What If You Don’t Know?
They needed to know. During the Civil War it was well-known that one of the brightest and most brilliant generals was Robert E. Lee. He was a commander of the armies of the South. He was brilliant because he could gather data and then quickly go into action. But his strength was also his weakness. For, towards the end of the war he ended up sending his troops into battle without enough data. And, in one battle, the soldiers wrote their names on their backs. They wrote their names on their backs because they knew more than their general did. They knew that, as bravely as they fought, they wouldn’t be coming home. So, they put their names on their backs so that, the people the next day would know who they were, and their family members would eventually know what happened. All of this they did because they needed to know. These are the sort of actions people take to communicate when there are no GPS devices and no cell phones. Communication was slow and it wasn’t always reliable. But my friends, what if you don’t know? What if you don’t know all the details and all the context? What do you do then? This morning Jesus teaches us a parable and a lesson. And the parable is about one who does not know. In Luke 20, we read: “9 He went on to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12 He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out. 13 “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ 14 “But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” (Luke 20:9–15 NIV11-GKE)
I these words Jesus introduces us to an owner of a vineyard. He rents out the vineyard to tenants. And when it’s time to get some proof that the tenants are actually doing their work, he sends a servant to get proof that they have been faithful in taking care of the vineyard. And here is where the parable gets interesting. The servants beat the first servant. The owner is many miles away. There are no cell phones. There’s no facebook updates. There’s nothing. He does not know why they beat his servant. So what does he do? He puts the best construction on the situtation. And he sends another servant. They reject him and send him away. The owner is frustrated. But he works hard to be optimistic. So he sends a third servant. The tenants beat the servant up and threw him out.1
Now, here at this point, you would think that the owner would begin to realize that he can be as optimistic as he wants, but it will not change reality. These tenants are bad people. But does he? No. He is still optimistic. And he makes the final, tragic mistake. He sends his own son because he’s convinced that they will respect him. And to no surprise to any of the people who were listening to Jesus, when the tenants see the son, they kill him so that they get his inheritance. And Jesus ends the parable with the question, “What will the owner do?” The fancy word for this sort of a question is a “deliberative subjunctive.” In other words, this is not a passing question, a rhetorical question that is said for emphasis. No, instead, this is a question that Jesus wants the people of Jerusalem and us to today to really think about and think through.
What do you do if you do not know? The owner of the vineyard did not know, so he went way beyond the call of duty. He concluded that wicked people were actually good. Isn’t our temptation that, when we do not know, we put the worst construction on it? Martin Luther in our catechisms puts it this way:
THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT
You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.
What does this mean?
We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him, and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.
Our temptation to sin is that, when we do not know, we arrive at the worst conclusion. When we do not know because we do not talk to people, we fill in the gaps and our sinful nature gets the best of us. And sometimes even when we do talk to people this happens when we misunderstand the words that people use. Years and years ago there was a man who had been a member for years. The man was quite wealthy. But every Sunday he would come to church and put a very small amount of money in the offering plate. This happened week after week and year after year. And finally there was an elder who told the pastor that it was wrong that the man came year after year and gave so little when God had blessed him with so much. The pastor asked the elder if he had ever met the man’s wife. The elder confessed that he hadn’t. So he went and visited the man and his wife. And then he understood. The wife hated Jesus and the church that her husband went to. She said that all the church wanted was their money. So the man came to church, Sunday after Sunday, wanting to give more. But because of his wife’s hatred of the church, he was only able to give what he could get away with. The elder came back to the pastor and told him that now he understood.
What do you do when you don’t know? There is a huge irony in these words that Jesus speaks. In all the other parables Jesus speaks, the people don’t know where Jesus is going because they haven’t heard the parable before. This parable is different. And we see that from the words that follow: “16 He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When the people heard this, they said, “God forbid!” 17 Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: “ ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? 18 Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 19 The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people.” (Luke 20:16–19 NIV11-GKE)
Jesus asks that question he wants them to think about and think through: What should the owner do? And when Jesus gives the answer, that he will come and kill the tenants in righteous judgment, their response makes no sense. The say, “May this never be!”2 Their response seems strange, at least, until we realize that they have already heard this parable. This parable was 800 years old by this point. We read this parable already in our first lesson. They said, “May this never be,” because they knew that they were the tenants. They were the ones deserving of judgment. Jerusalem was ripe to be punished. And Jesus was the stone that would crush them.
What do you do when you do not know? The people of Jerusalem did know. They knew the point of the parable. But as we close these words, what amazes us is that Jesus too knew. Jesus knew that every hour he spent in his own city of Jerusalem brought him closer to being put to death outside the walls just like the son in the parable. And what amazes us is that he knows all of this and yet does it anyway. He does this to prove their worthiness of being punished. But he also does this to pay for their sins and our today too. Jesus keeps coming back to Jerusalem so that he can die outside of Jerusalem. And that sacrifice pays for all the times we thought we knew the truth when we didn’t even speak to people. That sacrifice pays for all the times we went so far as to actually speak to someone and then completely misunderstood what they were saying. His sacrifice pays for that too. And his sacrifice paves the way for the Holy Spirit to teach us through his word the good and proper path.
So, my dear friends in Christ, what do you do when you don’t know? Cling to Christ who knew it all and was sacrificed for you. And, day by day, wrestle and struggle by the power of God’s Holy Spirit to take people’s words and actions in the kindest possible way.
1 “ⲧⲣⲁⲩⲙⲁⲧⲓⲥⲁⲛⲧⲉⲥⲉⲝⲉⲃⲁⲗⲟⲛ·” (Luke 20:12 GNT-ALEX)
2 “ⲙⲏⲅⲉⲛⲟⲓⲧⲟ·” (Luke 20:16 GNT-ALEX)