Jesus is not Mr. Rogers
READING: Matthew 21:33-46
16th Sunday after Trinity
“Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it.44 And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (Matthew 21:43-44 NKJV)
Christians don’t usually think of Jesus as breaking bones or grinding people to powder, but that is exactly how he revealed himself to the wicked rulers of the Jews in Matthew 21:44.
As I thought about the fierce judgments Jesus decreed against the Jewish rulers, I remembered, in contrast, the late Fred Rogers (1928-2003) and his famous children’s television program, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister whose remarkable gentleness characterized both him and his program. But Jesus was not Mr. Rogers. In his harsh treatment of the chief priests and elders, he was the fearsome messianic Judge whose condemnations landed on the Jewish rulers with terrible force.
Ironically, the chief priests and elders accosted Jesus in an attempt to judge him. But in a dramatic turn around, it was Jesus who judged them. Our Gospel reading is part of that judgment.
In this parable, as he had done in the telling of the parable that preceded it (The Parable of the Two Sons), Jesus engaged the rulers in a story. Because teachers in that day regularly taught their students by means of parables, Jesus’ engagement of the Jewish rulers in his parable effectively subjected them to his teaching authority (whether they liked it or not!)
But the parable wasn’t merely given to the rulers to instruct them. Its larger aim was to indict them. And while the parable might not read like the indictments our legal system hands down, it must be reckoned as such in the context of that long ago day. The Messiah—the God-anointed king of the Jews—was King and Judge wherever he was, and on that day he was in the temple that served as the global headquarters of the Jewish people and the official seat of the Jewish rulers. It was there that Jesus tried the rulers and found them wanting. It was there that he indicted them for their sins.
To the indictment we now turn.
I. THE PARABLE INDICTMENT
The parable the Lord hurled into the rulers’ faces was short, rich in imagery, and unmistakably clear in its intent.
The Parable in Overview
The parable pictured the Jewish rulers as unfaithful, greedy, and murderous vinedressers. The other characters in the parable were Israel, which is pictured as the vineyard, and God, who is portrayed as the vineyard owner.
The vinedressers first killed a succession of servants (i.e., prophets) whom the vineyard owner sent to collect his fruit at harvest time. Ultimately, they killed the vineyard owner’s son (Jesus) because they wanted to keep the vineyard for themselves. The vinedressers were thieves as well as murderers.
The parable thus exposed the longstanding wickedness of Jewish authorities, which had persisted for generations. It also exposed the present leadership’s murderous intentions for Jesus himself, which they would carry out a few days hence.
The Question after the Parable
Having told the parable, Jesus then asked the Jewish rulers what the vineyard owner would do to the vinedressers. The rulers responded rightly, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons” (v. 41). Without realizing it, the rulers judged themselves for their own sins, predicted their own fate (destruction), and prophesied the emergence of the apostolic leaders into whose hands the care of the Church would be given.
The Next Question
Jesus then asked the rulers if they’d read the following Scripture:
The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes.
This passage is a complement to the parable Jesus had just told. The rulers had of course read this passage. More, they were the very builders who rejected the “stone” (Jesus) upon which God promised to build a new order, the Church.
The parable indicted the Jewish rulers in veiled fashion, as did the subsequent Scripture citation. But with his next words Jesus spelled out the indictment in the plainest of language. “Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it. 44 And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder” (vv. 43-44).
Jesus’ meaning is clear. The Jewish rulers would lose their right to care for God’s people, and leadership would pass to other caretakers (i.e., the apostles and their successors.) Jesus would be the cornerstone of a new temple, the Church, and those who tripped over him would be broken. Those upon whom he fell would be ground to powder. In other words, Jesus would destroy the Jewish leaders that opposed him.
Through Jesus’ judgments, the Jewish leaders would become rocks and rubble and dust. Their days were numbered.
The Reaction of the Rulers
Matthew writes next, “Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived he was speaking of them” (v. 45). Angered, they attempted to arrest Jesus, but fearing the multitudes they relented. The multitudes reckoned Jesus to be a prophet (v. 45). That means, among other things, that they understood Jesus’ condemnation of the rulers.
The Ultimate Lesson
So, the Lord justly judged the wicked Jewish rulers. He did so with a parable, with a citation from the Scriptures, and with a thunderous sentence that predicted their destruction and removal from office. Moreover, he sentenced them before the multitudes and in the temple that served as their seat of power.
On this day in the temple, Jesus the Judge was no Mr. Rogers.
There are many lessons to be drawn from our reading, but the one I want to single out is the lesson that points to the judicial authority of the Lord Jesus. The popular perception of Jesus, I fear, is more that of a nonthreatening Mr. Rogers than that of the Incarnate God whose kingly rule includes ultimate judicial authority. The “Mr. Rogers Jesus” visits no consequences on evildoers. The real Jesus does, however, for he has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28: 18).
Then, Now, and in the Future
Our Gospel reading demonstrates Jesus’ judicial power and authority in a historic context. But the Lord who was Judge then is also the Judge now. As Peter made clear when he spoke to Cornelius’ household, Jesus commanded the apostles to testify that he (Jesus) was ordained by God to be “Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). That means that Jesus judges men in this life as well as in the afterlife.
Looking to the distant future, the Nicene Creed points to the final, eschatological judgment that Jesus will administer on the last day when he comes again to judge all men in the final judgment. What a terrible day that will be for the wicked!
Jesus was, is, and will be the Judge of all men.
Judgment carried out
For the record, Jesus’ judgment on the rulers began to be carried out on the Day of Pentecost when the kingdom was wrested from them and given to the followers of Christ. From that day forward the Jewish rulers’ influence steadily lessened. In A.D. 70, when Roman armies under Titus destroyed the temple, their authority ceased altogether. Moreover, the destruction of the temple provided manifest evidence that the kingdom of God had passed completely into the hands of the Church.
Judgment in heretical churches
For nearly two thousand years Jesus has meted out analogous judgments on the parts of the Church that have forsaken him. In our day, the Lord’s judgments are the reason that once orthodox but now heretical denominations are slowly but surely coming to extinction.
The end is in sight for liberal churches and denominations, and that is a good and just thing. The Jesus who took the kingdom from the corrupt Jewish leaders is likewise taking the kingdom from the false shepherds of heretical churches in our day. For such, the Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers serves as an indictment.
Judgment on corrupt rulers
Jesus also metes out justice on wicked political rulers and the nations that set themselves against him and his people. As Psalm 2 makes very clear, political rulers who fight against the High King will be destroyed.
As Christians, we can and should call upon the Judge to defend us against evil rulers, and to ultimately remove them from power.
We should also rest in the fact that wicked nations will not prosper in the long term. Jesus the Judge will not permit them to do so.
Jesus, who is the Judge of the living and the dead, is no Mr. Rogers. He is the Lord of Lords whose judgments are true and whose vengeance is visited upon the wicked (cf. Revelation 19:2). His word smites the nations that oppose him. He tramples the wicked underfoot in the winepress of his wrath (19:15). “Praise our God, all you His servants and those who fear Him, both small and great!” (19:5). Amen.