Our Gospel reading today, about vineyards and cornerstones, tells of yet another encounter that Jesus had with some of the religious leaders of the day. This time it was chief priests and Pharisees. Jesus clearly had an axe to grind with them. He never had an easy relationship with what we might call ‘organised religion’ since the time he got thrown out of the synagogue in Nazareth.
The religious establishment in their turn seemed determined, as they saw it, to show Jesus as an upstart, a rebel, who was not going to be allowed to rock the boat of established religious hierarchy. They paid close attention to what Jesus was saying when crowds gathered to hear him speak. They continually sought to challenge him and put him in his place. But every time such encounters took place, Jesus was coming out on top, and that just should not be!
A well-presented tenancy
Let us look at today’s clash – the parable of the tenants. Jesus tells the story of the vineyard which a landowner rents out to some tenant farmers. It was a well-presented tenancy with all the facilities one would have expected. The landowner’s expectation was that with such a good vineyard the tenants would produce a good crop of fruit which would be to the benefit of all concerned – tenants and himself.
At harvest time, the landowner sent servants to see what had been produced. The tenants turned on the rough-stuff and sent the landowners servants packing. The landowner, who clearly was a patient man, was not to be put off. He sent more servants to the vineyard to check on the harvest. The same thing happened. Finally, the landowner sent his own son down to the vineyard, believing that he would be received with more respect. The tenants’ attitude was no different. In fact it was worse. They killed the son, thinking that somehow they could then claim the vineyard as their own.
So, asks Jesus, what is going to happen when the landowner himself comes down to the vineyard?
Those listening to this tale thought they knew the answer. They would no doubt have recognised the story as being a retelling of Isaiah’s vineyard story – today’s Old Testament reading: Isaiah 5. The listeners would have understood the symbolism of the story: the vineyard being God’s kingdom and God being the landowner. The actions of the tenants representing the rejection of God in ages past. The answer they called out was that the landowner would bring the wretched tenants to a wretched end. Then the vineyard will be given to other tenants, who would behave properly and produce a good crop of fruit for the benefit of all.
Following the scriptural symbolism, the chief priests and Pharisees particularly would have been looking to Jesus to say that they, the current guardians of religious practice, were the new tenants and everything was alright now.
But Jesus tells them nothing of the sort! Instead he tells them that untrustworthy tenants were still running the vineyard. As a result, it will be taken from them and given to those who will produce the fruit which is called for. And by way of rubbing it in, Jesus quotes Psalm 118 at his listeners, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”. Jesus is heavily hinting that he is that stone rejected by the builders (whom we may take to be the chief priests and Pharisees). The stone which has become the cornerstone – that is, the most important stone in the building; holding it all together, on which the building depends.
Have you ever watched a stone mason at work? Not a bricklayer where all the bricks are the same but a worker in stone where every stone is a different shape and size. Across the road from where I once lived, there was an empty plot. A house was to be built there. A house of stone, not bricks. The concrete foundation was laid and a lorry load of stone arrived. Stone of all shapes and sizes. It was fascinating to watch as the builder worked – carefully selecting each stone to build with. I particularly noticed that he built the corners first and then worked the walls. It was clear that the cornerstones were most important and that the whole building depended on those stones. Making the correct selection of the stones for each part of the building was critical to the process.
How do we measure up?
So, back to the vineyard and the tenants. I wonder how we, the church of today, measure up when we put ourselves in the position of tenants in God’s vineyard? Are we producing fruit good enough to be made into the new wine of God’s Kingdom?
Jesus called out the religious leaders two thousand years ago, criticizing them for their focus on ritual and rules. Rules which increasingly covered every aspect of everyday life. In all this they had lost sight of the basic foundation stones of relationship with God our Father, namely, his love for us – which should be reciprocated; and us showing that love to the world through care and compassion to others.
The world today is overflowing with rules, by which we seek to live an orderly life, and just now the Covid 19 rules have added more to the list! Even being part of church brings an endless list of rules and rituals, many of which seem to overshadow the foundational importance of the acceptance and showing of God’s love. What is most important to God our Father? What is it that he wants? Is it following all the rules and rituals to the letter? Or is it living a life showing God’s love? I think we all know what Jesus would say! Even our government ministers, talking about the Covid rules, repeat time and again: “it’s not so much about the rules – it’s about doing the right thing!”
By their fruits
If we live a life showing God’s love we will produce good fruit. The scriptures talk a lot about fruit. Jesus often mentions it – fruit that will last; being recognised by the fruit produced. Paul similarly writes of fruit – particularly fruit of the Spirit being love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Jesus underlines his parable quoting Psalm 118. Setting himself as the cornerstone. Have we accepted him as that most important building block? Do we look to him; trust him; depend on him; allow him to be the essential part of our lives, that links us to God’s love and thus fills us with love to share with those around us?
Jesus challenges everyone – not just the religious elite, but each one of us – to take a good look at ourselves. As we tend the vineyard, when the harvest comes, will we be able to show that we have been good tenants? Or will we be found as wretched tenants facing a wretched end?
“The Cornerstone” was delivered by Nigel Silvester to St Zoom’s on Sunday 4th October 2020. It was based on Matthew 21:33-46 and Isaiah 5:1-7. St Zoom’s is made up of congregations from Bury, Heywood and Rochdale.