An Everlasting Kingdom for Rejects
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Analysis by James Squire
33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “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.” 42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
The Son lifts up all who were rejected by our schemes in this world, even as he lifts us to a new purpose.
Author’s Note: Amy Jill-Levine’s footnote for verse 34 interprets “slaves” as “prophets of Israel,” noting a similar reference in the next parable in Matthew 22. This fits with Jesus’ explanation in vv. 42-44. Moreover, Jesus is drawing on the first reading from this Sunday, where the prophet Isaiah (5:1-7) sings about his “beloved” who “had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.” This “beloved” poured his heart and soul into making it yield grapes, but got wild grapes instead, which are more tangy in taste, not suitable for everyone. He then rhetorically asks his people to judge his efforts, though he decides to scrap the vineyard without waiting to hear their answer, because “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
Diagnosis: Bloodshed in the Vineyard
Step 1: Initial Diagnosis (External Problem): Vineyard Corrupted by Power Struggle
This divine vineyard produces good fruit, but the tenants refuse to share the yield. They treat it like buried treasure they discovered because someone was stupid enough to give them access. They claim it as “Mine! Mine! Mine!” and woe to anyone who comes to make sure it is shared according to the original agreement with the landowner.
This world we live in is marvelous in so many ways, given to us to thrive in. We have turned it into a power struggle over who gets to reap the benefits, and woe to anyone who dares to assert that the fruits of this world should be shared with everyone. We have established our own regime, and the landowner’s prophets are not welcome if they are going to insist that his ideas be respected. This is our world now.
Step 2: Advance Diagnosis (Internal Problem): Lack of Respect Breeds Greed
The landowner’s son is the last hope for his relationship with the tenants. But the tenants do not see him as an olive branch, they see him as leverage. “If we kill him, then we get his inheritance.” This is war, and they are all in—at least until the landowner comes, one supposes.
In our minds, we have taken ownership of this “dog-eat-dog” world, as Archie Bunker called it. We have convinced ourselves that this is how God wants his world to be run. Greed is at the heart of it—a belief that I deserve everything I want and woe to anyone who gets in my way in the process. Repeated experience and validation of this mindset is how this world trains us to think this way. Faith in “myself” alone is the result.
Step 3: Final Diagnosis (Eternal Problem): Greed Backfires against the Vineyard Owner
“The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away” so the saying goes. While we are here and seemingly thriving (well, some of us anyway), we seem invincible. But it is an illusion. After all, the landowner also built a watchtower. Who is that up there looking down on us, and possibly reporting us to the landowner? Maybe not everyone down here is in on the scheme. Maybe we have some tattletales among us.
We are so blind to what is going on, that when presented with a hypothetical situation and asked, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants,” we write our own indictment without realizing it. In a vacuum, the correct answer to the question seems obvious. We do what we do because we believe we know what God wants to happen in the world he has given us. It does not dawn on us that the parable is meant to accuse us of treachery as opposed to “those other people” (whoever “they” might be).
Prognosis: The Chief Cornerstone Reaps Righteousness
Step 4: Initial Prognosis (Eternal Solution): Owner’s Son Makes Mercy out of Greed
Of course, what did the landowner expect? Surely, he knows better than to expect honesty and forthrightness from them, right? He built a watchtower. Did he not think this might breed a negative reaction? Of course, Jesus’ original audience had no problem with this setup as long as it was not about them. When they realized the parable was aimed at them, they plotted to do to Jesus what the tenants did to the son of the landowner. This is the way of the world that Jesus lived in.
But what did God, perched in his watchtower, do about this? He let it happen, honoring the past tense in the quote from the Hebrew scriptures. He let his Son be rejected, and then used that to make him the chief cornerstone. But more than that, Jesus was the one broken and crushed in crucifixion, opening up our way to everlasting life. He now sits, broken into little pieces on our Communion table on Sunday morning, his blood poured out for us as well. That is how he becomes the chief cornerstone on which God builds his kingdom for us—he places himself in our hands and invites us to partake of him. God says, you who insisted on hoarding the fruits of kingdom, feast on my Son instead. Take him into your lives and live off him.
Step 5: Advanced Prognosis (Internal Solution): Son Lifts up Rejects
The landowner’s last hope pays off after all. The Son lifts up all who were rejected by our schemes in this world, even as he lifts us to a new purpose. We stole God’s world from him and from his beloved creation. He takes it back and gives us his Son in exchange. The Son, who approaches us even while we are still deep in sin, gives himself to us so that the world can be made better through us. We are given a new focus. Our fulfillment in the kingdom of heaven is assured. It cannot be taken from us by this “dog-eat-dog” world, because the kingdom of heaven is not controlled by this world.
Step 6: Final Prognosis (External Solution): Rejects Bring New Kind of Power to Vineyard
“Mine! Mine! Mine!” is replaced by “Yours! Yours! Yours!” in our lives as we interact with others. It worked on us when Jesus made this exchange. Why not try it with the world around us? They may treat us like the prophets and the son were treated in the parable, but this is how the kingdom of heaven works. Greed is defeated—slowly enough to try our patience—by mercy and grace. It may take a lifetime, but greed eventually loses the struggle. Misbehaving tenants get thrown out of the vineyard, just like recalcitrant sinners get cast out of the church (Matthew 18:15-17)—only to become the mission field, the ones to be fed by the grapes of the vineyard. The kingdom of heaven answers treachery with grace. It is taken from them—so that it can be fed to them. The world may never comprehend this new kind of power, but even if it does, it is no match for the kingdom of heaven.