Have you ever noticed that the most realistic, most engaging, most frightening villains in literature don’t believe they are evil? The best villains believe their acts are justified, even righteous. They believe the hero is the villain and they – the villains – are in fact the heroes. What makes them so realistic is that these villains represent the truth of villainy. The most evil men of history did not see themselves as the villains, but as heroes. Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, these men justified the horrors they perpetrated as necessary for the greater good. They thought they were right and righteous. What makes these villains so engaging and so frightening is that deep down, we see a little of ourselves in them. We all want to identify with the hero, but in the very best stories, we can’t help but identify just a little bit with the villain. It is that truth creates a real sense of revulsion for the villain. We look at them, see ourselves, and say, SURELY NOT!
This is the response we see in our Gospel text this from the Chief Priests, and Scribes who heard this Parable that Jesus told against them to the people. What they see of themselves in these tenants causes the same sense of revulsion we feel for the greatest villains. These tenants don’t see themselves as villains; they see themselves as within their rights to keep the fruits of the vineyard for themselves. For whatever reason, they feel it is wrong for the owner of the vineyard to claim his share. Maybe he had been gone so long that they felt he no longer had rights to the vineyard. Maybe the harvest was not as great as they had hoped; maybe they felt it unfair for the vineyard owner to benefit from their hard work (he had not toiled, so he should not benefit); or maybe they felt that it was in the best interest of themselves and their family, that the vineyard be theirs no matter the cost – even if that meant taking the life of the vineyard owner’s son and heir. For whatever reason, the villains in this story did not see themselves as evil. They were justified in what they were doing.
And like the worst villains the Chief Priests and Scribes saw themselves in these villains of Jesus’ story. The image of the vineyard was long understood to represent the people of Israel. And the Chief Priest and Scribes knew their own history of attacking and rejecting the messengers sent to them by God to correct them. And they knew what they had been doing in the temple to line their own pockets. Their families had been selling sacrificial animals in the temple; they had been gleaning vast profits from the unfair exchange rates for temple currency. Not being satisfied with the fair wages set aside for them in God’s law through the sacrifices and gifts to the temple, they sought more. When they heard from Jesus about these tenants, they recognized themselves in Jesus’ words and they felt that deep sense of revulsion and in their revulsion, they cried out SURELY NOT!
But worse than this, they knew that Jesus had spoken this parable against them; they knew that Jesus was referring to them when He spoke of these villainous tenant. Jesus had just called them as much when “he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” You see, this very parable was Jesus’ response to their attempt to undermine Him in the eyes of the people following His cleansing of the temple. They wanted to destroy Jesus for His accusations against them, but they could do nothing to Him, “for all the people were hanging on His words.” So they came and attempted to damage His public image. They said to Him, “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.” You see, the Chief Priests and Scribes received their authority from the law, and since Jesus spoke against them, they felt that they could turn the people against Him by undermining His authority. But Jesus turned their attack right back on them when He asked, “Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” They knew that the people would reject them if they rejected John’s authority (for the people believed John to be a prophet), and if they accepted that John’s baptism was from God, then they would be forced to likewise accept the authority of Jesus for John had declared “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” They had no doubt heard the reports of the mysterious voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism that proclaimed, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” So it was plain for them to see that Jesus spoke this parable against them. They were the villainous tenants who were thieving the fruit of God’s vineyard, Israel; they were the ones rejecting and attacking God’s prophets sent to correct them; they were the ones who sought to destroy Jesus. And Jesus in this parable tells them in no uncertain terms by what authority He did these things; He told them that He is the beloved Son the owner of the vineyard. And in their self-justifying villainy, they cried out SURELY NOT!
These Chief Priest and Scribes are truly great villains. They don’t think they are evil; they feel justified, even righteous, in their actions. They felt justified and righteous as they turned Him over for death at the hands of the Romans. As Jesus hung on the cross and bled and died, they saw themselves as heroes protecting God’s chosen people. Do you – like me – feel that sense of revulsion as you look on the evil of these men? As you hear these words, does your soul cry out, SURELY NOT? That is because like all the best villains, we see ourselves in them. We see how we have taken the precious life given to us by God and squandered it on our own pleasure; how we have kept the new wine of the Gospel from His vineyard the Church for ourselves rather than giving it back to Him by sharing it with our neighbors. We see our own sinful selves in the actions of these villainous Priests and Scribes and we cry out with them, SURELY NOT! And we look with fear and trepidation at the words of judgment we hear from Jesus, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.’ Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.” Is this judgment for us as well? Are we, destined in our sin to be broken into pieces or crushed by Jesus – this stone that the builders rejected that has become the cornerstone? SURELY NOT!
But yes! This is Jesus’ word of judgment against us all, but praise God, this is also His Good News of mercy to us all. For while we hear the word of judgment from the eighth chapter of Isaiah in Jesus’ words, “And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.” We hear also the Good News of Psalm 118 in His words, “I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”
We like the wicked tenants are the villains of this story; like the Chief Priests and Scribes we bear the blame. Jesus died the death that was ours. We have thrown the Son out of the vineyard and killed Him. So what then will the owner of the vineyard do to us? In His judgment, our sinful, villainous lives are broken and crushed, hanging dead with Jesus on the cross. But in His mercy He has given us the free gift of faith in His Son, and we are raised with Him to eternal life. This stone that we the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. He has become our salvation and it is marvelous in our eyes. Amen.