The Fifth Sunday in Lent
17 March 2013
A Sermon Preached by The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner, Curate
Before we enter today’s Gospel text and explore its shadowy corners, I want to draw attention to one of its dynamic images: “the stone rejected by the builders that became the cornerstone.” For the moment, it is not the image of the cornerstone itself that is quite so important as the location in the Story of Redemption, as we trace it to its source—Psalm 118. That psalm in particular was used in Israel’s earlier times for the annual rite of the re-enthronement of the king, depicting a king rejected and then vindicated. But the greater message of the psalm resounds in its opening and closing words: “O, give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” His steadfast love endures forever is the subject of this psalm, explored by the psalmist in various ways; it was also the hope of Israel in its darkest days.
The richly allusive parable of the Vineyard and the Tenants, our Gospel text today, takes us very near to the end of Jesus’ fateful journey to Jerusalem. It opens a window onto the sad scene that has been developing in Luke’s Gospel. The meaning of the scene is best understood if we take in a much larger section of Luke all in a single reading. A rather long section from chapter 12 is dominated by parables that, in a variety of ways, describe God’s kingdom and its salvation and responsibilities. And our text today is one of those parables, the last major one in Luke’s Gospel. On the one hand, it is climactic in a way that is profoundly sad. To understand the sadness really does require that longer reading, for in this text on its own, and in some of the others, Jesus can be mistaken for a sort of Clint Eastwood type, dispensing tough love. But the sorrowful soul of this parable is revealed, before it begins, at the end of chapter 19, as Jesus is drawing near the city. As we will remember together next week, the people, crying out words also taken from Ps 118, have just hailed Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah-king, going up to Jerusalem to claim what is rightly his, only to be met by the religious leaders of Israel who dispute this claim, demanding that Jesus silence this blasphemous crowd. Luke tells us that as Jesus drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, as he foresaw its destruction. And he weeps because, as he says, “you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Jesus’ lament for the city is a lament for the stalled religion, emptied of justice, and distant from God, as symbolized by the blind religious establishment and a corrupt pretender on the throne (a king in collusion with Rome)—a sad situation that recurred throughout Israel’s history made desperately sad now by the covenant people’s refusal to receive the Royal Messiah, by their rejection of God himself who was finally visiting his people to save them. And yet, his steadfast love endures forever.
Our parable is a summation, and it is worth noting that it is told—to the common people who are gathered in the temple to hear his teaching—as the final response to those keepers of the Jewish faith, the chief priests, the Torah theologians, and the elders of the people, who have been gathering evidence from Galilee to Jerusalem to convict Jesus of blasphemy; what they did not know is that they themselves were in fact on trial. And with this parable, the prosecution will rest. In it, Jesus encapsulates the entire roller-coaster history of Israel. It is a story of Israel’s response to God, to the God who had formed this people to bless them, made a covenant with them that also entailed a faithful response on the part of the people. It begins with a gift, the gift of calling and identity as the people of God, and with the gift went service to God, described in this parable as a stewardship, a responsibility. It continues with the failure to understand that gift, and a refusal to keep the agreement. The people listening to Jesus, as well as their religious leadership, could not miss these connections. And they also knew that this was not the first time such a parable had been used to describe God’s rebellious people. Listen to these words from Isaiah:
5.1 Let 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 watchtower 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.
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; (he expected) righteousness, but heard a cry!
In Isaiah, the song of the failed vineyard preceded the invasion of Israel and the nation’s deportation into exile. History, the turbulent history of God’s people, repeats itself, though in escalated fashion, as Jesus modifies this story. He fits it to the unthinkable rejection of the Messiah of God. Three times the Vineyard owner sends a servant to remind the farmers of their duty. Each time they reject the Owner’s claim, and with increasing violence, they send those servants away beaten, bleeding and empty-handed. All who hear this understand that those servants are the prophets, many of whom met their death in, of all places, the holy city of Jerusalem. The rejection and murder of the Owner’s son is a new wrinkle, but by now the allusion to Jesus and to the rejection of Jesus by the religious authorities is clear enough. And with Isaiah’s vineyard song echoing in Jesus’ retelling, they also know the destruction of Jerusalem hangs in the balance, and the horror of this specter in the minds of the people—commoners and leaders alike—elicits the shocked response: “God forbid!” Already under Roman rule, this image of destruction is the deepest darkness the people can imagine. And yet, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
And it is this promise that I would draw out of the “cornerstone” imagery so that we might engage the sadness and tragedy that will deepen our understanding of Easter. In this statement, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” Jesus teases his listeners, hinting that his rejection is not the end, shining a ray of hope for those who will see it. And while the parable may have been the death knell for the city and what it represented, within it and all around it are those paradoxical glimpses of divine mercy that confirm this is not the end. The end of this story, which is really a new beginning, comes a little later in Luke as Jesus is nailed to the cross and yet somehow says, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And within the parable itself, it is not the end of the parable that attracts me so much as the beginning and middle—the gift of God and the divine love, more relentless than human stubbornness, that ceaselessly pursues, not once, not twice, not three times, but by sending his son, God’s love pursues us forever, giving us opportunity after opportunity to receive and embrace the gift. His steadfast love endures forever!
Jesus has cleverly devised a parable that recalls Israel’s best and worst moments, and he’s written himself into that story. He has also surrounded that sadness of his impending suffering with hope in the steadfast, never-ending love of God. To be reminded of God’s unfailing love, his relentless pursuit of us, is one thing; it is quite another to take hold and cling to this promise in our own times of darkness. Lent, and the Gospel we read in Lent, does remind us that dark places do exist; but in surprising ways we are also reminded that God is in the dark places; in Christ the cornerstone we have been forgiven; there is ahead for us, just as for Paul, the goal of the upward call of God. But in the meantime, the in-between time, while we wait and live, we are not alone. Let is remind one another constantly: His steadfast love endures forever! Amen.
© 2013 The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner