The Rev. J. Donald Waring
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” (Matt. 21:38)
Last summer marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One. What could I do but reach for my old copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, which I recalled reading for a history course in college? Tuchman is brilliant in describing what was known to the German military as “the Schlieffen Plan.” In the early years of the 20th century, Europe was a complex, delicately balanced network of alliances, many of which were rigged to keep Germany in check. The Germans knew that if and when hostilities broke out between nations, all alliances would click into place, and they would be forced to fight an unwinnable war on two fronts: against the French to the west and against the Russians to the east. Thus, the Germans needed a plan to avoid certain defeat.
Count Alfred von Schlieffen was the chief of the German General Staff, and for years he worked laboriously to devise such a plan. His conclusion was that the only hope for Germany would be an early, right-handed, knockout blow to the French before the Russians could mobilize. The Schlieffen Plan called for a modest German force to engage the French on the left in Alsace-Lorraine, and then retreat into Germany, luring the French to come after them.
Meanwhile, the vast bulk of the German army would actually be on the right. The massive right wing would march through Belgium, smash down into France, encircle and capture Paris, and finally trap the whole French army. So you lure the French in with a weak left, then clobber them with an overpowering right hook. In essence, the plan was simple, but Schlieffen had thought through every minute detail, knowing where the German army should be every step of the way.
He made two critical assumptions: Surely, the Belgians would put up no fight. Surely, the English would fail to make good on some ancient treaty obligations. Schlieffen calculated that the Germans would need exactly 39 days from mobilization to victory. It was the perfect plan. What could go wrong?
When hostilities finally erupted on August 4, 1914, how did the Schlieffen Plan work? Would the troops be home before the leaves fell, as everyone predicted? Well, as it turned out, the Belgians put up quite a fight, and the English did indeed come to their aid. The German advance was mired in the mud, and for the next four years the great powers of Europe would drain their lifeblood in the trenches of the western front. To paraphrase a line from the old Scottish poem: the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew reminds me of the Schlieffen Plan, and the old Scottish poem, and if you hang with me for a moment you may understand why. Jesus told a parable about a landowner who took great care in planting a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it out to tenants who would tend to the vines while he went off to a far country. It was a perfect setup; what could possibly go wrong? The answer is: everything!
When the season of harvest came, two times the landowner sent groups of servants to collect rent from the tenants. Both times the wicked tenants repulsed the landowner’s agents: throwing them out of the vineyard, beating them, stoning them, killing them. The landowner needed a better plan, so what he devised was this: Surely they will respect my son. Surely they will give my son the same respect they would give me.
We wonder: what on earth was the landowner thinking? How could he not have known that he was marching his son into a slaughter? As for the tenants — well, they had a Schlieffen Plan of their own. Upon seeing the son, the tenants said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”
Yes, in a moment of jaw-dropping shortsightedness they killed the son, figuring that the landowner, suddenly without an heir, would simply give the vineyard to them. How do you connect those dots? I have never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. But these guys? These guys are more like spoons! No matter how many times I hear or read this parable, I am always taken aback by the complete lack of foresight of everyone involved. Truly, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.
What possible meaning might we derive from the parable? What is more, is the good news of Christ to be heard anywhere in it? One possible clue might be the metaphor of the vineyard. The Hebrew prophets and Jesus both made use of vineyard imagery, so we might ask what it represents. The vineyard is anything that God has entrusted into the care of humanity.
Thus, the vineyard is the earth. It was Europe at the dawn of the 20th century. It is the tangle of nations that compose the world today. It is Israel. It is the Church. It is your life, your family, your business. Today’s parable might prompt you to wonder about the role of wise planning and foresight in all of these vineyards.
What’s the plan in your vineyard? Do you have a plan at all? St. Paul certainly did. If you paid attention to the first part of today’s reading from the letter he wrote to the Philippians (3:4b-14), he sounds like a man with a plan, brimming with self-confidence: If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more. What could possibly go wrong? So what’s the plan for your vineyard?
At one point in my growing up, my vineyard was a rectangular fish tank that held about 2½ gallons of water. At the school fair I had played the game in which you toss a ping pong ball toward some tiered shelves full of little glass bowls, each with a goldfish inside. If your ball went into the bowl, you took the fish home in a plastic bag full of water. Well, the ball bounced in my favor and I won a fish. I put the fish in the tank and gave it food. I treated the water with a solution we bought at the pet store to help goldfish flourish. And flourish it did for a whole year.
At the next school fair I had wised up, or so I thought. I realized I could simply reach over the wall and drop the ping pong ball into the bowl I wanted. My plan was to win as many fish as I possibly could. Sure enough, I came home with about six more goldfish. Into the tank they went to join Goldy, my old familiar friend. I added some extra solution to treat the water for the extra fish, and within 30 seconds they were all floating on the surface, quite dead. Some caretaker of the vineyard I turned out to be! I’d lost it all.
Today’s parable seems to convey a similar warning: the possibility of losing it all through our poor planning and shortsightedness. Indeed, Matthew tells us that when Jesus concluded the parable, he asked his listeners: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.”
We then hear the confusing imagery of the rejected cornerstone either tripping up the tenants or falling on them and crushing them. Make of it what you will, but it doesn’t come to a good end. The son and tenants are quite dead. Many commentators believe that this parable contains more of Matthew’s than Jesus’ thinking. They surmise that Matthew was writing with 20/20 hindsight after the Romans ransacked Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The falling stones that crushed people refer to the destruction of the Temple, the vineyard that was taken away from the Jews. They lost it all due to their poor stewardship and shortsightedness.
Perhaps Matthew was using hindsight, alluding to the destruction of the Temple, and warning all the Schlieffens of the world to make better plans. But parables are funny things; they are what you make of them. In reading and puzzling over this one, I see something else. I see good news, not just good advice.
When Jesus asked his listeners what they thought the vineyard owner would do to the tenants, it was his listeners, not Jesus, who imagined worldly vengeance. In fact, when his listeners replied, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” it seems to me that Jesus flatly disagreed with them. He said, in reply, “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 eyes?’”
Full stop, right there. I think that right there (Matt. 21:42) is where Jesus ended the parable, and the somewhat convoluted imagery that follows is Matthew’s theological reflection in hindsight. But Jesus, in the moment, was not looking back on stones that fell or would fall from the Temple. Rather, he was revealing that God, the vineyard owner, actually has a plan that will not go awry.
What is the plan? Jesus had discerned in the Scriptures what God was up to in the goodness and love he’d made known in the creation, in the calling of Israel to be his people, in the Word spoken through the prophets. And now Jesus was exercising divine 20/20 foresight in prophesying what the next step was going to be. What is the vineyard owner going to do to the tenants? How is God going to respond to the world’s rejection of divine love?
“Oh, he’s going to clobber them with a right hook” is what his listeners imagined. No! Have you never read the scriptures? God’s plan from before time and forever is an endless campaign of cross-shaped, sacrificial love. Jesus foresaw his death, but he also knew that not even death could separate us from the love of God.
So the son who was rejected and killed would become the cornerstone of a new kingdom. How? What happened next in history is that God raised Jesus from death. Resurrection. Easter. God sent the Son back again. God so loved the world that he gave his only son — again. Such knowledge is what Saul of Tarsus finally surrendered to on the Damascus Road before becoming Paul the Apostle. It is why he wrote to the Philippians in today’s reading: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”
Once again, parables are funny things; they are what you make of them. In this light, I think of the man who had a dream that he was being chased by a lion. When the lion finally had him trapped, the man screamed in fright, “Are you going to kill me?” The lion completely broke character and replied, “I don’t know. You tell me. It’s your dream.”
And so it is with the parable we’ve heard today. You can take it as a commentary on the folly of human nature, and the plans we lay that go awry. Or you can take it as a statement of God’s unstoppable love. Every time we try to throw God out of the vineyard, God comes back. God, who planted the vineyard, sent his messengers the prophets, came to us in Jesus, came back to us in the resurrection, and sent the Spirit upon us at Pentecost, is just going to keep on coming — not to crush, but to save, so that we might have life, and have it abundantly.
One hundred years ago the Schlieffen Plan failed and millions paid the price. It wasn’t the first plan conceived in folly to end in disaster, and sadly, it won’t be the last. The best laid schemes of mice and men will continue to go awry. Nevertheless, God too has a plan. It is to overcome evil with good. It is the appeal of love. God lures us in with a weak left. Then the right hook comes around, and behold, it is an embrace — a saving embrace that won’t let go. No matter how many times we punch back and push God away, no matter how badly we poison the waters of our own life, no matter how foolishly we foul up the vineyard we were supposed to nurture, God won’t let go: not of you, not of me.
“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 eyes?’”
The Rev. J. Donald Waring is rector of Grace Church in New York.