Stones, Dragons and Vineyards

I have to begin today with some background in order to help us understand our gospel.  Matthew almost certainly writes to a Jewish Christian audience living in or near Palestine, and that these early Jewish believers were experiencing intense persecution from the Jewish religious authorities.  A number of aspects in the gospel point to this audience, including the focus on the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—along with a number of symbols and allusions to Jewish history. Jesus can be seen throughout the gospel as partaking in the tradition of Moses, and Jesus’ teachings and miracles keep hearkening back to that leader of the Exodus.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

However, Matthew’s Jesus also often gets very confrontational with the religious leaders, likely because his readers are also experiencing that conflict.  Jesus has been in their sight for some time, and now it’s reaching its climax. It’s the Monday of Holy Week in our reading.  The day before, Jesus rode on that donkey, and was hailed with praises and waving branches.  On this Monday, he comes into the temple and has been asked by whose authority he teaches. The leaders are trying to trap him, of course.  But Jesus is a bit tricksy himself, and asks them an unanswerable question too.  He then tells a parable that those religious types know casts them in a bad light, and they can’t say anything.  Our reading this morning is how Jesus continues speaking to these leaders.

He tells them another parable. Or perhaps it’s best described as an allegory—there’s a one-for-one quality in the narrative he whips up.  A landowner—that is, God—planted a vineyard—that is, the Promised Land.  He leased it to some tenants—the people of Israel—and let them be so they could work the land and bear some fruit.  At the harvest, he sent messengers—the prophets—to collect the produce, but they maimed and killed them.  Finally, the landowner sent his son—Jesus—who the tenants killed as well, hoping they could finally be done with all this and get the field for themselves.

A sermon based on Matthew 21:33-46.

So, Jesus asks those religious leaders, what do you think the owner of the vineyard will do when he shows up?  They answer directly, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and give the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” Jesus then reminds them of a scripture, a portion of Psalm 118, “The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,” and then really dials it in by proclaiming “Therefore the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

There’s no getting around this.  Again, it’s an allegory, and while the son hasn’t been put to death yet—Jesus is a few days away from his own crucifixion—Matthew’s hearers will already know what is about to happen and fill in the blanks immediately.  Jesus makes it plain that those religious leaders aren’t remotely up to snuff and will miss out on the kingdom.

And this is the point in the story where I have to interject, “Danger, Will Robinson.” (Kids, look it up on Youtube.) Matthew’s Jesus has got his dander up, and it may be easy for us to do the same.  In fact, Christians have done so for centuries.  Our forebears have too often used Matthew’s gospel as a catalyst for anti-Semitic anger including the pogroms of the Russian Empire and the Holocaust.  We take Jesus’ beef with the Jewish religious authorities and turn it into a sever disdain for all Jewish people.   It’s easy to take Jesus’ righteous anger at the lack of fruit for the kingdom and turn it into anger against a certain group just because we don’t like them.  And when you begin to believe that God dislikes and eventually hates the people you hate, and that God wants to then destroy the people you’d like to see destroyed, well, we’ve become the ones aren’t bearing any fruit ourselves.

Whenever I hear people in this divided world of ours proclaim with a bit too much certainty that God is for or against another whole group, I get nervous.  Whether it’s the conservatives and the liberals, or the whites and the people of color, or the Christians and the Muslims, when one group claims that God hates the other, they have missed the mark of the kingdom and aren’t producing fruit.  Lest you think I’m giving a sermon to the people you don’t like, telling them that they aren’t producing fruit, let me be clear: If you vote red and think God needs to violently set those blue people straight, you are missing the mark.  If you vote blue and think the same about those red voters, ditto.  If I think that God wants to decimate my enemies, then I’m making God in my own image and missing the mark. 

“Wait just one second,” you may be ready to utter.  “Didn’t Jesus say those wretched tenants in the vineyard would face a miserable death?” On the contrary, dear friends, it was those religious leaders themselves.  When asked what the landowner would do when he came back, they were the ones to reply with violence.  It’s what has been top of mind for them already, of course; Matthew keeps telling us that they are looking for a way to put Jesus to death.  Their response when faced with conflict immediately goes to significant and life-ending brutality.

“You might be right,” you may now be thinking, “but what about that corner stone stuff that Jesus talks about.  ‘The one who falls on the stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ What about that, preacher man? That seems pretty violent.”

CS Lewis begins Book 3 of his Chronicles of Narnia, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with these words: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Our family listened to the Narnian Chronicles as we drove some 7000 miles this summer on our car camping trip.  And none of us cared for Eustace.  He begins the book as a twerp, unbelievably annoying, and always demanding he get his own way.  How he makes it to Narnia with his two cousins Edmund and Lucy is beyond me. Lewis qualifies that first sentence, “He almost deserted it.” I would have written, “He absolutely deserved it.”

In the course of the book, Eustace and his cousins find themselves on a Narnian ship that explores all sorts of fantastical islands.  And all the time Eustace continues to live into that awful name of his.   One day they land at an island after a violent storm that has ravaged the Dawn Treader.  The crew along with Edmund and Lucy set into the work that needs to be done in making repairs.  Eustace, however, is lazy and sneaks off.  After traveling for a few hours, he discovers a cave full of treasure with a dead dragon nearby.  He goes enters the cave, puts loads of treasure into his pockets, and promptly falls asleep on the loot.

While he sleeps, he turns into a dragon.  He eventually finds his way back to his cousins and the crew, and realizes how much he wishes he could be with them as a human boy.  It’s then that Aslan—the great lion who is the Christ figure in the series—appears to Eustace.  He leads him to a great pool and tells him he can wash, but first he must undress.  Eustace is confused since he’s a dragon, and then thinks he may be able to shed his skin like a snake, so he scratches it all off.  But he’s still just as dragoney as before. He does it two more times to no avail and he begins to despair. Finally, the lion himself digs deeply into the dragon hide with his claws and pulls the skin off entirely, amounting to quite a bit of pain on poor old Eustace, and he emerges as himself.  But then he’s tossed into those cooling waters and returns to the others as a transformed young man.

The stone that the builders rejected—even Jesus himself—can sometimes ravage us.  How could he not when he tells us that we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow him? We are also told not to judge others, and that we cannot serve God and wealth, and that that first shall be last, and that we must die to ourselves if we truly want to follow him.  That corner stone will indeed break us to pieces, but only to re-form us again, bringing us to a new way of life.  Christ transforms us.

What if when Jesus posed that question in his tale about the what would happen when the landowner came back after they killed his son, the leaders replied, “He will breathe new life into his son, and death will be vanquished forever, and the ones who destroyed him will find their lives restored.”  Seem too farfetched?  Perhaps, and yet Jesus alludes to Psalm 118 when he asks those religious leaders if they’d ever heard about the cornerstone.  The first and last verse of that Psalm is this: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever.”  God’s steadfast and unchanging love for all of humanity endures well beyond our own fickle expressions of love and hate.  God does not seek to destroy us, but rather to bring us to new life.  We may lose ourselves in the process—we may have our own propensity to casually dismiss others and focus on our own egos be crushed. And yet we will find ourselves in the blessed light of the Holy One, bearing fruit and sharing the goodness of Christ.  That’s what we can become if we allow ourselves to be utterly transformed by the unfaltering love of God. We can be among those who produce fruit of the kingdom, among those who share God’s compassion and mercy with the world.  Let us do so.  Amen.