Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost


The man’s memories of his high school days were fond ones. He and his friends got along well, and they had a lot of fun together.


He did recall, however, a student that everyone picked on. They teased and bullied him mercilessly, and made his life a living hell on earth. His name was Fernando.


Nearly at his breaking point, Fernando convinced his parents to let him leave the school and go somewhere else. No one knew whether he’d found another school, dropped out, or even committed suicide.


They only knew that they didn’t have Fernando to kick around anymore. And this was a loss to the class in a perverse sense. For singling out Fernando to tease and bully cemented the bonds of their togetherness. They needed Fernando as a social marker, to tell them who they were not, and to reaffirm who they were.


But about six months later, suddenly, without explanation, Fernando came back. Now there’d been a regime change in the country in the time between Fernando’s leaving school and his coming back.


When he was a student there, he was not of a distinguished family, and of no particular importance, at least as far as anyone knew. But with the installation of the new government, Fernando’s family came to have great significance. In fact, Fernando’s dad became a high ranking official, wielding power and influence in the state where Fernando’s school was located.


Fernando returned to visit his former high school in a chauffeured limousine, flanked by a motorcycle cavalcade.


When Fernando’s classmates saw him, they were alarmed. So they sent out ambassadors from the more popular among them to extend the olive branch to him.


You see, they realized that now the tables were turned. Before, they’d had the big stick, which they’d used to hit him. But now he had a much bigger stick, and he was going to use it to hit them.


Then a vicious rumor began to circulate. Some said he had only really come to the school in the first place to be thrown out, and then come back to show his superiority. All this had been planned.


He wanted them to see that even though they’d thrown him out, he’d picked himself up, and now was back stronger than ever. He’d always been stronger than they ever were, so strong that he’d let them throw him out. So now he was back to let them know that they can’t get to him, and to gloat over them.


But Fernando explained that it wasn’t quite like that. In fact, they were right. He did come to the school so that they could do what they did to him, and he did make that choice in advance.


And to prove it, he wrote an account of what he was going to do, dated it, signed it and left it sealed in the safe of a lawyer’s office downtown, so they could see that there is no clever revenge story here, made up after the event.


But yes, he did come to the school deliberately, but it’s because he genuinely liked them, notwithstanding the fact that they rejected and tormented him. He wanted to be with them, befriend them, and to share his life with them (James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim 3, 281-292).


What I have just told you is obviously a story; it has no basis in reality, as you probably have guessed by now. Fernando and the rest of the characters in the story are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, alive or dead, is purely coincidental, as they used to say in the disclaimers on those old detective stories on TV.


But in a deeper sense it does have a basis in reality—in reality in the most fundamental sense.


For it helps us to see what the parable in our Gospel lesson is telling us about God, to be more precise, what it is telling us about the love of God.


Let’s be sure we have a grasp of what Jesus is teaching here. There is a landowner, who has planted a vineyard and rents it out to tenants before leaving. Now let’s be clear. He has entrusted the vineyard to them. They are to tend it, cultivate it, and deliver the harvest to its owner.


The time has arrived. The harvest is ready. So the landowner sends his servants to collect the yield. But the tenants will have none of it. They are no longer managing the vineyard for the owner, but rather have seized possession of it themselves. In effect, they are usurpers. Therefore, they mistreat the servants, even killing some of them.


But the landowner is patient with the tenants. He sends more servants, an even larger number than at first, but the result is the same.


Here we must pause and ask: where in the world would we ever find an owner of a vineyard who allows his tenants to abuse and even kill his servants, and, instead of bringing those wretches to a wretched end, keeps making repeated attempts to win them over by sending them even more?


We have pointed out before that parables draw on the everyday; they paint scenes with their words that all who hear them can instantly recognize. But this in itself does not necessarily make them memorable. It is that anomalous detail that does not fit with our sense of how things work—that is what makes them memorable.


The anomalous detail in this parable—the obviously ineffective method of sending more and more servants to collect the harvest—this does not fit with our sense of how things work. But it is what makes the parable memorable.


The anomalous detail in the parable that distorts its sense is intentional. For in the strict sense its purpose is to illustrate God’s incomprehensible love for man, the utter limits to which God will go to reach us, to restore us to relationship with him, in spite of our violent resistance. We may act as senselessly as we will, and yet God’s faithfulness is greater than our folly. We may treat God as if he did not exist, and even seek to usurp him, just as did Adam and Eve in the garden, but God does not give up on us. His love will not let us go.


Finally, the landowner sends his son. Surely, one would think, men would show some respect for him.


But here is where the parable stretches our sense of how things work to the breaking point. Why in the world would the owner of the vineyard even send his son at all? He’s already had two groups of servants abused and even killed. Why expose your son to the same risk?


The parable would conform to our sense of things if the landowner sent not his son, but an army. Give those murderous tenants what’s coming to them. But the landowner does the unthinkable and sends his son.


The consequence is predictable: “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” (Matt. 21:38-39).


Jesus asks the elders and the chief priests what the landowner should do, and they give the answer that we would all give, an answer that is consistent with our sense of how things work.


“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” (Matt. 21:41).


Right. That is how you handle usurpers. Treason is a capital crime, which deserves the death penalty.


But notice that Jesus never gives this answer. Instead, he cites Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes” (Matt. 21:42).


God sent his Son. When Jesus of Nazareth appeared, when the Messiah came to his own, the people of Israel, surely they should have seen that God was seeking them and risking his dearest for them. But he came unto his own, and his own received him not (John 1:11).


The Son found neither home nor welcome in the place which, after all, belongs to him, the true heir. Even as an infant, he was not received, but thrust out of the homes of men into the stables of barn animals, and banished with Joseph and Mary to the road of the refugee, about which we will learn at Christmas (H. Thielicke).  


But he did not, for all that, turn away from them. He offered himself to them again and again until it drove him ever deeper into a dark loneliness, reflected in his weeping over those he loved “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing!” And then the very ones he sought to love had him condemned to hang on a roman cross on a hill called Golgotha (H. Thielicke).  


Jesus was and is the stone the builders rejected. He is the Fernando the high school bullies drove away. But precisely in this he is the measure of the unfathomable love of the Father for us.


For the Father’s gift of the Son is the supreme manifestation of God’s love for the world, a love that triumphs over the forces of evil, a love that will not be thwarted by the tenacity of human resistance to it. The murder of his Son did not provoke in God a reaction of vengeful retribution; on the contrary, he sent the risen one back with the message: “Peace be with you.”


And so the stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone. Just as Fernando returned in our story, so too will Jesus. The quote from Psalm 118, as Jesus uses it here, comprehends both his crucifixion and resurrection, his humiliation and exaltation.


Rejection is not final. It is but a means, a stepping stone, to his rightful place.


The conclusion of our lesson this morning suggests that this will still not be acceptable to everyone. To be sure, the inconceivable possibility that there are those who will spurn this love remains. The cornerstone is either a source of blessing or judgment, depending on the person’s attitude to it. To those for whom it is the latter, it is the stone that will break them to pieces when they stumble over it. It is the stone that will crush them when it falls on them.


But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to become children of God (John 1:12). In the language of Matthew’s Gospel, these are those to whom the kingdom is given, and who produce its fruit.


And this possibility is just as inconceivable, when you consider that by nature we are no different than those tenants. Human beings do not naturally respond to God’s saving activity. Rather, it is in an encounter with this activity that human resistance and opposition disclose themselves most fully.  


As we have mentioned before, the parable holds a mirror before us. In its characters we see our own reflection. When the son, grown into a young man, comes to collect the produce, we too joined in the attack and killed the heir.


But let’s for a moment engage in a little thought experiment and extend the parable. Let’s imagine there is a reckoning. We and our fellow tenants are brought by the landowner before the judge. And we expect to receive a grim sentence for what we have done.


But to our shock, the landowner shows up in the court with his slain son. The son is very much alive, although the wounds inflicted on him are still visible.


Our shock has not worn off when the father does what is even more shocking. He removes from his briefcase a will. He then reads a portion to the effect that the vineyard is bequeathed, not only to the son, but to all the tenants of the vineyard.


The father has made them heirs, joint heirs with his son, so that they can return to the vineyard and cultivate it, so that it bears fruit, fruit that will last.


Does not this parable not capture the beautiful truth of the gospel? That through the gift of his Son, God made us, his enemies, his own children, lavishing on us all the blessings that belong to his Son, his rightful heir. We can only stand in awe of so great love story, the greatest love story there is. Amen. 


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