Lent begins with the Devil tempting Christ to cast himself from the pinnacle of the temple, with abusive reference to the ninetieth Psalm: “He has given his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways . . . lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”
Though man lives “in every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” that Word nourishes only when masticated and digested properly. In this case, Scripture does not intend to make us careless when it comes to our path, or the stones lying upon it.
In general, our Lord commands watchfulness. God gave us eyes so that we might look where we are going, both physically and spiritually.
In particular, Christ warns us about a stone that, if we are not mindful of it, may lead us to an “evil end.”
The scene is once more God’s temple, where Jesus has indeed placed himself in danger, by preaching the Word in defiance of “the chief priests and ancients of the people,” who challenge his authority, because he is undermining theirs (Matthew 21).
We and the multitudes present know that these false shepherds are hypocrites, because they refuse to say what they think about John the Baptist’s commission. If they say it is from heaven, they will be asked why they did not obey him; if they say it is from men, they are afraid of what the crowds will do to them.
Amidst all these worldly fears, the priests and ancients lack one thing: the fear of the Lord, and the wisdom it brings.
Attempting to instill this salutary fear, Christ tells them the parable of a vineyard, whose tenants resort to murder rather than pay its owner his share of the fruits. Considering the facts, even these wayward souls must admit that such “evil men” deserve an “evil end.”
The vineyard in question is, of course, the same described in Matthew 20, in which honest laborers earn a “penny” whose value surpasses that of all the treasures of the world.
What the second parable helps us to see is that all of us will eventually labor in the vineyard of this life, which is (rightly understood) the gift of God. The alternative is not to shirk our work altogether, but to attempt to hoard the fruits of our labor, rather than share them with the paterfamilias, to whom all things belong.
To switch metaphors, each of us is engaged in a building project, constructing our own characters and relations with our neighbors.
When we choose to build our lives upon the Lord, we are infused with his virtue, and the resulting edifice is worthy of the inscription: “By the Lord this has been done; and it is wonderful in our eyes!”
When instead we cast the cornerstone away, we by no means escape his headship over our fate. In the vain attempt to ignore our Creator and Redeemer, we either fall upon this stone, and break; or despair as it falls upon us, and grinds us to powder.
Christ bids us watch our step, but not because we may by any means sidestep him. Rather, he wants us to see the stone upon which we must stand and be saved, lest we stumble against it, and thereby lose our footing, and our lives.
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