Matthew 21:33-end Philippians 3:4b-14
17th Sunday after Trinity
In the early months of lockdown, many people began to do jobs around the house and garden. DIY became ever more popular: finally redecorating the spare bedroom and turn it into a den or an office; doing up the kitchen or bathroom; and digging vegetable plots – with great results in the glorious weather of this year’s summer! Others turned to baking; so much so, that very soon there were no eggs to be had at the supermarket, nor any flour! (What the shortage of loo rolls was all about, I shall not dig into for now…)
But, whether you like baking or building, one thing you need to know about these activities, is that for a good result, you need to follow certain guidelines. If a recipe for carrot cake states that it needs carrots, and you leave them out, or put in aubergines instead, a disappointing result will be hardly surprising. Or, if you decide not to use a plumb line when building a brick wall, you should not complain if it turns out less than straight, or any other example that’s equally ridiculous.
Anybody who has ever been involved in building, knows that a solid build needs a firm foundation and the right design, as well as suitable building blocks. And every baker worth their oven, understands the importance of following a recipe and finding the right ingredients. So, what’s all that got to do with the Bible message for today?
Well, there is a certain sequence indicated in the parable that Jesus told, that reflects the history of Israel, and what is about to happen in the near future. It’s about cause and effect, or ‘recipe and result’.
In order to understand it, we need to find the background of the story which is in Daniel 2, where the king asks Daniel to interpret his dream. In this dream, he saw a large statue: its head made of gold, its chest and arms of silver, its middle and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, and its feet of a mixture of iron and clay. Then a big stone came and smashed the feet of iron and clay; and the whole statue crashed down into a million pieces. But the stone itself became a great mountain, filling the whole earth. The interpretation of this dream was that the different parts of the statue represented different kingdoms, one after another, and the last one being destroyed by the stone. The interpretation would have been quite clear to Jesus’ listeners: the kingdoms of the world – Babylon, Persia, Rome – had been going on until then, with perhaps the shady alliance between Herod and the chief priests coming last. And now the Stone – the Messiah – had swept them away and would begin a new kingdom, quite unlike any that came before. This Stone, the Son, whom the builders rejected, is now the cornerstone, the one on top, where it alone would fit, at the place of the highest honour. And on this Stone, anything that is against God’s plan will be crushed. He is God’s Anointed (what Messiah means) and will bring in the kingdom of God that will make the kingdoms of the world shake and fall.
The parable, then, is an allegory, in which the vineyard is Israel; the vineyard owner is God; the farmers are the religious leaders; the slaves or servants are the prophets, ending with John the Baptist; and the son is of course Jesus himself. Jesus is telling this parable quoting from Psalm 118 and Daniel 2, interpreting his own story, and becoming the stone which the builders rejected.
Jesus has come to confront the tenant farmers at last, calling for repentance, and for them to be filled with the light of God for the sake of the world. Alas, the Stone is to be rejected, as the religious leaders will refuse to listen and will end up killing the Son. It’s an uneasy story to engage with, of pain and power, and yet it is one that we need to hear, so that we can learn how to respond to God’s word of love in the face of today’s challenges. In his parables, Jesus uses images of everyday activities to bring home the truth. For us, the days of excessive baking and building may have already gone, and of course, the pandemic is not just about a shortage of flour and loo rolls, although, no doubt, it’ll be part of our collective memory of this time. It may all be part of God building his kingdom. So let’s honour the Son, who is the top cornerstone and who is holding us all together. Amen.