Brief synopsis of the readings: Isaiah speaks of a friend of his who planted a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He worked hard to produce good grapes but instead ended up with sour (or wild) grapes. In response the owner promised to destroy the vineyard. Isaiah then compared the vineyard to the House of Israel: “He expected justice, but found bloodshed, integrity, but only a cry of distress.” In Matthew Jesus also spoke about a vineyard operator, again to the chief priests and the elders of the people. This owner leased it to tenants. When it came time for the landowner to collect their rents he sent his servants. But the tenants beat and killed them instead. The owner then sent other servants who met the same fate. Finally he sent his son, thinking they would respect him. Instead the tenants saw the owner’s son as the future owner and killed him in the hopes that they would inherit the vineyard. Jesus then asked the chief priests and elders what they thought the owner would do. They responded that the owner would “bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” Jesus then quoted Psalm 188: “It was the stone rejected by the builders that became the keystone.”
In last week’s Gospel we read Jesus’ harsh words to the chief priests and elders of the people and we can understand that they probably shouldn’t have stayed for another round, but here we are. Jesus speaks again to this group of smart and respected men, and once again he attacks them. Spoiler alert: they stick around for next week for more.
There are similarities between last week’s Gospel and this week: in both Gospels Jesus set up chief priests and elders by telling a story and asking their opinion. And in both Gospels he turns on them. But there are also some differences.
Last week’s Gospel sounded plausible with one son going to work and one who doesn’t. But today’s parable just sounds strange. When the landowner sent his first group of servants to collect the money the servants reacted violently. But what the rent collectors were doing was perfectly legal, and more to the point, did the wicked servants think that would end things? Perhaps they didn’t have the money to pay what they owed, but this hardly seemed like a good solution.
And it wasn’t. One has to wonder what they next group of servants were thinking when they were on their way to collect the rent. And even though this group was larger, the result was the same. But here’s where it gets really strange to me.
The landowner then decided to send his son. Seriously? This hearkens back to the story of God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Unlike Isaac, however, this son is not saved. Strangest of all, the tenants decided to kill this son so they could inherit the vineyard.
What were they thinking? I honestly don’t know and neither did the chief priests and elders. They suggested
what all of us were probably thinking: that they were headed for a wretched end. We are all familiar with crucifixion because that’s what happened to Jesus.
But not all executions back then were crucifixions. Crucifixion was meant as a particularly gory and public death. And it was often reserved for the worst offenders, including servants who murdered their masters. The wicked servants likely would have fit this category and it certainly would have been a “wretched end.”
Except that when Jesus told them that the “kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit,” it didn’t happen. It was Jesus who was crucified, not the chief priests and the elders. It also needs to be said (again) that Jesus wasn’t crucified by the chief priests and elders because only the Romans had that power.
When the chief priests and elders spoke of the “wretched end” Jesus quoted Psalm 118 about how the stone rejected by the builders will become the keystone (or cornerstone). The cornerstone is the first stone laid in the construction of a building and it has to be perfect or the building will not stand.
As I’ve said before most people of Jesus’ time thought the smart and respected people were the cornerstone. In in other contexts we could see the poor and marginalized as the cornerstone. But I think Jesus was describing himself. As I said the Jews at the time didn’t have the power to have Jesus put to death but they weren’t powerless.
They could ignore him, shun him, and even expel him from the Temple. But there was always something about Jesus that they couldn’t ignore. Maybe they thought they could expose him as a fraud or trip him up with his own words. But they certainly didn’t see him as any sort of cornerstone.
But we do. We know that we are stones piled on top of him and that we are called to emulate him by being true and strong.
Stay tuned: our favorite chief priest and elders are back next week.