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Sermon by Sharon Gleed - 4th Oct 2020

Readings:  Matthew 21: 33 - end

This week’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel follows on directly from our reading last week, in which Jesus told the parable of the two sons, leading Lizzie to reflect on the theme of hypocrisy. In this week’s reading, we have another of the judgment parables, this time about the wicked tenants.


This morning I would like to look at the parable and explore what it means, looking at some of its imagery and then I would like to focus on one  particular phrase from it - the image of the cornerstone.


So what is the parable about?


A vineyard, which clearly was of value to the landowner. He put up a fence, keen to protect it and then by his own efforts, dug a wine press. He then built a watchtower, which were used by tenants over the summer months. They could be anything from ten to forty feet tall and were sometimes a booth, made from branches but particularly when the whole family were going to stay there, it was made from stone, each with a canopy over the roof, providing a lookout, shelter and protection.


The land and its contents were leased to tenants and the story unfolds of how, when the landowner sent slaves/servants to collect a portion of the produce, (which was the way the rent was paid), they were savagely beaten, attacked and killed. He then sent his son, believing that they would honour and respect his heir and yet, he received the same brutal treatment, resulting in his death.


It appears that the tenants were driven by greed, not only continually to refuse to give the produce but also wanting to claim an inheritance that was not theirs. Property without an owner could become be passed to squatters. However, they were also under a misunderstanding, wrongly assuming that the son had come because the father had died and also in not understanding that there were other ways for property to be inherited.


The parable ends, and Jesus once again asks a question to those who had been questioning his authority - the chief priests and Pharisees saying ‘what will the owner of the vineyard do to the tenants?’ They respond that he will ‘kill them and give the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.’ Thus acknowledging their own failures.


Jesus then movingly responds with words, echoing the Old Testament Psalm 118, verse 22 - ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eye.’ v:42.  He continues that the kingdom will be ‘given to others’, meaning the Gentiles, who will produce ‘fruits of the kingdom’ v:43.


So what does its imagery and symbolism mean?


The parable is rich in imagery on several layers, particularly with the vineyard, which symbolises Israel. The vineyard imagery is linked with the Old Testament, and represents the hard work that went into establishing Israel, shown through the creation of the vineyard. Building a vineyard on the rocky, hilly ground was hard work. The vineyard was also a sign of prosperity and blessing and God’s favour. The watchtower was a ‘symbol of protection from enemies and thieves and rising above them.’


The landowner represents God, and Israel is shown to have rejected the prophets, both the major and minor prophets, who are portrayed by the two groups of slaves\servants who came, and finally the heir, who represents Jesus. The killing of the son in the story foretells Jesus’s own death, who was not only going to be rejected but killed. By extension, it could be said that there was not only a rejection of those who were sent but also a rejection of the one who had sent them - God. For Matthew, the kingdom represents ‘God’s sovereignty or kingship’ and is ‘everywhere where God’s authority is acknowledge.’ Their rejection was a direct challenge to God’s authority and a rejection of HIs sovereignty. However, not all of Israel rejected the prophets and the son, this parable appears to be particularly directed towards the religious leaders. The tenants represented the Jewish leaders who had been entrusted with the ‘cultivation of Israel’s religious life.


One thing that really struck me, apart from the physicality of the story, which is quite hard to hear and to read, was the fact that the landowner was not deterred from doing what he had planned. Even though the first lot of slaves/servants had been injured, killed and had returned without the goods that they had come to collect, he sent more. Not even just the same amount again but ‘even more than before’ v:36.  When they could not collect the produce, he then sent his most valuable person, his son. v.37.

Finally, if we return to the phrase the cornerstone, what does that mean?


A cornerstone, is the largest stone that gives the building ‘a reliable and firm foundation’ and 'is the measurement determining all other measurements.’ So for Christ to be the cornerstone, our cornerstone, mean lives lived with Christ as our foundation, as our measure, the one to whom we look for guidance as to how we live our lives so they the align with his teaching and so that they are fruitful.


One person who built his life on Christ as his cornerstone was St. Francis of Assisi whose feast day, is commemorated today. He received a word, whilst in a derelict church which commanded him to ‘build my church.’ He obediently rebuilt the chapel but also laid Christ as a cornerstone in his life. Living a life of loyalty and obedience to Christ.


Several modern day hymnists have used ‘Cornerstone’ over the last 200 years, from John Chandler in 1832 to Hillsong in 2011 who wrote the song in response to a tragedy in Stockholm, Norway when 77 people died. In it,  their lyrics speak of the strength that comes from a life built on Christ, providing security and strength and hope.

My hope is built on nothing less

Than Jesus blood and righteousness

I dare not trust the sweetest frame

But wholly trust in Jesus name


Christ alone, Cornerstone

Weak made strong in the Saviour's love

Through the storm, He is Lord

Lord of all


When darkness seems to hide His face

I rest on His unchanging grace

In every high and stormy gale

My anchor holds within the veil

My anchor holds within the veil


Christ alone, Cornerstone

Weak made strong in the Saviour's love

Through the storm, He is Lord

Lord of all


The prophet Isaiah wrote in Chapter 28, v:16

‘See, I am laying in Zion foundation stone, A tested stone, a precious, cornerstone, a sure foundation:’


This was a call to God’s nation, to return to faithfulness. This is expanded upon in this parable. According to the priest and theologian Richard Burridge, here Jesus, is both calling ‘Israel to repentance but also calling a new body of people to faith.’ It is about community and gathering all people together to recognise God’s sovereignty.


Isaiah concludes his verse with - ‘One who trusts will not panic.’


With so much uncertainty, it is perhaps easy for us to panic, to worry and be consumed with fear. I pray that for all of us, we can hold onto Christ as our cornerstone, and rest ‘in his unchanging grace.’


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