Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21201
October 4, 2020
Gospel Matthew 21:33-46
33“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 watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They 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.”
42Jesus 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’? 43Therefore 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. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Maybe we just heard a parable about an absentee vineyard owner and some lousy tenants. But for Matthew’s original audience, the symbolic meaning of Jesus’ parable was obvious: the vineyard owner = the God of Israel; the vineyard = the nation of Israel (the rule of God); the tenants of the vineyard = the religious leadership (Pharisees and chief priests of the nation of Israel); the first group of slaves and the second group = represent the early prophets and the latter prophets, respectively, ending with John the Baptist; the son of the vineyard owner = Jesus himself. Symbolically, Matthew will tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, right down to the detail that the tenants|religious authorities first beat the son|Jesus and then killed him outside of it, on Golgotha, beyond the gates of the vineyard.
Then Matthew’s Jesus poses the question to his opponents, the chief priests, and Pharisees who have become the target of the symbolic narrative. They were listening but now they’re in it as if the symbolic world of the parable is on a collision course with the real historical opponents of Jesus.
And we hear, as it were, two voices speaking simultaneously, maybe something like a voice over: the chief priest and Pharisees, looking at Jesus — the exact image of God the father, whom they do and do not recognize — say to him, “If that ever happened, the vineyard owner would be right to put those miserable thieves to death and give the vineyard to other tenants and that way vineyard owner could get what was his to begin with.”
At that point, the symbolic world and the real world converge in that the Pharisees and chief priests condemn their own behavior without fully realizing it. As a consequence, in the color-by-numbers interpretation of this parable, the vineyard owner|God takes the vineyard|kingdom of God from the tenants|chief priests and Pharisees and gives it to another.
This level of detail may not seem important to us, but it does point to the kind of story we are reading. It is a symbolic story. Maybe it’s a color-by-numbers sort of story. Just follow the allegorical instructions and you’ll get the intended picture. But coloring-by-numbers can be dangerous, too, especially if we overextend their meaning. Interpreters of Matthew, specifically Christian interpreters, have viewed this text as the way the church replaces Israel. The formal jargon for this idea is supersessionism, that the church (Gentiles) replaces the temple (Jews). This is a dangerous idea for a number of reasons.
First, this kind of thinking has contributed to anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish rhetoric in Christian communities. It fueled the fascism of World War II and it, in fact, feeds into notions of modern-day white supremacy. Indigenous people in North America were to be “replaced” by the ethnically and culturally superior vanguard of white civilization. White supremacy today continues this legacy. Friends, we need to repudiate this notion of ethnic superiority in all its forms, and especially those forms that seem to congratulate our particular ethnicity as the “apex” ethnic group.
Repudiate the sin of white supremacy. That’s America’s historical legacy and the one that matters here.
Second, ideas that God is replacing one nation with another nation fail to consider Matthew as a writer who is situationally conditioned. Matthew speaks from a historically fraught position. Maybe we think of things we posted on social media when we were 17 or 18. Do you want that, your 18-year-old self, to be your eternal word? I hope not. We would say, “I was 18 . . . you say things when you’re 18. We all do.”
We would apply the same critical thinking to scripture. I can accept that maybe Matthew intended it this way, but I could never hold this kind of thought with my Jewish sisters and brothers in a loving and mature conversation.
Third, our own scriptural tradition speaks against the kind of supersessionism we find in Matthew. Take, for example, Paul, who argues in Romans 9-11 not for the replacement of the Jew, but for the priority and continuation of the Jewish tradition in the Christian community, and even beyond it. Scripture does not speak in one voice but multiple voices and that’s good news for us.
Finally, Matthew doesn’t speak only to a symbolic universe, or even to historical protagonists and antagonists. Jesus speaks to us. Jesus employs a dangerous, you, a perilous, you all: “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.”
If we stay in the tightly coded world of the symbolic story, we will miss the way Jesus’ “you” meets us. Who is this you that Jesus speaks of? Initially, we said, and correctly, it was the Pharisees and Scribes. But Jesus doesn’t say that God is taking anything from any nationality, including the Jew. So, before we congratulate ourselves on being the church because we recognize Jesus, we should pause: Could it be that you all also refers to the church, you, us all? Are we producing the fruit of the kingdom of God?
The fruit of the vineyard is Bible-language for what we owe God, for what loyalty to God looks like. We owe God justice, we owe God the fruit of our life, and God being God, God wants the totality of it. All of it.
Now if you’re like me, I’m not always prepared to meet God on God’s terms. I give so much of my income. God says, Give me your all. I give so much of my week. God says, Give me your life. I give what I am willing to give, God says give me your will.
In Matthew’s theology, we agreed to these terms. Those of you who are ordained as deacons or elders or teaching elders, you might recognize some questions from your ordination day.
Like a wedding vow, ordination vows follow a pattern: Will you be faithful . . . will you be loving . . . will you show kindness to the hurting, hospitality to the poor? Will you? Future tense.
We look forward with such vows. But the parable doesn’t look forward, but it looks back, from the last day . . . when God returns. We move from, “Will you” to “were you?”
Were you faithful?
Were you loving?
Were you kind to the hurting, were you generous to the poor?
Maybe we need that kind of reminder, especially in a time like our own. It’s not quite the end of the world, but sometimes you wonder. And maybe we have something to do with that. Maybe we’ve been careless with our vows and when the future arrived in 2016 . . . and now it’s 2020.
We feel like perhaps we’re too late. But we can’t listen to that voice. Don’t listen to that tape that plays in our heads. We are never too late so long as it is called today. Whenever people take up the yoke of Christ, God renews the story of Christ’s saving health.
As if in demonstration of this, Jesus shows God’s restorative love, reiterated with a plenitude of verbs. God invests sweat equity in this vineyard. God plants, God digs, God protects, God secures, God sends. God returns. God interrogates. God speaks.
God sends messengers. Lots of them. One after another. You almost lose track. Pastors come and go, they say. But the countersign, that is, God sends, is probably the more true: God doesn’t give up easily. God doesn’t give up. God’s love shines in the face of Jesus, soaks his t-shirt with the perspiration of compassion, while he exorcises our evil thoughts and exercises us in lovingkindness; Jesus exorcises our hardness and exercises us in tenderness.
Jesus is the son. And the stone. N.T. Wright, the biblical scholar, points out an interesting coincidence in the Hebrew and English words for stone: stone in Hebrew is eben. Drop the first letter, and the word becomes, ben, son. Add two letters to son, in English, a t and an e, and son becomes stone.
Maybe we build our congregations the way companies build their reputations, in a lopsided way. You know, on standards of excellence, branding and product, message, and market. Chief priests and elders were the builders of the religious world of Matthew’s imagination. They knew or imagined they knew, how to build a church of stone. How to grow fruit in the vineyard. And maybe they did. Maybe all this that we know about being Presbyterian, being theologically Reformed, being the First & Franklin Presbyterian Church in Baltimore does contribute to the health of the church. And we bear fruit. But in Matthew, they forgot whom they served. Instead of serving God, they served themselves. And that means that no matter what they knew, how well they knew the Book of Order, they were on a collision course with Jesus the son, the living stone.
They saw Jesus . . . recognized him as an obstacle, a stone to be thrown out of the vineyard, but they did not know him as God’s Son, one who comes even as the harvest of the vineyard itself.
Jesus quotes the psalmist: God saw the stone the builders threw out, what the builders thought was rubbish, and chose that as the capstone.
Maybe Jesus took the Black, the Brown, and the Down. Maybe Jesus took the late, the least, and the last, what was left of our heart’s first love, after everything else was devoured.
Maybe it’s the letter that says, “Thank you for your application. I write to inform you that you are not a finalist for the position. There were many strong candidates for this opening.”
But, you, you were not strong . . . rejected or elected?
Does Jesus wear that letter like a crown? Could we? What would we reject as something incapable of carrying a message of God’s love? Of being an obstacle to God’s future? Chronic pain? A tomb sealed with public shame? Paralyzing anxiety, self-doubt? A national crisis?
The time is at hand. The harvest is ready. The Lord is near.