Christ: the stone that shatters our idols
The last verse of Psalm 137—the famous song of exile—is always carefully ignored. After the poignant reminder of the tears of the deportees along the rivers of Babylon, the poet, addressing the bloody city, exclaims: “Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps 137:9). The concluding verse of today’s gospel raises an embarrassment. It is not carried in the lectionary text. Referring to Christ—the stone which the builders rejected—the evangelist comments: “Whoever falls on this stone, he will be broken to pieces; on whomever this stone falls, he will be ground to dust” (Mt 21:44).
These images are disconcerting. They suddenly illumine each other if one catches their reference to the scene described in the book of Daniel: a stone—not driven by human hands—comes off from the top and hits a colossal, beautiful looking but terrible statue that collapses and falls apart (Dn 2:31-35). It’s the idol that, in his foolishness, man himself built and from its slavery he can no longer free himself. It is the unjust, corrupt and inhuman society man created and of which he remains a victim.
Christ and his gospel are “the stone” hurled by God against this monstrous structure. They are “the stone” that shatters the logic of this world, the tricks, cunning and above all the foolish images men made for themselves of God. The stone is intended to shatter the plans of the wicked and smash their children. The wicked will have no offsprings, will remain without posterity, and no future because God will vanish all doers of iniquity. This is the good news.
The great of this world—the builders of the new “Tower of Babel”—discard this stone because it does not fit their plans, it messes up their dreams, destroys their kingdoms. They tried to eliminate it but God chose it as the rock of salvation. Whoever puts it as foundation of his life will not be disappointed.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“We are the Lord’s vineyard, which fruits can we offer him?”
First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
“In the last days…nations will not raise sword against nation…one will sit in peace and freedom under a fig tree or a vine of his own and none shall make them afraid” (Mic 4:1-4). With this lovely bucolic image, Micah describes the peaceful and happy life every Israelite sought. The vineyard was a symbol of peace, family union, joy and feast. The beloved of the Song of Songs dreamed of running between the rows, hand in hand with her beloved in a cool spring morning: “Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the buds have opened and the pomegranates have blossomed. There I will give you my love” (Song 7:13). The bride of the man blessed by God is “like a vine, will bear fruits in your home” (Ps 128:3).
In this cultural context, in which the vineyard is associated with the call to love, the poem proposed to us today is born. It is rightly counted among the masterpieces of the world’s literature. It describes the passion of a farmer for his vineyard, a yearning affection, like that of a lover for the woman of his life. At home, on the street, with friends he speaks of none but her.
The poet imagines himself to be the friend of this “bridegroom” and says: “My beloved had a vineyard on a fertile hillside …” (v. 1). An excellent vineyard, grapes purchased from abroad, chosen strains favored among thousands. It had been planted on a sunny slope, the ideal place to get those clusters that already in July are tinged with violet, a grape’s sign of exquisite flavor and a harbinger of a good and strong wine. The land was freed of thorns, weeds and stones, gathered at the edge of the field. They made up the wall and the tower of protection against thieves and wild beasts.
No care, no concern, no effort had been spared. The tenderness of the beloved transpires even by the insistence with which he keeps repeating the expression my vineyard: “Now inhabitants of Jerusalem, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do that I have not done for my vineyard? Now I will let you know what I am going to do with my vineyard” (vv. 3-5).
At this point the reader is anxious to know the result of the story. What will the lavishly cared for vineyard produce? In the second stanza (vv. 3-4) the dramatic surprise of the peasant is told: He is expecting a yield of excellent grapes, instead it yiels only wild, bitter, inedible grapes (v. 4). As in the betrayed and disappointed lover’s heart, love turns into disappointment, resentment and anger. The farmer decides to inflict a terrible punishment to his vineyard: he will break down the wall, will let the wayfarers enter to trample on it, wild animals to devastate it, the brambles and briers to invade it until she chokes. He will neither prune nor hoe it. He will command the clouds not to send the beneficial rain and dew on it (vv. 5-6).
The last verse (v. 7) explains the meaning of the image: the vineyard is Israel; she is the choice and precious vine that God has acquired in Egypt. The prophet Hosea, a few years before, had said: “Israel was a spreading vine, rich in fruit” (Hos 10:1).
The author of Psalm 80 develops the details of the removal of the “stones”—the people who occupied Palestine before the arrival of the Israelites—a detail that is only hinted at in our poem: “You had a vine you brought from Egypt. You drove the nations out to plant it in their land. On the ground that you cleared it took root, and filled the land” (Ps 80:9-10).
The tower of protection was the dynasty of David.
Israel responded with infidelity and rebellion to a lot of love. The fruits (the good and sweet grape) that the Lord was waiting for were faithfulness to the covenant, social justice, help to the poor, the orphan, the widow. What did he find? Cries of the oppressed and exploited people, lies in the courts, hatred, bloodshed, a religion of processions, pilgrimages to the temple, rites which did not correspond to the conversion of the heart.
In the original text there is a curious play on words: justice and righteousness (that God expected of his people) are terms similar to bloodshed and cries of the oppressed (which is what Israel produces). Who hears them pronounced may even confuse them (mishpat = righteousness and mishpah = bloodshed; tzedakah = justice and tze’aqah = cries of the oppressed). At first sight the wild grape may seem good, but it is only an appearance.
In the allegory of the vineyard there are two opposing attitudes: that of God who manifests a concrete love (he prepares the soil, plants choicest vines, protects it with a tower, digs a winepress) and the people who, neglecting justice, is satisfied with exterior rites and devout prayers (cf. Is 1:11-17).
The severe denunciation of Isaiah is presented again to the Christians of today. The danger of the illusion of being right with God because they are flawless in the execution of religious practices is incumbent upon them.
Because of her infidelity, Israel has gone to meet national disaster. It was invaded by foreign peoples (Assyrians, Babylonians …) who devastated “the vineyard of the Lord” and reduced Jerusalem to “a hut in a melon field” (Is 1:8). This destruction is the symbol of sterility of one who ignores, mistakes, neglects the attention and kindness that God has for him.
Second Reading: Philippians 4:6-9
In the reading’s first verses (vv. 6-7), Paul says that nothing can destroy the peace and joy of a Christian. Nothing can distress him if he remains united to God in prayer.
In the second part (v. 8) a list of human virtues that Christians are encouraged to cultivate in their lives is presented. It is about the quality and behaviors that are appreciated by everyone, everywhere. What makes one nice, lovely, honored, respected, must be practiced by every Christian. One cannot claim to be a disciple of Christ if one is not loyal, honest, integral, respectable.
Without fear of contradiction, Paul, putting aside false modesty, dares to stand as a model of these behaviors (v. 9). His recommendation is an invitation to Christians of today to grow sweet, friendly, respectful traits before everyone, especially to non-believers.
Gospel: Matthew 21:33-43
As the prophet Isaiah, Jesus also uses the image of the vineyard to describe the work of God and man’s response. However, the scene is quite different. The personages change: in the foreground, God and the vineyard that produces bitter and inedible grapes are not there but there are the owner, God, and his dependents, identified as the high priests and the spiritual guides of the people to whom the parable is directed (Mt 21:23). Then the vineyard is not sterile; it seems to bear fruit, but these are not delivered. Finally, the conclusion is different: there are no abandonment, devastation of the vineyard, but a new beginning, an intervention of salvation, a replacement of the inept workers.
We come to the parable. A master plants a vineyard, with a hedge around it, digs a mill there, builds a tower, entrusts it to tenants and goes.
When the time of harvest arrived, he sent his servants to collect the produce, but here’s the surprise: the farmers do not want to deliver the benefits. The first hypothesis one thinks is that they want to keep the produce for themselves. There is another possibility, perhaps more likely, that they have no fruit to present. They may not have worked.They may have spent time in carousing and drunkenness or have worked badly.
Some of them began to make fun of the envoys from the master, then the insults, beatings and finally the killing of some servants. The landlord does not give up; he loves his vineyard too much. Then he sends other servants more numerous than the first, but even these have no luck. As a final attempt he sends his son, but the workers in the vineyard hunt him out and kill him. They are convinced of being able to be masters of the field that has been entrusted to them.
As in the first reading, all the details of the gospel story have a symbolic meaning.
The master is the Lord who has lavished so much care and expressed an immense love for his people (v. 33). The hedge is the Torah, the law that God has revealed to his people, to protect it from enemies, that is, from the proposals of senseless life that would lead it to ruin. The tenants are the chiefs, religious and political leaders, whose task is to place the people in an ideal conditions to produce the fruits that the owner expects. The fruits are identified by the first reading. They are the works of love for the neighbor and social justice.
The two groups of envoys are the prophets who, before and after the exile,were sent, always more numerous, to warn Israel to be faithful to the covenant. That’s how God expresses himself by the mouth of Jeremiah: “From the time I brought their forebears out of Egypt until this day I have continually sent them my servants, the prophets, but this stiff necked people did not listen. They paid no attention and were worse than their forebears” (Jer 7:25-26). The fate of these men was dramatic: beatings, stoning (2 Chr 24:21), fetters and chains (Jer 20:2), death by the sword (Jer 26:23). They should not expect anything else: they were the mouthpiece of God and of his wisdom, too far from the thoughts of men, absurd, unacceptable. That is why the tenants want to take possession of the field, claim to manage the “vineyard” by themselves. They represent those who want to do without God and consider His gifts good to be appropriated.
The son is Jesus.
The time of harvest is the time of God’s judgment that—this must be kept in mind—should not be understood as the “day of reckoning,” but as an intervention of salvation. Let me explain. At the end of the parable, Jesus involves his audience and asks their opinion on what behavior to suggest to the owner. They convincingly respond: “The master will bring those evil men to an evil end” (v. 41).
This severe image is the result of the effervescent oriental fantasy that—as we have repeatedly pointed out—is pleased to paint pictures with strong colors.
But Jesus follows a different logic. Instead of approving the words of threat and destruction handed down by his hearers (v. 41), he suggests the action of God. The Lord will not react by destroying evil and not even pretending that evil was not committed. This remains, it cannot be reset. God intervenes to make it serve the good, making it yield a masterpiece of salvation. You may remember what Joseph said to his brothers who had sold him to the Egyptians: “You intended to do me harm but God intended to turn it to good to bring about what is happening today—the survival of many people” (Gen 50:20).
The verses 39, 42-43 form the central part of the parable describing the death and resurrection of Jesus. The leaders of the people take the Son and throw him out of the vineyard. This is what happened to Jesus. He was deemed a blasphemer, impure and for this he was brought out of the city walls and executed. But God in raising him, glorified him and made him Lord, the cornerstone of a new building.
The end result of the intervention of the master is the delivery of the vineyard to other workers who will make it produce fruits. This is not about the master’s annoyed reaction, but his gesture of love and salvation. Not even the rejection and murder of his son can make him an enemy of man.
Reporting this parable, the evangelist Matthew certainly thought of the infidelity of the leaders of his people and their rejection of the Messiah of God. But not only to them; he also thought of his community and the entire world: every man is a vinegrower from which the Lord expects delivery of the fruits.