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An Occasional Blog by The Reverend Grace P. Burson, Holy Trinity's Associate Transitional Pastor
Holy Trinity, Newington/Imanuel, Newington
Proper 22, Year A
October 8, 2017
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.”
This sentence is simultaneously satisfying and alarming. Satisfying, because it’s the punch line to an expert setup on Jesus’ part: his audience has played directly into his hands and said exactly what he intended them to say. Alarming, because, well, I would hope that any time that putting people to a miserable death is mentioned, we would be at least somewhat alarmed.
I want to unpack this passage in some detail, and then look at how it connects to the image of the cornerstone, which Jesus throws into the middle of his story (yet another story) about a vineyard; and then, of course, explore what it means for us today.
First of all, who are “they” who said it to him? This parable follows directly on last week’s passage, in which the chief priests and Pharisees ask Jesus about where he gets his authority, and he won’t answer the question and then tells the story about the two sons. So when he begins with “Listen to another parable,” he is still talking to the priests and Pharisees. The crowds are listening eagerly, to see what both sides will say.
And when Jesus asks, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” the question is directed, again, to the religious authorities. So it is they, in response, who say – apparently without doubt or hesitation – that he will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to others who will actually fulfill their obligations.
I find it extraordinarily revealing that apparently, to the priests and Pharisees, the only person in this story who’s actually worthy of consideration as a full human being, is the landowner. (And possibly his son, but he’s dead by the time they weigh in.) The tenants – the bad ones who have stolen the harvest, and the theoretical newer, better tenants – are merely a means to an end: a way of gaining the profit from the vineyard while being able to be in another country at the same time. If they malfunction, you dispose of them and replace them with a newer model. And they seem to have no compunction about recommending the most extreme and violent means of disposal – putting them to a miserable death – not taking them to court, or just firing them without a reference.
All of which is by way of leading up to my main point, which is that it apparently never occurs to the chief priests and Pharisees that they should be identifying with anyone in the story, other than the landowner. They are so used to privilege and power that they cannot imagine that in this story, it is not the landowner (someone of their own class and background) who represents them, but rather the tenants. You have to chuckle when you imagine the looks on their faces when it becomes clear that that is not what Jesus meant at all.
And they should have known better. Because, as we can see from the reading from Isaiah, this image of Israel as the vineyard and God as the landowner is not new. In fact, it pervades the Hebrew Scriptures. Anyone as familiar with these writings as a priest or Pharisee should know that.
This exchange between Jesus and the religious leaders shines a sharp light on how easy it is for people, especially people in power, to forget that other people are human.
And the chief priests and Pharisees aren’t bad people. That’s not the point. They are doing their best, trying to lead a country under difficult circumstances, trying to follow God as they have been taught. The problem is that they’ve stopped being open to new perspectives. And they’ve forgotten that all people are children of God. They’re so secure in their own position and their own rightness that they’ve gotten lazy and stopped thinking.
This is a risk that all religious leaders, and all religious people, are prone to. Just because it was Jesus’ followers who were the “good guys” in this parable, doesn’t mean that we, as Jesus followers two thousand years later, aren’t prone to putting too much faith in our own rightness, and forgetting to listen for God’s voice telling us to go in a new and different direction.
(I also find it very revealing that when the tenants see the son coming, they say to themselves “Let us kill him” – not “to each other”. They don’t even see each other as human beings. Each of them is in it solely for himself.)
Jesus is pretty blunt about making the opposite point. None of us are superior; we are all beloved children of God. The only difference lies in whether we believe that, about ourselves and about others.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. The kingdom of God will be taken away and given to the people who produce the fruits. Nobody should be resting securely in their position as a church leader – everyone, always, should be aware that what God cares about is what you do with the gifts you have been given, and whether you see the people around you as people, or as objects to be manipulated.
Contrary to popular belief, anyone can be a cornerstone. And any cornerstone can be demoted back to the lot if it doesn’t measure up.
Contrary to popular belief, the ones calling for the wretches to be put to a miserable death may be the ones who need to take some hard knocks for once, and learn an important lesson about whether they’re the only people capable of running the show.
This may sound a bit brutal – and Jesus’ language and images in this story are brutal; there’s no getting around it. There’s a lot of beating and killing and crushing happening in this passage.
This story is certainly no more brutal than, once again, the week’s news, which underscores what happens when one person, or set of people, stop seeing another person, or group of people, or apparently (in some cases) anyone else at all, as human, and worthy of consideration. When you open fire on a crowd from your 32nd-story hotel room, I think it’s a pretty good bet that you have lost all awareness of the members of the crowd as human beings, let alone beloved children of God.
So where, amid all this, is the good news?
The good news is that any of us can be the cornerstone, and any of us can bear good fruit. The only requirements are humility, and a heart that is willing to be wounded by the brutality of stories like this, and an openness to the stories and the humanity of others. If we can look at this story, and see and understand how we could be any of the characters in it – the landowner, the tenants, the slaves, the son – then, as Jesus says in another context, I think we are not far from the kingdom.
This is one of the reasons that I think one of the best things we can do to build faith in children – and in people of any age – is to read them, and encourage them to read themselves, fiction. There is nothing like it for building empathy, for opening us to the perspectives of people who are entirely different from us, for leading us to understand how what may seem like perplexing, even perverse, behavior springs from understandable motives and may seem to be the best or the only choice under the circumstances.
There is a reason Jesus taught by using stories. It’s because if we listen, really listen, to someone’s story, it becomes close to impossible to write that person off, to see them as less than human – to make the mistake the religious leaders made, of identifying only with the powerful person and forgetting that all the other characters were people too.
Any of us can be a cornerstone. Any of us can bear good fruit for the kingdom. Young and old, rich and poor, strong and weak, anyone of any gender, race, orientation, culture, national origin, immigration status, language, faith – no matter what your background, your history, or the obstacles you have had to overcome, there is a place for you in God’s story. We’re all invited to the party that will be held in the vineyard once the crop is harvested. The only requirement to come to the party is that you be happy that everyone else is invited too.