Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Wicked Vinedressers

"Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.' So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?" They said to him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons."

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures:

'The stone which the builders rejected

Has become the chief cornerstone.

This was the LORD's doing,

And it is marvelous in our eyes'?

"Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and give to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whatever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder."

Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet.

- Matthew 21:33-46

In yesterday's reading, the chief priests and elders confronted Jesus in the temple. It is the week of His entry into Jerusalem. They wanted to know by what authority He was doing the things He did. They asked Him, "By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?" Earlier we read of His cleansing of the temple, in which He drove out the animal traders, and overturned the tables of the money changers, ridding the temple of its commercialism. He said, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you have made it a 'den of thieves.'" In yesterday's reading, the leadership questioned Jesus about His authority. Where does it come from? Who gave Him authority to do the things He's doing? But Jesus' authority doesn't come from a famous rabbi or any worldly authority He can point to in order to "prove" His qualifications. However, He answered them with a question of His own: " The baptism of John -- where was it from? From heaven or from men?" They were afraid to answer, because the crowd all believed John was a holy man. If they said, "From heaven," then they would be asked why they didn't believe John. If they said, "From man," the crowds would be upset with them. So they answered, "We don't know." Jesus said, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." Then He told a parable: a man had two sons, and he wanted both of them to work in his vineyard. One said, "No," but then later regretted it, changed his mind, and went to work anyway. The other replied that he would do so, but then never went to work. "Which of the two did the will of his father?" asked Jesus. They answered, "The first." Jesus told them, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him, and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him."

"Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.' So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?" They said to him, "He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons." In yesterday's reading, Jesus also likened God's kingdom to a vineyard. Here, He tells a slightly different story to the leadership. This is about the history of Israel, the people of God. Throughout its history, God has sent prophets, His servants, to the vinedressers. The vinedressers are those who are to be stewards of this kingdom, to produce fruits, and the vintage of those fruits is the covenant, the bond of God and God's people. But the vinedressers or stewards are not doing their proper job. Their loyalty is to themselves, not to the vineyard owner. My study bible says, "Instead of tending to the vineyard, the vinedressers devoured it." Finally, the landowner sends his son - this is Christ, as Son of the Father. But still, even one with this authority commands no respect from the tenants, the vinedressers. They plot only to kill Him, for purely selfish and greedy reasons, so they can take full ownership themselves. We recall Jesus' teachings in recent chapters in Matthew about leadership and service, both connected to authority. In this parable, the vinedressers are exploitative; they want ownership in order to use what does not belong to them their way, to devour the vineyard. They are like wolves in sheep's clothing. The leadership understand this parable perfectly well, although perhaps not yet that it is directed at them. They state correctly that the owner will find better stewards, and take it away from those who have failed to do their jobs properly, to render the fruits that were desired.

Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and give to a nation bearing the fruits of it. And whatever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder." The quotation is once again from Psalm 118 (verses 22-24), a psalm figuring also in Jesus' Triumphal Entry (see verses 25 & 26). Both references are to the Messiah, the savior of Israel. It is His day -- the day of the coming of the Son to the vineyard, and to the vinedressers. Those to whom the kingdom will be taken, He implies, will form His Church, the new people of God. Of course, this is also a statement about Judgment, evoking the context that begins the process of the end of the age, and even His return. Questions of authority become subtly addressed here, suggesting deeper and more meaningful understanding than is obvious or apparent, returning again to their question in yesterday's reading.

Now when the chief priests and Pharisees heard His parables, they perceived that He was speaking of them. But when they sought to lay hands on Him, they feared the multitudes, because they took Him for a prophet. At last their eyes are opened enough to understand that He is directly addressing them -- that His parable is meant to be about them as the vinedressers from whom the vineyard will be taken away. But, as in yesterday's reading, they still fear what the people think. Just as with John the Baptist, the crowds believe Jesus to be a prophet, a holy man. Their work and plotting against Him must be done in a more stealthy way.

Jesus continues His peaceful confrontation in the temple. It's interesting to observe His way of doing this: it is always through truth, through a bold and frank statement of identity. But that statement may also be couched in riddles, or parables, inviting the listener to receive what has been given -- but asking them to perceive with their own capacity, or not. At first the chief priests and elders do not understand what subtlety He is using Himself, even though He is stating sort of in plain sight, in clear hearing, the truth about His identity and His authority. They are slow to understand that He is referring to them, but by the time they do, He has made His point. One wonders about the perspective of the gospel -- clearly the listeners must include the crowds, who perceive what Jesus is aiming for (at least His criticism of the leadership) before those whom He is directly addressing. So, we return to questions of authority, to the temple at Jerusalem, to the shift in power and what is coming, the initiation of a new age which will culminate in Judgment -- which is also, in some ways, the end of all things, when all things are made new, by the person in whom all things are made new. Jesus, as Son of Man, is proclaiming Himself, but in ways that may require us to think, to reflect, to pray and to grow in spiritual understanding. Beyond what we know, He will always draw us into His mysteries and invite us more deeply to follow in faith, and to grow as He opens our eyes to more. Each parable is an initiation into something deeper, for all of us. And we continue to ponder their meanings, in a world going through depth of change and transition today, in which we continue to watch and pray for the fullness of His message, and to follow His Way today. Let us remember that we -- and today's "chief priests and elders" -- are the stewards of this vineyard, and consider for ourselves what it means to be good vinedressers today!