(for the Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost, October 5, 2014)
‘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 watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 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.’
Jesus 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”?
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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-36, NRSV).
If you are familiar with how the prophets fared in Israel – as the ‘chief priests and Pharisees’ were – the direct, even unimaginative, nature of this Jesus-parable is confronting. Israel was long considered God’s vineyard. The Jewish scriptures tell of one who consistently sends witnesses. God’s desire for fruit was long established.
Perhaps the only real surprise here is the introduction of ‘tenants’. This is exactly what the religious leaders consider themselves to be. They see their likeness before they realise where Jesus’ account is taking them!
These tenants, however, are far from faithful. The master’s representatives are consistently ‘beaten and stoned’. Their arrogance peaks when the landowner sends his son. In their power-mad reasoning they see an opportunity to take over. Theirs is an irrational killing. What landowner would not return with vengeance to radically re-arrange the lease?
Jesus’ quote is much more than accusation. It also reminds Jesus hearers that even now God’s plan is unfolding. This rejection will bring about something ‘amazing’: a new cornerstone from which everything is aligned.
And then, as if Jesus has not been direct enough, Jesus looks into the eye of Israel’s leaders: ‘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.’
Unsurprisingly our text states that they ‘…realised that he was speaking about them. ‘ One might think this clarification unnecessary. With all their learning, surely this is easy to understand.
But they haven’t understood.
So much so that they, staggeringly, leave the encounter only to plot the parable’s fulfilment.