In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
No matter who we are, we are never free from accountability to something or someone; we’re certainly never free from accountability to God. We are like the “tenants” in Jesus’ parable today; God is like the landowner who’s already set everything up: he’s planted the vineyard, put a fence around it, dug the wine press, and built the watchtower. It’s a picture of creation itself, as the “vineyard” recalls to mind the Garden of Eden. And just as the tenants are placed in the vineyard at the discretion of the landowner, so too are we placed in creation solely at the will of God to bring us into existence. We neither planted the vineyard nor are we in the midst of it by our own choice. We discover that to be in this vineyard is already to be in a particular relationship to the one who planted it. We are like the tenants, and thus we owe the landowner the produce of our labor.
I’ll return to this later, but this is actually not the main interpretation to be found in Jesus’ parable, as it proceeds in a way that meant something very specific to the original audience. This parable is primarily to be read as a summary of the whole Old Testament; it boils down the entire history of Israel as the people of God that would have been instantly recognizable to the chief priests and the Pharisees. It starts with the vineyard that’s been planted by the landowner -- with its fences and wine-press and watchtower -- which would recall not only creation, but the Promised Land that God gave the Israelites. The “lease” that is given to the tenants is like the covenant that God makes with them, the conditions of which are inscribed in the tablets of stone given to Moses that bear the Ten Commandments. The “produce” that the landowner expects from the tenants therefore represents their obedience and faithfulness to this Law. So far, so good.
But what about the “slaves” that are sent to the tenants in order to collect the produce? This image requires us to move ahead into the Old Testament -- beyond Moses at Mount Sinai, past the “golden age” of Israel under the kingship of David and Solomon, and into the era of decline and disobedience under the succession of wicked kings like Ahab. This era is that of the great prophets of the Old Testament: think of Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Amos and Ezekiel. All of these prophets are tasked by God with calling Israel to repentance and to return to the obedience of the Law. And they are persecuted for it; many of them are even killed. Rather than giving the slaves the produce of obedience that is due to the landowner, the tenants in the parable “seize the slaves and beat one, kill another, and stone another.” And even when the landowner sends more slaves, even more than the first, they treat them in the same way. The reject the messengers sent from God to remind them of their duty; to remind them that they are only tenants who have nothing that they have not received.
But then Jesus proceeds to take this plot to its inevitable finale that foretells of his own fate:
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.
If the tenants are willing to disregard and persecute the prophets, it will make little difference to them if God sends to them his Son. In fact, because they have forgotten their relationship with the landowner and have come to imagine themselves as the owners of the vineyard, the arrival of the son is an enticing opportunity for them. “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”
It’s at this point in the parable, right at the very end, that the chief priests and the Pharisees probably lose the plot. Jesus asks them:
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."
Now, the curious thing is that this is not actually a bad answer. It aligns with the overarching plot of the Old Testament, with all of its back-and-forth of disobedience and repentance, exile and return. They certainly get it right that these rebellious tenants deserve the wrath of the landowner. But they still think that God will just keep finding “other tenants who will give him the produce.” That God will continue the plot of the Old Testament indefinitely. That there will also be another batch of obedient tenants for God to find. They do not realize that once the Son arrives, this plot has already twisted.
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?’” The son of the parable is fundamentally different than the many slaves that the landowner had sent before. Just as Jesus is fundamentally different than all of the prophets who preceded him, even though he is himself the Prophet. To reject the Son is therefore a far more grievous offense than to reject the prophets. The mystery of something new -- something that’s entirely of “the Lord’s doing” -- is coming into the picture.
The Gospel is this something new, and what it reveals to our amazement is that our salvation is not just a matter of being those “other tenants” who happen to be good enough and obedient enough to render unto God the produce he requires. Nor could it ever have been. The Old Testament offers more than sufficient evidence that this was never the final plan, though God certainly ordained it. It was never sustainable because even the most obedient tenant is still a tenant -- and a tenant, as well as a slave, is not in a perfect relationship with the landowner. The perfect relationship is that of the Son and thus the Son is the ideal worker on the vineyard. The Son is the one who not only harvests the produce in perfect obedience, but is perfectly obedient because he is the Son. But the Son is also an exclusive relationship -- there’s only one of them, after all. And thus when the Son arrives into the vineyard of rebellious tenants, he’s bound to be rejected. But “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Precisely in his rejection, precisely by being thrown out of the vineyard and killed, the Son makes possible a new kind of relationship to God. A new covenant. Rather than finding another group of faithful tenants who will likely fail sooner or later, God sends his only Son. And by being obedient to God even unto death, the Son becomes a new “vineyard.” And on this new vineyard that’s planted in the crucified Body of the Son -- complete with the “wine-press” from which his Blood flows to us in the Eucharist -- there are no longer tenants and slaves but rather those who have been adopted into the Son. As St. Paul says, we have been made children of God by adoption, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
The inheritance of salvation that belongs to the Son is not ours for the taking, as it is for those who are merely tenants, but rather is given to us in Christ as the rightful recipients. Which is why when Christ tells the chief priests and the Pharisees that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” he is not talking of yet another group of tenants, however it may sound like that. The Kingdom is given to a new people altogether -- the children of God. And this new people produces the fruits of the kingdom not by their own obedience as tenants, but in and through the obedience of the Son.
But as I said, this adoption is only made possible by a great mystery: the mystery of the cross. The Son is killed; the stone is rejected; and “the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” The only entrance into this new people, this new vineyard, is the entrance of the death of Christ by baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?,” St. Paul asks the Romans. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death,” he continues, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” Our old self, with all of its rebellion against God and even its best effort as an obedient tenant, is broken to pieces on the stone that was broken; it is crushed by the stone that was crushed. The glory of the Gospel is that this does not end with our destruction, but with our redemption. “The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” so that we can become "lively stones," in the words of St. Peter; stones that are built up into a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices: the "fruits of the kingdom" that are acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God. Amen.