There was a man once, and building was the man’s business. He’d made his fortune by building luxury homes, the property boom throughout the 80s and 90s had seen him do alright in life and now he could afford to retire and enjoy the fruits of his labour. It wasn’t just his labour, of course, he didn’t build the houses himself, he had a team he trusted, a team he knew would always do their best for him. And they always did their best for him because he was a good boss, he was fair with them, he treated them well. And he paid them well too.
The man he trusted most of all was his project manager. His project manager had been with him from the start, always working away in the background organising things, buying materials, supervising the contractors they had to bring in. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise to his project manager when the man said to him one day, ‘I want you to build a retirement house for me. Spend whatever you need to, I’m not going to interfere, I don’t want to be involved, but I want no expense spared, I’ll cover it. I want the best of materials, the best fixtures and fittings, I want this to be the best house my company has ever built. I’m going to leave it completely in your hands.’
Now, the trouble was that the project manager realised that if his boss was retiring, it was going to mean he’d have to retire too, he’d lose the job he’d had for what seemed like forever. How was he going to get another job at his age? So he took his chance to pad out his own retirement plan. Instead of the best of materials, he ordered the worst and charged his boss for the best. Instead of luxury fixtures and fittings, he ordered the ones that looked good, but that underneath the gloss were cheap and shoddy. And he charged his boss for the best. Instead of their usual team of skilled craftsmen and contractors, he brought in all the cowboy builders he could find, he brought in inexperienced electricians, poor plumbers, rookie roofers. And he charged his boss for the best. When the house was finally built, oh yes, it looked good, it looked like quality – but it wasn’t quality. If you tried to get a mortgage on a house like that, you’d have no chance. But the project manager had made himself a tidy wee sum by pocketing the difference between what he said he’d spent and what he actually had spent. As soon as he handed it over, he’d be off like a shot.
His boss was true to his word. He hadn’t interfered. He’d paid all the bills without a second look at them. He didn’t even turn up on site until after the house was finished. And when he did, he looked around at what was, at first glance, a great house, but one that was actually pretty much worthless. Worse than that, it’d take more money to put everything right than what it cost to build. And he said to the project manager, ‘Remember when I said I’d leave it completely in your hands? I meant it. I don’t need a new house for my retirement, but I know you do. It’s yours.’ And he gave him the keys.
Our New Testament reading today is what’s become known as the Parable of the Tenants, some say the Wicked Tenants. It’s part of a conversation Jesus has with the priests and the elders of the temple of Jerusalem, not long after he’d arrived there for what would be the last time. The master plants a vineyard and leaves it in the care of his tenants. He trusts them but they don’t live up to his trust (a bit like our business owner and his project manager), only they kill the servants who go to gather his fruit on two occasions, then kill his son too. Jesus asks the priests and the elders what should happen to the tenants. They give it the old ‘eye for an eye’, well, they would, wouldn’t they, as the priests are steeped in the Judaic tradition and that’s how they see justice, they say the tenants should suffer and that the vineyard should be given to those who deserve it. As I say, steeped in the Judaic traditions, so they’d have known the book of Isaiah, they’d have known our Old Testament reading from Isaiah. They’d have known the vineyard in Isaiah represents Israel, its owner is God and that the Israelites, despite having been given all they needed, despite God fulfilling all his promises to them, the Israelites failed to live up to God’s expectations. The fruit that came from their vineyard wasn’t good fruit, as Isaiah says, ‘He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.’ (Isa. 5:2)
And the priests, on hearing Jesus’ parable and making all the Isaiah connections, they might have been self-satisfied, smug, they might have sat back and thought they’d had it all figured out. They might have thought, well, that’s all in the past, we’ve learned from that, we are where we are. We’re God’s people, he’s chosen us and we do everything his laws tell us to do, we’re untouchable. But Jesus’ words take on an ominous tone. When he says, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone’, he’s quoting word-for-word from Psalm 118, and the priests would suddenly be aware of the real point of the story. When he says, ‘the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits,’ suddenly they’re in no doubt he’s talking about himself, and he’s talking about them. Jesus is saying that clinging to the old laws isn’t good enough anymore. Jesus is the stone, the cornerstone, the builders are the Jewish priests who reject him. And they’re not untouchable anymore.
Most buildings these days don’t have cornerstones. The building I spoke about in my own wee parable about the crooked project manager, it wasn’t built with a stone which, if was taken away, would cause the whole place to come tumbling down. A cornerstone, when they were used, at least, was usually the first to be laid, it was the one that determined the position of the whole structure, in effect it held the whole thing up. And everything built up from the cornerstone. It gets me thinking, what are the cornerstones in our lives?
I need you to use your imagination here as you read or listen to this. Imagine a jar with a lid. This jar is our lives, your life, if you like. I’m sure you’ll be imagining an empty jar. But our lives aren’t empty, our lives are full of all sorts of things.
Imagine pouring seeds into the jar, imagine filling about half the jar with seeds. These seeds are the small things. These are the things we do every day that take up our time. Going to the shops, making meals, eating and drinking. All the things that we do because we’ve got to. Washing our hands – there’s plenty of that going on just now – putting on our masks going into the shops, taking them off again when we get out. Walking the dog, mowing the lawn, doing the housework. Making the bed, getting into it and getting out of it. Things that we do without even thinking about them. Putting a washing on, getting the car serviced. None of them very exciting things, but things we have to do to keep our lives going.
Then there are the things we want to do, when we get the chance. Imagine adding half a dozen tomatoes to the jar on top of the seeds. These represent things like going out for dinner, watching football matches – if that’s your thing, although we’re not going to be watching many for the next while, except on telly. Trips to the cinema if we’re brave enough. Holidays, when we can travel. Nice things. Good things, things we enjoy.
And then there are the people that we have to make time for in our lives. Imagine adding two or three apples on top of the seeds and the tomatoes. These are our family, husbands, wives, children. Our other relatives. Our friends. People at work. Some we have to make time for, some we want to make time for. The church is part of our life too, and these represent our church life. The time we spend here on a Sunday morning.
And when we’ve filled up our lives with all of this, then there’s God to fit in too – our relationship with him, the time we spend reading his word, the time we spend speaking to him, praying to him. Imagine adding something big – it’s only fitting, after all, it represents God – imagine adding a grapefruit on top of everything else.
Unless you’ve pictured a really large jar, there probably isn’t room in the jar. You can’t get the lid on. We’ve filled our lives with so much else, we haven’t left room for God. So what do we do?
We start again. Take everything out of the jar and start again.
Only this time we start with God, and the time we spend with him. The grapefruit goes in the jar first. We put God at the centre of our lives, make him the foundation of our lives, the cornerstone. Then we add in the apples, time we spend on our church life, the time we spend with the people in our lives. The important things come first. Then if we add in the things we have to do every day to keep our lives going, the tomatoes and the seeds in our imaginary jar, the boring stuff, and the things we enjoy, the things that make us happy, that we want to do – well, somehow, the seeds will find the gaps and flow around them, and everything just fits. The lid goes on, our lives are full. We can’t see God in here, you can’t see Jesus, but he’s there, at the heart of it all. Start with the cornerstone, it just makes sense. And the cornerstone in our lives may not be visible, but it’s there, and it’s holding everything else up.
That’s what the temple priests didn’t realise when Jesus told them the parable of the tenants. They focused on the tenants, on their misdoings, on their inadequacies. They focused on the law, and sticking to it no matter what. And they thought the landowner should be strict with the tenants, should punish them according to the law, should keep them in their place. What they didn’t realise was that the landowner was right there among them, right where they were. And I think that’s the same with us, the landowner is God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, call him what you will, and if we start with him, make him our cornerstone, well, everything else in our lives has a way of fitting into place.