Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:7-14, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46
Our lectionary has had us reading passages from Matthew where Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem. His teaching challenge those in authority and will ultimately result in them having him killed. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable that the chief priests and the Pharisees hear and realize he is speaking of them. They want to have him arrested, but are afraid of how the crowd will respond, for they know Jesus is regarded as a prophet.
The parable Jesus tells is of a landowner who plants a vineyard, digs a wine press and builds a watch tower. He leases it tenants who, at the harvest, beat and kill whoever the owner sends to collect his share of the harvest. This includes the son of the landowner, so Jesus asks, what will the landowner do to those tenants? The response, “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.”
Like many of the stories in the bible, this one is violent and includes the threat of retribution – which makes it difficult for some of us to hear and understand it. It may help you to relate to this parable to think in terms of how the owner of rental property today might deal with renters who refuses to pay rent and who will not move out. We have laws in place to deal with this, but the bottom line is that a property owner expects the rent to be paid and if it is not – steps will be taken to evict the tenant and lease the property to someone who will pay their rent.
What makes this parable offensive to the chief priests and Pharisees is when Jesus explains it. “Therefore I tell you,” Jesus says, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Here, giving to the landowner his share of the harvest is considered the fruits of the kingdom. The vineyard itself is the kingdom of God which has been entrusted to its tenants. The people listening understand that the harvest is, a gift from God and one that is intended to be shared.
In today’s world, most of us harvest a paycheck rather than produce from farms, orchards, and vineyards. We experience God’s blessings much differently than the majority of the people did in ancient times. A good harvest is not dependent on hard work alone, it is also depended on the right balance of rain and sun – which people cannot control. It is easier to make the connection between the fruits of our labor and the blessings of the weather for farmers than it is for those of us who are not dependent on the weather to earn our wages.
This pandemic has demonstrated just how dependent we are to things which are beyond our control. Whether we’ve lost income because of the pandemic or simply been inconvenienced by shortages or delayed deliveries, we are now acutely aware of the fact that we are not in control. Whether we attribute this to chance or God, we must acknowledge that we are blessed when we have a good harvest. I’ve been the one doing our grocery shopping and when I can find all the items on my list – I certainly feel blessed!
That’s a small thing; however, we’ve been blessed to have enough of whatever we need and it makes me appreciate the rather subtle lesson in the gospel about giving a portion of what I have received back to God. Or, more specifically, to give generously with gratitude for what I have received – whether that to the church, to a charity, or by tipping more than is considered customary. The portion of the harvest that is be given to the landowner is given so that others might experience God’s blessings as well.
In between the telling the parable and interpreting it, Jesus quotes the scripture:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’
This comes from Psalm 118 in which the Lord is given credit for the salvation of the psalmist. It is a psalm of praise and thanksgiving and these two verses allude to God’s ability to take what (or who) has rejected by others and accomplish great things.
Quoting it in this gospel reading reminds us that Jesus is rejected by the chief priests and the Pharisees, who are considered the builders. These leaders of the faith have been entrusted to interpret the scriptures for God chosen people. But their interpretations of the scriptures have become the laws that govern the people and place unnecessary burdens them – especially on those in need of grace and assistance.
Jesus not only suggests his teaching are being rejected, he is suggesting that he, as the cornerstone of a new way of understanding God’s will for us, will accomplish amazing things, for, as the scriptures say, “this [is] the Lord’s doing.” Our Eucharistic liturgy tells the story of his rejection and the amazing story of his resurrection.
As we continue to life our lives during this pandemic, it is helpful for me to remember that Jesus was no stranger to suffering. He was tortured and killed, yet he was not defeated by the evil that existed in the world. Jesus rose triumphally and is the cornerstone on which this church is built.
Our liturgy also draws from another verse in Psalm 118. At conclusion of the Sanctus, we say or sing: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of Lord.” After being reject, Jesus is exulted. “Hosanna in the highest. Hosanna in the highest.”
Let us pray.
Loving God, we give you thanks for our blessings and pray that we might be able to use a portion of what we have received to help others experience your love. Help us not to reject what you offer and trust you will accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.