Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 8, 2023
Matthew 21:33-46 Commentary
If we thought the last parable was a pointed commentary, this one is sure to make us a little squirmy. Continuing to publicly address the leaders of the temple, Jesus builds his case about the disobedience and rejection he sees from those who ought to know better. Then, he makes a biting prophecy about his future judgment on them.
Jesus begins his story by setting the scene; there is a very good landowner. As the Textual Point below explains further, this is a man who has taken care to provide for whatever might be needed by those who will live and work on his property. Far from a dodgy landlord, he has made his property worth anyone’s rent check, and he can leave the country knowing that he has done so with integrity.
But it looks like he should have done some reference checking on his tenants. For when the time comes for payment through the harvested crop, the tenants prove their greedy character by acting wretchedly towards the landowner’s servants who have been sent to collect. The tenants act like an organized crime gang, killing the messengers, disfiguring them, and beating them so as to send their message to the landowner: they aren’t paying up.
And yet, the landowner persists in the rightful confrontation, sending more servants who are treated the same. Finally, the landowner resorts to sending his son, believing that the tenants will not cross that cultural taboo and respect a member of the family. Tragically, it is not so; the tenants’ greed blinds them to what is right and all they see when the son comes is an opportunity to wipe out any future claims on the land which is not theirs. They kill the son just as they did the previous servant-messengers.
Having told his story, Jesus asks the leaders of the temple to weigh in on what’s right. Given the customs and values of the time, what will this landowner do? “Destroy and replace them!” the leaders agree, unknowingly condemning themselves. See, they’ve gotten just as caught up in this dramatic story as we have. They have already forgotten that they stand condemned for disobedience by the parable of the two sons. Now they are getting a picture of how thorough God views their corruption.
Moving away from the imagery of the parable, Jesus turns to the biblical imagery of stone masonry. Like the tenants rejecting the landowner’s messengers, the temple leaders have rejected the “stones” given to them by God for the proper care and leadership of God’s people (i.e., according to God’s will and wisdom). This was true of the message from the prophets—including the leaders’ contemporary, John the Baptist. And now, Jesus the Son has been sent and they are rejecting him as well.
It’s disastrous. Stumbling, hitting up against of God’s messengers, can lead us to repentance, but we don’t always repent, do we? No, sometimes we double down and lean more heavily into our sin habits, like the tenants did with each new round of messengers from the landowner. Jesus says this way of being will end in our destruction: we will be broken to pieces by “a shattering fall today and a pulverizing judgement tomorrow.” (Dale Bruner)
When people watch God rectify this situation, by establishing his cornerstone, the scripture says that they are amazed by how he does it. Are they amazed in the sense of fear and trembling? Are they in awe and wonder? One thing’s for sure: they are amazed because it is something that human hands and minds cannot do.
How does our good and providential God do this? Like the landowner, God has given us all that we need to live our calling as God’s people, and God sends messengers like prophets, Jesus the Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The produce that our landowning God seeks from us is the fruit of our obedience, the fruit of God’s very Spirit. And Jesus is the cornerstone on which the new life, identity, and community will be established.
Jesus cryptically yet boldly tells the temple leaders that their time is up; the system they are running is coming down and a new way of being the people of God is being established. (In verses 45 and 46 Matthew gives us narrative insight into the fact that the leaders figured out what Jesus was telling them but they couldn’t figure out what to do about in that moment because the crowds were on Jesus’s side.) Some exegetes wonder if we should read Jesus’s promise to destroy the temple and raise it in three days to be related to this parable. Is it another instance by which Jesus dismantles the old order and welcomes the misfits and marginalized because they bear the fruit of faith more than the insiders and powerbrokers do?
Through the parable of the two sons, Jesus told the leaders that they could follow the known sinners into the kingdom if they wanted to; the opportunity and invitation to repent and believe and living according to the knowledge of the wisdom of God was right there for them. Now he warns them what will happen if they do not: rejecting the authority of heaven will lead to a mutual rejection that ends in destruction.
What messages from God are we rejecting? What parts of Scripture are we trying to work around, explain away, or eisegete to palatability? Are there some calls to obedience that seem too costly to our greedy hearts? Are we displaying the fruit of the kingdom? Have we built our lives, individually and communities of faith, upon the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ or on a system or mindset that lets us feel like we’re the authorities? Who is producing the fruit of the kingdom, and how might we learn from them—even if they are the people we would least expect?
Verse 33 is verb heavy—there are eight in total. One introduces the parable and the rest are about the landowner. But notice how much detail is given about this landowner’s set up work: he is a good landowner, providing a vineyard already planted, a fence to protect it from the animals, a wine press dug to process it, and a watchtower to protect it from human threats. Having half the verbs of these opening sentences emphasize the providential care of the landowner tells us who is good in this story rather quickly.
Demolition of Residential Schools throughout Canada mark a reckoning of justice similar to what Jesus describes here. Often run by religious groups, the razing of these institutions represents God taking away from those who claim to “know best” but embody the antithesis of Christ’s ways and giving it to those who produce fruit. Survivors and indigenous communities decide what will go on the former property, often choosing memorials. Often, like in the case of Lower Post, BC, as the school comes down a community center is erected in another part of town. It feels symbolic: a new gathering space, like a new cornerstone. The pattern is eschatological.
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