10/4/2020 Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 21: 33-46.
[Jesus said to the people:] 33 “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. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 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.”
42 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’?
43 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. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning’s gospel consists of the second of three parables that Jesus uses to affirm for the leaders in the temple in Jerusalem, that his authority comes from God. And at first glance, it seems rather obvious to which characters in the parable Jesus is comparing those to whom he is speaking. In this story, Jesus is continuing his response to the chief priests and temple leaders, in reply to their questioning from where comes his authority to preach and teach in the temple. Let’s compose a “who’s who” in the list of characters in the parable. The vineyard is the world, creation, all that God has made. The tenants are the religious leaders of the day, the ones tasked with providing the fruits of the vineyard for the people. The landowner is God, and the son of the landowners is…Jesus. The “other tenants” to whom the vineyard will be given to nurture to a successful harvest are those who recognize that Jesus is the Son of God and who acknowledge that the vineyard is leased to them through God’s grace. These are to be the new caretakers of the kingdom of God.
And, as in the case of all Jesus’ parables, there is an implied role for his followers to fill today. And this may be the most transparent part of the entire allegory; we are called to assume the role of the “new tenants”, tasked with continuing the labors in the vineyard. It becomes our duty to nurture the vines so that they produce “good fruit”. To ensure that the people in God’s kingdom are cared for, so that God’s will for creation comes to fruition.
Yet the details of which individuals fill which roles in the tale are not the ultimate focus of this symbolism-filled parable. The intent is to clarify the reformed, renewed relationship that these “new tenants” are now able to have with God. The sacrifice of Jesus, the “stone that the builders rejected” has opened the way for a new and different relationship with God, the landowner who originally planted the vineyard. So, the entire parable has gone quite a bit further in explaining the individual roles being played, considering that Jesus told it in response to the priests’ query about his right to teach his very different theology. The temple leaders have received their answer; Jesus’ authority comes from God!
Which brings us back again to the new relationship that the ones who have been granted access to the vineyard now have with the landowner. Jesus’ authority is established, and even if the chief priests resented it enough to have him put to death, we acknowledge it as the cornerstone of our faith. And with this as the fundamental doctrine of our relationship with the landowner and his Son, we are free to toil in the vineyard, knowing that the Son has secured for us the ability to pursue the Father’s harvest; that is, the bringing forth of “good fruit” for the benefit of all the tenants of the renewed kingdom.
There is one additional concept that we need to affirm that we acknowledge, understand, and accept; and this is that small fact that the original tenant farmers in the parable either forgot or outright rejected. Their covenant with the landowner was one that allowed them to work the land, but it was never actually theirs. The common practice of the time was that absentee landlords would lease their land to others who would farm it, keep a portion of the harvest, and turn over to the landowner the amount that was his due. After all, it was his land, and he was the one who planted the original vines. The rebellious, murderous tenants forgot that they were merely managers, or stewards of what they thought they thought was theirs to possess. In fact, as tenants, they were merely participants in the harvest; the good fruits that the land produced were not theirs to usurp.
And this is that fact that we, as the “new tenants” in God’s kingdom must wholeheartedly accept. We too, are merely lessees of all that God provides. All that we have, all those things we possess, everything we call “ours”, we merely “lease” for a time. The old saying goes, “there are no U-Haul trailers towed behind the hearse”. All of creation remains God’s property; we are simply stewards of it, called to labor in the vineyard that is the kingdom of God. But our labors are only partially for our own benefit; our responsibilities reach far beyond ourselves. Our first priority is to the God who created us and everything around us. We must acknowledge that it is only by the grace of God that we “live, move, and have our being”.
Paul echoes this sentiment in these verse from his letter to the Philippians this morning. He writes, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” He devotes quite a bit of ink to confirming that he has had every reason to be boastful; his lineage, his adherence to the Law, his “self”-righteousness. This is how he describes his former life, prior to the revelation that Christ has redeemed him; and in a sense, he has become one of the “new tenants” of the vineyard that is God’s kingdom. In his newfound identity he states his aspiration; “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead”.
From the moment of his realization that his life was now different, he spent the rest of his days spreading the Gospel message. It’s fair to say that Paul of Tarsus did more to advance Christianity than anyone, save Jesus, himself. Paul’s understanding of his responsibility to God was the total devotion of his life to the advancement of the Good News of Jesus. His stewardship of the fruits of God’s kingdom was utterly complete.
If we return to Jesus’ parable, we find that the original tenants of the landowners’ vineyard refused to give any of the harvest over to the rightful owner; the one who owned the land and the grapevines. For them, their false sense that they owned what clearly wasn’t theirs, led them to give nothing in return for their livelihood. And for Paul, his conviction that everything belonged to God, this led him to offer his entire life to service of the gospel. So, somewhere in between these two extremes is where we are likely to find ourselves. Acknowledging that everything we have is a gift from God, we find ourselves compelled to tender back a portion of what we have been given through God’s grace.
This morning’s sermon isn’t intended to be a Stewardship speech, in fact these final thoughts didn’t occur to me until I had nearly finished writing it. But Jesus’ parable about avaricious tenants and Paul’s devotion sparked a thought within me. So, no listing of Emanuel’s mission and ministry will be included in this morning’s homily; neither will you hear that the finances of the church remain a deep concern. But you will shortly be receiving a letter from the Council and myself detailing the positive direction the church has been enjoying, as well as the need for funds to keep the lights on. All we ask is that when you receive the letter, that you prayerfully consider your support of the work of Emanuel Lutheran, as “new tenants” in the landowner’s vineyard.
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, help us to recognize that everything we have is a gift from you and that by your grace we are called to steward your blessings. Guide us to be a little more like Paul and very different from the farmers who would deny the vineyard owner his due. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, the landowner’s Son. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.