The Tenants in the Vineyard

Below is my sermon from October 8, 2017, on Matthew 21:33-46. Go and read the parable if you haven’t, or what follows won’t make much sense. To be honest, this was a difficult sermon to come up with, because at first glance (or even first ten glances) there isn’t much good news here. Just a frustrating story about people behaving badly and irrationally. And this parable has been used throughout history to defend antisemitism and violence against Jews. Where do we find the good news? I finally found an ‘in’ to the story by considering the ways I personally resist being a tenant and the character of the landowner. What do you think?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

As some of you know, about six weeks ago, Tim and I decided to adopt a puppy. We did a lot of work ahead of time—we researched what type of dog would fit our lifestyle, we read all about developmental stages, went out and got engaging toys, a new bed, bought her brand of puppy food.

And in the past six weeks, since Lilah arrived, we’ve learned exactly who she thinks is in charge. It’s not us. She thinks that our house is her house, and that she rules the place. Our furniture, clothing, food—it’s all fair game.

She forgets, or doesn’t know, or simply chooses not to accept that she owes her entire existence to us. We provide shelter, food, water, the toys she so lovingly destroys, we play with her and pet her. We clean up after her. All she has to do is simply live there. Even the time she got trapped behind the couch, began crying for help, hasn’t really taught her that we are the ones in charge. We are the ones who take care of her and she does not make the rules.

It’s easy to see this with a dog, or a cat, or a child. They often forget that they are not the ones in charge. They often forget just how easy they have it, with someone else taking care of everything they need—they just have to live there, and follow the rules.

It’s harder to comprehend for us. Us, the adults, who actually are in charge of things, and responsible for things. All of us, who often are in charge of and responsible for others—for children, for older parents, for pets. But it is for us that this parable is meant.

Now the parable is extreme, there is no denying that. We cannot help but be outraged at these tenets and their criminal, homicidal behavior. It is obvious all they owe to the vineyard owner. The digging, the planting, the pruning, the protecting. The owner has done everything possible for these tenets.

Yes, the tenets work hard, but none of that work would be there to do if the owner hadn’t made it possible. The story is extreme—the tenets decide that they will take over. That for some reason, they don’t owe anything to the vineyard owner, so they will get rid of his emissaries, kill his son, and somehow this will mean they own the vineyard.

The image is extreme, but it is also you and me. We forget that we are the tenets. We fail to remember that everything we are and everything we think we ‘own’ are just on loan to us.  These homes, acres, jobs, congregations, children, spouses, communities — even our very bodies — were created by God and given to us for this little span of time. And yet, how often do I behave as though it all ‘belongs to me?’

We might not go to the extreme that the tenets did, but we too resist and block out the voices calling us to repentance, we put God to death in our hearts, and we fail to honor the ways God calls for us to live.

In Exodus, we hear about when God gave the people the Ten Commandments. These weren’t just arbitrary rules, but the ways God wants us to order our lives. The ways that God’s people, wandering in the desert, were to live out this relationship with God.

And you’ll notice they deal both with the vertical—with our relationship with God—and with the horizontal—our relationships with each other. Honor God, and honor your neighbors. The first three commandments all deal with our relationship with God: You shall have no other gods; do not take the name of the Lord in vain; honor the sabbath and keep it holy.

The last seven are all about human relationships: honor your mother and father; do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not covet anything of your neighbors’. The two go hand in hand. Honoring, respecting, and loving God is lived out in the here and now by honoring, respecting, and loving our neighbors. You can’t have one without the other.

And in our parable, we have neither. There is no honor for God or respect for neighbor. Jesus asks, “What will the landowner do?” It is the crowds, the listeners who respond: “.” As satisfying a response as that is to these wicked tenets, I don’t think the crowds have really gotten the measure of this landowner.

Because as extreme as the tenets are in this parable, the landowner is even more absurd. What landowner would act this way? With tenets rebelling against him, who would send more and more servants, only to have them killed. Who would then send his son, alone and unprotected, to deal with these wicked tenets? The landowner is not making rational decisions.

Jesus’ question is “what will the landowner do?” I think our question must be, what did the landowner do? The landowner sent his son—his only son—to treat with all of us. And when the wicked tenets said, we are not interested in what you have to say, we do not want to live by your rules, we would rather be in charge. When we killed the landowners Son, God raised him from the dead and sent him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God’s crazy, desperate love.

The parable is extreme, because God is extreme. Because God will go to any lengths for us, the tenets working the vineyard of this world. When we seek to forget God, when we try to leave behind the ways God wants us to live, the justice God expects, God keeps calling us back. Any other landowner might have given up, but not God. Because God is extreme, and God’s love is absurd. And thank God for that. Amen.

One thought on “The Tenants in the Vineyard

  1. As I told you yesterday, I thought this was a great sermon. I loved the dog stories and the analogy between the dog’s behavior and that of the bad people in the parable (of course I’m not implying that Lilah is bad). And I especially liked your explanation of how this parable applies to us. It certainly applies to me more often than I’d like to admit.


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