CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: A Terrible Mistake in the Vineyard
Jesus said, “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. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They 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.”
Jesus 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’?
Therefore 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
- Matthew 21:33-46
Jesus knows his end is near. Having journeyed to Jerusalem for the last time, he’s teaching in the Temple, trying, once more, to impress upon his listeners that now is the time to examine their hearts, take another look at their lives, and accept the good news that a new era of God’s reign is beginning and they are invited to live in it.
Jesus’ words sound familiar to many among the Temple’s crowds, because he’s improvising on biblical texts they already know. But Jesus’ riff on the prophet Isaiah’s lament for God’s unfruitful vineyard* catches his pious listeners off guard. They only slowly realize, as Isaiah’s original listeners also did, that Jesus’ parable is about them. Isaiah had rebuked their ancestors and foretold hard times ahead if they didn’t change their ways, and now Jesus is doing the same. And, in case they hadn’t understood that Jesus himself is the embodiment of God’s presence, God’s teaching, he throws a verse from Psalm 118 at them: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”
The evangelist Matthew tells us that when “the chief priests and the Pharisees” realize that Jesus “was speaking about them,” they want to arrest him, but they stop short. Too many in the crowds around them believe Jesus is a prophet whose words are, by definition, inspired by God. Those who want to silence Jesus will wait for a less conspicuous moment when they can induce one of his own friends to facilitate his arrest. The religious leaders have lost this round, but they’re still hoping to win their fight against this dangerous man.
You and I know how this story played out, that first Easter weekend. We know how Jesus suffered, and yet we know death didn’t silence Jesus forever. The tomb did not hold him; victory belonged to God in the end.
But, often, we forget what happened later—a few centuries later. As Christians, now members of a state-sanctioned religion, retold this parable, they shaped Jesus’ words into a weapon against Jews, his own people. The slander that Jews had killed Jesus and that the Roman empire, personified by a hand-washing Pilate, was blameless in the matter, seeded centuries of murderous anti-Semitism. Christians saw Jews as the ones from whom the kingdom of God had legitimately been taken and saw themselves as the King’s sole heirs. They cast Jews as the unfaithful tenants who deserved the “miserable death” Jesus’ original audience mentions in the parable as Matthew tells it. And they used this and other passages of Scripture to justify killing untold millions of Jewish people.
The church erred grievously, and violently, in reading and teaching that interpretation of the parable of the vineyard. And, along the way, Christians lost track of the parable’s invitation to self-examination, repentance and ever-deeper conversion to the way of Jesus.
In this parable, told as he was approaching his own moment of decision—to accept crucifixion if necessary—Jesus asks you and me to be honest with him and ourselves. Are we, as Christians, producing fruit worthy of our master gardener’s name?
Jesus, and the best of Church tradition, teach us how to produce “the fruits of the kingdom.” Praying as he taught us; performing the works of mercy he embodied and commissioned his disciples to do; weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice; lending strength to neighbors who feel as if they can’t go on; and accepting a helping hand when we need one. Studying the Word through which he still speaks, letting it comfort us and also letting it convict us of our sins, which God stands ready to forgive whenever we will examine our hearts, confess and intend to change. Seeking the common good and joining with people of goodwill to serve neighbors in need. These are the ways we tend God’s vineyard, revealing the beautiful sustenance it offers to all.
*Isaiah 5:1-7, one of the Old Testament options for this week. Read it here.
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