Jesus began to speak to them with parables. ‘Once upon a time,’ he began, ‘there was a man who planted a vineyard. He built a fence around it, dug out a wine-press, built a watchtower, and then let it out to tenant farmers. He himself went abroad. When the time came he sent a slave to the farmers to collect from them his portion of the vineyard’s produce. They seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. ‘So again he sent another slave to them. This one they beat about the head, and treated shamefully. He sent another, and they killed him. He sent several more; they beat some and killed others. ‘He had one more to send: his beloved son. He sent him to them last of all, thinking “They will respect my son”. ‘But the tenant farmers said to themselves, “This is the heir! Come on – let’s kill him, and we’ll get the inheritance!” So they seized him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. ‘So what will the vineyard owner do? He will come and destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others. 10Or haven’t you read the scripture which says,
There is the stone the builders refused;
now it’s in place at the top of the corner.
This happened the way the Lord planned it;
we were astonished to see it.’
They tried to find a way of arresting him, because they realized he had directed the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd. They left him and went away.
Mark Twain is reputed to have said that history never repeats itself, but that it often rhymes. In other words, although every event is unique, many events resemble others. They fall into a pattern. Sometimes, looking back along the line of unrepeatable events, one may detect a kind of poetry. A sequence that makes sense, that echoes and resonates down the years.
There are two senses in which the present passage, one of Jesus’ most famous stories, ‘rhymes’ in that sort of way. To begin with, rather obviously within the story itself, the point Jesus is making is that the vineyard owner has sent one servant after another to the vineyard, and each one has been treated – well, not exactly alike, but all alike with violence and contempt. This reaches a crescendo when the owner sends his own beloved son. This is how it works, Jesus is saying; listen for the rhyme, and see what’s going to happen next.
Behind this story itself, at the level of Jesus’ own ministry, we hear other echoes, other rhymes: of Jesus coming to look for figs on the fig tree and, finding none, pronouncing a solemn curse on the tree. It was, as we saw, a sign of his coming to Jerusalem looking for the fruit of obedience to God’s way and his purposes, and, finding none, acting out dramatically God’s judgment on the Temple itself. Now he tells a story of people coming to look for fruit, not from a fig tree but from a vineyard; and this time, instead of the plants being in trouble, it is the tenant farmers.
The second sense in which the present passage ‘rhymes’ is that Jesus is standing, and must have been conscious of standing, in a long line of prophets who have told similar stories, with similar intent. Chief among them is Isaiah, who in chapter 5 wrote a song about a vineyard – the vineyard which was Israel itself, the people who should have produced the fruit of justice and right living, but who instead produced only the wild grapes of wickedness and violence (Isaiah 5.7).
But there were other echoes, other ‘rhymes’, in the long Jewish tradition. Daniel interpreted the king’s dream of a statue made of four metals being overthrown by a ‘stone’ which smashed it on its feet and which, in turn became a kingdom (Daniel 2). Jesus speaks, at the end of his story, of the ‘stone’ that the builders refused; and, in Hebrew, the word ‘stone’ and the word ‘son’ are very similar, as by coincidence they are in English too. Take away the ‘t’ and the ‘e’ from ‘stone’, and you have ‘son’. Take away the e from eben, ‘stone’, in Hebrew, and you have ben, ‘son’. Here is the story, then, of the sequence of events leading up to the coming of the ‘son’.
Remember where all this is taking place, and why, and yet another ‘rhyme’ emerges. Jesus is still explaining why he has done what he has done in the Temple. The Temple will be destroyed, but his kingdom-work will go on and be vindicated by events. This time the echo is of Psalm 118.22–23, which speaks of a ‘stone’, lying perhaps in the builders’ yard, but of the wrong shape to fit anywhere in the wall. Only when the builders get to the very top, and look around for a stone which will do to finish off the top corner, will they realize that the stone they have ignored up to that point is the very one they now need. In the same way, Jesus is saying, he has come to Jerusalem with the message of God’s kingdom, but this message simply won’t fit into the ‘building’ of Judaism the way the present builders (the chief priests, Herod, the Pharisees) have been constructing it. They will realize too late that he belongs at the very top of the true building. But by then the vineyard owner will have come to ‘destroy those tenants, and give the vineyard to others’ (verse 9).
This story is as shocking today as it was to Jesus’ first hearers. That can’t be avoided. We are on a Lenten journey, after all, which we know will end at the foot of the cross; and the cross, as Paul said, is foolishness to pagans and a scandal to Jews. All those other sayings about selling everything to buy the one great pearl, or giving everything you’ve got to get the field with the buried treasure, come to mind. The story, in other words, ‘rhymes’ with so much else in Jesus’ teaching.
But what does it rhyme with in our own lives? Has God been sending one message after another to us, corporately or individually, which we’ve been steadfastly ignoring? Which prophetic words has our proud modern culture refused to hear, pouring scorn on the messengers and making fun of those who listen to them? Which voices have you done your best not to hear? Listen for the rhymes. When push comes to shove, are we going to celebrate Jesus’ enthronement at the top of the new ‘Temple’, or are we going to treat him as simply a misshapen piece of stone for which we can see no purpose?
Come to us, King Jesus, with your word of warning, and give us ears to hear and hearts to enthrone you as Lord.