Sunday's Sermon -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
Jesus loved to tell stories. In Jesus’ stories, called “parables,” he took a familiar experience for his listeners and gave it a spiritual meaning.
Today, nearly 2,000 years after Jesus first told his many parables, they are among the favorite stories in the Bible for Christians.
Think of your favorite parables – What are they? What are they about?
(After giving folks a few minutes to think of their favorite parable(s), I asked for volunteers to share their favorites out loud. Examples included “The Good Samaritan,” “The Lost Sheep,” “The Prodigal Son,” and the “Mustard Seed.”)
My reason for doing this exercise, in addition to helping us reflect on important Bible stories and their meaning for us today, is that I am betting that, when we reflected on Jesus’ parables, none of us selected today’s parable from Matthew as one of our favorites, the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard.
What is going on in this parable? Well, the story itself is pretty straight-forward – A wealthy landowner, a first century developer, constructs a well-appointed vineyard – grapes, fencing, a press to make wine, and even a guard tower. He puts his fine vineyard up for rent, obtains some tenants and leaves the area, probably to develop another project somewhere else. Some months later, when it is time to obtain his rent, part of the grape harvest or wine made, the landowner sends his servants to collect from his tenants. Instead of handing over the rent, the grapes or wine due to the owner, the tenants kill the owner’s servants. So, the owner sends more servants to collect his due and the tenants kill them also. Finally, the owner tells his son to go and clean up this mess and you know what happens? The tenants kill the owner’s son also, thinking, in a most convoluted way, that somehow by killing the owner’s son, the owner will let them alone and they can assume control of the vineyard as if it belonged to them!
That’s as far as Jesus goes with this parable. Before he tells his listeners what happens next, he asks them what should happen next. His listeners give the obvious answer: the evil tenants deserve capital punishment and new tenants should be found.
Scholars tell us what is pretty obvious – this is a “got-cha” parable by Jesus. His listeners, the Pharisees, easily see that Jesus is talking about them and their rejection of both the Prophets of old, the landowner’s, God’s, servants, but even Jesus, the landowner’s, God’s, son! Got-cha!
We are not surprised that this revelation does not make the Pharisees happy. They want to grab Jesus and kill him on the spot, but Jesus is too popular with the common people to do this. So, they step back and watch and wait for a more appropriate time to take care of Jesus. And we, as post-Easter listeners, know how this parable-come-to-life will come out.
Through the years, this parable has been interpreted in several ways. One way to look at it is to see it as a story of who are God’s chosen people. This interpretation says that the Jews had their chance and rejected Jesus, making Christians God’s new chosen people. Such an interpretation was important in the time of the Gospel writers because the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and Christianity was just beginning to grow beyond the confines of Judaism.
Like some similar verses in the Bible, this text has also been used as an excuse to persecute the Jewish people – they had their chance, they missed it, they killed Jesus, now they deserve to be killed. So many evils have been done to Jewish people with this sort of wrong-thinking and grossly off-kilter interpretation over the years, down to the Holocaust of the first half of the 20th Century.
I must say that I am sorely tempted to compare this parable to 2014, especially thinking of the context in which people heard Jesus’ stories – a rich land with wealth increasingly concentrated in the hands of few, an unpopular government, poorer people growing more and more desperate. It all sounds a little too familiar to me. And I have not even mentioned all that we have done not to care creation and the environment!
But I believe that the most important interpretation for this parable is the issue of who owns the Vineyard. Let me say that again, I believe the most important interpretation for this parable is the issue of who owns the Vineyard. I think an important meaning of this parable for Christians today, in 2014, is who is the owner of and in our lives and who is the steward of our lives. I believe Jesus is telling us that God, not us, but God is the owner of this earth. We are but stewards, temporary residents, tenants, of the gifts that God has given us.
Thus, this is a stewardship story, how we, you and I, are stewards, temporary tenants, of the many gifts God has given us. Jesus is telling us, again, that all that we have belongs not to us, but to God. Jesus is telling us to live our lives, whether we are earthly rich or poor, as tenants here on earth, stewards of God’s great gifts – family, home, job, school, retirement – life itself. And that, of course, directly relates to the stewardship, the sharing, of God’s financial gifts. It is NOT “our money” with a portion to be shared with our church and other people. Everything is God’s and we are but temporary tenants, able to use these gifts on earth for a time. And, of course, it also relates to our care for the earth, how as temporary residents of this planet we are to care for it in any and every way we can.
And, Jesus is telling us something else: As temporary residents of this earth, we, you and I, have a choice. We can choose to accept God’s love for us and live knowing we are but stewards of this earth for a time OR we can act like we own this earth – it is our money, our home, our business. The first response, that all is God’s and we are but tenants, results in God’s salvation. The second, that somehow we own our lives here on earth, results in death. The choice for us, Jesus clearly states in this parable, is between salvation and death. The choice for us is between death and salvation. It is, my friends, as simple as that.
In the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard, Jesus is calling us to love and honor God, that is the first call, and, second, to live our lives as stewards of God’s many blessings to us here on earth, not to pretend to be owners, but to live in the wonder of God’s love for us, to care for this earth, and to share God’s many gifts to us with others.
Our call from Jesus is simply this – in whatever times we live – to live in God’s love for us, to give back to God as if God is the owner of 100% of our lives and this earth, because God is the owner of everything and all things.
Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Mt. Olive Lutheran Church, Santa Monica, California