GOSPEL: Matthew 21:33-46
Jesus tells a parable to the religious leaders who are plotting his death, revealing that their plans will, ironically, bring about the fulfillment of scripture.
[Jesus said to the people:] 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. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They 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.”
42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?
43Therefore 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. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
When I took preaching classes, we had some instruction. But mostly it was like a swimming lesson in the deep end. You just put yourself out there with your sermon and hope you remember what you were taught. or at least float. That being said, “There are some definite “don’ts.” Don’t preach the interstate highway ending where you pass several perfectly good exits but keep on going. Don’t preach the Debbie Downer ending in which you revisit the problem after you have offered the good news of God’s Grace to face our problems. Most importantly, Don’t ever get into the pulpit without knowing exactly how you are going to end your sermon.”
Another is “don’t make a habit of following a moving story with an explanation. Many times, it is more effective to just sit down and let listeners apply it to themselves.” Ask a question and let the listeners ponder the answer.
Jesus parables often have these little explanations tacked onto the end of them. Which push our reading in a specific direction, when other places it simply ends with a question or a deep thought. In reading the gospels I often have the sneaking suspicion that many parables should bear the label in small print “Unsatisfying ending provided by Mark, Luke, or Matthew.”
The parable of the wicked tenants as it stands in Matthew, Mark, and Luke has traditionally been interpreted to emphasize the murder of God’s Son by Israel’s leaders and the transfer of Israel’s privileges to the church. This passage needs to be treated with great care by Christians. It began as a prophetic critique by a Jew to fellow Jews, designed not to damn Israel but to provoke repentance.
In the course of Christian history, this passage and others like it became fuel for fires of anti-Semitism. Jews were called “Christ killers,” and popes and bishops taught that Jews were less than fully human. Christian teachings against Jews supported the final solution of the Nazis whether they meant to or not. And it starts here. With how we read scripture. With how we interpret violence and uncertainty in the text, and who we understand those wicked tenants to be.
Violence against Jews, people of color, women, and those who identify as something other than heterosexual, and those otherwise marginalized, all starts somewhere. Whole sections of the population of this country just take it for granted that their lives could be in danger at some point because of who they are. But now, the rest of America has looked up from their tvs and thought, gosh, it could be me. I last preached this text after the mass shooting in Las Vegas at a country music festival. The slaughter of innocent people: random violence, no targets, no racism, no point.
The random violence reported with updates day and night, with images to confirm our worst subconscious fears about our neighbors and strangers. This takes a toll and produces fear and worry about the next episode of random violence. The next person to just lose it and start shooting. The next protest to turn violent with a counter protest that ends in violence as well. Violence begets violence. That is what happens.
And violence is nothing new – people have been violent since the word go. And God has been coping with that, and trying to figure out a way to get us to live. This is the Gospel. We most clearly see this in the image of Jesus on the cross, where the eyes of faith see both the disastrous result of human willfulness and the inexhaustible will of God to save.
God expected us to grow together in the vineyard – but it became a mess. God expected God’s people to treat each other with the same love that God showed to them, and they did not – we did not.
Our sin and our selfishness, means that some of the vineyard is overrun by weeds, in need of care, and not producing fruit. Some of the vineyard is impoverished, while other parts grow wild. He expected people to grow together but they cut each other down.
“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Something must be done.
First he sends servants, messengers, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more — not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants — and the same thing happens again. So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to deal with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It’s absolutely crazy. Who would do such a thing? No one…except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach out to them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child than he does a businessman. It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.
And the assumption is that this landowner, in the end, will strike down with violence in revenge for his losses. But that’s not how the story of God’s vineyard ends. Violence and destruction are never the end of the story, and so violence cannot end violence.
We are the tenants. The violence we do to one another and the violence we do to the vineyard, stems from the sin of breaking the first commandment ultimately. We forget that God is God. None of the vineyard belongs to us, and yet we treat it as though we own it and each other. This world, the church included, belongs to God. We pass through this world, migrant workers in the reign of God on earth. Christ is the cornerstone, and while he possesses the ability to crush and destroy those who would thwart his purpose, he also seeks to open the vineyard for all to enter.
A quote from Psalm 118- The stone the builders rejected… the son is rejected but God doesn’t exact vengeance- God doles out mercy. God doesn’t smite and kill and give what the wicked tenants deserve- God gives love. Through the death of his son, God will give eternal life. God doesn’t act like you Pharisees are telling people God will act if they don’t fall in line. God doesn’t act like you or I would act when people hurt or reject us… God acts like God. And Jesus goes on…. 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.
Those who are generous and wise stewards of these fruits are the ones who can see most clearly the abundance of the kingdom. The ones most clearly realize that this whole vineyard and each grape within it belong to the vineyard owner and not to us, are the ones who most easily see the grace and mercy of God in this kingdom.
The story does not end with the destruction of the vineyard in Isaiah. The story does not end with the death of the servants and the mutiny of the tenants – the end of the story is the owner sending his only begotten Son – his beloved – and changing the rules of the entire game and rising from the dead.