A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on October 2, 2011
Sermon for Pentecost 16 (Proper 22)
Christ Church Andover
October 2, 2011
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
At first glance, we might well be scratching our heads and asking, “What in the WORLD is that parable all about?!” An absent landlord. Sends his people to collect the rent, and they are beaten, stoned, and killed by the tenants. Does it again – same thing. Then, assuming his own son might be treated better, he sends him out. But the tenants make the highly illogical assumption that if they kill him, they will get his inheritance. Hmmmm. So they kill him.
Then Jesus asks the question, “What will the owner do when he comes?” And the answer is, “He will put those miserable wretches to death,” and then lease the vineyard to others who will actually pay on time.
It takes more than a casual reading to understand what’s going on here!
Unlike most parables, this one can safely be said to be an allegory – that is, each element in it represents someone or something and has a hidden or symbolic meaning. So, the landowner is God; the vineyard is the world, or the place of God’s domain; the tenants are the chief priests and Pharisees – Israel’s religious elite; the slaves who come with a message from the owner are the prophets; the son of the owner is… Jesus; and the other tenants who follow after, and to whom, it says, the landowner will lease the vineyard are (one can infer) the church, or those who are followers of Christ.
In other words, you chief priests and Pharisees, if you don’t manage God’s domain well, if you think your interests are higher than God’s, you are in danger of losing your lease, your covenant with God, and it will be given to others. And don’t forget what it says in your scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone.” It could be the very one you are rejecting who will take preeminence.
So, the landowner is God. The tenants are the temple elites. The servants are the prophets. And the new tenants will be the followers of the one they reject.
Well, that’s how this parable is usually interpreted anyway.
Some have pursued this interpretation to an absurd degree, resulting in a doctrine of supercessionism – which is a fancy word meaning the replacement of the Old Covenant with Israel by a New Covenant with the Church – and therefore the replacement of the Jewish people as the stewards of God’s vineyard by Christians. And there is a direct line from this interpretation to the phenomenon of Christian anti-Semitism and the persecution of the Jews throughout the past 2,000 years.
But, what if, when we read a parable like this, were to ask ourselves, “Who are YOU in this parable?” What role do you play in a story like this? We like to do that with the prodigal son, for example: the goody-two-shoes among us are clearly the older brother, while all of us rabble-rousers are the prodigal, and so on.
What about in this case? Are you the owner? The landlord? How about those rebellious and illogical tenants who think it all belongs to THEM, and are even willing to kill for it?! Or what about the messengers who come on behalf of the owner to receive what is the owner’s? Or the son of the owner?? Perhaps those to whom it is leased after the owner comes, who always do what is right!
When I think about it that way, it’s very easy to see us (and I’m not talking now about just us sitting here, but our society) as those entitled tenants who wanted to believe it was all theirs – MINE, MINE, MINE!! We built it! We deserve it! Don’t want anybody taking what is ours, and we’re willing to protect it with blood! Acquisitive…, presumptuous…, self-centered and sometime ruthless people who not only don’t apparently desire to share what they have, but actually believe that it all really does belong to them, and are willing to go to extreme measures to be sure that they get it all in the end.
They have forgotten that they are not the owners – but the stewards. They are there to take care of what ultimately belongs to someone else – to cultivate it, to care for it and preserve it, perhaps even profit from it (nothing wrong with that), but to give back to the one who owns it what is right and fair.
The tenants in this parable bear a painful resemblance to all of us. We make the same mistake, don’t we? We presume that the vineyard belongs to us, to do with as we see fit. So we human beings abuse the land, pollute our waters, and defile the air without a lot of thought to what the landlord would want us to do, or to what will happen to the next tenants who come along. We create a society in which growing inequality means that some of us do quite well, thank you, but increasing numbers of people barely stay afloat and will realistically never have what we have always said we wanted for all people. And when the landowner sends his servants, his prophets, to remind us of the dream of a different kind of place, we abuse them and murder them when they challenge us, when they remind us whose it all is, and what is expected of us.
We’re all painfully aware of how these attitudes translate into our political life, and for this next year especially into election year rhetoric – and we can sometimes feel a bit helpless about where it is all heading and what it says about the kind of people we are becoming, and whether, in fact, our lease may be running out.
But there is something we all can do. We can practice being good stewards ourselves. What I mean by that is to live with a deep awareness of the fact that none of what we have is our own – but God’s. We have it all on lease, and we’ve been given the opportunity to do what we can with it, to use it, to do good with it, to multiply it if we can. But it is not ours. Everything we are and everything we have comes from the gracious hand of a loving God who gives us all good things. But we get into trouble when we begin to think we have done it for ourselves, and that it is only or primarily for our own sake.
I see the word “greed” written on a lot of the posters of the folks who are protesting down on Wall Street this past week. They talk about creating a new grassroots movement to change some of the terms of our social contract. There’s a good biblical word for that – metanoia – repentance – turning around and doing things differently. Well, we can each start our own grassroots movement, by deciding to live as though we are not the owners, but rather the stewards of all that we are and have, and of all that sustains us. We are not entitled to anything, because we were not the one who created it. We can’t selfishly hold on to what is not ours. We are not entitled – but entrusted with what belongs to God. And we are here to care for and tend to it as long as our lease on life holds.
It is a perspective that is largely lost in our culture and our society, and yes sometimes in the church, too. But one we very much need to reclaim.
At the offertory each week (at the 8 o’clock service) we utter words that remind us of where what we have given really come from: “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” They are words we should remember. Words we should apply not only to what we give here in this place, but to all of life.