March 13, 2020 (Friday) - Gangsters, Inc. - A Reflection on Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “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’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

For some reason the Pharisees always remind me of mob bosses. You know, gangsters. Like gangsters, they ordered everybody around, and any infraction was severely punished. People followed them without question, because questioning them was not allowed. Like gangsters, they were ostentatious in their manner, only instead of heavy gold chains around their necks they wore phylacteries on their foreheads. They had it their way. Until Jesus came along.

He didn’t pay heed to anything the Pharisees said. On the contrary he did his own thing. He consorted with the wrong people. He broke the law on the Sabbath. He ate and drank as he wished. When confronted he taunted them. When baited he escaped their traps. He was offensive, aggravating, and confrontational. He called them hypocrites. He compared them to whitewashed tombs and dirty cups. Our Lord let them have it. 

Quite naturally, like gangsters, they decided to kill him. It’s the nature of gangsters to kill those who would threaten their authority. And, through the parable that we are reflecting upon today, Jesus tells them exactly this. And, strangely, because most of the time they didn’t understand anything Jesus said, they understood what he was saying here and it made them furious. That’s another gangster trait: to get angry when told the truth. 

Now, here is the thing. Why do you think Jesus was so combative with the Pharisees? Because he hated them? That’s impossible, because our Lord could only love. It is because he wanted them to come to their senses and sometime the only way to bring people to their senses is to shock some sense into them. Even today he wants to shock sense into those among us who act like the Pharisees, especially those in leadership roles.

Leaders are shepherds, not gang lords. And the sheep we look after don’t belong to us, they belong to the Good Shepherd, who is, of course, Jesus our Lord. We need to tend to our flocks with love and kindness, not threats and intimidation. And every now and then our Lord will remind us of this. Instead of getting upset when reminded, we should rectify our ways. 

Otherwise, what he said to the Pharisees will become true of us: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43).