A Stone Rejected | Proper 22

Matthew 21:33-46

33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and took a trip. 34 When it was time for harvest, he sent his servants to the tenant farmers to collect his fruit. 35 But the tenant farmers grabbed his servants. They beat some of them, and some of them they killed. Some of them they stoned to death.

36 “Again he sent other servants, more than the first group. They treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said.

38 “But when the tenant farmers saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come on, let’s kill him and we’ll have his inheritance.’ 39 They grabbed him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

40 “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenant farmers?”

41 They said, “He will totally destroy those wicked farmers and rent the vineyard to other tenant farmers who will give him the fruit when it’s ready.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the scriptures, The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. The Lord has done this, and it’s amazing in our eyes? 43 Therefore, I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken away from you and will be given to a people who produce its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be crushed. And the stone will crush the person it falls on.”

45 Now when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard the parable, they knew Jesus was talking about them. 46 They were trying to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who thought he was a prophet. (CEB)

A Stone Rejected

One of the keys to understanding any story is the setting. We know that Star Wars took place, “Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” We know that J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings, took place in Middle Earth. In fact, the more we know about the story’s setting, the better we understand what’s taking place and why. That’s why books often include maps.

At least the last ten novels I’ve read included maps of the world in which the stories take place. One book, The Martian, even included a map of Mars. It’s helpful to see what the landscape of the story looks like, whether the world is real or imagined. Setting also includes things like social, religious, political, and historical context. These are all integral to understanding the story.

It’s the same with any text of Scripture. The setting of the book places it in a specific context that can help us understand what’s being said. And, speaking of context, most Scripture passages are related to what comes before and after. So, knowing the context of the verses within a book also helps us to understand the message.

The setting of Jesus’ parable is Jerusalem after the triumphal entry where he was riding on a donkey and hailed as the Son of David. The whole city was stirred up over this incident (Mt. 21:10). Jesus went into the Temple where he pushed over the tables used for currency exchange, and threw out the people who were buying and selling things there. It was an act that went against what those in charge of the Temple complex allowed. With these actions, Jesus told everyone that the religious leaders were wrong.

The chief priests and legal experts immediately confronted Jesus and asked him where he got his authority to do what he was doing. And Jesus had the gall to tell the chief priests and legal experts that tax collectors and prostitutes who believed John the Baptist’s message and changed their hearts and lives were entering the kingdom of heaven before them.

It’s safe to say that contention was in the air.

It’s important to note that the parables of Jesus which answer the challenge to his authority by the chief priests and legal experts are directed toward the leadership, not to the Jewish people as a whole. Sadly, we have to admit that some Christians have interpreted this as polemic against all Jews, suggesting this shows God’s rejection of the Jewish people. But those who have done this are wrong. That’s called antisemitism, and it’s wrong. Jesus was a Jew; he wasn’t anti-himself. The line Jesus draws is within Judaism, not between Jews and Christians.

The parable of the vineyard is a reflection on the text from Isaiah which we read earlier (Isaiah 5:1-7). Jewish thought identified the vineyard with the Temple. So, Jesus’ parable ties in with Isaiah’s message of Israel rejecting the prophets. I think it’s helpful for us to look past Isaiah 5:7, because it gives us a better idea of what the prophets were preaching against.

Isaiah says, “The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! Doom to those who acquire house after house, who annex field to field until there is no more space left and only you live alone in the land” (Isa. 5:7-8 CEB).

From Amos to Isaiah, one of the primary messages of the prophets was the responsibility of the leaders and wealthy (and the wealthy were almost always the leaders) to take care of the poor. They preached against exploitation. And that exploitation, in a largely agrarian economy, included crowding others out by gaining so much of the land that others didn’t have any.

So, the parable tells us about a vineyard that God planted, and the tenants to whom he leased the land. When the harvest was due, he sent his servants to collect the fruit, but the tenants mistreated the servants. In a sense, they elbowed the servants out. They made no room. They held on for themselves what wasn’t theirs to keep. Another group of servants comes and suffer the same mistreatment. Then, the landowner sent his son, thinking the tenants would surely respect his own son and give him what belonged to him.

Instead, the tenants killed the son, again, thinking they would keep for themselves what didn’t belong to them. So Jesus asks the chief priests and legal experts what they think the landowner will do when he comes. Their response is that he’ll destroy the wicked tenants and lend the vineyard out to tenants who’ll give him his fruit when it’s due. In judging the wicked tenants this way, the chief priests and legal experts pronounced judgment upon themselves.

Jesus uses allegory to get his message across in a way that disarms his opponents. It’s the same thing the Prophet Nathan did to David when he asked the king to judge a situation about a wealthy man who stole a poor man’s beloved lamb. When David pronounced his judgment that the rich man had to pay the lamb back seven-fold, Nathan told David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Nathan was really talking about how David conspired to murder Uriah and take Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, as his own. David pronounced judgment upon himself. Then, Nathan revealed David’s sin.

After telling the parable and letting the chief priests and legal experts judge themselves, Jesus interprets his own parable using Scripture from Psalm 118. Verse 42 quotes verses 22-23 of the Psalm, “The stone rejected by the builders is now the main foundation stone! This has happened because of the LORD; it is astounding in our sight!” (CEB). In fact, part of the same Psalm, verse 26, was shouted by the crowds as Jesus entered Jerusalem when they said, “Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 21:9 CEB).

Psalm 118 is the Psalm of Praise that’s sung at Passover to celebrate God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. So, when Jesus interprets his own parable with parts of Psalm 118, there are layers of meaning: praise for God’s deliverance, recalling Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and hints of Jesus’ own coming rejection and violent death which is our own redemption.

There’s another scriptural reference to the stone, and Jesus brings it into play here, too. Isaiah 8:13-15 says, “It is the LORD of heavenly forces whom you should hold sacred, whom you should fear, and whom you should hold in awe. God will become a sanctuary—but he will be a stone to trip over and a rock to stumble on for the two houses of Israel; a trap and a snare for those living in Jerusalem. Many of them will stumble and fall, and be broken, snared, and captured,” (CEB).

These verses from Isaiah refer to the coming invasion of Israel and Judah by the more powerful Assyrian Empire to the north. Isaiah spoke of the invasion as judgment on the Kingdom of Israel for its social injustices when God expected justice and righteousness, but saw bloodshed and heard cries of distress. Isaiah preached a similar message as his predecessor, Amos, who accused the wealthy of selling “the innocent for silver, and those in need for a pair of sandals” (Amos 2:6 CEB).

So, the parable of the vineyard’s wicked tenants is bookended by passages about judgment from two sections of Isaiah. And that judgment is against the wealthy and powerful of Israel who didn’t know justice or mercy. Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders kicks into high gear with his turning over tables in the Temple and healing of the blind and lame who came into the Temple to find Jesus there. The chief priests and elders demanded to know with what authority Jesus did these things. Jesus demanded to know why the chief priests and legal experts weren’t paying attention.

The words of the prophets had been spoken long ago, but the leaders hadn’t learned from the past. The suffering were still suffering with no one to show them mercy. Those who lived each day in poverty had no justice and no way to improve their lot because the greed of wealth had ensnared the rich. The outcast, the abused, the poor, the vulnerable: they continued to suffer. And the Temple system that the wealthy men of the day controlled worked in such a way that the poor couldn’t afford to buy the required offerings.

That’s why Jesus tells the chief priests and legal experts that the tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of Heaven ahead of them. The rich and powerful might think they’re blessed because of their wealth, but the poor and weak are the ones whom God favors. The reason being, that the chief priests and legal experts had failed to produce the fruits of the kingdom by failing to do justice and show mercy. That message of justice and mercy is what almost all the prophets proclaimed.

So, how do we apply this to ourselves? We listen to Jesus. We remember that we’re called to ministry. We do what we can to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who came to set us free from bondage and brokenness. We have a responsibility to produce the fruits of the kingdom in our lives. When we do, Jesus becomes our sanctuary instead of a stone for stumbling.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

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