I thank you that you have answered and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and the chief priest realized that he had told this parables against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.
There was a man who planted a great vineyard. But it was too big for him to manage it all by himself so he leased it out to tenants and then decided to go on a little vacation.
When the appointed season came, the landowner sent someone to the tenants in order to receive his share of the harvest.
But the tenants, they beat him up, insulted him, and sent him away with nothing.
The landowner, not one to give in easily, sent someone else, but this one was also wounded and tossed to the dirt.
This pattern kept repeating itself until the landowner decided to send his son, his beloved son, the one with whom he was well pleased, but when the son arrived the tenants decided to murder him where he stood in order that they might receive his inheritance.
What do you think the landowner will do next?
Jesus’s parabolic stories are, as Robert Farrar Capon puts it, used not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings.
This story, this parable of the so-called “wicked tenants” is, as we like to call it in the church, a parable of judgment. However, the parables of judgment don’t often function the way we think they’re supposed to work. Judgment, after all, is supposed to come down on all the evil-doers and the sinners and the riffraff with swift condemnation.
And yet, Jesus presents divine judgment in all sorts of stories against the backdrop of an all-inclusive grace. That is, characters are completely included far before they are excluded – they are accepted before they are judged.
Grace and mercy, rather than punishment and retribution, are the starting points.
Contrary to how the church so often functions, Jesus isn’t really trying to convince us, or the crowds, of anything. He simply stands to deliver story after story giving us glimpses behind the curtain of the cosmos and dares us to do nothing more than believe.
But, of course, that sounds too good to be true.
No matter how much we talk about God’s mercy, no matter how many times we talk about God as love, no matter how many times we sing Amazing Grace, we don’t really like it. Because, taken seriously, God’s grace is far too available. It throws parties for prodigal sons, it drags in undeserving people right off the street, it makes space for the last, least, lost, little, and dead and it doesn’t have much of anything to do for those who consider themselves “good” people.
Therefore, the hearers of Jesus’ parables of judgment, including us, are those in need of help. We, too often, forget about God’s mercy for sinners. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that, by and large, we’re all perfectly fine (thank you very much).
No need for forgiveness if you haven’t made any mistakes.
No need for absolution when you haven’t sinned.
The only problem with all this is the fact that we’re all sinners!
We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.
But we like the church, part of God’s incarnate Kingdom, to be a little more orderly.
We can take it from here God! We don’t need You mucking up our good thing.
We assure people that God loves them, but we make it clear that they all need to fit into a certain mold before they will fit in with the rest of us. We want the kingdom of our own making rather than the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in which the first will be last and the last will be first.
And for that, we stand accused.
But, it’s precisely here that the Gospel really comes into its own. Because, as the accused, we haven’t a change in hell of making an argument for ourselves. But then, wonder of wonders, Jesus as the judge and the jury stands not only to defend us, but also to take our sentence upon himself, seeing us free for no good reason except the Gospel!
Listen – Jesus’ authority has been called into question, yet again, and he responds with a parable: A man planted a vineyard. Vineyards, notably, are a favorite setting of Jesus’ and they echo throughout the scripture from Genesis, to Isaiah, to Jesus’ favorite playlist of all, the Psalms.
The man plants the vineyard and leases it out to tenants. But when he sends a messenger to collect his portion of the harvest, the tenants beat him and send him away.
Jesus, throughout his ministry, tells a whole lot of strange tales, and this one is no different in it’s bizarreness.
Consider – There is no good reason for the landowner to expect that the wicked tenants will do anything but murder his son just as they had done horrible things to his previous messengers.
Equally crazy is the tenants thinking that by murdering the heir of the vineyard they, themselves, will inherit it. The only thing they’ll inherit is the unquenchable wrath of the landowner who will now bring down the hammer of righteousness.
In the end, the problem with the tenants (in addition to their violent and murderous rampage) is that they, simply, can’t and don’t trust the landowner. Who, by the way, gave them land to till that they never would have had were it not for the landowner’s generosity!
The tenants trust only in themselves and look where it gets them.
Having thus parabolically flipped things on their head, Jesus dangles a question and answer for the authorities who called into question his authority – What will the landowner do next? He will come and destroy the tenants and give their land to other people.
“Heaven forbid!” they reply.
And then Jesus ties it all up with, of all things, a reference to the Psalms: “What do you think it means that the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone?”
“Don’t you see?” Jesus seems to say, “All of this is exactly what God has promised from long ago. The Messiah is not like you have imagined, the Messiah is not like the tenants who take matters into their own hands and use violence as the means by which they accomplish their goals. The Messiah is going to be rejected, murdered, and abandoned.”
The stone will be rejected by the builders, and will still become the chief cornerstone of God’s cosmic victory!
It is precisely in rejection, in unacceptability, that the Messiah brings salvation.
The world, in the end, isn’t saved through works, or in goodness, or in any other of our machinations – the world is, instead, saved through the rejection of the Jesus, in his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.
Now, that all sounds good, but in our heart of hearts we mutter, along with the authorities of Jesus’ day, “Heaven forbid!”
We don’t really want the landowner’s son to come up to us and say that all has been forgiven. We think of ourselves as generally good people who do good things – for what then would we need forgiveness?
We don’t really like to consider the ramifications of the Good News and what it means for all of us. Because if the Good News is really for everyone, then God’s inviting to his party a whole lot of people we wouldn’t be caught dead with.
We don’t really want this to be true, because we’ve been spoon fed a version of faith in which we think being well behaved, or pious, or holy, is more important than trusting God to do what God said God would do.
In the end, we want to be the ones in control. We, like the foolish tenants in the story, we try to stop the paradoxical power of grace that alone can save us, and instead we take refuge in a who lot of nonsense that only insures we will lose in the end.
We flock to the likes of Facebook and Twitter assuming that our self-righteousness will be enough to correct all the problems with other people.
We assume that if we just elect the right politicians everything will be perfect.
We take matters into our own hands whenever possible believing we know what’s best for ourselves and for the world.
But, and here’s the truly Good News, we can’t stop the paradoxical power of grace that is Jesus Christ! Jesus died for the sins of those who killed him, even for the sin of believing in ourselves more than in the One who has come to save us.
For as bizarre as the parables are, perhaps the most confounding part of Jesus’ stories is that, having told all of them, he then goes and acts out what he’s been talking about from the beginning. Like the psalm pointing ahead to the rejection of the stone that will become the cornerstone, it’s in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection that he makes manifest the mystery of the kingdom in which no one has to do anything to be saved except truth that someone has done it all for us.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen.