17th Sunday after Trinity Matthew 21:33-46
‘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.
May these written and spoken words lead us to the living word – Jesus Christ. Amen
Jesus said to them ‘listen to another parable’ – he might well have said ‘get ready for another confrontation with the Pharisees.’ They heard Jesus and they knew he was talking about them, they didn’t like it and they wanted to arrest him. We tend to avoid conflict, but not Jesus, at every turn he is aggravating and confronting the Pharisees.
He eats with the wrong people. He won’t answer their questions. He breaks their laws and heals on the Sabbath. He calls them hypocrites. He escapes the traps they set for him. He announces a string of ‘woes’ against them. My last sermon compared them with a disobedient son who would not work in the Father’s vineyard. It seems that Jesus never gives up.
We have to ask what is this conversation about. Why didn’t Jesus just ignore them? I don’t think he is trying to pick a fight with them, or is angry with them or is trying to exclude them from the kingdom of God. I think he is just not willing to give up on them. Just as Jesus is unwilling to give up on you and me. Parables are like mirrors that we hold up against ourselves and see what it is that God is trying say.
That is the good news, hope and joy in today’s parable. It is not so much a parable of exclusion or condemnation, it is more about God’s unwillingness to give up on us.
What is buried in this parable?
It tells us of God's trust in us. The owner of the vineyard entrusted it to the tenants. He did not stand over them to exercise a police-like supervision of their work. He went away and left them with their task. The action of the landowner was quite common in Palestine. The landowner let the tenants have use of the vineyard and in return they paid him a portion of the harvest in kind or in money. It is a picture of how God trusts us to work in his church and in his world without his interference.
It tells of God's patience. At harvest time the landowner sent slave after slave to collect the produce. To no avail. He did not come with sudden vengeance when one slave had been abused and ill-treated. He gave the tenants chance after chance to respond to his appeal. What a wonderful picture of God who is so patient with us, with our sin and will not give up on us.
But it also tells us of God's judgement. In the end the master of the vineyard took the vineyard from the tenants and gave it to others. God's sternest judgment is when he takes the tasks he meant us to do out of our hands.
It tells of privilege. The vineyard was equipped with everything. The hedge, the wine press, the tower which would make the task of the cultivators easy and enable them to work well. God never asks us to do something without giving us the equipment to do it.
It tells of free will. The landowner left the tenants alone to do the task as they liked. God is not a tyrannical task-master.
But there will also be a day of reckoning. We will be answerable for the way in which we have lived our lives.
This parable is a picture of God’s love and provision for us. There is a protective hedge around the vineyard, winepress and tower. This was a vineyard that was well provided for and protected. This is also about us, God’s privileged people.
God has given us the world and he offers us His protection and provision. He gives us the freedom to get on with our lives. God does not keep making demands. He trusts us and seeks a faithful relationship with us, but He does want some response. In all his dealings with us God is patient, even when we ignore him and his messengers. God gives us chance after chance but this cannot go on for ever. If we ignore him, that has its own consequences. It is not that God ever turns away from us.
Sadly as a nation it would seem we have turned away from God and are becoming increasingly secular. There will be a day of reckoning. We are all answerable to God for the way we use the world and how we live our lives.
Reading this parable it would be easy to pass judgement on the Pharisees and keep the story in the past. Just as it is easy to pass judgement on those outside of the church – the so called ‘unbelievers.’ This avoids the issue of God speaking to us, as individuals and as a church. Once again it is time to ask the hard questions. Do we heed God's messengers? Do we hear God speak to us from his word, and in the sermons? Do we give God his due? Or do we resent what we have to give to Him and the church? Are we certain we show respect for his world? Before we point at anyone else, we need to remember that three fingers always point back at us.
It is so easy to see the Pharisees and the Scribes as the villains but we are all made out of the same stuff, all out of the same mould. Jesus is being rejected today just as he was then, but he was and is the foundation stone on which the kingdom of God and church is built, and he is the corner stone which holds everything together.
When things around us are falling apart, when the going is really tough. When we think the virus and all the disruption to our lives will never end, it is the time to remember we are loved by God beyond anything we can even begin to imagine.