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The Cornerstone of God’s New Order

San Williams

October 5, 2014
Matthew 21:31-46

This is a dangerous parable, one that is full of dark sayings and disturbing imagery.  The parable pictures for us the predatory economic realities and the politics of retribution which characterized the public order of Jesus’ day.   We hear about a wealthy landowner trying to collect what’s owned to him from the subsistence farmers who work his land.  This effort results in a violent uprising on the part of the subsistence farmers, which in turn leads to a call for retribution and death.  Is this parable a simple allegory?  Is it social commentary?   Is it a parable about God’s judgment upon the religious leaders of Jesus day? Is it some of all these things, and more?  Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. Well,  today’s parable is one of those biblical passages that has to be squeezed. God willing, it will leak the gospel.

To begin, rather than immediately boring into the parable, take a step back.  Recall where this parable fits in the sequence of events that Matthew sets forth.  Matthew sets the telling of this parable in the Jerusalem Temple where Jesus is locked in controversy with the Temple elites, the chief priests and elders. This is the day after Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey. Such a humble entry was itself a highly charged prophetic act.  It signaled the arrival of a new King, a Savior, just as the prophet Zechariah had proclaimed:  “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey.” Thus, Jesus’ triumphal arrival presented a direct challenge to the imperial order.  Obviously, Israel already had a king.  His name was Herod. Coins and statues of that day depicted Caesar as Lord and Savior. And there was a religious leadership comprised of Temple priests and elders, who were beneficiaries of the top down economic and political order of that day.

As you may recall, after entering the city, Jesus went to the Temple, turned over the tables and drove out the moneychangers who preyed upon the poor and exploited the people in the name of religion.   In stark contrast, Jesus began healing the blind, the lame and all who were brought to him.  Such acts of healing only infuriated the chief priests, but the little children recognized him immediately and began shouting, “Hosanna, the Son of David.”   All these events intensified the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. They confronted Jesus saying in effect: Who do you think you are to upset our practices and challenge our authority?  In response, Jesus told two parables, the second of which we read today.

You know the story.  A landowner plants a vineyard, digs the winepress, and does everything else you’d need to gather in a decent harvest. Then he leases it to tenants to run things while he goes away.  When the harvest comes in, he sends his servants to collect his due. But they beat, stone, and even kill his servants.  And when he sends his son, the tenants kill him as well, hoping–perhaps foolishly–that if there’s no heir, then maybe they’ll inherit the vineyard.

Now, as you probably know, Christian interpreters have tended to make a straight forward allegory out of the parable. In the allegory, the landowner is God.  The vineyard is Israel.  The servants are the prophets God sent to the vineyard.  The son is Jesus whom they also killed.  And the wicked tenants? They are the Jews—the Jewish leaders in particular–who having rejected the prophets and crucified God’s Son are now replaced with more suitable tenants, namely the Christian Church.

Surely we should be wary of such an allegorical reading, even if Matthew intended it as such.  For one thing, it leads to self-gratulatory hubris on the part of Christians, and fans the flames of anti-Semitism.

And in addition to that, the dynamics of the parable don’t neatly fit this allegory.  Remember that the audience for this parable is the Temple priests and elders.  In many cases, these Temple elites were themselves the wealthy landowners.  They undoubtedly had tenants under their authority.  In first-century Judah, there was widespread dispossession of small farmers from their family lands. Thus deprived of their land they had no choice but to become tenants, subsistence farmers for a wealthy and often absentee landowner.  Jesus knew full well that the chief priests and elders would identify with the landowner in the parable, not the wicked tenants.  Could it be, then, that the arguments between Jesus and religious leadership were not primarily about religious practices, but about the temple leaders’ collusion with the exploitative economic and social policies of the Roman Empire?

When Jesus asks the temple leaders what they would do if they found themselves in the circumstance the parable describes.  They answer without hesitation:  “Put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”  The judgment they pronounce makes it clear that their sympathies are with the landowner, being landowners themselves.

Perhaps it’s impossible to understand everything Jesus did and meant in the Temple that day.  But one thing seems clear.  Jesus held a mirror up to the men who claimed to represent the religion of Israel.  In this mirror, the chief priests and elders saw themselves not as images of the righteous will of God, but as reflections of the unjust order of Roman Empire.

And if we’re honest, we’ll see that the parable holds a mirror up for us as well. It forces us to see and name the injustices in our own society.  In the waiting room of the Guadalupe County Jail there is kiosk where friends and family of inmates can put money into an inmate’s commissary account, which is the only way inmates can purchase things like tooth paste, a comb, aspirin, and the like.  I wanted to put $25.00 in an inmate’s account.  When I put in my credit card for that amount, I was told there would be a $6.00 charge.  The next day, our bank statement indicated an additional $10.00 processing fee.  Thus, in order to give $25.00 to an inmate, it cost me $41.00.  Think of the wives, girlfriends, mothers and fathers of inmates–nearly all of whom are economically destitute.  They are not even allowed to put a few dollars in an incarcerated loved-one’s account without being dinged an exorbitant fee. And that’s just one small reflection of a system that is rigged to prey upon the poor.  Makes us wonder if Nick Carnes, writing for the news site Vox, was right when he declared:  ‘Class warfare in America is over…and the well-to-do have won.”

But thankfully, today’s parable doesn’t leave us with the image of a corrupt, unjust vineyard.  It declares the good news that God has laid the foundation for a new order of things, and Jesus Christ is its cornerstone.  God in Jesus Christ doesn’t do what the landowner in the parable did.  Namely, visit the wretched tenants with divine retribution.  No, the rejected and crucified Messiah of God rose again proclaiming God’s forgiveness and reconciliation throughout the world.

Friends, the one who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to expose and put to shame the unjust order of his day, has become the cornerstone of God’s New Order.  By this stone we are judged and blessed, crushed and made new.

Let’s set our hopes and build our lives upon the one who is made the cornerstone of God’s New Creation.