Today's gospel is a very strange story of a landowner and his tenants. Like that landowner, Julie and I have some acres that we rent out; alfalfa is being grown on it again this year. We too expect to get pay from our tenant. In fact, we get two checks, half the rent in the spring and the other half in the fall. It comes in the form of a check in the mail. It's actually a former student of mine who runs the land; a friend. I've received the check late a few time, but I've never had to send one of the boys to try to collect.
The parable of Jesus has some other differences from my experiences. The land is in a country far from where he resides. The tenants who leased it most likely aren't friends of his; at least I'd hope not. He has to send someone to collect the rent; it's not like the check is in the mail. But the tenants do owe the produce, the fruits of the vineyard, to the owner and they are refusing to pay.
More than refusing, they are violently defying the owner efforts to collect. He finally sends his son whom they kill thinking they can then keep all the harvest for themselves. That is not likely to happen today and would not have been a natural occurrence back then. But it was a parable, a story with a lesson. And that lesson was primarily for the Jewish leaders of the day but let's examine the parable and see if there is a lesson here for us as well.
The parable really has its roots in our Old Testament lesson that Robbie read from Isaiah. Isaiah told about a choice vineyard; he shared a song describing that beautiful vineyard-- fertile, cleared of stones, with the choicest vines planted. But when all was said and done, the vineyard yielded wild grapes. And Isaiah made clear the message for the Israelite people, “The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” Here, as in Jesus' parable, the vineyard is the nation of Israel. Here, the message is the quality of the nation's fruit their work yielded; not good fruit, but distress and bloodshed.
The problem in the parable Jesus told was not the quality of the fruit, but how the tenants showed their responsibility to the landowner. Matthew tells us the chief priests and Pharisees recognized that this parable was about them. The parable was about their failure, not to reap the harvest of good fruit, but to be responsible to the one who provided the land and the seed. As in the parable, Israel had often ignored and even killed the prophets God had sent. And in retrospect, we recognize the Christological message here. We can recognize that the landowner's son that was sent represents God sending Jesus. And we also recognize that, like the tenants in the parable, the people have the Son put to death.
That all seems rather clear I think. But the message for us may not be so clear. To help us find the message, it may help to answer three questions. For our purpose today, who is the landowner? Who are the tenants? And what is the produce? And the answers to the first two seem pretty evident-- as it was in Jesus' time. The landowner is God-- who provides us the world in which we live; the vineyard if you will. That makes us the tenants-- the ones who are living in, caring for, and making a living from the vineyard. And the produce, the yield, the things we owe the landowner? I borrow my answer from Christian Century author Kathryn Z. Johnston. But before I do that, I want to remind you of my newsletter article where I referenced, chapter 25 of Matthew's gospel. It is the judging of the sheep and goats. You may remember the story, Jesus welcomes into the kingdom those... well let's read who he called blessed, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” They questioned when they did these things and Jesus informed them that when they cared for one of the least of this world, they cared for him. And vice versa for those who were judged and failed to see the need in the world. Back to today's parable and what Johnston wrote about the question about our yield in life, the fruit we are producing,our rent if you will: “I wonder if for Matthew the answer can be found in chapter 25: food to eat, water to drink, welcome for the stranger, clothes for the naked, care for the sick, empathy for the imprisoned. When we hear these things, when we think about the need and disparities in the earthly kingdom, can we still envision ourselves sitting among those at Jesus’ feet while he tells this story? Or do we suddenly see ourselves surrounded instead by a great bounty, trying to bargain with Jesus that all of it is rightfully ours?”
That's a hard question; what is rightfully ours? Consider all the goods, the blessings, the bounty we have in the “vineyard.” Are we like those tenants in the parable, hoarding it, protecting what is ours, claiming our right to do what we want, how we want, when we want? I find it easy to dismiss the idea that we are like those evil tenants who were willing to do whatever it took for their own benefits. Do we insist on our own “rights” to use a term often used today. It never ceases to amaze me how we as humans can justify ourselves in our own eyes. I'm sure those tenants did. And we all do. Are we like those tenants in the parable? If we look at it, not in terms of the violence they used, but the idea that my wants, my desires, my benefits come first, it hits a lot closer to home.
We don't have to look too hard into the teachings of Jesus to find this recurring theme-- God the creator owns everything. We are here as stewards, tenants if you will. We are responsible for how we use our goods and Jesus teaches that we will be judged by how we use our goods, talents, gifts. I never intended this to be a stewardship sermon, but this is where the scripture lessons led us. You will soon receive pledge forms, consider your roles as a tenant of God's garden as you decide what you can give.
Finally, today is World Communion Sunday. Like the sharing of our gifts, we share the bread and the cup, not directly but as we partake in community; even a community divided by miles but united in Christ. The fruit of the vine is fitting for today's scriptures. But as we take and remember the sacrifice of Jesus, remember too the call we each have to share the bounty of the harvest with each other and the world. And not just material goods. Just as this sacramental meal is not sufficient for our physical well-being but it is the food of our spirits, so the world needs the good news of Jesus Christ and his love. We demonstrate that with acts of generosity, empathy, and grace. But we have the spiritual fruit to share as well. From Galatians, the fruit of the spirit is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control...”. We receive those gifts and we share those gifts. Let us not miss the call to give to God what is God's. Let us use the fruit in our life wisely even as we tend our spiritual life so the fruit of the Spirit becomes evident to all around us. And may our spirits be fed today by the bread of life and the fruit of the vine; God's gifts to us. Amen.
Hymn: Let Us Talent and Tongues Employ