“When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do?”
Now that’s a good question. Where there is injustice, where there is oppression, where people have been put to death as in today’s parable, when the Lord comes, what will he do? The parable that Jesus tells about the landowner and the tenants cries out for an answer to that question: when the landowner comes, what will he do to those tenants? We want an answer, and we know almost instinctively what the answer should be. We know there should be judgement. We know there should be punishment. We know that injustice shouldn’t be allowed to stand, we know that the tenants shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.
The answer springs to the lips of Jesus’ listeners without hesitation. “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.”
It seems like the obvious answer. But when you give that answer, your tone of voice, whether or not your knees are shaking, depends a lot on who you identify with in the parable. Do you identify with the slaves or the tenants? The ones who are the victims or the perpetrators? Is this parable directed at them or at us?
On this day in the gospel reading, two days before his arrest in Jerusalem, Jesus is directing the parable at the chief priests and elders, the ones who have questioned his authority, the ones who have made the temple a den of thieves, the ones who will arrest Jesus and have him put to death. They are the tenants who have been entrusted with the care of the vineyard, the care of the people of Israel, and they are the ones who are failing to produce the fruits of the vineyard that God desires. They are failed tenants. What will God do?
But we are also tenants. On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we are reminded that all that we have and all that we are, even our very lives, are gifts from God that have been entrusted to us so that we can care for them and use them to produce good things, fruit that rightly belongs to God at the time of harvest. How are we doing as tenants?
It’s easy to point to the failings of other tenants. Legislators in our neighbour to the south have been entrusted with the care and safety of their citizens. And yet, influenced by lobbyists and industry, in some cases by greed, in some cases by a peculiar understanding of freedom, they have created a system in which it is legal for people to acquire vast quantities of semi-automatic assault rifles and other weapons. One of the consequences has been a series of mass murders, the latest of which happened in Las Vegas last week. When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do?
God has created a world which is rich and bountiful, where there are wonderful harvests and there is enough food for every single person on this planet. And yet those of us with power and privilege who have been entrusted with the distribution of that abundance have created an economic system in which one out of every nine people around the globe suffers from chronic undernourishment. When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do?
Here in our country, we live in a vast land blessed with wonderful resources. We live in a country with a low population density and with one-fifth of the entire planet’s freshwater supply. All of this has been entrusted to us by God. And yet, with all this land and all this water, we have arranged that our indigenous peoples live on tiny reserves, and at last count, over 140 of our First Nations do not have access to clean drinking water. When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do?
Creator God has entrusted humanity with the care and stewardship of this beautiful planet earth. This is the home that has been given to us. And yet, it has become clear that our burning of fossil fuels which results in greenhouse gases is changing the climate of our planet so rapidly that many of its current life forms, including our own, may not survive in the coming centuries. When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do?
“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and leased it to tenants. When the harvest time had come, he sent slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants beat the slaves and killed them. The landowner sent more slaves, and they too were beaten and killed. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘they will respect my son.’ But they seized the son, threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”
Then Jesus asked, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
And they said, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
That’s how we would end the story. With judgement and punishment.
But did you notice there isn’t just one ending for the parable in today’s gospel?
Luckily for us, we don’t get to write the ending to this story. Jesus gives us a different ending to the parable. What will the Lord do? This is what the Lord will do: the stone that the builders rejected will become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing.
Haven’t you read the scriptures? The Lord our God is a God of steadfast love and mercy. In the world of the parable any normal landowner would have sent soldiers to discipline the tenants and collect his produce by force after his slaves were beaten and killed on the first attempt. But this landowner practices patience and mercy. He sends not soldiers but a second team of slaves to try to collect his produce. They too are beaten and killed. Then the landowner does something that can only be described as foolish: he sends his son, apparently unarmed and alone, into that same violent, unjust situation. Is it any surprise that the son is rejected and put to death by the tenants?
Faced with the murder of his son, what will the Lord do when he comes? Will he put the tenants to death? No, he will raise the son from the dead and open up a whole new story in his relationship with the tenants and all of humanity, a story which has Jesus as its foundation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
No one who was listening to the story saw this coming. Jesus’ version of how the story ends is shocking, and mystifying. It doesn’t answer all of our questions. Rather than draw the parable to a neat, tidy conclusion, it breaks everything open again. How will the tenants respond to the son when he is raised? What does judgement look like with Jesus as the cornerstone? What does it mean to produce the fruits of the kingdom? We aren’t given all the answers here – but we are told where to look to find them. We look to Jesus. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.
The story of how God responds to evil and injustice, and to our failure to be good tenants and stewards of all that has been entrusted to us, does not end the way we think it should, with judgement and punishment. Instead God enters into the darkest moment of the story, the death of his son, and raises him from the dead, opening up a whole new chapter and a whole new world of redemption and possibility. Jesus becomes the cornerstone of our faith and of our relationship with God, revealing once more that God is a God of grace, abounding in steadfast love and mercy. We would have brought the parable to a close by focusing on punishment. But Jesus gives us a different ending. In his version, God intervenes in the story not to bring it to a close, but to break it wide open again, still concerned for justice, but now overflowing with the potential for repentance and redemption, forgiveness and salvation, grace.
It is indeed amazing in our eyes.
Homily: Yr A Proper 27, Oct 8 2017, St. Albans Church
Readings: Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Ps 65; Phil 4.1-9; Mt 21.33-46
Image by Kelly, Creative Commons