5th Sunday in Lent
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Luke 20:9-19 Sermon
March 25, 2007
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
242 “Christ Is Made The Sure Foundation”
512 “Jesus I My Cross Have Taken”
478 “He Leadeth Me”
557 “Fight The Good Fight”
MURDER IN THE FIRST DEGREE
TEXT (vs. 13-14): “Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.' 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.'”
Lucille Keppen lives in Shakopee, Minnesota, a southern suburb of Minneapolis. She hasn’t had an easy life either. Her father died when she was in her teens. Her first husband was an alcoholic, who deserted her and their two sons. She wound up marrying again later on, and this time the marriage lasted.
As time went on, her one son passed away, and then awhile later, her other son died. And then finally, her husband passed away too, leaving her all alone.
With all of this happening, and some heart problems as well, she decided to move into a high rise retirement apartment building. There she would at least have some others around, plus she could summon emergency help if she needed it.
It was there that she became acquainted with a man by the name of Stephen Flesche. The two of them developed a friendship—something like a mother/son relationship. He helped her out while she was recuperating from her heart problems; and since he had a very limited income and no car, she took him places and bought things for him.
Unfortunately for her, Mr. Flesche was a rather controlling and selfish individual. He didn’t want her going to her church anymore. When Lucille decided to quit driving, he was furious with her for selling her car, and not giving it to him. He also began to receive a government pension, so he didn’t need her money anymore.
And so he began to verbally abuse her. She couldn’t walk down the hall or go into the common areas of the building without him berating her or subjecting her to his abusive ways. Of course this hurt her very deeply.
Then one day, she was totally fed up with him. He had abused her again, and she went back to her apartment in tears. As evening approached, she knew he would be sitting in the lounge area where he always did. She went to the dresser in her bedroom, and pulled out her husband’s old pistol. She put two rounds in the chamber and headed downstairs.
Lucille recounts, “I said to myself, if he’s just halfway decent to me, just halfway decent, I’ll take it upstairs.” Unfortunately for Mr. Flesche, he wasn’t even halfway decent. When he began to berate her again, she pulled out her gun and shot him.
Lucille, as you might have guessed by now, is a senior citizen. All of this happened when she was 88 years old. And now, at age 93, she is the oldest inmate at the Women’s Penitentiary in Shakopee, Minnesota. And more than that, she is the oldest person to be incarcerated anywhere in the entire United States. Her story isn’t a secret either; she’s gotten both good and bad press out of all this, so perhaps you’ve heard at least a bit of her story.
Let’s put Lucille on hold for a little bit, as we get into the topic of our Gospel lesson for today. One of the unfortunate things this text speaks about is the crime of murder, which could be coupled with several aggravated assault charges.
The scene is a vineyard, which is owned by a man who lived some distance away. He had entered into a type of share cropping arrangement with some people, which probably worked like share cropping does today. The method frequently used today is that the owner and share cropper split the harvest, with two-fifths going to the owner, and three-fifths going to the share cropper. The cost of the seed, fertilizer, weed control, etc. are split fifty-fifty. If everything is above board, then this arrangement can work out very nicely for everybody concerned.
Unfortunately, not all share croppers are honest people, especially if the land owner lives a good distance away. For example, my grandfather owned some farm ground on which he grew wheat. We knew that the share farmers were skimming off the top and adding to their own harvest. So my dad and my uncle would stop by unannounced and check up on things. Surprisingly enough, the harvest was good when they were there; but when they weren’t, the harvest wasn’t nearly as good. Of course we could never prove anything; but over the course of time, the original share farmers lost the contract all together, and we got different and more honest people.
The tenants on the land in our story today were very crooked. When the land owner sent three of his employees at different times to collect his share as per their original agreement, they were badly beaten and sent away. And so the land owner sends his son. He would be the eventual land owner anyway, so it was time he took some responsibility in the business affairs of his father.
Unfortunately, this didn’t change the attitude of the tenants one bit; in fact, their dishonest activities, their greed, and their spite escalated. They figured if they killed the son, and the land owner were to die, they would be able to take possession of the vineyard. They would have squatter’s rights; and since there would be nobody else to lay claim to the vineyard, it would become theirs by default.
We see two capital offenses being committed here by the tenants. They committed aggravated assault against the three servants who were sent; and then they committed first degree murder when the son showed up.
What is it in the hearts of people that cause them to commit such crimes? If you watch any of the crime dramas on television like I do, you kind of get the idea. Yes, I admit I like to watch CSI, and NCIS, and Cold Case, and Criminal Minds. There’s a lot portrayed on these shows which are taken from actual crime cases.
Power is a big one, so is greed, and anger, and passion. Not all crimes committed with these motives result in murder, but you soon learn that there is a very fine line between having these feelings, and acting on them in an unacceptable way. When that line is crossed, then horrible things can occur.
This past week, the new Nebraska quarterback Sam Keller has been in the news. It seems as if some lady cut in front of him and stole his parking spot. Evidently, his reaction was to speak his mind and toss a paper cup at her car—hardly what one would consider a violent reaction. Keller even publicly apologized for his actions. However there have been others in this world that have had similar things happen, who have subsequently reacted by pulling a gun and shooting someone. “Road rage” as it has been called in recent years, has been an increasing problem.
The sinful feelings and emotions which so infect our society become manifest in sinful actions. In the case of the tenants in our Gospel lesson today, this is played out in aggravated assault and murder in the first degree.
The setting for the story in today’s Gospel is at a point in time after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and before his arrest in Gethsemane. This would be Jesus’ last appearance in the Temple before he is hauled back to appear before the Sanhedrin and then be handed over to Pontius Pilate for his execution.
Jesus’ story is very pointed, and he uses imagery that is easy for his listeners to understand. The illustration of the vineyard also had roots that ran deep into the Old Testament.
When the Psalmist wanted to praise God for bringing the nation of Israel out of Egypt into the Promised Land, he said in Psalm 80 verse 8: "You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it."
Isaiah compared Israel to a vineyard as he records in chapter 5 verse 1: "Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines …"
When Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, Jeremiah mourned with the words he records in chapter 12 verse 10: "Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard; they have trampled down my portion; they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness."
So, when the Passover pilgrims heard Jesus start a story about a man who planted a vineyard, they were in familiar territory.
Most of the people who listened to the story would quickly know that the vineyard represented God's people. The owner of the vineyard would be God the father. The tenants who cared for the vineyard represented the Jewish religious establishment including the scribes and the chief priests who were in the crowd listening. The servants who came looking for the fruit of the vineyard were God's prophets. The owner's son would be none other than Jesus Christ Himself.
The whole story of Christ’s Passion and the central theme of Lent is murder in the first degree. For any murder to be considered first degree murder, it has to be premeditated. It is thought about, talked about, plotted out, planned out, and then carried out.
If we examine Matthew chapter 12, we find Jesus doing things which the Pharisees considered to be unlawful on the Sabbath. They got after him for picking grain from the field and eating it. Then he dares to heal a man with a shriveled hand. And what do the Pharisees do? Verse 14 says, “But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.”
There isn’t any court in the land that would dispute the fact that we have a bunch of church officials here with blood on their hands. The Pharisees, and we might as well include the whole Sanhedrin, are guilty of first degree murder. When Jesus bowed his head and gave up the ghost, their long devised plot had come to fruition.
When Jesus spoke this parable, he knew exactly what was going to happen to him. He knew he was going to die. Moreover, he knew what was going to happen to them. The landowner coming in and driving out the wicked tenants, and having them meet with annihilation would be played out when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in A. D. 70.
Jesus reminds the people that he is the cornerstone, which is the stone the builders rejected. Anyone who opposes God would be like a piece of pottery against that stone—if the stone falls on the pottery, it will be crushed; and if the pottery is thrown against the stone, it will be dashed to pieces. God will always endure regardless of what happens, and he will always come out on top.
If we look at ourselves, we can see all sorts of sinful feelings and emotions swirling around inside of us. There’s hatred, and anger, and lust, and pride, and greed—oh so many things. And these desires and feelings have played out in so many different ways in our lives. Maybe we haven’t murdered someone, or even committed aggravated assault. But the potential is there.
One of our Lenten hymns puts it quite well:
“Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus,
I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee!” (SBH 85, 2)
We of course deserve the sinner’s sentence and death. But God would not have it. That’s why Jesus came to this earth and allowed himself to be the victim of first degree murder. He endured all of it, so we wouldn’t have to. It was our sins for which he was paying the price.
We don’t have to suffer, or die, or otherwise pay the price for them. Jesus did all that for us. All of those sinful thoughts, actions, and words we have had are all crucified on that cross with him. What Jesus has done for us is ours through nothing but faith alone in him as our Saviour. He was so passionate about saving us, that he gladly endured what he did so we might have forgiveness and eternal life.
Lucille Keppen, at age 88 took a revolver and shot Stephen Flesche. She acted on her sinful thoughts and emotions, and this is what happened. She didn’t kill him though; she called 911, the paramedics came, and he lived.
I learned about her by reading an article in the Lutheran magazine, "Forward in Christ." The article was written by her former pastor, who counseled her and helped her through her ordeal. I’d like to share a few quotes with you from that article:
“What’s life like now? Would you be surprised if I told you it’s better than ever? God saved my life and put me here among people in a prison….Forgiveness with Jesus makes any life worth living, anywhere….At 93 years old I still don’t understand a lot of things. But I have learned that ‘where sin increased, grace increased all the more…to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Romans 5, 20). Yes, I know better now what sin is and what it does. But I know Jesus better, too. The Lord has been so good to me.”
Lucille got her high school diploma in prison. She’s also taking art classes. The guards and other inmates affectionately call her “Grandma.” Others join her in mealtime prayers. But most importantly, she is actively sharing her Saviour with other inmates. She knows only too well that God forgives all sin through faith in Jesus Christ, no matter how big or how small that sin might be. She says, “…I shot a man, but God saved my life!” God’s grace has been made very real to her.
You and I have been recipients of that same grace. It’s very real for us too. Each of us has to deal with sin in our lives all the time. Our sins may not play out in the same way that Lucille’s did, but the need for forgiveness is exactly the same.
Jesus endured first degree murder at the hands of his enemies so that through faith in him, we would inherit eternal life—not in a 10 by 8 prison cell, but in the mansions of heaven.