Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 21:33-46

The sunk cost fallacy is a principle in business and economics where investment is continued in something simply on account of the amount already put into it. The sunk cost is the amount that has already been invested, and cannot be recovered, which is compared to the prospective costs, which may be added in the future if no action is taken. Say you have a car, which you have owned for 20 years and have put hundreds of thousands of miles on it. The last few years you have been putting more and more money into it – a/c goes out, water pump has to be replaced, timing belt breaks. Then the transmission goes out. You could say, “I’ve put so much money and time into this car, I might as well fix the transmission.” That’s the sunk cost fallacy – no amount put in already means you need to invest future money into it. At some point it’s better to cut losses.
When we look at today’s gospel reading, the vineyard owner in the parable seems to be stuck in the sunk cost fallacy. Surely he has a great initial investment, planting the vineyard, digging a winepress, building a wall and a tower. He has left nothing out in making sure this will be a great and productive vineyard. Then he hires out workers and leaves. Things are going well so far, until the vineyard owner sends a servant to collect his part of the harvest. The workers beat one servant, stone another, and kill another! He probably should have stopped with the first servant, but no, he sends another wave of servants. Then he sends his son! Certainly his son is more valuable than servants to him, but that doesn’t stop him. It is not until his son is thrown out of the vineyard and killed that he considers taking back the vineyard from these wicked workers. Certainly anyone reasonable would have cut his losses a lot sooner.
This vineyard owner does not work by the wisdom of this world. For the vineyard owner is God, and the parable is a retelling of the whole history of the nation of Israel from God’s perspective. God took them out of slavery in Egypt and planted them in a land with everything set up for them to prosper. Yet when God expected his people to produce fruits of repentance and faith, resulting in good works, they turned against God instead. So He sent His servants the prophets one by one to the people to tell them to turn back to Him. The people refused and treated the prophets badly, beating and killing them. Yet God was patient. He sent prophet after prophet and still the people of Israel would not listen. So God sent His Son.
We see with what patience and longsuffering God deals with his people. He lets them sin against Him again and again and still sends out the call for them to repent and be saved. He sends His Son to them, and they devise to kill Him, but this is just the method of their salvation. As the son was thrown out of the vineyard and killed, so Christ was taken out of the city and crucified. Yet this plan of the Pharisees didn’t take God by surprise. The Father sent the Son to do this very thing. The Son faithfully came to die for our sins out of love. Yes, love for lost sinners, but most of all love for His Father. Christ’s work comes from the very center of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The love that the Trinity has is shown to us in the death of Jesus to cleanse us for our sins. The prophets had been servants on account of being sent, but Jesus was sent on account of being the son. In the first, the mission makes the man, but with Jesus the man makes the mission.

Here in our reading, mere days before Christ would be delivered over, suffer, and die, we see the response of Israel’s leaders to the Son. “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. And although they were seeking to arrest him, they feared the crowds, because they held him to be a prophet.” Although held back because of their fear of the crowds, the chief priests and Pharisees were ready to fulfill Christ’s prophecy from the parable, even as they answered that they deserved a miserable death and that their vineyard be given to someone else. If this Jesus was going to give up their place to another people, then they must “kill him and have his inheritance.”
Thanks be to God, for Jesus’ death and rejection did not eliminate him as the heir but validated his inheritance as he rose from the dead. Although rejected by men, He would become the chief cornerstone of the new structure, setting every angle of the building.  In this way the Kingdom of God was taken from Israel’s leaders – the place of mercy and grace was no longer the temple in their nation, but the church founded on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ. Jesus quotes Psalm 118:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
       this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’

This was the Holy Spirit-inspired psalm of praise of the Israelites who returned from exile in Babylon to rebuild the temple. They had been exiled, removed from worship of God, but returning and rebuilding saw the Lord’s marvelous work of restoring them. Now Jesus shows this was truly about how He would be rejected and die, and become the true cornerstone of the church.
If Christ is the true cornerstone, then we should not try to build on another foundation. The cornerstone determines the level, the lines, the angles of the structure. As we have been baptized into Christ, so we are joined to his death and resurrection. The life of the resurrection has begun in us now. As St. Peter writes, “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
With Christ the cornerstone as our guide and rule, we also should live in patience and love with one another. Our spiritual sacrifices are love and forgiveness toward each other, as Christ has forgiven us. That person who offended you? Forgive him. The relative who keeps borrowing money? Help them. Those who treat you poorly? Pray for them, do good to them. For this is what the Father did for us in Christ.
This is difficult to do. Our sense of justice for ourselves is very high. Many times forgiveness of others can seem like the sunk cost fallacy. We have forgiven so many times, why not just cut our losses? Is there any investment of time and love I have left for this person? Such questions build on the wrong foundation, are guided by the wrong cornerstone. For the cornerstone Jesus set is one of patience and longsuffering for sinners like us. He strengthens us with his body and blood to do so. As we feast on Christ together, we should remember that we are joined to the one who suffered and died for us, but also to each other. One member of the body cannot say to the other, “I have no need of you.”

There is no way into the kingdom, into the inheritance prepared by God, than that of a little child. While the Pharisees and Jewish leaders were rejected, there was always chance for repentance. They needed to abandon their Jewishness, their pride and honor. So we also must abandon the things we take pride in, that we trust in more than God. We humble ourselves as Christ humbled himself.
There is no sunk cost fallacy in Christ. For the Father paid his greatest price for us, His only Son. The Son paid all that we may be forgiven and live with Him. This is not a failed investment, but builds a church, made now of sinners like us, but which will eventually be the most beautiful edifice, sanctified and glorified by God. Christ is the perfect cornerstone, and building on him, there can be nothing less. AMEN.

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