33 ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They 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.’
42 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”? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Every three years during the season of Fall, our Sunday morning gospel readings consist of a series of insightful, sometimes challenging, often violent, Parables from the gospel of Matthew. This Sunday is no exception.
Jesus has already entered Jerusalem for the final showdown in Matthew and has committed a revolutionary act—he has thrown out the corrupt officials who ran a racketeering scheme at the temple. This action caught the attention of the poor, who had been overcharged and swindled for years by these officials to complete their required religious observances. They seek out Jesus because they wonder if he is bringing lasting change. But this action also caught the attention of temple leaders and the Roman occupying force. His actions are seen as treasonous and unsanctioned.
So, we can imagine the scene taking place in today’s parable. Jesus has reentered the temple complex the next day. The corrupt officials who are buying and selling and exchanging money wonder what they should do. Everyday religious folks have gathered around him. And the religious elite, ruling families that have benefited from generations of scamming the poor, have pressed to the front of the crowd to question Jesus. All this while Roman soldiers look on. It’s a tense setup.
So Jesus tells another story, perhaps to defuse the situation, or maybe to pour gasoline on it. Unlike other parables where the meaning is ambiguous enough, Matthew’s Jesus leaves nothing to the imagination by the end of this one, suggesting that he sees this time as ripe for change.
In this story, a Vineyard owner creates an impressive Vineyard, leases it out to tenets, and goes on a journey. When harvest came due, the owner sent representatives back to collect the harvest, which was agreed to at the beginning of the partnership. But the tenets, wanting to keep the entire crop for themselves, beat, stone, and kill a series of representatives until the landowner decides to send his son, who he assumes the tenets will respect. But they don’t and kill him as well. Jesus then asks the crowd what the landowner should do when he returns.
“He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants that will give him the produce at harvest time.”
Turning to the religious elite, Jesus then says, “In this way, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to leaders that will produce a just harvest to God.” Jesus has just confronted the most powerful people in the land and told them that their reign is over.
Our scriptures report that they wanted to have Jesus arrested, but could not do so because he had the people on his side.
In many ways, this is one of Jesus’ saddest parables. In it, God is the creator of everything, and all of creation belongs to God. God then shares the work of creation with stewards; caretakers tasked with caring for this creation and ensuring that it produces things like justice, compassion, mercy, love, and right relationships. God trusted that these folks would be good stewards, that they would take care of one another and the land, but seeing the potential for profit, they misuse God’s creation, even resorting to violence to protect what they see is their property. This parable serves as an indictment on any leader that uses and abuses resources that harm people and abuse the land for profit. It also serves as a reminder for all of us that God calls us into this collaborative effort of co-creating a just and peaceful world. We can take up this work as good stewards of God’s creation in practical, down to earth sort of ways, like the work that takes place in a vineyard. Checking in on folks, ensuring that our neighbors have enough to eat, keeping one another safe during this pandemic, and being fully present in community life are tangible, hands-in-the-dirt actions that good stewards do.
But the warning of our parable is also difficult. God is willing to move on when the stewards cannot be rehabilitated. God’s love for creation, all of us creatures, and this big beautiful planet, is too dear to God to be mismanaged for long. When we fail to address income inequality, accessibility issues, racial injustice, coercive state violence, and corrupt public officials, God will move on. When we actively work against green energies, degrade farmlands and waterways, and trash our world’s oceans, because it is convenient or cheaper, God promises to find another solution, and we might not be a part of it.
This troubling parable reminds all of us that we are stewards of God’s creation and that God expects good things from this creation. It calls on us to keep high standards in our lives, our faith communities, and our societies, standards of love and justice, compassion and mercy, hospitality and inclusion, and hope and faith. It calls us to consider how our words and actions affect something bigger than ourselves, this wonderful, messy, sometimes confusing, always surprising cosmos. We get to play in it. We get to tend some corner of it. We get to share in the life of a creating God.
May we celebrate how cool it is to be stewards of God’s creation. May we also take this role seriously, caring for one another, and caring for the spaces around us. For the glory of God, for ourselves, and for future generations of stewards. Amen.