Today’s gospel reading begins where we left off last week.  A quick re-cap to set the scene:  This is right after the people hailed Jesus as a hero with palm branches in an impromptu parade as he came into Jerusalem riding on a donkey.  Then Jesus went up to the temple and becoming upset by the temple being not so much a place of worship and prayer, but a place of business, overturned the money changers tables. Later he healed people of many illnesses and diseases and then he went into the temple to preach.  So, the religious authorities asked Jesus “By what authority are you doing all these things?” Jesus responds with parable about two sons who have been asked by their father to go work in the vineyard.  Now, the first one refuses, but later changes his mind and goes to work anyway, however the second one says “Sure Dad, I’ll do that.” but doesn’t go.  Jesus asks the priests and elders “Which son did the will of the Father?” Of course they have to answer the first one.  And Jesus tells them in the same way those who are sinners, like the prostitutes and tax collectors, those who have asked for forgiveness and reformed their lives–they will get into heaven before the high-brow church leaders will.  The prostitutes and tax collectors—those “sinners” who heard the call to repentance, turned their lives around and returned to God’s ways.  But the church leadership sanctioned and benefitted from the business and corruption dominating life at the Temple, much to the detriment of those in their community who were  in need, clearly against the laws and ways of the teachings of Moses.  Even back when John the Baptist pointed it out to them specifically, they refused to change their minds and their ways, Jesus tells them.  I don’t imagine this endeared him to the religious leaders by any means!

To further reinforce the point he is making, he tells a second parable, what has come to be known as “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants”.  A landowner creates a vineyard complete with winepress and watchtower, and leases it to some tenants, a common practice in biblical times.[1]  After the harvest the owner sends his people to collect his share of the harvest, however the tenants beat one up, kill the second man and stone the third.  So the owner sends another group to collect and the same thing happens.  Well, the owner thinks, if I send my son, my legal heir, they will respect him!  However the tenants look upon this as another opportunity to increase their holdings.  If they kill the heir, they get his inheritance too, including the vineyard.  And so they kill the son.  “When the owner of the vineyard returns,” Jesus asked, “what do you think he will do to those tenants?”  The religious leaders replied, “He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others who will give him his share of the crop after each harvest.”(Matt 21:40-41 NLT)

Jesus’ parables are allegories, stories full of symbolism about human behaviour and spiritual truths.  Now, from our vantage point as Christians, these many years later, this is one of Jesus’ more obvious parables, it’s not difficult to see the symbolism:  the vineyard owner is God, the Creator.  Those who came to collect the owner’s harvest are God’s prophets, the tenants are the religious officials, and the owner’s son is of course Jesus.  However, the symbolism of the vineyard as the land that God gave to the people of Israel is one that we may miss, but would have been very clear and poignant to those of Jesus’ time.  The symbolism of the vineyard as the Promised Land God gave to the people of Israel is deeply rooted in the Hebrew scriptures.  Our first scripture reading for today, The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard from Isaiah,  is the reference point Jesus is using for this parable, a detail that the religious officials, who were well versed in Hebrew Scriptures wouldn’t have missed. [2] Jesus is doing some serious finger pointing here at the religious leaders, although it seems they don’t get the point right away!   Because when Jesus asked them what the owner should do to the murderous tenants, they respond with a punishment they feel the wicked tenants deserve—one full of violence and retribution.  We need to remember this point; this is not Jesus’ pronouncement of justice, but the religious leaders’!   As the leaders of the religious establishment, I wonder if they saw themselves as the rent collectors?  I suspect they didn’t see or maybe chose not to believe that Jesus, the son of a carpenter and a meddling upstart sort of a prophet as the son and heir of God, the landowner.

Jesus goes on to refer to another scripture, this time from Psalm 118, that the stone the builder’s rejected becoming the cornerstone, and this is the Lord’s doing, and is amazing in our eyes.  This image of the cornerstone is a familiar one for Christians today–the cornerstone has long come to be associated with Jesus, whom we have come to see as the cornerstone for the Christian Church.  

However, just in case the religious officials still didn’t get the point of his stories and scriptural references, Jesus tells them straight up:  I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will produce the proper fruit.  Anyone who stumbles over that cornerstone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on. And now they get the point of his parables, they realized he was speaking about them.  And not surprisingly, they are not happy.  No one really likes having their hypocrisy pointed out to them, especially in public!

So, what can we take from this ancient story for ourselves today?  It may well depend with whom you most identify in this parable. From my vantage point, it’s a fairly obvious warning call for all those who are in leadership in the church, including, if not especially the clergy.  Are those of us in roles of leadership—ordained and laity– being true to our calling?   Are the Lord’s ways truly foremost in the ways we try to lead the people in Christ’s church?  This parable is a good reminder to us, to always remember that it is Jesus’ teachings that must guide us and are the motivators for the decisions we make and lead us as we care for those in our own little corner of God’s vineyard.  We are to put aside our own agendas, issues and personal strivings as leaders.   Or we too will find ourselves bumping up against, or tripping over the cornerstone of Jesus instead of using it to build the Kingdom of Heaven upon. 

You know what happens when you trip over a stone don’t you?  It hurts when you bump into the stone and again when you fall and it hurts again when the dislodged stone falls on you.  And if it’s big enough, it may even crush you.  We so very often are the makers of our own destinies, but we’d rather blame the stone for causing us to fall, claiming that we didn’t see the stone because we weren’t really watching where we were going!   Use that stone, be aware of its presence always on your path, don’t try and walk around it, but build upon it instead. 

Another thought to share:  particularly at this time of year when we are harvesting crops and garden produce and  getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving.   Really and truly, all of us are tenants of God’s great and wonderful vineyard! All of us called to tend to various aspects of cultivating, sowing and harvesting for God’s Kingdom according to the gifts God has given us.  We need not look far from home to see the beauty and bounty of creation, and all that God has given us.  So then, what kind of tenants are we?  Are we being responsible in our care of God’s great and amazing creation?  And we receive so much from God, God’s bounty overwhelms.  Do we give the appropriate share back to the Lord, the owner of this grand vineyard, from the share we receive?   Or are we a bit like the wicked tenants, who greedily take it all and want even more? 

Jesus’ parables are allegories, stories with deep truths for those with ears to hear.  We all have a choice as to our response to the message—do we hear, repent of our not so Christian ways and return to our forgiving and loving Lord?  Because that’s really the end game of the message behind all Jesus’ parables!  The chief priests and Pharisees, once they realized the message was for them, became angry, in fact so angry that in time they arranged for Jesus’ death.   But we know that wasn’t the end of the story.  The stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone.  Jesus lives, and walks alongside us, still calling us to be part of the vineyard in the Kingdom of God.  He will pick us up when we inevitably trip over the cornerstone, dust us off, give us a hug and set us back on the right path, with the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen our resolve and be our guide.  Because that is the Lord’s doing, and it really is amazing!  Amen

The Rev’d JoAnn Todd, Rector

The Regional Ministry of Hope

[1] Emerson Powery. accessed Sept. 30.20

[2] Susan Grove Eastman in Exegetical Perspective on Math 21: 33-46 in Feasting on the Word. Year A Vol 4 (Westminster John Knox Press:  Louisville, Ky. 2011) 143