October 8, 2017
Jesus is not done with the Temple authorities. He has just told one little parable aimed at their hypocrisy, the one from last week about the two brothers. Now he tells another parable, and this one is even more pointed.
He tells a story about a wealthy landowner who goes away, leasing his vineyard to some tenants. But when harvest time comes the tenants refuse to give the landowner the profits, presumably barrels of wine, and they abuse the collection agents he sends. Finally the owner sends his son and they kill him, somehow imagining that they will thereby inherit the vineyard.
So when the parable is over, and Jesus asks the priests and elders what the landowner will do, they indignantly huff that “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,” duh.
These priests and elders are from the same class as other owners and investors. Their wealth depends on other people’s hard work. It would have really made them fearful and angry that some tenants would act so brazenly and offensively. Nothing terrifies people in the upper class more than that the workers get wise to their situation and either stop working or simply take over the means of production. The workers far outnumber the owners, of course, and if they ever got together the owners fear the business end of pitchforks… which does repeatedly happen, historically.
Hence the rulers maintain an elaborate system of laws and law enforcement, pretending that its legitimacy comes from God or the people or whomever. So that if something like this ever does happen they have the means to apply maximum violence and “put those wretches to a miserable death” and give the vineyard to workers who know their place. The whole point being that the vineyard exists solely for the benefit of the owner. Which is to say that the economy exists solely to benefit the people at the top. The workers should just shut up and be glad they have the privilege of jobs at all.
Jesus deliberately tells a story in which these priests and elders would automatically and naturally identify themselves with the owner. There are other audiences. Had he told this story to the kind of poor people he was associating with back in Galilee, they might be cheering for the tenants! They might have fantasies about telling the landlord’s collection agents to shove it! They might be quite happy if the landlord’s privileged, pampered, stuck-up, arrogant son shows up and somehow has an “accident” that kills him.
Jesus is poking into some very delicate ground here, even for us. How we feel about terms like “wealth redistribution,” or “reparations,” indeed, how we feel about this parable on its surface, is very telling. Some of us have heard this parable in church all our lives so we know where it’s going. But if we hear a similar story on the news about workers rising up to takeover a factory or a plantation, where do we come down? For whom are we rooting in the struggle between the haves and the have nots? For whom do we make excuses?
What if we listened to ourselves and noticed that we are in complete solidarity with the priests and elders here, when they self-righteously affirm that of course the owner “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,” and rightly so?
Perhaps the Lord pauses here to let these establishment people vent for a while about how bad those tenants are, and what would happen if we let such people get away with theft and murder, and what’s this world coming to when a man can’t get the lawful benefit of his wise investment, and we can’t go around punishing job creators, and so forth.
Eventually Jesus quietly quotes Psalm 118 to them. Yeah, he says, but the Bible says: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” To which he no doubt gets back a bunch of blank stares. What does that have to do with anything? How did we get from wicked tenants to builders?
If you’ve ever watched a waller at work they are all about finding and shaping stones to fit perfectly together. At the end of the day there will be a stretch of well-constructed wall… and a pile of rejected stones on the side, stones that didn’t fit because of their weird shapes and unusual sizes. If these stones are still laying around when the wall is done, maybe they get chipped and broken for gravel or something. But they’re not part of the wall.
Psalm 118 is about the Israelite people. The humble, useless, misshapen rejects who were thrown out of Egypt, who are too eccentric and ornery to fit into any imperialistic project. It is also a description of the people Jesus associates with, whom the leaders derisively dismiss as “tax collectors and prostitutes,” including the sick, the poor, the disabled, the powerless, the broken, foreigners, women, workers. The kind of people who end up as, you know, tenant farmers or migrant agricultural laborers, people who have to stand on the street at dawn to sell themselves to landowners for a day’s work in their fields….
Psalm 118 is also about Jesus himself, God’s Son and Messiah, who is not fitting in to the establishment’s plan and agenda. The assumption was that of course the Messiah would be a member of the owner-class, being a descendant of no less than King David. These are the builders! They know what kind and shape of rock is needed for the cornerstone!
Jesus is saying, “Yeah, well, maybe not.” Jesus is saying, that in this faith, in Torah faith, the faith of escaped slaves, it always seems to be the hapless and the weak, the stones rejected by the Pharaohs and the Nebuchadnezzars and the Caesars, the stones tossed out by the owners and the investors and the managers, the ones dismissed as “sinners,” and “losers,” and “illegals,” and “terrorists,” and “unpatriotic,” and whatever other epithet they use indicating that these stones don’t fit in their glorious and necessary wall… who nevertheless get lifted up, dusted off, and redeemed by God.
So if you listen to this parable and you reflexively and viscerally identify with the owner, you are indicting yourself. Because the real message of the parable is that, in God’s view, the owners are really the tenants who are not producing the fruit of God’s Kingdom. In other words, Jesus expands the frame to the widest view, showing that this is not about some actual little vineyard but Israel itself and even the whole creation. In a tone reminiscent of Nathan’s judgment against David, Jesus says to the priests and the elders, in effect, “YOU are the tenants! YOU, the privileged leaders whom God allowed to be in charge, YOU are the ones who have rebelled against the One who owns the whole place!” Jesus takes the judgment and condemnation of the owners and uses it against them. There is, he says, Someone above you, and that One will treat you the way you treat those under you.
“Therefore I tell you,” says Jesus to the priests and elders, “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.” The stone being Jesus, the real Messiah, representing God, who identifies with… the losers whom they have spent their whole existence oppressing with barely a second thought.
God will indeed “put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” But instead of human law enforcement it’s going to be God’s law enforcement: the “rejected stones” are going to rise up and crush them.
The authorities want to arrest Jesus, not just for insulting them, but because, as they hear it, he is inciting violent rebellion. That’s what they always hear when some suggests they are not legitimate
The point here is that the vineyard has to produce the fruits of the Kingdom. The leaders would certainly agree that the owner of a vineyard should get the produce. Jesus is saying that God is the owner and God should get what God wants from God’s creation and world. Rather than extractive, violent exploitation for the personal material gain of a few, God’s will is just the opposite. If we pay any attention to the way Jesus describes the Kingdom of God, it is realized in compassion, humility, generosity, equality, non-violence, gratitude, wonder, joy, and love. It is realized in trusting God to build something that includes all the stones, even putting the rejected ones in the most important places.
In other words, God’s Kingdom is a kind of anti-kingdom where the values and practices of earthly, human regimes is counteracted and contradicted. So that instead of a pyramid of power, the structure is flat and distributed. Instead of trickling down, wealth and blessing well up from below. Instead of a system where the many work to enrich the few, all share in and provide for all. And in order to get there, Jesus talks repeatedly about reversal. The last become first. The losers win. The sick are healed. The dead are raised. The misfit stone is the One that holds everything together.
One of the slogans used by 12-step groups is, “Let Go and Let God.” The thing about that slogan is that the people who are holding on to the most have the most to let go of.
The Kingdom of God is not something we hold on to. It is not something we possess, maintain, manage, hoard, gain, or profit from. If we try and live according to those kinds of acquisitive values, the values of ownership, we will quickly separate ourselves from God. We become like the wicked tenants trying to own and control and exploit what isn’t theirs. The consequences of that are severe and unpleasant.
God does not evaluate us according to what we end up having; rather what is important to God is what we lose, what we let go of, what we relinquish and renounce. Jesus blesses the losers because anything we lose can no longer get in the way of God’s life and blessing coming to us.
God is all about the flow of grace into the world. When we let go, especially when we let go of our very selves, renouncing, as Jesus says, all we have, then we allow ourselves to participate in that flow, that outpouring of the Spirit. That is to be far richer than merely having a few things. That letting go, because it enables us to know God, is the meaning of life.