Matthew is often themed the Gospel of judgment. Clergy types are compared to a brood of vipers. Unrepentant cities are banished to Hades. Stumbling disciples are sunk with millstones. Moneychangers are knocked over. Fig trees are cursed. Goats are separated from sheep.
And here in chapter 21, Jesus has already arrived in Jerusalem, announced the fall of Rome and anticipated his crucifixion. As one of his last stories, in response to the conspiring chief priests and legalistic Pharisees, Jesus warns the wicked tenets.
What is Jesus judging?
Matthew 21:33-46 “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 watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘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. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They 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.” 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’? Therefore 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
The wicked tenets forgot they were serving God and starting serving themselves.
The inability to be satisfied with a life of service in God’s garden.
The very best God offers us, the cornerstone, is who we treat the worst.
Oak Ridge Tennessee was an overnight boomtown, and people came from all over for the temporary work. With them, they brought hard hats, families and trailers. It was also where Fred Craddock served his first church, a white frame building near by that had been in ministry for 112 years. The church had beautifully decorated chimneys, kerosene lamps, and every pew was hand hewn from a giant poplar tree.
After worship one Sunday morning Fred asked the leaders to stay, saying, “Now we need to launch a calling campaign in all those trailer parks.” “I don’t think they’ll fit in here,” one member said. “They’re just here temporarily, just construction people.” “Well, we ought to invite them, make them feel at home,” Fred said. They argued about it until… one of them said, “I move that in order to be a member of this church, you must own property in this county.” Someone else said, “I second that.” It passed. Fred voted against it, but they reminded him that he was just a kid preacher and didn’t have a vote.
When Fred moved back to the same area years later, he took his wife to see the little church, because he had told her that painful story. There, back among the pines, was that same building shinning white. It was different. The parking lot was full- motorcycles and trucks and cars packed in there. And out front a great big sign: Barbecue, all you can eat. It’s a restaurant, so they went inside. The pews were against a wall, the organ pushed over into the corner. Fred said to Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be in here.”
Inventions come with patents; cars come with titles; homes come with deeds; creations come with copyrights; churches comes with trust clauses; memberships come with contracts. Notarized legal documents that seduce us into believing that it is ours for the taking, for the controlling, for the lording over.
The wicked tenants, then and now, inevitably turn from greed to violence, from violence to larceny, and from larceny to murder. Attempt to be a feudal ruler over a fiefdom, refuse to acknowledge that the acreage is not for sale, that God can’t be foreclosed upon, that no amount of sweat equity will ever flip the property.
Jesus is judging possession, the hostile occupancy of property solely for self-interest.
The Gospel truth is we’re just not ownership material. At most, we’re renters, borrowers, leasers. Scripture says the only thing we should own is our sin. So instead of confusing our role on the farm, the invitation of faith is to the spadework of the kingdom, to revel in being a hired hand in God’s vineyard of fruitfulness, to give our entire lives over to harvesting a crop on someone else’s behalf.
While judgment in Matthew is often interpreted as eternal punishment after the grave, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, the deeper meaning reveals a God who loves us most fully and finally today, who comes to us with haste in this life, desperate for us to know that time is ticking and that the landowner is on his way back to ask all of us one question, “How did you treat my Son?”