St Barnabas, October 2nd
Reading – Matthew 21:33-46
We’ve been hearing the story of Matthew’s gospel alongside our other readings, for some months now. But between our last reading and the reading we’ve just heard, we’ve missed out a chunk. In some ways, that makes sense as it’s part of the Easter story, and we heard it read on Palm Sunday. But I want to start by pointing it out to you, since – as you probably all know by now, I think the context of a verse or passage of the Bible is often very significant.
So between our last reading from Matthew, when we heard about the generous master, who chose to pay men hired at the end of the day the same wage as those hired earlier, and today’s reading about the tenants of the vineyard, we have the story of the ‘Triumphal Entry’ … that is, the day that Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the last time. He knew – although the cheering crowd had no idea – that it would be the last time, because he knew that before the week was out he would be crucified.
The Jews thought he should die because he deserved it for blasphemy. The Romans agreed to kill him because they thought he was a destabilising influence in the tense political realities of the day. They all thought the decision to kill him was theirs alone – although they manipulated the adoring crowd of Palm Sunday into a baying mob before Friday of that same week, a mob demanding Jesus be killed simply because the Romans chose to pass on to others the guilt of their decision.
But … Jesus remained in total control of all the events of that final week – his death was his decision, and his alone. He knew that in God’s hands, his death would mean the forgiveness of sins for any who chose to come to him – and he was prepared to pay the price. He died willingly, in his own time … and the responsibility was ours. He died for our sins … and rose again to prove that his death was indeed sufficient to pay the price of them all.
So, the context of our story today is highly significant. Throughout that week, Jesus responded to the challenge of the Jewish religious leaders to explain himself, and in so doing leads them to the inevitable – in their eyes – conclusion that he spoke only blasphemy and must be stopped. We can see that, because in previous encounters, he has outwitted them, answered a question with a question that they often couldn’t or wouldn’t answer, or by telling a story with a meaning that was ambiguous. It’s only this week, that Jesus answers their questions with stories they cannot help but understand – still not a direct answer, but a challenge all the same. He knew exactly what he was doing, and he knew what the result would be.
So let’s take a closer look at this story, of the tenants in the vineyard. Jesus spent much of his time that week at the temple, and on this occasion is responding to the challenge we read in v23, ‘By what authority are you doing these things … and who gave you this authority?’ In reply, Jesus asks them a question with only two possible answers, neither of which they are willing to give, and they remain silent.
So he tells them a series of three parables – stories with meaning – each of them challenging the chief priests and elders to answer their own question …
So that by the end of our next reading from Matthew, they are ready to put plans for his death into action – they were so incensed by his stories.
What is it about these three simple stories that gave rise to such an extreme reaction?
There was a landowner, who planted a vineyard …
Let me read you a few verses from the OT, Psalm 80, in which the Psalmist is praying for deliverance …
7 Restore us, O God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.
8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches.
11 It sent out its boughs to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River.
12 Why have you broken down its walls so that all who pass by pick its grapes?
13 Boars from the forest ravage it and the creatures of the field feed on it.
14 Return to us, O God Almighty! Look down from heaven and see! Watch over this vine,
15 the root your right hand has planted, the son you have raised up for yourself.
Throughout the OT, the prophets often use this image of God’s vineyard. And of course, the chief priests and other officials would have known their scriptures well – so as soon as they heard Jesus begin to talk about a vineyard, and the landowner who planted it, they would have known that the vineyard represented Israel, and the landowner stood for God …
It’s not the first time Jesus has used this image, either … we heard in Matthew 20 about the owner of a vineyard who hired men throughout the day to work in his vineyard. But this time, there’s a slight twist … this owner leaves the care of his vineyard in the hands of others … he built it, and provided everything that was needed to care for and protect the vineyard, but then he went away, renting out his vineyard to tenants. Clearly, the rent was a proportion of the fruit, so at harvest time, he sends some of his men to collect a portion of the crop … but the tenants had no intention of paying their dues.
We can sense the owner’s increasing frustration and desperation as finally he sends his son …
‘They will respect my son’, he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance …
At which point, Jesus turns to the crowd who were listening and asks,
‘Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’
I have a feeling that by this time the crowd were having a lot of fun … it simply wasn’t possible for the Pharisees and Chief Priests to pretend the story didn’t apply to them. True, they usually thought of themselves as shepherds, rather than vine keepers … but I found an intriguing verse in Jeremiah: God is speaking to the prophet about his judgement of his people who have broken faith with him …
Many shepherds will ruin my vineyard, and trample down my field;
they will turn my pleasant field into a desolate wasteland. (Jeremiah 12:10)
There is simply no getting away from the fact that this parable was meant to be understood by everyone who heard it!
Jesus uses their response – the only possible outcome – to introduce another familiar scripture, from Psalm 118,
22 The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone;
23 the LORD has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.
Quite simply – though perhaps not obviously – it’s Jesus’ way of telling them that getting rid of the son … killing off the heir … isn’t the end of the story. In Psalm 118, this stone represents the Lord’s servant, who says in an earlier verse, ‘I will not die but live’ … and of course, with hindsight, we know exactly what he means!
Just as the tenants in the vineyard thought they could resolve the problem by removing the son … so too, the Chief Priests and leaders of the people will soon take action to remove Jesus, only to find out that he is not that easily shifted!
Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 He who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed.
The image of the stone is used several times in the NT to refer to Jesus as both the source of salvation of those who trust him … and as the source of judgement for those who choose to reject him. Jesus is quoting here from Isaiah, and you may be familiar with the same combination of quotes from another NT writer, Peter …
As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”
Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone, “
“A stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
They stumble because they disobey the message – which is also what they were destined for.
The Pharisees and elders knew they were condemned by Jesus’ story … but what about the crowd? They had a great time that week, listening to Jesus baiting the elders day after day, watching as time and time again Jesus side-stepped their traps until the time was right. But before long they were drawn into the game and had to take sides … and the cheering crowd became the baying mob demanding Jesus’ death.
We cannot simply stand and watch – we must either become living stones ourselves, working alongside Jesus to produce fruit and build a kingdom, or we too will be crushed.
Let me finish with the rest of that reading from 1 Peter 2:9,
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.