We have here the third response to the temple leadership’s question about the origins of Jesus’ authority for his actions in the temple.
In last week’s Gospel, Jesus counters with a question about the authority of John’s baptism. That’s one response. Jesus then tells the parable of the two sons and their obedience. That gives us the second response from the temple leadership.
Today we get the third in a row.
And you can’t miss Jesus’ callback to Isaiah, who makes it clear that the vineyard is a metaphor for both the house of Israel and the people of Judah. And in that metaphor, God is the caretaker of the vineyard – which nevertheless produces wild grapes, that is, diseased grapes, useless fruit.
As Jesus retells this parable in his own way, the grapes are fine – but the delivery system is malfunctioning. The problem is not with the vineyard itself, or with the fruit. The problem is with the tenant farmers.
What we have is extremely violent farmers, harming and slaughtering entire groups of enslaved people sent by the landowner. Capped off with the notion of killing the son and heir – and somehow thinking that they would then gain his inheritance.
That seems … unwise. But let’s remember that this is not, in Jesus’ telling, the parable of the foolish landowner. Jesus and his audience are living and learning in an honor-shame culture. In such a way of living, the landowner’s decision to send his son is entirely appropriate, since he can expect proper respect for his appointed heir.
Dr. Emerson Powery, who teaches at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, reminds us that sharecropping was common in the first century. In reality, if the tenants chose not to pay the landowner with the produce due, the landowner would find new tenants. So in Jesus’ telling, it appears at first glance that we have a very patient, and maybe even slightly naïve landowner.
And then Jesus moves from the prophet Isaiah over to Psalm 118, which immediately shifts our focus from a criticism about tenant farmers and vineyard owners over to the son who has been killed. “They seized him,” Jesus says, “threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”
The son becomes “the stone that the builders rejected,” which, in turn, becomes the chief cornerstone. The son in this parable is no less than Jesus himself. And that makes the tenant farmers, who represent the temple leadership, temporary leaders whose time on earth is fleeting.
Within Jesus’ parables, household masters generally make wise decisions, even if they are misunderstood. But why does Matthew, during the last week of Jesus’ life, keep hammering you and me with week after week of this frustrated and frustrating sibling rivalry between Jesus and his authority and the temple leadership and their authority?
If Matthew the scribe, writing some fifty years after the death of Jesus, is trying to show Jesus as teacher and God’s own son and heir, I think we can sense by this point that he’s getting a little fed up with Jesus’ behavior during Holy Week.
And yet! Even Matthew can’t help himself. Jesus’ naïve, patient, senseless, disproportionate love and unending supply of second chances just keeps slipping through the cracks.
Matthew just can’t quite help but preach the gospel, as Dr. David Lose puts it.
These tenants who think they’ll inherit by killing the son – the landlord hasn’t disappeared! Who’s to say he doesn’t have another son, or more servants, or a good-size security force. They’re dreamers just like people who invest in Ponzi schemes, thinking they can get something for nothing. During the Great Depression, it was chain letters with dimes in them.
But as naïve dreamers as they might be – they’re not half such as naïve a dreamer as the landowner.
He sends slaves. They’re killed. He sends more slaves – and the same thing happens again. So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to deal with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It’s absolutely crazy. Who would do such a thing? No one…except maybe a landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk anything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child. It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.
And when Jesus finally poses his rabbinical question: “What will the landlord do when he comes?” All they can imagine is violence. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”
And that’s part of Matthew’s narrative brilliance. Because it invites me, and it invites you, to consider a different question, which takes us back around the Psalm 118 and the chief cornerstone. The question then becomes not “what will the landowner do,” but: “what does the landowner do?” And to that question we have Jesus’ own answer: the landowner sends his son, Jesus, to deal with all of us who have kept God’s blessings for ourselves and not given God, God’s own due. And when we kill him, God raises him the dead, and sends him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God’s desperate, crazy love.
Oh, I know. Jesus goes on, according to Matthew, to finish the parable and condemn the Pharisees. But by this point, I like to think that even Matthew can’t help himself from witnessing to a God who is more merciful than he can imagine. Jesus slips free of Matthew’s grasp for a moment, not simply to stand in judgment of Matthew but even more to introduce us to the desperate, crazy love of God, love offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more to all who will receive it.
Martin Luther once said that sometimes you have to squeeze a biblical passage until it leaks the gospel. This is one of those weeks, I think, when with equal measures of patience and faithful pressure we can give witness to the God made most clear to us in Jesus. God with us. Amen.