Those characters in the parable we just heard – there’s something about them that’s hard to accept.
The landowner responds to the abuse and murder of his slaves by sending still others who are treated by the rebellious tenants in the same way. He responds to this further outrage by sending his son. But the tenants do to him what they did to the slaves: they murder him. At no time does the landowner seek revenge despite the great harm the tenants do, despite their rebellion against his just demands.
The attitude of the tenants is equally hard to accept. Not only do they murder the slaves of the landowner without any provocation, but they get it in their heads that if they murder his son, the inheritance will be theirs. What sort of lawless world do they think this is, that they expect to be rewarded with a piece of property for murdering its rightful heir?
There’s something about the characters in today's parable that’s hard to accept, yet it’s something that seems all too familiar.
The tenants, rebellious and illogical, bear a painful resemblance to all of us. For we make the same mistake. We think the vineyard belongs to us, to do with as we see fit. So we human beings abuse the land, the water, and the air. We maintain societies in which a decent life for all is not a reality, but at best an ideal. And when the landowner sends his slaves, his prophets, we abuse them and murder them.
It must be as painful now to be a prophet as it was back when Isaiah was sawn in two for speaking the Lord’s word, or when Saint Paul was beheaded for his witness to the risen Christ, or when Bishop Paul Jones of Utah was driven from office in our own church for speaking words of peace during the First World War.
The behavior of the landowner may be hard to accept, but it is not unfamiliar. It is the behavior of God. For still the landowner sends his slaves who proclaim the demands of justice, and still that message is condemned and rejected. The landowner places more trust in us than the evidence warrants, more trust than we deserve. Still the slaves are sent, and still they are killed, yet the voice of their prophecy is never extinguished, for nothing can stop the word of the Lord.
This story of rebellious tenants and the long-suffering landowner – how does this story end? We are offered two conclusions.
The first comes from those who are gathered around Jesus, listening to him. The horror pierces them to the heart. They cry out that the landowner will put the rebellious tenants to death – a miserable death – and will replace them with honest substitutes.
This is not the conclusion that Jesus endorses. What he says is very different. He reminds his listeners of a verse from the psalms: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”
The rejected stone becomes the cornerstone on which everything else depends; how shocking it is to see this!
Those gathered around Jesus who said that the rebellious tenants deserved to die are advocates for exclusion and violence. The best way to handle murderous rebels is, in their view, to make them taste their own medicine. This attitude is ancient, popular, and leads absolutely nowhere.
If the landowner gives up on the tenants, claims they are not capable of anything but murder, and puts them to death – a miserable death – then it is they, the tenants, who win out in the end. They are dead, to be sure, but the landowner has adopted their methods, he has been converted to their murderous habits, and the cycle of violence rolls on.
Jesus offers a different way. He tells us that it is precisely the rejected stone that is necessary, and must be the foundation for all the rest.
The death and victory of Jesus is the prime example of this. Jesus is rejected, betrayed, and abused by those around him. But he becomes the cornerstone for a creation rebuilt from the ground up.
More recent examples show how it is the rejected stone that becomes central to what is built. This happens in a variety of ways.
Sometimes an influential figure deprived of power gains a new and deeper authority, and so becomes a cornerstone that inspires others and moves them to action.
During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, the Danish king, King Christian the Tenth, rode his horse daily through Copenhagen streets, surrounded by applauding crowds. He told the Germans that he would risk death to keep the swastika from flying over his castle, and they relented from displaying their flag there. These acts of defiance turned the king into the cornerstone of the remarkably successful Danish resistance.
A resistance movement featuring schoolboys, amateur saboteurs, and underground clergymen kept the Nazi killing machine off balance for years. The Germans wanted normalcy in Denmark, and the resistance movement worked through strikes and other actions to deny them that. A prominent indication of their success was how nearly all Danish Jews were transported to safety in neutral Sweden through the help of their fellow citizens.
Like walls that meet at a cornerstone, sometimes two oppressed groups achieve unity because they want to realize the same audacious vision.
The 1986 reelection of Ferdinand Marcos as president of the Philippines was tainted by widespread electoral fraud. Marital law was imposed. Marcos made personal loyalty to him the criterion for military promotions. As the People Power movement stood up to the regime, civilian protesters and military units overcame their fear of each another. Camps held by military rebels were protected by civilian crowds. According to one observer, the line of defense included “young people in their late teens, early twenties, with their whole lives stretched before them. ... I saw one doctor who was beyond seventy. ... I saw no one leave. No one yielded to fear.” Civilians and soldiers risked themselves for the once-rejected cornerstone of justice. Days later, Marcos went into exile.
Sometimes a prisoner grows strong in confinement, becomes a legend, and finally, no longer rejected, serves as the cornerstone for a new social order.
Nelson Mandela, for decades an inmate in a South African jail, emerged to be elected the first president of the new South Africa. He grew so influential as a prisoner that the Apartheid regime held secret meetings with him while he was still in confinement. Rebels, young and old, were held with him on Robben Island, which became a training ground for political leaders. Through many slow and painful steps, South Africa was reformed. A nonracial parliament was seated and chose Nelson Mandela as president. Sworn in on May 10, 1994, he vowed that “never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” The former prisoner was now president. Once rejected, he was now the cornerstone.
We are more connected with everyone than we find it comfortable to admit.
Here is how Jesus puts it: the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone.
Here is how it is put by an Australian aboriginal activist named Lilla Watson: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
How will you and I put this truth into practice, not simply in what we say, but in how we live?
We might start by recognizing that whomever we call an enemy comes to us bearing a gift. Each enemy comes to us bearing some broken, rejected part of ourselves. By accepting that enemy, we accept back that part of ourselves. By continuing to reject that enemy, we remain in a fragmented state inside. Acceptance of our enemy means we are changed and so is our enemy, for together both are propelled toward a new and unexpected creation.
The Book of Common Prayer contains a prayer entitled “For Our Enemies.” Let us offer it now:
“O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”