“‘Haven’t you read this Scripture: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This came about from the Lord and is wonderful in our eyes?’ They were looking for a way to arrest him but feared the crowd because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. So they left him and went away.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever witnessed a moment when someone finally realized they had nothing left to lose and just went for it? The courage of such a person doesn’t just double. It increases several-fold. When there’s nothing left that can really be done to a person, their willingness to face down any amount of suffering to achieve their aim becomes incredible. Obstacles become meaningless. There’s only one other thing that can give such a boost. When a person is supremely confident in the righteousness of their mission the consequences of its pursuit cease to matter. As the number of Jesus’ days before facing the cross grew shorter He became bolder with His words than He had been before in His ministry. Let’s listen in closely today as He puts the religious leaders in their place.
Yesterday we talked about Jesus’ encounter in the temple with a group of the religious leaders of the Jews. As He was moving around the temple complex, a group of the chief priests, scribes, and elders approached Him and demanded to know where He got the authority to do and say the things He had been doing. This was likely a specific response to His making a scene driving out the traders and money changers set up in the temple working the system these very leaders had seen put in place to streamline the whole sacrificial process. If you want to get the attention of a politically and culturally powerful group of people just mess with their money. They’ll take notice. These leaders did.
Jesus’ response to their trap question was to spring a counter trap on them that left them stammering and looking like clueless idiots in front of the very people whose high public opinion was crucial to their maintaining their power. They knew they walked a fine line with Rome. They were able to maintain their power and position (not to mention the accompanying luxurious lifestyle) as long as Rome was willing to leave them in place. And Rome was going to be willing to leave them in place as long as the people were under control. These leaders knew they needed to keep the people impressed and fearful of them. As long as they maintained their religious authority, they were going to be able to keep the people in line, which translated to Rome’s leaving them all alone.
The trouble was, they were maintaining a system that wasn’t what God designed. Oh, they thought it was. They were absolutely convinced they were right in line with God’s will as expressed through the Law of Moses. They had Scripture (or so they thought) and hundred’s of years worth of tradition on their side. Jesus represented just another fringe heretic who could do some fancy tricks and make a convincing argument. These fools came along every few years and mostly didn’t make much of a splash. Or at least, they splashed around a bit in a little, local pool, but things never got any bigger than that. On occasion one jumped in the larger ocean and stirred things up – like John the Baptist had. These were the times when this group had to actually engage the problem. And even in these moments it didn’t often take much. Apply a bit of pressure, help them see the larger picture, and they generally went away. But there was something different about Jesus.
All of this was going on in the background of their confronting Jesus in the temple. They had put down His kind before without issue. But Jesus embarrassed them. Badly. All the crowd gathered around and watching this scene would have stood in a shocked silence as it became clear they weren’t going to be able to answer Jesus’ question. They all witnessed Him win the argument without really even trying. Public opinion of Him shot through the roof. And if things had stopped here, that would have been a huge victory for Him and a devastating defeat for them. But this was Jesus. He never stopped where everyone around Him thought He should.
With this group of religious leaders still standing there in shock and utter frustration and with all the crowds still watching with rapt attention, Jesus opened His mouth to speak again. Everyone leaned in. He told them a story about a group of tenant farmers who were given a vineyard to manage for a landowner. When the time came for the harvest, the landowner sent a servant to collect his earnings. The trouble was the tenants had decided they rather liked their position on the land and didn’t want to give it up to some far off owner. They beat the servant and sent him away with nothing. The owner was frustrated by this, but was undeterred. The land was his, after all. So, he sent another servant. In fact, he sent a whole progression of servants. These were variously rejected, rebuffed, beaten, and even killed. Finally, the owner sent his own son to collect what he was due. The tenants killed him and declared victory over the owner.
Now pause here for a minute. How many of our stories today unfold along these same lines? This is the skeleton plot for more stories than I can count. How about Robinhood for one of the primary archetypes. A bunch of tenant farmers make a play on land that belongs to the unjust ruler who is trying to take the fruits of their labor and refusing to share from his abundance with them, consigning them to an unfairly meager existence. Robinhood leads the people in a revolt to take the land and resources they consider to be theirs back from the unjust powers that be. The Broadway musical Rent runs along similar lines. So does the Netflix series, Cursed. We see this storyline unfold all over the place. And each time we do, who are we cheering for? I’ll give you a hint: It’s not the landowner. How ironic we have taken Jesus’ story here and turned it over on its head. The difference is that in Jesus’ story, the tenants were the ones who were unjust and oppressing their own people. The landowner was good and righteous. Our stories aside, the reality hasn’t changed. Our efforts to take what belongs to God are never noble and heroic. They are unjust and unrighteous.
Back to the story. Jesus concludes His story with a powerful question: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” You could have cut the tension in the temple complex surrounding this crowd with a knife. Not a sound was heard, not a soul was stirring. They were all waiting to hear how Jesus answered His own question. “He will come and kill the farmers and give the vineyard to others.” The shock was audible. Did He really just say that?
This was Jesus’ most direct broadside against the religious elite of the Jews yet. His meaning was clear. The chief priests and scribes and elders were trying to take what God had only given them to manage and claim it as their own. This was foolish and delusional, but they were convinced of their eventual success. And while we cheer this moment of Jesus’ speaking truth to power, let us not miss the chance to do some careful self-reflection. How often do we let this same sort of story play out in our own lives? How often do we try and claim for ourselves what belongs to God and act as if there will be no consequences for our efforts? When was the last time you knowingly crossed a line God had drawn because you wanted what was on the other side and His authority wasn’t something you wanted to abide in that moment?
The trouble with God’s graciousness and patience with our sinfulness is that we can begin to delude ourselves into thinking there won’t ever be consequences for our rebellion. We start to paint ourselves as the anti-heroes who are just trying to carve out a little existence of our own. After all, He has so much. Who is really going to be bothered by our having a bit of kingdom for our very own? We just want to do our own thing and be left alone. He’s really the aggressor here, not us. Sin leads us to do the very story-turning we talked about. Sin would have us paint ourselves as the righteous warriors and God as the unjust big boss. This is a nice story, but it’s false and if we try and tell it, it’s ending will be tragic. God is the king and He is good and righteous in all things. Sin may paint a compelling picture, but it is painted in blood and as we begin to look closely, its wrongness will show forth clearly. Let us make sure our lives are wholly submitted to Him so we can live the life that is truly life. There won’t be a happy ending any other way.