October 5, 2008 - Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Foreclosure is a bad deal. It’s a bad deal for everyone concerned, as we’ve learned all too well recently. A borrower loses a home, but the lender loses as well. There were 1.2 million foreclosures in the first half of the year. There are another 2.9 million homeowners delinquent on their payments. It’s required unprecedented government action just to save the lenders and our economy.
Jesus’ story for us this week is not exactly about foreclosure, because the property in question is rented. Those occupying the vineyard are not owners behind on a mortgage, but tenants who have not paid their rent. That situation is also on the rise. Our office usually gets a call or two a month for rent assistance, but in the past couple weeks we’ve received three or four, two of them just on Friday. An owner has her own costs and responsibilities. She might want to be merciful, but if she doesn’t collect rent, she falls behind with her own payments. What can she do but evict the ones who don’t pay and find somebody who will?
This parable was told in the same context as last week’s. Jesus was debating the Jewish leaders. They knew the Scriptures. As soon as He mentioned planting a vineyard in verse 33, they thought of the Old Testament text we read this morning. Isaiah 5:7 says, “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in.” They remembered, but did not apply the parable to themselves.
The tenants in the parable vineyard are totally irresponsible and vicious people. They not only do not pay their rent of fruit from the crop, they mistreat and even kill servants sent to collect. As Matthew recorded it, the owner sent several servants twice, but in Mark 12 they’re spread out, one at time. At least four times the owner tried to collect his rent, only to have his men beaten or killed.
The elders and priests may have thought Jesus was talking about the Romans or perhaps about the Seleucids who desecrated the Temple in the second century B.C. It certainly wasn’t about them, or so they thought.
In the final scene in verse 37, the landowner sends his son. Mark and Luke tell us that this is his “beloved” or “dear” son. Mark implies this is his only son. That rings all sorts of bells for us as Christians, but for Jesus’ audience then it was only part of the story.
The response of the tenants just seems stupid to us. In verse 38, they plan to kill the son and take his inheritance. Why would they think killing the heir would make them the heirs? Because it was just as true then as it is now that possession is nine tenths of the law. The owner was far away, perhaps, they thought, too old or too busy to come himself. With the son out of the way, no one would challenge their squatting. They would “inherit” the vineyard for all practical purposes.
Once again, Jesus made His story “juridical.” He asked the leaders a question in verse 40, “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard come, what will he do to those tenants?” Their answer in verse 41 is the leaders’ own judgment, out of their own mouths, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
They thought they were pronouncing judgment on someone else, like the Romans, but in the last few verses Jesus applied the parable to those leaders. First He quoted Scripture, from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” In Aramaic or Hebrew, it was a play on words, eben is “stone,” ben is “son.” It’s the Son that has been rejected and it’s the Son who will become the very cornerstone of God’s new building. In the Christian lectionary, we read that Psalm on Easter, remembering that though God’s Son was rejected and killed, He was raised again to be the cornerstone of our salvation.
Suddenly the Jewish leaders begin to see that this story of wicked tenants was, just like the parable of the two sons last week, about them. Those beaten and murdered servants were God’s prophets. The son, Jesus was implying, was Himself. If they had any doubt, Jesus makes it clear in verse 43, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
Just like last week’s story, we have to say that this parable is not about God rejecting the Jews because they murdered Jesus. That kind of thinking has often justified an anti-Semitic hatred of Jewish people that is completely and absolutely unbiblical and unchristian. Jesus did not reject Jews in favor of Gentiles. He judged a few Jewish leaders for their unwillingness to accept the Gospel and He turned to other Jews who responded in faith.
This parable is not about unbelieving Jews. It’s about anyone who fails to respond to God sending His beloved Son. We might think that lets you and me off the hook. We love Jesus, so this parable is not about us.
Yet this vineyard story was about to come true. Look at how the Jewish leaders reacted in verse 46: “They looked for a way to arrest him.” The irony is that ultimately they will succeed. They will have Jesus arrested and killed. This parable that infuriated them is the truth about them. Jesus is going to die just like in the parable.
The greatest antidote to anti-Semitism is to remember that good Christian theology teaches that everyone, whether Jew or Gentile, is responsible for Jesus’ death. Romans 5:8 says Christ died for sinners and Romans 3:23 says we are all sinners. You and I had as much to do with Jesus’ death as the Jewish leaders did, because of our sins. Every cheat or lie or hurt we’ve done nailed Jesus to the Cross. The elders and the priests were wicked and obstinate in their murder of Jesus, but you and I are as much sinners as they were. The Son died for everyone’s sins. If this parable pronounces judgment on anyone, it pronounces it on everyone.
Our only hope in this harsh story is the obvious fact that it doesn’t need to be this way. The tenants in the vineyard did not need to reject the messengers sent to them. They did not need to kill the owner’s son. Instead, they might have asked for mercy.
God is just and there is judgment for those who reject Jesus. But God deals in mercy as well as justice. Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a play about demanding justice. Antonio owes Shylock a debt and the penalty for failure to pay is a literal pound of flesh. When the payment is missed, Shylock refuses to accept anything else, even three times the money he is owed, except his pound of flesh.
Antonio’s case comes before a judge who tries to get Shylock to offer mercy, saying,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Thefore…
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
Justice alone is no salvation for those in debt. It’s not salvation for lenders and borrowers of today’s mortgages. “We do pray for mercy.” The old prayer of the Church is:
“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” In the Catholic Church it’s prayed after prayers of confession. In old Episcopal liturgies the Ten Commandments are read and after each one the people respond, “Lord have mercy.”
Jesus quoted what became the Easter psalm. “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” It’s mercy that is marvelous. We put the Son of God to death. God raised Him from the dead and made His death and resurrection the cornerstone of mercy. Jesus went to the cross because of sin, and by dying there offered forgiveness for sin. Jesus died to offer mercy to those who killed Him. He died for those Jewish leaders and He died for you and me.
The cornerstone of mercy is an awesome stone. Mercy cost the Son of God His life, a heavy price. It’s so heavy it’s crushing. Verse 44 says, “Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, but anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” The mercy of God in Jesus crushes by it’s sheer weight. It’s mercy heavy enough for the Son to look down on those who put nails in His feet and hands and say, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” It’s a mercy so marvelous, yet so heavy that it crushes those who will not accept it.
During Nazi occupation the little French town of Le Chambon sheltered Jewish children for three years. Christians organized themselves to protect and save the lives of children whose parents were in Nazi camps. Their pastor, André Trocmé, led the very successful effort. They saved the lives of about six thousand people. But on February 13, 1943, police officers Major Silvani and a lieutenant arrived to arrest Pastor Trocmé.
They came to Trocmé’s home. He was out visiting, so his wife Magda invited the officers in and seated them in the pastor’s study. After coming home and packing his bag, Trocmé met the officers in the dining room. Someone came in, saw the police and ran to tell everyone about the arrest. In the meantime, Magda invited the police to sit down to dinner with them as the pastor ate his last meal at home. Major Silvani and his lieutenant sat down but could not eat. Silvani was close to tears.
During the meal the villagers began to arrive one by one, to say good-bye and give Trocmé something to take to prison. Food, candles, warm stockings, toilet paper—it piled up on the table. Philip Hallie writes, “At first the two officers watched all this with wide-open, amazed eyes. But as it went on and on, they seemed to crumple, and Silvani said, ‘I have never seen such a farewell, never.’ And he sat there, his head bowed, weeping over his untouched food.” He was crushed, crushed by the mercy of people who loved so much. He fell under mercy which even invites the man arresting your husband to dinner.
In another trial scene, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri’s lawyer argues to the jury,
…do you want to punish him fearfully, terribly, with the most awful punishment that could be imagined, and at the same time to save him and regenerate his soul? If you do, then overwhelm him with your mercy! You will see, you will hear how he will tremble and be horror struck, ‘How can I endure this mercy? How can I endure so much love? Am I worthy of it?’ Such a heart will expand and see that God is merciful… he will be crushed by remorse and the vast obligation laid upon him in the future.
The mercy that falls on us like a stone goes beyond any human mercy. God gave His Son up to be killed, then made His death our salvation. When the Son who is a stone is rejected, we are crushed. It feels as if God is foreclosing on us, making ready to evict us from life. We stumble in confusion and fear. But when we accept the Son, He becomes our rock, our cornerstone. When we accept mercy, He never forecloses, never evicts. May you and I always welcome the Son, and give Him His due, when He comes to us.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj