17 Pentecost A–10/5/14
Violence; bloodshed; a stone that breaks to pieces anyone who falls upon it and crushes anyone on whom it falls. The author of Matthew’s gospel gives us a difficult text today. So difficult in fact, that had I known the content of the gospel text for this Sunday when I chose this date for my first sermon at Lakeridge two months ago with Pastor Scott, I might have picked another one. But this text is the one I have had to struggle with. And in my struggles, I hope that I have found within it a life-giving word for all of us.
Let me start by going back to what we learned from Pastor Rick Pribbernow in his children’s message two weeks ago. Those of you who were here might remember his definition of a ‘parable’. Pastor Rick used sign language to help the children remember. He said: “a parable is an earthly story that tells a heavenly truth.” An earthly story that tells a heavenly truth. This is what a parable is. But Pastor Rick’s lesson did not end there. He said, once you understand what a parable is, the way to understand what a parable says is to find the answers to two important questions: who are we in the story? And who is God? Once the answers to these two questions are in place, the meaning of the parable as a whole becomes clearer.
There is a problem with this formula however, and I think Pastor Rick would agree with me. The problem is that finding the answers to those two questions is not as easy as it sounds. It isn’t easy because of our human tendency to reject God’s answers to our questions when they are answers we don’t want to hear.
Who are we in this parable and who is God? Before we answer these questions, and perhaps arrive at answers we don’t want to hear, let’s first take a look at how the characters in the parable are answering another question that is important both for them and for the story that Jesus is telling. The characters in Jesus’ story are tenants leasing a vineyard from an absentee landowner. They have been tending the vineyard with great care, making certain that the trees are producing good fruit. When harvest time comes, the landowner sends his slaves to collect what is rightfully his, the produce of his trees. Rather than give over to the landowner what is rightfully his however, the tenants beat one of the slaves, kill another and stone a third.
What is going on here? Have these people lost their minds? Do they have a wish to be killed or cast out of the vineyard, presumably to be labeled as thieves and murderers and starve in the countryside because no other landowner will ever give them work again? No. That certainly doesn’t make sense. Remember that a parable is an earthly story that tells a heavenly truth. Jesus is not simply telling a tale about crazy people doing crazy things. There is a lesson in all of this. But what is this lesson, or heavenly truth? I think it all comes down to how the characters in this story are answering a particular question. The question is: Who owns the vineyard?
We know the answer. From Jesus’ telling of the story, we can clearly see that the absent landowner owns the vineyard. But the tenants, it would seem, completely disagree. If we could pose this question to them directly, I believe they would answer: We do. We own the vineyard. Why else would they behave as they do? In fact, I think the tenants of the vineyard are actually behaving quite rationally given what they believe. “We do. We own the vineyard, and no one is going to take what belongs to us.” Again and again in this story, the tenants are confronted with the truth, that they do not actually own the vineyard. The owner sends two groups of slaves and finally sends his son. But they are unwilling to see and hear this truth, so completely have they convinced themselves that they are in fact the owners of the vineyard.
We ask ourselves: how could they possibly believe such an obviously ridiculous thing, given what we know about the story? Some scholars have suggested that perhaps the tenants believed that the owner of the vineyard had died, that it had been many years between when the trees were first planted and when the first harvest had finally arrived. This view would account for their behavior toward the landowner’s son: ‘This is the heir; come let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ Squatter’s rights at the time might have indeed allowed the tenants to claim land once belonging to an owner who was deceased. All of these are possible answers to why the tenants of the vineyard believe as they do. But I think there is a much more simple reason for their self-deception that Jesus is trying to communicate in this story. The answer is sin. These tenants are sinful in the same way that all humans are.
When I was earning my master’s degree in theology at the Lutheran seminary in Chicago, I had a professor who helped me to understand sin in a way I had never thought about before. He said that sin is essentially broken relationship. It begins with our broken relationship with God, a break that is symbolically explained in the story of Adam and Eve. Once that relationship was damaged, that brokenness extended to all aspects of our lives. Sin is essentially broken relationship with God, with neighbor, with nature, and with the self. God, neighbor, nature, and self: all relationships that were meant to be harmonious in order to sustain and nurture the peaceful paradise that we were created to live in. When our primary relationship was damaged (our relationship with God) then each of the others were damaged in turn. And we can see this playing out in our parable for today.
Who are we in this parable, and who is God? Here come the answers we’ve been seeking together, and they are going to be ones that we don’t want to hear. We are the tenants, and God is the landowner. Like the first century Jewish Christians for whom the gospel of Matthew was written, we are meant to hear a warning in this gospel text. If we understand ourselves as the tenants and God as the landowner in this story, we can begin to understand what Jesus was trying to say. Our sinfulness, our broken relationship with God gets in the way of our ability to see what is so obviously true. We do not own the land. We do not own anything that we think belongs to us. All of it is God’s. If we can understand this symbolism in the story, then the rest of the symbols begin to fall into place.
The ‘slaves’ that the landowner sends to the tenants are God’s prophets. They are those annoying voices that come to remind us of who the owner of the vineyard is when we seem to have forgotten and don’t want to hear it. The ‘fruits of the harvest’ that the slaves are sent to collect are the fruits of our labor for God. Maybe this is actual fruit, for which God might have other plans than filling our own kitchens to overflowing. More often, they are the fruits of the Spirit that will naturally grow when we are in right relationship with God: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control: all things that are obviously lacking among the tenants in this parable. The son that the landowner sends is Jesus’ reference to himself, God’s Son sent for the fruits that the prophets were unable to collect from the people. And like the prophets before him, he will die at the hands of the people who want to keep the fruits for themselves.
This is the warning that the author of Matthew intends his readers to hear. Too often, we do behave like these tenants. We treat the vineyard, all that we have, as if it were our own to do with as we wish. We refuse to produce the fruit that God calls us to produce. Where there should be love there is hate. Where there should be joy there is sorrow. And where there should be peace we are at constant war. In Jesus’ words, the author of Mathew is issuing a warning: Remember who you are. Remember who God is. Listen to the prophets. Do not reject the Son; or risk having God’s kingdom taken away from you and given to more worthy people. This is the warning in our text for today, and the answer to our earlier questions about the parable. Now we ask, where is the grace?
How can we avoid making the same mistakes as the tenants in this story? The answer can be found in Jesus’ response to the chief priests and the Pharisees. Jesus is quoting Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The priests and Pharisees would have understood this as a reference to the people of Israel. What they cannot understand is that Jesus is the promised messiah and it is now he, Jesus, who will become the center of Israel’s faith. A ‘cornerstone’ is the main building block around which all other stones in a structure are oriented. It is the foundation for the entire structure. Without it, the building collapses, is broken to pieces, could crush anyone on whom it falls. Here is the answer to our question. In order for us to avoid becoming like the tenants in the parable, having our lives crash down on us like so many crumbling bricks, we need to put Christ at the absolute center of everything.
Christ is the cornerstone of our faith. He has healed our broken relationship with God and continues to heal all of our other relationships. But in order for this healing to continue, our faith in Christ cannot be something that is on the periphery of our lives, it must be at the center. Christ is the cornerstone, not simply of the faith that bears his name, but of all of creation. He was present at the beginning of time as the Word God spoke to bring creation into being. He is meant to be at the center of everything including our individual lives. Once this cornerstone is in place, and every other stone oriented around it, the structure of our lives gains strength, resiliency, and beauty. It becomes an architectural masterpiece, built by God for the good of God’s kingdom.
What does it look like to live knowing Christ is the cornerstone of our lives? It will look a bit different for everyone. The particular circumstances of our individual loves will mold and shape it. But, whatever individual ways we are called to live out this reality, that Christ is the cornerstone of creation, it will always look like Jesus. When we are in doubt, when we are in danger of once again becoming the tenants in our story for today (and our sin will lead us there over and over again), think of Jesus. Jesus never forgot who he was. He never forgot who God was. And he never forgot that everything he had, and did, as well as the fruits of that work, belonged to God alone.