Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time and became like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace. But the rock that struck the statue became a huge mountain and filled the whole earth.

36 “This was the dream, and now we will interpret it to the king.

44 “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. 45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces.

“The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.”

In one parable Jesus has identified himself with the God of Israel.  He has identified himself as God’s Son.  He has gone on to say that not only is he God’s Son, sent by God to the nation of Israel, but that he is the stone of judgment that will crush all those who oppose the kingdom of God.  He is the Messiah of God, whose kingdom will never end or fail.  Matthew says that the Pharisees recognized that Jesus was talking about them, but they were afraid to do anything to Jesus because they feared the crowds that followed him.

Ultimately, they will turn the crowd against Jesus, and they will kill the son of the vineyard owner, just as Jesus prophesied.

How Do We Find Our Place in The Kingdom of God?

What’s the point of all of this, and of this parable specifically?  Just this – if you misinterpret the story of God, changing it to fit your own preference, changing it for your own benefit, you lose your place in the Kingdom.

God’s work will go on.  God’s purposes will be accomplished.  God has a plan, God is weaving a story.  God’s people are part of that story, but they are not really God’s people if they don’t understand and cooperate with God in the fulfillment of that story.

The first century Jews made the same mistakes we still make today.  They compromised the word of God, making deals with the Roman empire for their own benefit and survival.  I am sure they justified it in the process by saying, “Be a realist, this is the best we can do right now.  We’ve cut the best deal we can get, under the circumstances.”

But God isn’t about accommodating his Kingdom to the standards of the world system that is opposed to God’s making all things right.  God’s Kingdom is coming, has been inaugurated, and God invites his children, his creation, into the joy of that Kingdom.

The fruit of the Kingdom that Jesus came looking for is found in trusting him as God’s Son, believing that in his death on the cross he defeated sin, death, and the grave.  And, in living the crucified life of obedience to Christ as a demonstration of the Kingdom of God now.

So we gather here today at this Table, a memorial to keep us from forgetting that this bread is not only bread that nourishes us in this world, but it is the Bread of Life that feeds our souls.  That this cup is not only the product of the crushing of grapes, but is the symbolic product of the shed blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

To find our place in the Kingdom we must not only know the story of God and what God is doing, we must interpret it correctly, make it our own story, and live our lives in light of its truth and power.