Isaiah and Jesus both tell us stories about vineyards. In both lessons, the vineyard is a metaphor for the community of love and justice God yearns to see established among us. But these vineyards produce the opposite—they keep producing injustice and violence. God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed.” They even kill off the very people who would try to set things right.
Isaiah saw this happening in his own time; Jesus saw the same thing happening in his time; and every generation since, down to ours, has seen this happening over and over. God draws us into a community of love and justice, and sooner or later the community finds ways to be one of hatred and injustice.
Jesus’ listeners recognize that a community that keeps behaving this way needs to be replaced by the kind of community God wants. They picture God showing up, punishing the wrongdoers and handing everything over to somebody else. But notice, it’s Jesus’ listeners, not Jesus, who picture God that way.
Jesus works with that picture for a moment, but he offers another way to imagine the consequences. He says that an unjust, hateful community will actually destroy itself through its own rejection of love and justice. The community of love and justice it rejects will become the “chief cornerstone” on which the hateful community falls and is shattered.
Matthew’s community hears this as a judgment against the Jerusalem establishment, a few Jewish leaders who held onto power by collaborating with the Roman government. His community has just heard about the Romans destroying the temple, and they had also been smarting with resentment at being excluded from local synagogues. They probably view this as payback.
But of course focusing gleefully on another community’s fate, instead of our own, is precisely what this parable is cautioning us about. That’s not living into the community of love and justice God yearns to see established among us. The warning applies to our community too.
When a community keeps acting unjustly and hatefully, whether Jewish, Christian, or secular, then sooner or later it will sow the seeds of its own destruction, because such communities can never sustain themselves over time. It may take a long time, but they are bound to fall apart and be replaced by communities that freshly aim for justice and love.
Sounds forbidding, especially these days. We’re seeing all sorts of hatefulness and injustice happening right now, as we head toward an election that we know is not going to heal any of our divisions, regardless of who wins—or whether we’ll even be able to agree on who wins. It’s a problem that I do not know how to solve by endorsing a platform. Nor can I pretend to be neutral when I can’t afford to be. I even find myself challenged, as I pray for everybody’s healing, when I think of a certain individual. That is not who I am called to be. I can’t help wondering if we, like so many communities before us, are sowing the seeds of OUR own destruction.
I’m not trying to raise our anxiety here but to name what’s causing it, because that’s the only way to keep it from controlling us. Our divisions are symptoms of a hatefulness that haunts us even in our best moments.
So where is the good news here? This is, after all, a Gospel lesson, and “gospel” means “good news.” So where is that part?
Sometimes, to hear the good news in a particular Gospel lesson, we need to remember the entire storyline of the Gospels. Their entire storyline is that no amount of rejection on our part can kill off the new community of love and justice God brings. Jesus and his way of living among us is the stone that even his closest followers wound up rejecting as they ran away in fear and despair. But within a few days he surprisingly became the chief cornerstone of a renewed community that embraced his very betrayers, even his executioners. Destruction happened, betrayals happened, but they weren’t the last word. The community that fell apart regathered with a new life and mission.
We can trust in that outcome for us, even when we can’t see how to get there. After all, we are not the only actors on this stage. “The stone that the builders rejected” can “become the cornerstone,” even in our lives, even when we are the builders who keep rejecting it. “This [is] God’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”