“THE STONE THAT THE BUILDERS REJECTED
HAS BECOME THE CORNERSTONE!”
- George Campbell Morgan, a renowned English preacher and a Bible scholar, was one of 150 young men who sought entrance to the Wesleyan ministry in 1888. He easily passed the doctrinal examinations, but then had to face the trial sermon. In a cavernous auditorium that could seat more than 1,000 sat three ministers and 75 others who came to listen. When Morgan stepped into the pulpit, the vast room and the searching, critical eyes caught him up short. Two weeks later Morgan’s name appeared among the l05 REJECTED for the ministry that year. He wired to his father the one word, ‘Rejected,’ and sat down to write in his diary: ‘Very dark everything seems. Still, He knoweth best.’ Quickly came the reply from his dad: ‘Rejected on earth. Accepted in heaven.’ In later years, Morgan said: “God said to me, in the weeks of loneliness and darkness that followed, ‘I want you to cease making plans for yourself, and let Me plan your life.”
Rejection is rarely permanent, as Morgan went on to prove. Even in this life, circumstances change, and ultimately, there is no rejection of those accepted by Christ.
Today is the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time. Now, there are striking similarities between the First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew. They both focus on the same subject, viz. ‘the Lord’s Vineyard and the Vine’ in different ways and underline the necessity of bearing ‘good fruit.’ Failure to produce good fruits ultimately leads to ‘rejection.’ In the First Reading, we hear about ‘the Song of the Vineyard.’ In the song Isaiah describes God as the owner of a beautiful vineyard that has been carefully tended. The owner does everything possible to produce a healthy crop of grapes. But he winds up with sour wild grapes. The prophet warns the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah that they, the vine, will be abandoned (rejected) by God because of their injustice and non-observance of the Law. In the Gospel Reading we hear about ‘the Parable of the Wicked Tenants.’ Here too, the vineyard stands for God’s people but the criticism is directed at the tenants rather than the vineyard itself. It is not difficult to see that the owner of the vineyard is God. The tenants are of course those who exercise moral authority viz. the chief priests and the elders of the people. The owner first sends his servants, then finally his son to collect the harvest. Instead, the tenants seize, beat, stone and even kill them all. The obvious meaning of the parable is completed by the rejection of the tenants and the giving of the vineyard to those who are prepared to work in the vineyard to produce good fruit. The chief priests and the elders, those to whom the parable is told, fully understand that the parable is attacking them. The Second Reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is joyful in tone. It seems that the Christians of Philippi have produced fruits that correspond to the Gospel. St. Paul exhorts them to keep striving for all that is good and holy. In this way they need have no anxieties and the God of peace will be with them.
“THE SONG OF THE VINEYARD.”
The Prophet Isaiah, was a royal adviser in the southern Kingdom of Judah. During his ministry (740-701 BC) the northern Kingdom of Israel was conquered and dominated by the Assyrian Empire. While the northern kingdom fell, the southern kingdom, too, was in serious political, religious, and social decline. The fundamental issue is that both leaders and population were in denial of reality, injustices prevailed among them and they were unfaithful to the covenant with God. They embraced political and religious ideology, rather than the good sense of truthfulness and integrity. It is in this background that we hear about ‘the Song of the Vineyard,’ in the First Reading of today. The unit is a skillfully developed parable, reminiscent of popular Hebrew love poetry, but with a savage ending that forces the hearer to conclude that the nation is deserving of divine wrath. In the song Isaiah describes God as the owner of a beautiful vineyard that has been carefully laid out and cared for. The owner does everything possible to make his vineyard fertile and productive, but at the end he gets only sour wild grapes. The prophet warns the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah that they, the vine, will be abandoned (rejected) by God because of their injustice and non-observance of the Law. It is a parable of tragedy and the metaphor is announcing divine displeasure of the most serious sort. Isaiah is insinuating that the conquering army of the Assyrian Empire was God’s tool of punishment for the Jewish failure at fidelity to the covenant with God. Isaiah maintains the connection between the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, so that this tragic exhortation is relevant to and aimed at the southern kingdom of Judah, as well as to Israel.
“THE PARABLE OF THE WICKED TENANTS.”
In the Gospel Reading of today from St. Matthew, we hear about ‘the Parable of the Wicked Tenants,’ which also appears with some variations in other Synoptic Gospels that of St. Mark and St. Luke, and which is the third of the three consecutive parables about vineyards presented to us in the context of the Kingdom of God. St. Matthew inserts today’s story of the vineyard as second in another series of three consecutive parables called ‘the Parables of Rejection’ that details Jesus’ controversy with the chief priests and the elders of the people. All these three parables are primarily addressed to the Jewish authorities and are meant to express their deep hypocrisy and their ultimate refusal and rejection of Jesus as the Messiah and the message of his Gospel. As it appears in Matthew’s version, the story has become more of an allegory than a true parable. A parable normally presents one lesson and the details are not relevant; while, in an allegory, each detail of the story has a symbolic meaning. However, the Evangelist’s point here is a stern warning to his own community, the present tenants of the vineyard, not to fail in their responsibility to ‘yield a rich harvest.’ Also, the reminder that divine justice and judgment will ultimately prevail is a message for every generation of believers.
Let’s firstly set the Gospel parable within the context of its time. In those days, the landlords commonly lived far away from their land-holdings. It was not unusual for a rich man to plant such a vineyard and then leave it in the care of tenants for a fee or a percentage of the produce, while he pursued his business affairs. The trouble with this arrangement arose because the relationship between the landlords and their tenants often bordered on ruthless extortion. One can imagine how, with the passage of time, the landowner’s rights might be disputed. The tenants might well come to see the vineyard as theirs and the landowner would be forced to reassert his rights. Given such a lop-sided deal, it was understandable that the tenants behaved the way they did – killed the landowner’s agents and finally the heir to the estate.
Now, the same theme as in the First Reading is taken up in the Gospel Reading. Like God in the Prophet Isaiah’s ‘the Song of the Vineyard,’ St. Matthew’s landowner did the same to his vineyard. But instead of tending it himself, he leased it to some tenants and went on a journey. When harvest time came, he sent his servants to collect his due. But the tenants seized, beat and killed them. He sent more servants but they suffered the same fate. Finally, he sent his only son. When they saw him, they said to each other, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” And they did. Moreover, unlike in the First Reading, in the Gospel Reading the charge is leveled not against the failed produce, but the tenants, those temporarily in charge of the vineyard who failed to recognize the owner and his son. The chief priests and the elders, those to whom the parable is addressed, have no difficulty in recognizing the outrageous wickedness of the tenants towards the vineyard’s owner.
The interpretation of the parable may be done on two levels: First, and more obvious is that God is the landowner who planted the vineyard. He chose the people of Israel and made them tenants in His vineyard. But they disappointed their God. Throughout their history as God’s chosen people they have consistently produced the sour grapes of infidelity to their God and frequently killed the prophets sent to them to call them back to their allegiance. Now they have added to this list the refusal to hear the Word of God brought to them by Jesus. By hanging Jesus on the cross, by killing the Son, they think they have put paid to this inconvenient householder, this landlord, to God himself. Second, this obvious meaning of the parable is completed (concluded) by the giving of the vineyard to others who hear the Word and are prepared to work in the vineyard to produce good fruit. Jesus makes it clear that this is not an end to the matter. The message of the Gospel is for all times and applicable in every age. Hence, the less obvious message in this parable is – “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
BEARING ABUNDANT SPIRITUAL FRUITS:
In the Second Reading of today from his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul encourages the Christian community at Philippi to respond to God’s loving initiative by letting their faith in Christ bear abundant fruit in daily life. He advises them to strive towards whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and gracious. In a sense, this is the kind of ‘fruitfulness’ that Saint Paul wanted the Christian community to grow into. By instilling in them the necessity of prayer and the importance of virtues, he wants them to relish the peace of God, a fruit of the Spirit and a gift that surpasses human understanding. So, he tells them not to worry or be anxious about anything, but to always pray with gratitude and put all their worries and anxieties into the hands of God with confidence and conviction; then the God of peace will be with them. Prayer implies, in addition to gratitude, a perfect submission to the will of God. God is greater than all our troubles and can give us his peace, which is beyond anything we can come up with on our own. Still in view of letting the faithful experience the God of peace, St. Paul thus exhorts the community of believers to put into practice what they have learned and received, the words they have heard from him and the actions they have seen in him.
Today, we are God’s chosen people. We are the tenants in the vineyard. Now, God calls us to produce the fruits of the Kingdom of God that will endure. How do we see this call? Do we find ourselves specially privileged, by baptism, to be called to work in the Lord’s vineyard? How well, have we received the message of the Lord, when time and again we are invited to gather together to hear the Gospel and to make it part of our lives? Also, it is just as easy for us in these times to fail to recognize the voice of God in the messengers He sends us, just as the Jewish authorities of Jesus’ time failed to recognize the Word of God in him. Over the centuries many prophets in our Christian communities have been rejected, abused and even killed. And all these martyrs have one thing in common – they were killed not by pagans but by fellow-Christians, the tenants in the Lord’s vineyard. We can hardly feel superior to the people Jesus is criticizing in today’s Gospel.
Again, God is outrageously generous and gracious indeed. But aside from his generosity, another quality of God is revealed in the Gospel parable of today. God values faithful stewardship. Since stewardship is an exercise in responsibility, it follows that God puts premium on our sense of responsibility. We are responsible for our life and for everything else that the Father has entrusted to us in this life. To be responsible is to be accountable to somebody. The tenants in the Gospel did not want to make accounts with the land owner. They refused to be accountable. They had pretensions at ownership. They wanted to enjoy the bounty of the land without accountability and privileges without obligations.
Finally, today we are reminded again of what the Scripture says, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” The prophets and saints may go unheeded and God’s beloved Son may be rejected, but God has not lost control. Tenants may go on failing, but God does not depend on them. In the face of rejection and sin, he is free to provide other tenants who will produce good fruit. There is surely here an implicit warning for the new leaders of God’s people. Leadership must be about service and about nurturing God’s people. Christian history has seen its share of failures in moral leadership but it also has no shortage of courageous saints. Today therefore, let us all take a few moments to review our status before God, asking ourselves if we will inherit the Kingdom of God. May the grace of God be with each and every one of us as we assess our spiritual status in the eyes of God. And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.