33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;[a]
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.[b] 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”[c]
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46 NRSV)
Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a triumphal entry to the throngs of followers calling out in his name to “save them.” “Save us from Rome; save us from legalities we can’t hope to follow; save us for something better than we have now.”
Jesus then enters the temple and creates a holy mess. He disagrees with the religious leadership cowering to Rome in order to save their jobs and hang onto their power. It has led to a life of legalism that excludes the least among them, not seeing the neediest of God’s children outside the temple doors.
Now the religious leaders are angry! How dare he threaten our existence?! Rome can take over at any moment and it’s up to us to keep the peace at all costs! So they go to him and challenge his authority.
So far he has challenged back. He has used a question and a parable to point them away from their rabid fear and rigid rules to a loving God who will stand with them no matter what. They’re unable to view their fear in the light of day. For it is exhibiting itself in hunger and thirst for “the good ole’ days”; in rigid attention to matters that will keep them in power, rather than the law that commands they care for the least among them.
Jesus doesn’t stop there, though. He continues his dangerous conversation. Dangerous for him, but even more dangerous for his listeners and for us today. His parables convict even as they seek to teach us a better way. They hurt our sense of worldly ethics even while demanding our repentance.
The vineyard is a common thread in the Bible. Chances are that the listeners heard this parable through the words of the prophet Isaiah:
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes? (Isaiah 5: 1-4 NRSV)
The inhabitants had failed to work in the vineyard. Instead, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. The widow and orphan were left to their own devices, which often meant death by starvation and disease.
The legal experts wouldn’t like Jesus’ parable much, because of its close resemblance to Isaiah’s passage. The vineyard owner built a beautiful world for the inhabitants. All they had to do was care for it. He went away, as landowners did in those days, and sent emissaries to collect the rent.
Greed, jealousy, anger, hate, arrogance and pride took over. They committed assault and murder. The sad, but persevering landowner sent additional people to collect. Again, murderous intent takes over and they now lie dead on the ground next to the grapevines.
At this point, our worldly values would say, send in the army, get rid of these scoundrels! Put them in jail and throw away the key! Better yet, kill them. It’s what they deserve!
But, no. The landowner sends his son. (Sound familiar?) They kill him as well. (Again, sound familiar?) Their greed is over the top, thinking they can take over the vineyard and make it theirs.
Jesus pauses in the telling of the tale. He turns an eye to the leaders and asks a question. “What will the landowner do to those tenants?”
Without thinking they respond, “He’ll kill them and find new tenants.” That’s that. End of story. They haven’t connected the dots, though. It’ll take a few more minutes to realize that this parable is about them. This dangerous conversation with Jesus is about those religious leaders who turn God’s people into “those people” who aren’t worthy of respectable treatment.
Jesus doesn’t tell easy parables. Jesus wants us to dig deeper and get our heads outside of the worldview.
“Don’t forget the stumbling block,” he says, reminding them of Psalm 118, the song they sing when they approach the temple on high holy days.
The corner stone becomes a stumbling block. That stumbling block is God. No, this isn’t a divine stone used to kill and maim sinners. This is a block that shows up when we choose to travel the route of greed and avarice or hate or arrogance, or anything that makes us lesser people than what God created us to be.
The stone is God’s judgement. Not a stone of death, but one that breaks us down so that God can build us up again. The stone breaks down our hate and anger and pride and prejudice, leaving room for love and peace. The stone breaks down our need for protection and opens us up to provide protection for others.
The stone breaks down our fear, little by little, to show us a new way of “being” in the vineyard. To recognize all people as creations of God. To find ways of relating to them; new ways of understanding their life situations.
As I write this, I wonder how many of you will say, “Those are nice words, pastor, but you don’t live in the real world like we do.”
I said those words myself in my younger years. Until I realized that most pastors and ministers and rabbis and other religious leaders, live in a world that is all too real. You can only counsel people in your study for so long; you can only listen to the voices of those around you that express their fear with hate and exclusion; you can only listen to the news for so long before you pray, “Come quickly, Lord. And make it before I burn out. Please.”
There’s not enough money to fill the pantries or pay the utility bills or the rent of the needy. There’s not enough money to buy shoes for the kids or put into our educational system. There’s not enough of anything to go around.
That’s the myth that traps us in our steps. Perhaps it’s time to embrace that stumbling block and learn from it instead of rubbing our bruised shins and egos.
That stumbling block is God’s justice, challenging us to look at the vineyard differently. It doesn’t belong to us. It belongs to God. We are supposed to be at work in that vineyard. The task may not be to harvest, but to plant the seeds that will grow to lovely vines that we’ll never see. The task may be to harvest the grapes that others planted before you.
What does your corner of the vineyard look like? Is it filled with anger and hate? Demonstrate tough love. Where people are building walls, poke a hole in them and reach in with questions that inspire conversation. Where you find poverty, learn what you can do to make a difference — not a cure, but a difference. Where you find injustice, pray for ways to bring about justice.
Where’s the good news?
The good news is that Jesus continues to confront us with dangerous conversations.
That God continues to persevere despite our repeated rejection of God’s messengers.
That God always risks violence in order to be in relation with humanity.
Perhaps Frederick Buechner said it best: “The one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully.”
All glory and honor be to God.