It seems these days that renting is just not a very good idea. Whether you are a renter or a landlord, lots of things can happen to sour your rental experience.Renting just doesn’t make sense. So why on earth doesn’t everyone own a home? I mean, I must be crazy to read into today’s gospel story that Jesus is advocating living life with a renter’s mentality. If the truth be told, living this way just opens yourself up to all kinds of problems. Living with a renter’s mentality means being vulnerable to people who might have some kind of control over you. Living like this puts yourself at the mercy of the landlord, not to mention all of the unscrupulous employees working for him or her. Having a renter’s mentality just isn’t safe.
And that’s why this parable is probably one of the most complex of all Jesus’ parables in the gospels. So if you will, let’s take a little investigative excursion into the meaning of this parable. But let’s begin by doing a little unpacking. The original story Jesus told was probably preserved for us in the recently discovered Gospel of Thomas (65.1-7). It is, with a few minor variations, the same story. The owner of the vineyard (it is called a farm in Thomas’ version) sends servants to collect his crop. But when they show up the tenants renting the land beat them almost to death. When the owner sends more servants, the same thing happens. When the owner sends his son, thinking that the tenants will show him some respect, the farmers, knowing that he is the heir, kill him. And that is where most scripture scholars believe that Jesus’ story ends.
Everything afterwards is editorial comment. It is a very simple, disturbing story that, in fact, was reflective of the very difficult life that tenant farmers had in Galilee at the time of Jesus. Rich, absentee landlords took advantage of them; and, sometimes, tragic crimes like the ones that happen in the story did take place when poor people felt pushed to the limit. Jesus doesn’t explain the original story and we don’t really know why he told it.
What we do know is that Jesus was actually retelling a much earlier version of the parable found in the book of Isaiah. This song of the vineyard, as it is called in the 5th chapter of Isaiah, was a prophecy of the destruction of God’s beloved vineyard, Israel, because it had brought forth wild grapes and bitter fruit. The prophet was dramatizing the systemic injustice and exploitation of the poor in the nation of Israel at that time. In Isaiah’s vision, the vineyard would be leveled, its trees cut down and dug up, the watchtower and wall torn down, the pit filled in until not a trace of it was left. That’s where the story ended.
However when Matthew puts the parable in context of Jesus ministry, the vineyard is taken away from unappreciative tenants and given to others. There is no doubt, in other words, that Matthew meant this story to be a story of judgment against those members of the Jewish community who had broken fellowship from his church. On a basic level, the story is about the disobedience of the people of Israel, especially their leaders, and the consequent turning of God toward a new people, the followers of Jesus Christ. Well, Matthew’s interpretation, as you can probably guess, in spite of being very popular among Christians, has led to a lot of trouble that would have sickened Jesus. Many Christian people began to see the Jewish people as a whole as the enemies of God; and the tragic treatment of Jewish people down through the centuries by the church is a disturbing reminder of how badly we have represented Jesus to the world.
No matter which way you interpret it, the vineyard parable was meant as a warning, a warning as applicable to Isaiah’s and Matthew’s time as it is to our own. It is a warning to keep alert for justice and loving-kindness. Those of us who say that we believe in God, stand under the same judgment. God is the witness of wickedness and wrongdoing and God is its undoing. No one is exempt. The parable invites us to be shocked about attitudes that are contrary to God. We are to be happy as stewards, tenants who do not own property but who tend it in the interest of others.
The parable also invites us to reflect on our own rejection of the way of Jesus. It’s the way of non-violence and love for our enemies. Jesus’ way, his gospel, was to embrace others. It was to move from an attitude of ownership, “How do I protect my own interests?” To a renter’s mentality, “What can I do for others?”
I personally believe that we are living in a time of judgment upon institutional religion. All institutional religion. All who claim the name of God for themselves. All who claim to represent the ways of God in this world – Jew, Christian, and Muslim alike. If we do not live what we preach, if we do not practice justice and human kindness towards our brothers and sisters, if we turn blind eyes to the evil done in our midst in the name of God, the day will come when what God has entrusted to us will be taken away and given to someone else no matter how unlikely such a scenario might seem.
The fact is, it has happened before and it will happen again. It happened to the Jewish people when they saw their beloved Temple in Jerusalem torn down once in 586 BCE. Then it happened again not long after the time of Jesus in 70 AD. It has already happened to sanctuaries of the Christian church around the world. And it’s happening to churches in our own denomination. They are being torn down - because what has been happening in such places has ceased to be life-giving—inattention, self-indulgence, inhospitality, exclusion, judgment, prejudice, selfishness – instead of the ways of God.
I had a bit of a tiff with Roger this week. Oh yes, you remember Roger? The homeless man that comes for coffee on Sunday mornings has showed up at my office every week since I’ve been here asking for something…food, water, money, etc. If you remember a few weeks ago I told you about taking Roger to get him a new backpack, sleeping bag, a week’s worth of clean socks, a Walmart gift certificate for food and other necessities. And he has been really appreciative. But when he showed up this week he didn’t have his backpack or his sleeping bag. When I came out onto the porch to chat with him he flicked his cigarette on the ground in front of me and I got angry. Roger, pick that up. That is really disrespectful. He said he was just making a point that he was angry. Where is your backpack and sleeping bag? I lost it. It had everything in it. I lost it at some house I was sleeping, and it had my debit card in it. Now that is the same story Roger told me the first time I met him. So I challenged him on it. Roger, where is the backpack and things I bought you? I don’t know. I’m confused. Roger, I can’t keep buying you things if you won’t take care of them. I just want something to eat. Well, I have water. But I gave you all of the food I had in the refrigerator for my lunches. And besides, I really think you need to go to a shelter and let someone talk to you. Are you off of your medication? Well, Roger did not like my assumptions about him and he stormed off, talking to himself and yelling at me on his way out.
And the Holy Spirit checked me again. Darn. What can I do, God? He’s mentally ill. I can’t just keep buying things when he loses all of my gifts, or throws them away, or sells them, or who knows what? And I realized that I had become just like the tenants in our sacred story. I’ve been praying to God that I learn how to love people better, and God sent me Roger. And what have I done? I treated him like he owed me something for showing him kindness. I told God that I wanted to produce fruits of the spirit and I squandered that harvest.
When it comes to building God’s kingdom, what will we do? Will we seek to maintain ownership of our own investments, or will we good stewards who tend it in the interest of others? When we consider what it means to own something versus just renting it, when we look at our church live together from a “home ownership” perspective, we tend to do what we want with our property and expect others to respect it. And in most cases, that is a good thing. But when we are building a home together that is not really ours to own, but is a place we live together as tenants of God’s kingdom, then we are called to be stewards of what God has given. And what has God given us? Has he given us a place to worship that depends on focusing all of our attention on caring for IT versus the gifts that are in it?
Around the sanctuary today you see display boards set up for our various ministry teams. During our spiritual reflection time after communion please visit the various ministries that you feel passionate about and help us decorate these boards with information about the good work we are doing inside the church and outside these walls. These ministries are the real gifts of this church for our community, and you are part of them. Without you and we can’t do ministry. You are the stewards of God’s work, and we need you to help promote the good work of this church to our community.