Matthew 22: 15-22
What a dramatic ending to the scene. We remember Jesus and his disciples in their long festival pilgrimage from the Mount of Transfiguration, through the towns and villages, up to Jerusalem. The lectionary sequence for this weeks of late summer and early fall in St. Matthew. The triumphant Palm Sunday entry. The crowds waving branches, singing “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The procession directly to the heart of the city and what is truly the center of the world, the Holy Temple. I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the House of the Lord. O how amiable are thy dwellings, thou LORD of hosts! My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God. How true the words of the psalms are, as Jesus approaches. “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silent before him.” Yea the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest, where she may lay her young; even thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house; they will be always praising thee.
But Jesus is met not with welcome but with resistance. The haunting words from the opening of St. John’s gospel. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. Confrontation. Rejection. The Temple officials priests and Pharisees, the teachers of the law and guardians of this sacred treasure, in whose hands rest the stewardship of the prayers of the whole people of God—they turn away, they seek to discredit him, they deny his authority.
Perhaps some of the same who met him for the first time when he came as a young teenager so long ago to this very place. Perhaps some of them even remembering old Zechariah, who had sung “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast promised to thy people Israel” when the infant Jesus was brought to the Temple for his Presentation. Some who would remember the old Prophetess Anna, who sang to God with joy when she saw Mary and Joseph and the child.
And as he is confronted, Jesus gives these parables, to help us see just what it is that has taken place. We’ve heard them now the past three weeks, on the steps of the Temple, the crowds looking on.
Two sons. One who promises to fulfill the will of the father, but who breaks his promise, and the other who doesn’t respond at first, but who is moved in his heart to obey. And the Unruly tenants. They signed the lease, made their home in the Vineyard, but when the messengers from the owner came to collect what was owed, they respond with violence, killing even the landlord’s son. And the Wedding Guests. They receive the invitation, but they don’t respond. In their self-centeredness they refuse to come to the Banquet.
That great line at the end of Matthew 21: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them.” The drama of this confrontations, as the crowds swelled around them.
Then of course to this next bit of the confrontation at the Temple. This morning’s reading, the attempt to entrap Jesus with this question about paying taxes. Would he play to the crowds and declare himself a tax resisters? In which case the Romans would make short order of him. Or would he identify with the collaborationists, and undermine his credibility with those who followed him. Perhaps they think they’ve got him now, between a rock and a hard place. One last shot at cutting this Galilean troublemaker down to size.
But Jesus skips past them. “Give Caesar Caesar’s due,” sure. But then the penetrating word. “And give God what is God’s.” Again the spotlight shifts from Jesus to the opponents, and the point settles home one last time. The implication ringing loud and clear. As direct an indictment and condemnation as could be imagined, though with just enough poetry to avoid immediate arrest.
“’When the owner of the Vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ And “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.’”
The thematic centerpiece of this progression—and it is going to continue on in Matthew on this Palm Sunday and in the Holy Week ahead at some length—found in the deep and tragic and heartbreaking irony, that the very people chosen by God from all the peoples of the earth as stewards of this promise would not open their eyes and ears and hearts to receive him when he came. God to Abraham, Genesis 12: “through you all peoples on earth will be blessed.” God’s holy people are silent. But as Jesus says when the leaders rebuke the crowds in Luke’s account of this day, “if they don’t shout, the rocks themselves will cry out.” The vineyard will receive new tenants. The banquet hall will be filled with new guests to celebrate the wedding feast of the king’s son.
The one moment of this drama of course ripples out through time and space, over all the centuries. Questions and choices, and for each one of us. Which of those two sons we are to be. What kind of tenants in the vineyard. What we do with the rsvp card in that wedding invitation. Knowing with some clarity that we are citizens of Caesar’s kingdom, and yet pausing with uncertainty perhaps when it comes time to pledge allegiance to our king. All of these echoing a question from Jesus, something like: whose side are you on, anyway?
Gradually drawing toward the end of the church year. Advent out there on the horizon. The circle completes its path, on our way to Advent Sunday by way of Good Friday.
And just to echo again the Prologue of St. John, for each of us, to search in our hearts: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”