“Response or Rejection”
February 16, 2014
Will we respond to Jesus or will we reject him?
I. True or False Response? (Matthew 21:28-32)
II. Respect or Rejection? (Matthew 21:33-41)
III. Cornerstone or Crushing Stone? (Matthew 21:42-46)
The world is full of liars, swindlers, double-crossers and traitors, and those like the innkeeper in ‘The King at the Door,’ those who promise you one thing but give you something very different. In fact it is a cruel characteristic of fallen human nature that it will respond to any situation in terms of their own perceived comfort or profit no matter what the cost to others.
You may have heard of a ‘Ponzi scheme.’ It’s named after Charles Ponzi, who, in the 1920’s paid extravagant returns on supposed investments, by using money from many new investors to pay a few old ones, and himself – to the tune of $22 million dollars. In the last few years a similar scheme has been aimed at mega churches around the country, including Lakewood Church here, and New Birth Missionary Baptist in Georgia. Here’s a clip from an ABC News report on the perpetrator: “There was this Ephron Taylor: the hype man and the music video, celebrating the high life, starring his wife. “I do what I want and I call the shots. I move like a billionaire.” Then there was this Ephron Taylor. “And I tell you, are you broke? You give me your money. Trust in us.” Who preached faith based investing in churches across the country. “Who wants to get paid this morning? Somebody raise their hand and give God the praise if you want to get paid this morning.” And who was charged by the SEC with running what they called a Ponzi scheme, saying he preyed on those church goers, who gave him their trust, and over eleven million dollars.”
This is classic. We say one thing and do another, we get in a place of trust and turn on you. Landro Calrissian did it to Hans Solo; Brutus to Caesar; Judas to Jesus. And in today’s text Matthew 21:28-46, Jesus uses this characteristic of fallen humanity to challenge all of us; will we respond to Jesus or will we reject him? Jesus says there are consequences for each choice and urges us to humbly respond rather than selfishly reject his demand on our lives.
We begin with a very simple parable, a thought question. Matthew 21:28-32 “What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. 31Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. 32For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.
This chapter begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem; Palm Sunday. But we’re not going to look at that passage today; we’ll come back to it on Palm Sunday in April. But the acclaim Jesus receives from the people leads directly to deepening conflict with the Jewish leaders. They ask him by what authority he presumes to instruct the Jewish people. Jesus responds by asking them where John the Baptist got his authority, and they can’t respond, for if they say it was merely human they will be going against the opinion of the people, but if they say it is from God, Jesus can claim the same.
So they are speechless, but Jesus is not. He quickly tells two parables which show that the Jewish leaders were on a path to deny and destroy Jesus. He asks them, probably by asking the crowd, ‘What do you think about this man who had two sons?’ It’s a very simple thought question, drawn from the everyday life of almost every family. The man went to the first son and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ 29And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. 30And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go.” So which of the two sons actually obeyed? The one who said he would do it or the one who said he wouldn’t but did anyway? Obviously the one who did it anyway.
Jesus is about to apply this to the Jewish leaders who are rejecting him – and it’s an important application. But before we follow him there I just want to see if this scenario doesn’t resonate with you as it does with me? It seems that I both see in others and fight in myself this tendency to say yes and do no. The example Jesus gives probably happens in every home with kids. We say ‘do this;’ they say ‘I will;’ but they don’t. Occasionally we even get the other scenario, where they push back against doing what we want, but then they do it.
But it’s not just kids and parents. I think it happens between all kinds of people. One kid says to another ‘let’s do this.’ The second kid says ‘sounds like a good idea.’ The first kid takes it as a commitment, the second as a speculation, and conflict ensues. Or someone says to me ‘can you take care of this for me?’ and I say ‘sure.’ And then I don’t. I hate it when I do that. What I should say is ‘let me think about it. Send me an e-mail to remind me I need to think about it.’ But we even fool ourselves about our commitments. We say ‘I’m going to start reading the Bible every day. I’m going to add a prayer time to my life. I’m going to cut back on gadget time and Facebook time. I’m going to spend time with others. I’m going to meet needs.’ But then we don’t. I believe Jesus would rather have us make commitments and promises that with his help we can keep than to say we’ll do what we know we won’t. He would rather have us respond to him a little, sincerely, than to reject him by a large hypocrisy.
That’s what he tells the Pharisees. “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” The translation probably softens what Jesus actually told them: it was not that the prostitutes and tax collectors had gotten in line ahead of them to enter the kingdom, but they had gotten in line instead of them to enter the kingdom. The shock value of this, as Don Carson says, can only be appreciated when the low esteem in which tax collectors were held, not to mention prostitutes, is taken into account.” Jesus is saying that the scum of society, though it may initially reject God, repents and enters the kingdom, whereas the religious authorities loudly say yes to God but never do what he says, and therefore fail to enter.
In verse 32 Jesus links the parable to the previous discussion where the importance of believing John has already been established. John pointed the way to the kingdom, which sinners are now entering. He pointed to the way of righteousness, demanding ethical reformation in light of the Kingdom’s presence. He pointed to Jesus and his rescue from sin. But the religious leaders did not believe John's witness, even after seeing society's vilest sinners repenting and believing him and his message.
So Jesus has said ‘which side are you on?’ When you hear the call of the kingdom, the demand of the kingdom does this bring response or rejection? Does it bring ‘I’ll do this’ but you don’t? Is it possible that you fail to receive much of the joy of following Jesus because you you’re really only giving verbal or half-hearted assent to serving in his kingdom? Or are you like the other son? You grumble and complain as you do what he asks? Neither is really a path to joy.
The question of rejection is deeply on Jesus’ mind in this last week before the crucifixion. Verses 33-41 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
The details of verse 33 remind the hearers of a familiar Old Testament theme – Israel is a vineyard nurtured by God. In Isaiah 5, for example, Isaiah says that God “had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. . . 7For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!” Some of the details Jesus includes, the wall, watchtower and winepress, are taken directly from Isaiah. But instead of the grapes failing, it is the tenant farmers who fail, those who were to care for the vineyard by renting it in the owner’s absence.
Verse 34: “When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them.” The owner of the vineyard sent trusted servants to receive the crop, but the tenants beat, flogged, stoned and killed them. If the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are her leaders and the trusted servants are the prophets who sought to keep her on course. Some, though not all of these prophets were physically abused, like Jeremiah, some killed, like Uriah, some stoned, like Zechariah: “by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord.” When the owner sends more servants, they are treated the same brutal way – possibly a reference to John the Baptist.
Finally, or “last of all,” verse 37, he sends his son, hoping the tenants will respect him. Carson says that such a hope is not as implausible as it might seem to a Western reader. But, verse 38, “when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” The tenants are ruthless, but really no more ruthless than the Jewish leaders who would soon take and kill Jesus. They may not have recognized him as the Son and killed him anyway, but they did kill him; they should have recognized him as Messiah and humbled themselves before him. Jesus later says that he longed to gather them as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but they were not willing. They did not want to bow to his authority. Rejection of the Son by the leaders is the final straw that brings divine wrath on them.
For six months Jesus has been telling his disciples the rulers at Jerusalem would do this. Now he tells the rulers themselves, in a parable form, which, at some level, they did understand. This is the ultimate rejection: the very people who should have been longing for Messiah to dwell with his people instead have an implacable hatred toward him when he comes and do all to destroy him.
Verse 40: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” The leaders condemn themselves: the vineyard will not remain in their hands, but will be given to those who welcome and serve the Messiah; the Disciples first, Jewish believers and ultimately the whole Gentile world.
This parable puts the big choice before us, just as it did before the Jewish leaders. Will we be those who respond to the Messiah with joyous reception and faith, or with callous rejection and hatred? Like Israel, God has planted us all in a vineyard. We can either serve him and receive his blessing, or we can try to take his vineyard as our own and reject his reconciliation. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we can choose to serve God or self; but if we choose to serve self, like them, we will be ejected from his presence and his blessing.
In our lives this is all about receiving the Son he already sent. Jesus is headed for the cross, and within a few chapters here he will say ‘This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ We can trust in his sacrifice and receive that forgiveness, or we can cling to selfishness and sin and ultimately receive the wrath of God that we deserve. That choice is the defining choice of our lives: to accept the Son or reject him.
But even as his followers, we can, like these tenants, try to hold for ourselves what is really his, our lives, and their fruit. We’re supposed to be living for him: if we refuse him our allegiance, our obedience, if we selfishly hoard all he gives us for our own profit and pleasure, we are no better than these leaders of Israel. We may not be rejecting or killing the Son, but neither are we responding, welcoming and giving him what is rightfully his. As in the first parable, we can either recognize and receive him in humility, or reject him in pride and selfishness. The scum of the earth, Matthew says, were becoming his followers. The proud were rejecting him. Which camp should we be in?
Jesus makes the centrality of our response to him clear in the last few verses, verses 42-46: Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. 44And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.
In the New Testament, Jesus is the only one who asks, "Have you never read?" and every time he does he is chastising someone for not recognizing that the Scriptures point to him. Here he quotes Psalm 118:22-23. These verses, and the image of Jesus as the stone the builders rejected were important in the early church. They helped believers understand why Jesus was rejected by so many of his own people. Jesus originated this understanding.
In Isaiah 8 the prophet used the same image: “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. 14And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” The stone the builders rejected becomes to some a sanctuary, but to others a stone of offense. Those who trip over it or fall under it are crushed.
When the New Testament authors use this image they associate it with being saved or receiving judgment. Acts 4:11-12, Peter says “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Paul says “as it is written, “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”
Jesus is saying that in rejecting him, the leaders and the people of Israel are rejecting God’s real provision for salvation. In verse 43 he says plainly: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” Up to now the Jewish religious leaders were the principal means by which God exercised his reign over his people. But the leaders failed so badly in handling God's "vineyard" by rejecting God's Son that he gave their place to another people who would produce kingdom fruit.
In verses 45 and 46 the truth of Jesus’ words is confirmed by their rejection: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. 46And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.” The Pharisees and the chief priests, mostly Sadducees, were the principal voices of authority in the Judaism of Jesus' day. And they knew he was talking about them. So verse 46 is magnificent, tragic irony. The religious leaders are told they will reject Jesus and be crushed. But instead of taking the warning, they hunt for ways to arrest him, hindered only by fear of the people who accept Jesus as a prophet. They know he’s talking about them but they don’t take the outcome he predicts seriously; they rush to do that which will bring judgment.
So do you see the recurring pattern of rejection in these parables? The ones who say they are God’s spokesmen refuse to do what he says. They are the caretakers of his nation, yet they murder and kill his servants and ultimately his son. On the other hand the prostitutes and tax collectors, those who do not conform to God’s standards and know it, overcome their initial reluctance and follow the one God sends. Do you see the irony? The kingdom is ultimately given to those who don’t deserve it, those who have fallen into the depths of sin. And those who should have received it are the vehicle by which the Son is killed so that he might ultimately be victorious on behalf of the sinners they despise.
One of the ‘traitor’ stories I read was about Marshal Philippe Petain of France. A heroic general in World War I, Petain was appointed Marshal of France in 1919. Between the wars he tried to equip the French army with tanks and aircraft, but was almost entirely unsuccessful, mostly due to the weakness of the French economy. When World War II broke out he refused a cabinet post, preferring instead to be available if another government needed to be formed. When the French armies were defeated by Hitler, he was called to form a new government, and seemed to be trying to rally the French against the invaders. But in the end he signed an armistice that left 60 percent of France under direct German control, and formed a puppet government for the rest. Worse, and perhaps the true betrayal, he allowed this new government to collaborate with the Germans and embrace many Fascist ideals, including anti-Semitism, turning over French Jews to the Germans. He betrayed and rejected his responsibility to France and simply made her a vassal to the evil of Hitler.
May it not be so with us. The response God is looking for is a recognition of our sin and a turning to him in faith. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus pictures this with the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. It is the despised tax collector who cries out ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’ who goes home justified. The Pharisee by his self-righteousness rejects the mercy God offer and stand condemned. That’s the choice we’re offered: to throw ourselves on his mercy or to be crushed by his stone of judgment. If you are not a believer here today, that is the choice you are offered right now, and the decision you must ultimately make. If you don’t cry out to Jesus for mercy, you will not receive it.
But as we close I want to go back to the first parable for a moment. Having embraced Jesus as Lord and Savior, how do we then respond to his demands? Do we say yes and do no? If you are a believer here today, this is where this text impacts your life. We, now, are God’s people, and the Father comes and says to us ‘serve in my vineyard.’ Will we say yes and do ‘no’, to our shame. Will we say no, but then change our mind and do ‘yes?’ That’s better. Or will we say yes and do yes? Best of all. The King is at the door.