Proper 22a – Sunday 2nd October 2011
Matthew 21: 33-46
The Story of the Greedy Farmhands
“Here’s another story. Listen closely. There was once a man, a wealthy farmer, who planted a vineyard. He fenced it, dug a winepress, put up a watchtower, then turned it over to the farmhands and went off on a trip. When it was time to harvest the grapes, he sent his servants back to collect his profits.
“The farmhands grabbed the first servant and beat him up. The next one they murdered. They threw stones at the third but he got away. The owner tried again, sending more servants. They got the same treatment. The owner was at the end of his rope. He decided to send his son. ‘Surely,’ he thought, ‘they will respect my son.’
“But when the farmhands saw the son arrive, they rubbed their hands in greed. ‘This is the heir! Let’s kill him and have it all for ourselves.’ They grabbed him, threw him out, and killed him.
“Now, when the owner of the vineyard arrives home from his trip, what do you think he will do to the farmhands?”
“He’ll kill them—a rotten bunch, and good riddance,” they answered. “Then he’ll assign the vineyard to farmhands who will hand over the profits when it’s time.”
Jesus said, “Right—and you can read it for yourselves in your Bibles:
The stone the masons threw out is now the cornerstone. This is God’s work; we rub our eyes, we can hardly believe it!
“This is the way it is with you. God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life. Whoever stumbles on this Stone gets shattered; whoever the Stone falls on gets smashed.”
When the religious leaders heard this story, they knew it was aimed at them. They wanted to arrest Jesus and put him in jail, but, intimidated by public opinion, they held back. Most people held him to be a prophet of God.
It’s not often I put the full Bible Reading at the beginning of my blog – but there, I’ve done it.
There are two reasons I put the full text there. Two reasons that come alive in Eugene Peterson’s Message Version of the Bible.
The first of the two reasons is the quote from Psalm 118 that Matthew uses: “The stone the masons threw out is now the cornerstone.” This is a very familiar quote with a simple analogy to Jesus being rejected by the Jewish people – principally the rulers and authorities. But it would be incomplete without the following sentence: “This is God’s work; we rub our eyes, we can hardly believe it!”
For me, the expression of that sentence perfectly sums up the ambiguity of that phrase. What is God’s work? That the foundation is God’s inspired? That the stone was rejected in the first place? That there needs to be rejection, suffering, hurt and denial? This story is not a simplicity tale or a morality tale. It gets to the very heart of the human face of God breaking out into our world. No matter how God could have chosen to interact with our world we still would have hurt him, rejected him, rebelled against him. The message that Matthew keeps bringing to us through the wonderful parables of Jesus is that we have a merciful God. Without the grace of God there would be no hope for any of us, and we have to keep letting that grace work in our hearts and lives.
And that leads me on the second reason for the text appearing in my blog as it does: “This is the way it is with you. God’s kingdom will be taken back from you and handed over to a people who will live out a kingdom life.” There is a staggering concept here – we have God’s kingdom in our hands. We have??? We have!!!
So when did we get it? Who thought we’d be strong enough, wise enough to have this responsibility? Well, God did, the answer obviously is. And he gave us that responsibility the moment we put our trust in him, the moment we claimed him to be our Lord and Saviour. He’s not waiting for us to get to a certain level. He’s not waiting for us to pass an exam. He’s not waiting for us to pass our 21st birthdays. The moment we truly believe, the moment we follow, the moment we become his disciples the kingdom is in our hands. And like the parable of the talents, we better start doing something with God’s kingdom, or it will be taken from us and given to people who will bring glory to God.
What I’ve so enjoyed about this series from Matthew’s gospel in recent weeks is that the message is for me. Like the Parable of the Good Samaritan, we often think we’re the Good Samaritan and that it’s others who pass by on the other side. We identify with the characters in the stories outlined through the parable, and more often than not we identify with the good guys. And because we identify with the good guys there’s a real possibility we will not hear the message God is bringing to us.
These parables were passed on by Matthew, Mark and Luke because they are for us – we are the ones with God’s kingdom in our hands and we need to do something about it. So these parables of mercy, compassion, grace, goodness, faithfulness and love are directed at us – as Jesus famously said in Matthew 13 – “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” A phrase repeated by St John the Divine in the book of Revelation – “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.”
Are we listening? More importantly, are we doing something? This kingdom life is what we’re all about. Let’s tend and water and nurture, and give the glory to God in a wonderful harvest of lives of love.