I'm blogging with the lectionary this year, and this week's reading comes from 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.
So Jesus has been busy making what we Southerners like to call a “big-ole-scene” in Jerusalem.
First, he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, a dramatic statement with clear Messianic overtones that Matthew says put “the whole city into turmoil.” Then he went and overturned a bunch of tables in the temple, before welcoming streams of poor and sick people to replace the moneychangers that had been dismissed. Later, he cursed an unsuspecting fig tree, meant to represent the fruitlessness of those who rejected his message, before returning to the temple to engage in a heated debate with the religious leaders there.
It had been a very weird 24 hours.
Turns out the religious leaders do not share Jesus’ flair for the dramatic, and so they challenge him, asking who gave him the authority to do these things. Jesus cites John the Baptist and his ragamuffin coalition of tax collectors and prostitutes, the poor and the uneducated, leprosy patients, foreigners, women and slaves—not exactly a prestigious endorsement, but a popular one among the people. Then Jesus tells them this parable about a landowner and his vineyard, one these experts in Scripture would have immediately recognized as an allusion to Isaiah 5—the Song of the Vineyard.
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit…
Last week we talked about how easy it is to miss God when God defies our preferred categories. But the parable for this week invites us to take it a step further and confront the fact that sometimes we don’t simply miss God; sometimes we outright reject God. Sometimes we cast God out.
The first slaves to arrive at the vineyard in Jesus’ story likely represent the prophets of old who were rejected, sometimes violently, by the people of Israel. The second round may represent a prophet like John the Baptist, who also met a grisly fate. The son of the vineyard owner represents Jesus of course, who himself is about to be crucified—the ultimate reject. But according to Jesus, “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone…The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”
Jesus is building an entire kingdom out of rejects. It’s a kingdom of prophets, outcasts and misfits, a kingdom of table-tuners and donkey-riders. He himself is the cornerstone, the foundation, because he himself was rejected.
Now, we can look to this passage as comfort for all the times we’ve felt rejected—by our community, by our loved ones, by our church—but I can’t get through this one without a deep, uncomfortable sense of conviction. Sometimes a better question than, how have I been rejected? is, who am I rejecting?
And let’s face it. We tend to reject our prophets.
Huss. Hutchinson. MLK.*
These days the word “prophetic” gets tossed around a lot, and while it’s nice to see the meaning recovered from the realm of fortune-telling back to the realm of truth-telling, we have to be careful about assigning the “prophetic” label to every blog post, sermon, or Facebook status we agree with. As Parker Palmer so eloquently reminded us in a “memo to himself” this week:
"Avoid the bad habit of domesticating the prophet of your choice, turning him into a cheerleader for your way of thinking and way of life. Remember that all the great prophets were courageous and outrageous folks who railed against the powers-that-be, challenged self-satisfied piosity, threatened the prevailing social order, and would find you falling short in some significant ways."
When people tell me my work is “prophetic,” I can’t help but think to myself: Nope. I’m WAY too comfortable to be a prophet.
Prophets disrupt. Prophets offend. Prophets make “big-ole-scenes” and push the edge of the envelope. Prophets are almost always rejected—by conservatives and liberals, by the pious and the rebellious, by their faithful critics and by the ones who once followed them. Prophets get themselves killed.
So when you’re wondering to yourself who the modern-day prophets might be, the question isn’t, Who am I following? the question is, Who am I rejecting?
I don’t know about you, but I've made a habit out of rejecting the people who challenge my privilege, the people who strike me as over-the-top or too theatric, the people who don't share my theological or political convictions but nevertheless produce the fruit of the spirit in their lives, the people whose Kingdom work is quiet and slow and a walking indictment of my own impatient lust for gratification, popularity, and power.
Might God be working through these folks? Might they be critical stones in this Kingdom of rejects God is building? Might I be wise to shut up and listen before I attempt to cast them out of the vineyard?
These are uncomfortable questions posed by an uncomfortable Messiah.
…Which I suppose means they are a start.
*As Tavis Smiley reports in his new book on Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader faced a major decline in popularity during his last few years, as many thought his social justice agenda too radical.