Jesus goes to the vineyard again in his parable this week.  Jesus describes a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.  This landowner puts some tenants in charge of the vineyard.  At some point, this landowner decides it is time to collect his produce.  He sends two different envoys of servants, with each envoy having members beaten, killed, or stoned by the tenants who wish to keep the harvest for themselves.  The landowner finally decides to send his son to collect the harvest, thinking that perhaps the tenants will respect his son more than his servants.  Just the opposite happens.  The tenants recognize the son as the heir of the landowner, and so they kill him to try to get his inheritance.

What is at first most surprising to me about this parable is the seemingly faulty logic on the part of the landowner.  Take the landowner for instance.  He has sent two different sets of servants to collect his harvest, and in case they have been viciously brutalized.  Why would the landowner then potentially subject his son to the same treatment?  Why send two by all appearances peaceful envoys of servants and finally send your son?  Why not send some armed thugs to take care of business?  What is this landowner up to?

This vineyard is clearly a favorite image of Jesus, considering this is the third week we have run into a vineyard parable.  However, Jesus did not just use the image because it would have been a familiar landscape to his listeners.  The vineyard also would have been a familiar scriptural theme.  In this next parable, this scriptural theme comes most clearly into focus.  By using the image of the vineyard, Jesus is recalling imagery from the fifth chapter of Isaiah[1]:

1Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

People as educated as the chief priests and elders would have picked up on this vineyard imagery quickly.  The image is an image of judgment.  Notice the way imagery of planting, fencing in, digging a wine press, and building a watchtower resonate with what Jesus says.  In Isaiah’s context, the failure of Judah the vineyard to produce good grapes results in Assyria becoming an instrument of God’s judgment as they invade and exile the Judean elite. Yet, as Jesus re-presents this imagery, he does something new with it.  Jesus “intensifies the meaning…by combining it with the traditional Jewish motif of the rejection of the prophets.”[2]

The envoys of servants Jesus describes represent the prophets.  And what were the prophets concerned with?  Most often the prophets are concerned justice for the oppressed.  We often think of prophets as something like fortune-tellers predicting the future, but if you read through the words of the prophets, they routinely speak truth to power.  They routinely draw attention to the failures of those in power to care for the most vulnerable among them, the poor, the hungry, the widows, and the orphans.  The judgment that the prophet Isaiah speaks comes as a result of this kind of failure:

7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!

The history Jesus rehearses in this parable is the history of God sending prophet after prophet after prophet to Israel.  These prophets tried to remind God’s people of who they were called to be, but those in power wanted to maintain their power, so the prophets were routinely rejected and even killed, or as Jesus puts in the parable, they “beat one, killed, one, and stoned another.”  Not only has the vineyard yielded wild grapes, but those who have come to help restore proper order to the vineyard, those who have spoken for justice for the oppressed have been rejected.

Jesus’ description of the landowner sending his very own son is then a foreshadowing of events to come.  Jesus is God’s decisive answer to our tendency to yield wild grapes.  Yet, here Jesus is already anticipating his own rejection, just as those who God sent before him.  He has come into town on the back of a donkey to much acclaim, yet even those who shouted, “Hosanna!” will soon by crying out, “Crucify him!”  In these verses Jesus is part of a long pattern of those sent by God to speak on behalf of those who could speak for themselves.  He is part of a long pattern of those who challenged those in power because of their failure to care for the least of these.  And, as we know, he will also be part of a long pattern of those who will be rejected.

When Jesus has finished the parable, he asks the elders and priests what they think will happen to the wicked tenants of that vineyard.  They reply, “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.”  These words, like some of the words we heard last week often give rise to conversation about the Church replacing Israel, that the vineyard has been turned over to the Church.  This again, could not be farther from the truth.

What is important to remember here is that the words we just heard were spoken not by Jesus, but by the chief priests and elders themselves.

They are the ones here who speak of death.  They are the ones who suggest that the vineyard will be taken away.  They are the ones who are suggesting that the answer to this problem is violence.  Yet, if we look at the pattern established in the parable, violence is not the order of the day.  God sends prophet after prophet, and the prophets are the ones who suffer violence.  Jesus is the one who will suffer violence.  Those in power are the ones who will move first towards violence as a solution.  The landowner seems only too ready to ask again and again for the harvest.

Jesus doesn’t say to chief priest and elders, “Yes, you are correct.”  Rather, he answers them with more scripture, this time from a Psalm:  “The stone that the builders rejected/has become the cornerstone;/his was the Lord’s doing,/and it is amazing in our eyes!” (Psalm 118:22-23)  Jesus does end up saying that this vineyard will be taken away and given to those who will care for it properly, but this is not about the vineyard being taken from Israel and being given to the Church.  As we pointed out last week, just because Jesus says the tax collectors and the prostitutes will go into the kingdom of God ahead of chief priests and elders, it doesn’t mean that the latter won’t go in.  This is true again this morning.  This doesn’t mean the complete, utter, and final rejection because Paul makes it clear that the covenant with Israel still stands.  Rather, this scripture is about rejection and vindication.  This scripture is about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.  This is about Jesus’ rejection and coming vindication.  This is about restoration.

The image of the stone looks at first like a violent image.  Yet, if we go back to Isaiah, and we look on to chapter 8, we see God speaking about God’s self as a stone, a stumbling block (Isaiah 8:14).[3]  The LORD becomes the stumbling block for the people, and Assyria becomes God’s instrument of judgment in exiling Israel.  Listen to the words of judgment Isaiah speaks in chapter eight:

The Lord spoke to me again: 6Because this people has refused the waters of Shiloah that flow gently, and melt in fear before* Rezin and the son of Remaliah; 7therefore, the Lord is bringing up against it the mighty flood waters of the River, the king of Assyria and all his glory; it will rise above all its channels and overflow all its banks; 8it will sweep on into Judah as a flood, and, pouring over, it will reach up to the neck; and its outspread wings will fill the breadth of your land, O Immanuel.

9 Band together, you peoples, and be dismayed;
listen, all you far countries;
gird yourselves and be dismayed;
gird yourselves and be dismayed!
10 Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught;
speak a word, but it will not stand,
for God is with us.

Isaiah speaks of the coming of Assyria.  God speaks soon of God’s self as a stumbling block.  Jesus speaks of himself as this stone that will crush.  When we hear this, it feels like God is just about to smite us.  God is gonna get us!  God is gonna punish us and take the vineyard away!  Yet, what God is saying through Isaiah, what Jesus is saying here is that this stone, though it is an instrument of judgment, it is an instrument primarily to turn our hearts.  Its purpose is to reform us into a different kind of people.  Let’s be clear.  God does not stop being God for Israel, even when the Assyrians invade.  Even when they are exiled, God is still the God of Israel.  Israel understood the exile as God’s judgment on them to bring them back into relationship with God.  Notice the last verse of the passage I just read, “Take counsel together, but it shall be brought to naught;/speak a word, but it will not stand,/for God is with us.

The reason that injustice cannot stand, the reason that the hungry, the poor, the widow and the orphan must not be oppressed is not because God is absent, but it comes by virtue of the fact that God is truly with us.  That kind of injustice cannot stand in God’s presence.  This stone that will crush, does not crush us into bits that can’t be put back together.  Rather, it crushes us, so that we can be put back together into a different kind of people.  So that we can be made into a mosaic that looks like the body of Christ.  Something beautiful comes out of the bits that are left.  This kind of injustice cannot stand in God’s presence.  Because God is with us, we are move towards being instruments of change that challenge the brokenness we see in our society.

We are being reformed.  We United Methodists like to call this process sanctification.  All the stuff in us that is keeping us from God and from one another is being cleaned out by the Holy Spirit.  We are being reformed into people who are people of justice.

Notice what Jesus says  “It will be given to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.”  What are the fruits of the kingdom?  There are many, but it is clear that they included justice for the oppressed.  Right worship of God and not our idols.  The stone crushes us to make it possible for us to be who we are supposed to be.  We don’t really talk like this much anymore, but is at least one common way that we still say things like this.  Have you ever heard someone ask God to “break our hearts” for something?

We sang “Here I am Lord” last week, where we sing about God breaking our “hearts of stone,” and giving us “hearts for love alone.”  The stone that makes us stumble, and even crushes us, breaks our heart.  It breaks our heart for the people with whom we are supposed to be in love.  Jesus is not just a prophet who speaks of the kingdom, but he is himself the kingdom.  Wherever he is, the kingdom is located there.  And he located himself with those tax collectors and those prostitutes and those widows and those orphans.  Jesus is breaking our hearts for them.

As we gather together this day on World Communion Sunday, as we think of all those around the world who celebrate at the Lord’s table with us this day, the way that we are connected to one another, our hearts are broken for the oppressed, precisely because God is with us in this meal.  Injustice cannot stand in our midst because God is with us! Thanks be to God!

[1] Susan Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, Year A, vol. 4, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011), p. 143.

[2] Eastman, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting, p. 143.

[3] Eastman, Feasting, p. 143.