What Will He Do?
“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 there is suffering, where innocent people are being killed, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do? This violent parable that Jesus tells about the landowner and the tenants cries out for an answer to that question. 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 don’t want the tenants 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 sounds like the right answer. But when you give that answer, how you feel about it, 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?
In the text, two days before his arrest in Jerusalem, Jesus is directing the parable at the chief priests and elders, the ones who have confronted him and 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. They are the ones who have failed to produce the fruits that God desires. What God desires is justice and righteousness. They have produced violence and oppression. They have failed as tenants. What will God do?
It’s easy to judge the chief priests and elders. But we also are tenants. We didn’t make this earth. 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. Chief priests and elders who marginalize and exploit the poor, and then condemn Jesus to death. Kings and rulers who wage wars of oppression to enrich themselves. Legislators who protect the interests of the wealthy and allow inequality to flourish. Lobbyists who advocate for manufacturers so that they can keep selling weapons.
It’s easy to point the finger at others. It’s harder when we point it at ourselves.
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, we participate in 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 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 set up and perpetuate a system that has our many of our Indigenous peoples living on tiny reserves, and over 100 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 decades. When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do?
God has given us the Church and called us to be the body of Christ, to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, to serve others and to love our neighbours as ourselves.
But we have used our power to wage war, to marginalize and discriminate against queer people, to colonize and subjugate people of colour, to suppress women, and to demonize the spiritual traditions and cause great harm to Indigenous peoples. 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 the story ends.
But did you notice there isn’t just one ending for the parable in today’s gospel?
Luckily for us, we don’t have to write the ending to this story. Jesus gives us a different ending. 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.
Have you never read in the scriptures that 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. But this landowner practices patience and mercy. He 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 the son, what will the Lord do when he comes? Will he put the tenants to death? No, he will raise his son from the dead and open up a whole new world of possibility in his relationship with the tenants and all of humanity, a new story which has Jesus as its foundation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
Now, no one listening to the story saw this coming. Jesus’ version of how the story ends is surprising, 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 from the dead? 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 does not end the way we think it should. We would have brought the parable to a close by focusing on judgement and punishment. But Jesus moves it to a whole new level. In his version God enters at the darkest moment of the story, at the death of God’s son, not to shut things down, but to break them open again, raising God’s son, creating space for us, creating space for confession, for change, for mercy, for new ways of living together. God’s demand for justice still remains, make no mistake about that, but the surprise ending, which is really a new beginning, also opens up the way for repentance and redemption, for forgiveness and salvation, for grace and mercy.
It is indeed amazing in our eyes.
Homily: Yr A Proper 27, Oct 4 2020, St. Albans Church
Readings: Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Ps 65; Phil 4.1-9; Mt 21.33-46
Image by Lola Audu, Creative Commons