October 5, 2014

Matthew 21:33-46


Late in the first century A.D., a group of Christians is gathered to worship God and tell the stories of their Lord Jesus. They come together regularly, especially on the first day of the week. They sing songs of praise. They recount the stories of Jesus that have been passed on for decades – the things he said, the wonders he did, and especially the way he gave his life for theirs.

Then they share a meal together – a simple meal of bread and wine, and they tell each other of the meals that Jesus once shared with his followers and the way he told them to remember him in the breaking of the bread.

Today, it is Matthew’s turn to tell the story, and he recounts a parable that Jesus once told to the chief priests and the Pharisees. It’s another parable about a vineyard. They’ve heard a lot of those recently, but Matthew assures them that this one is different.

There’s a landowner who decides to plant a vineyard. He puts a fence around it, digs a wine press in it, and builds a watchtower. Then he leases the land to some tenants who are supposed to work the land, produce fruit, and hand over the fruit to the owner at harvest time. But they don’t. When the landowner sends his servants to collect the produce, they are beaten, stoned, and killed.

In the middle of the story, Matthew is interrupted… “He’s got to kick them out of there!” a young man hollers, “Take them by force, maybe at night when they’re not expecting it, and reclaim the vineyard!”

But Matthew continues with the story as Jesus told it. “That’s not quite what happens,” he says, “This is what the landowner does… He sends his own son to collect the harvest, saying, ‘Surely they will respect my son.’ But they don’t. They seize him and they kill him, hoping that they may get his inheritance.

“Oh!” cries a young woman in the group, “Why did he send his son? Didn’t he know that they would kill him? How could he send someone that he loves into a situation like that? Wouldn’t it have been better just to let them have the vineyard and forget about them?”

“Wait, I’m not finished yet,” Matthew answers, “The story isn’t just a story about a landowner and some wicked tenants. You see, when Jesus told the story he was talking to the religious leaders who were trying to get rid of him. He was trying to tell them something by telling them the story. I think that everything in the story represents something else.

“Oh, I get it,” says the young man, “like the landowner has got to be God, because God makes the world for people to live in and trusts them to be good and faithful to him.”

“That’s the idea,” Matthew responds excitedly, “So who are the tenants and the slaves and the son?”

“You said that Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and the chief priests, right?” the man continues, “So they’ve got to be in it somewhere. Couldn’t they be the tenants, because God did a lot of good things for the Jews, even giving them a land to live on and work on?

“So that means that the son has got to be Jesus himself, the one that they rejected and killed, and the slaves before him must be the prophets who spoke the words of the Lord and called the Jews to be good and just and faithful to the covenant with God.”

“You’re on the right track now,” Matthew encourages him, “In fact, the vineyard represents the kingdom of God and those in it have the responsibility to produce the fruit of the kingdom.”

“That reminds me of the garden of Eden,” the woman muses, “Didn’t God plant a garden for people to live in, and they rebelled and disobeyed him?”

“You’re absolutely right,” answers Matthew, “Even the mythic stories of the book of Genesis show how humanity has disobeyed God, squandered the gifts God has given, and used God-given freedom to rebel against God.

Remember the story of Cain and Abel? It shows that humans become capable of killing each other. Eventually, the wickedness of humanity is so great that God decides to wipe us out, flooding the earth with water and saving only the few people who have been good.”

“But Matthew,” interrupts the man, “I thought we were talking about the Jews being the wicked tenants. Now you seem to be talking about people in general, maybe even about us!”

“Yes, I do think the story’s about us too. The Jews may have become tenants in the kingdom of God before us, and some of them may even have been kicked out, but if we’re tenants now, we’ve got a responsibility to produce fruit for the kingdom. Don’t you think?”

The young woman speaks up again, trying to fit the pieces of the story together in her mind, “Matthew, I’m not sure that I completely understand yet. Can you tell me more about how the landowner is like God?”

“Okay. In the stories of the People of Israel, we see God making covenants with the people, just as the landowner agreed with his tenants that they would live and work on the land, and that he would come to collect the produce at the harvest time.

Although God provides generously for the people, they cannot manage to follow the law that is set out for them. Ten simple rules God has given them, but over and over, they rebel, breaking the covenant and God’s heart.

Prophets are sent and speak on God’s behalf. They cry out for justice, calling the people back to faithfulness to God. They challenge the people to look after the poor and to return to the ways of God, but each one of them is rejected.

Finally, God sends Jesus into the world. ‘Surely they will respect my son,’ God says.” Matthew’s face falls as he thinks of Jesus. “We all know what happens to him,” he says sadly.

Matthew pauses then, looking defeated. In the silence, most of the group is thinking about the same thing – the scene they’ve all heard about so many times from the men and women who were there to see it….

A lonely wooden cross stands at the top of a hill. On it hangs a wretched, rejected, abandoned man – the one who was supposed to be their leader. Blood drips down his face from the thorny crown that’s digging into his forehead. His hands and feet are held in place by thick nails that pierce his flesh and the wood behind. Although his arms are spread wide to embrace the world, his body is crumpled. His spirit is crushed.

Quietly, someone suggests that it’s time for supper, and a few slowly begin to make the preparations. They speak only in hushed voices because others are still lost in thought. Some are crying as they remember their Lord, and others are gently comforting them.

Soon the meal is ready. The bread is broken. The wine is poured, and both are distributed among the people. As Matthew receives a hunk of bread, he thinks of Jesus again, giving his body for the life of the world. This is the foundation of Matthew’s faith.

Taking a swig of the wine, he feels it burn the back of his throat, and he thinks of the pain and sorrow that Jesus endured for him. Looking down into the cup, he sees the wine’s deep red colour, and he thinks of Jesus’ blood, poured out so that Matthew’s sin might be forgiven.

Even as he eats the simple meal, Matthew knows that he is receiving the gifts of God: Nourishment from the grain and the grape. New life and forgiveness from Jesus his Saviour. This is the foundation of Matthew’s faith.

The atmosphere around the table is subdued. People are eating quietly, not saying much to each other, except what is necessary to get through it. But finally, Matthew breaks the gloomy silence.

“I’ve thought of something!” he announces in a voice too loud for the quiet room, “Remember the psalm that we sang the other day, the one about God’s victory over the enemies? I think it’s got the answer for us. It says, ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.’

We’re all so sad right now because our Lord was rejected and killed, but he didn’t stay rejected. He was like a rejected stone that became the cornerstone of the building. He was defeated, but he became victorious. He was killed, but he rose again. We were lost in our sin and our sadness, but he has given us new life and forgiveness.

That’s all that Matthew says, and then he lets everyone get back to their eating. And soon the noise level in the room goes up. People are talking, laughing, and eating. They haven’t forgotten about Jesus, but now when they look at the bread in their hands, they see more than the crucified one.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvellous in our eyes.