‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. — Matthew 21:33-46 NRSV
Whew. What a story. Bad tenants, insistent owner, dead servants and heir — it’s a story of escalating violence and perhaps greed, perhaps desperation, depending on which side of the story one chooses to examine. Sounds like a plot line from any of a hundred movies with only the location, the time period and the characters changing. Jesus sure knew how to rivet an audience — and render some of them speechless to boot.
The story, told in the language of metaphor, must have been galling to the priests, elders and Pharisees since Jesus was telling it in the temple, the seat of religious law and power, a place that the lawyers and priests felt was their territory. It was also a place where ordinary people gathered, and they could hear and see the discomfiture of those to whom Jesus was talking. Sometimes can be amusing to onlookers to see the pompous and self-righteous get a lesson in front of ordinary folks.
God had given Israel and its leaders a job to do and the people had rebelled, again and again. God sent prophets to remind the people of their duty to God, but Israel had silenced or killed the messengers. Finally God sent his son to call them to repentance and to duty and, presciently, even the son was murdered by the unruly tenants. It was definitely a tale of indictment.
It seems almost providential that this is a reading for today, a day celebrating the independence of a country its inhabitants claim was especially endowed by God as a favorite. How well have we, in our roles as tenants of this land, served the ultimate landowner, God? We have ignored the prophets who have called us to repentance for our greed and arrogance. We have marginalized and even enslaved those who lived on this land before we claimed it and even brought foreigners to this country to serve us. We have ignored and penalized the widows, orphans and the poor of our land. We have strip mined and deforested the land, polluted the rivers and waterways and fouled the air, things that we have been warned about yet we have pooh-poohed the warnings as if they had never been uttered. We have taken for our own things that were not ours to take, and we feel we are entitled to do so. All in all, we have not been good stewards and tenants, and yet God sends messengers to recall to us our duty. Even his own Son did that and still does. Thing is, who’s paying attention?
Today I hope I am one who is paying attention. There are a lot of things to be grateful for as a citizen of this country, but there are also a lot of things that need to be done, prophets that need to be heeded and making a good accounting to God for those things for which I am accountable. I was put here to be a steward, not a landowner. I have work to do, and I think I’d better get to it.