“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” So the saying goes. When someone tricks you, you’re supposed to learn your lesson the first time around. Those who fool you, trick you, fail you, are not to be trusted again. If they fool you twice, well, shame on you for giving them a second chance.
But there was a vineyard owner who evidently didn’t understand that old saying. Or, perhaps, he simply chose not to live by it. For not once, not twice, but three times his tenants fooled him. In fact, it was far worse than that. For not only did they cheat him out of his rent, they beat up the servants he sent to collect the money. The first time this happened, it should have been enough. He had ample evidence that these tenants were scoundrels and thieves, with a penchant for violence, so the standard course of action should have been to fight fire with fire. Bring in the authorities and let them deal with these criminals—deal with them violently, if push came to shove. But no, the owner sends a second servant, who, like the first guy, stumbles home empty-handed and fully bruised. And a third servant, whom they beat and battered and booted out of the vineyard. Three strikes, but they still weren’t out.
Any reasonable man, at this point, would never have dreamed of doing what the vineyard owner did next. He asks himself, “What shall I do?” But instead of answering, “I’ll kill them all!” or, “I’ll teach them a lesson they’ll never forget!”, he says instead, “I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” Not only does he give them a fourth chance; he risks the very life of his son in doing so. There lay three of his servants, with blackened eyes and broken bones, scarred by cuts and abrasions, and he imagines things will go better for his son? Seriously? Does he not foresee the danger? But send that son he does. And, indeed, things do go badly, the ingratitude and greed and violence escalate from a PG to an R-rated horror. For when they see the son approaching, the tenants say to each other, “This is the heir. Let’s kill him, so the inheritance will be ours.”
Instead of respect, there is rage;
instead of payment, pulverizing;
the beloved son now a bloodied corpse.
Finally, the vineyard owner has had enough. After risking the life of three of his servants, and losing the life of his beloved son, he gives the tenants what they deserve—judgment. He destroys them and gives the vineyard to others.
What is most astounding about this story is not the perversity of the tenants but the patience of the owner; not their evil, but his good. This parable, at its core, is a story about the heart of God—the God of second chances, and third chances, and, yes, fourth chances and even more. He is portrayed as a man of business, to be sure, but he does not act according to the ways of the world, for he is not a Lord of commerce but a Father of compassion.
For we are these tenants, these ungrateful, violent men. There is no blessing of God which we cannot twist into self-serving instruments that hasten our own destruction. Instead of a million uplifting, truthful words we could and should speak with our mouths, we choose a few hateful, demeaning words to tear down others. Instead of using our hands to help someone in need, we use them to grasp at more and more for ourselves, though we already have more than we know what to do with. God comes to us, looking for good, and finds evil. Indeed, he finds tenants who become angry and violent when he asks for even the bare minimum of decency and selflessness. Do you see that in yourself? Do you see how like the tenants in the parable you are?
But more importantly, do you see, do you grasp, just how incredible it is that God has not given up on you? He does not say, “Fool me twice, shame on me,” strip you of his blessings, and kick you out of his kingdom. No, instead, he affirms, “You are my child, foolish though you are, and I will never be ashamed of you.” If the world has given you up for lost and washed their hands of you; if your friends have written you off and turned their backs on you; if even your family has disowned and discarded you; yes, if every single person in this world regards you as a hopeless, embarrassing failure at life, the Father of all mercies does not. He will search you out, find you, embrace you, kiss you, and shout to all the earth, “This is my beloved son! This is my beautiful daughter! This is my child, my heir, the apple of my eye! With you I am well-pleased!”
Jesus is that beloved son in the parable, cast out of the vineyard. But he who was cast out brings you backs in, alive with him. He is not ashamed to call you brother, sister, a fellow heir of his kingdom. That is why he came. Not to die for the righteous but for those whose lives are full of one failure after another, for his is a love that never fails. He came to die not for the clean but for the dirty, for his blood washes away even the filthiest of stains embedded in your soul. He came to search out not those who come running to him, but those who have fled from God, who hide in the darkness of their doubt and unbelief, to find you no matter where you are, to give you hope in place of despair, faith instead of doubt.
The way of God is the way of forgiveness. He keeps no record of how many chances he’s given you. For in the end, it’s not about how many times you’ve messed up, but how constant, how unwavering, is the Father’s love for you in Jesus Christ.
This mediation, based on Luke 20:9-19, is included in my new book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons. This is not a collection of feel-good, saccharine devotional material. It’s hard-hitting, Gospel-giving, Christ-focused writing that takes you to the cross of Jesus again and again as the only source of healing for us. Purchase your copy by clicking on CreateSpace or Amazon. And thank you!
The poems and hymns in my book, The Infant Priest, give voice to the triumphs and tragedies of life in a broken world. Here there is praise of the crucified and risen Christ, dark lamentation of a penitent wrestling with despair, meditations upon the life of our Lord, thanksgiving for family, and much more. If you’d like to purchase a copy, you may do so at this website or on Amazon.com. Thank you!