Often when watching Current Affairs on TV you’ll see a story about a tenant of a rented property who has trashed the house and left it in a disgusting mess owing on rent. They are terrible stories of disrespect for another person’s property and a lack of appreciation for another person’s generosity towards them. In the parable Jesus told today we have a similar picture of ungrateful tenants. And as we can see from the parable the ungratefulness stems from selfishness. The reasoning behind their mistreatment of the tenant’s messengers is greed. The desire to have what doesn’t belong to them. After having put the messengers to death the landowner sends his own son to collect the fruit of the harvest. And they say: let us kill him and get his inheritance. What is extraordinary to understand is why they believed they had any entitlement to the inheritance. They were tenants – workers. An inheritance belongs to family. And so the tenants start to treat the property leased to them as their own and thereby bring judgement on themselves. The Pharisees knew that Jesus was talking about them and how their ancestors treated the prophets sent to them by God. So they wanted to find a way that they could arrest Jesus and put an end to his judgment of them – the final part of the parable. But like all parables, they don’t just speak to the people of Jesus’ time they also speak to us today.
So what connection is there between ourselves and the wicked selfish tenants, and the religious leaders who rejected Jesus?” Are we not sometimes selfish like the tenants? Don’t we at times treat God’s creation as if it is our own to do with whatever we want irrespective of how it affects others now and also future generations. Do we not refuse to share the fruits of the “vineyard” and become as stingy and stubborn as they are? How often have we failed to respond lovingly to the gifts of God’s creation that are lavished our lives? Does it not follow, then, that we also deserve to be put to a miserable death?
Is that what Jesus is teaching in this parable? It wasn’t Jesus who said they deserved a wretched death but their own self judgment. As Christians, we always start with the understanding that God initiates the relationship with us – not we with God. It was while we were yet sinners that God sent his son to us. God’s reaching out to us is best understood as his giving us everything we have – with no strings attached and without our deserving it, without our having done anything to gain it. That’s the basis of Luther’s explanation of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.”
God, in Genesis, and Jesus by his death has made it very clear that we are the most precious beings in all creation – so valuable, as he proved on the cross; that we are worth dying for. We don’t have to earn God’s love; it is given freely.
So, why would a loving God put us to a miserable death? It wasn’t God pronouncing their judgment but them on themselves. Jesus asked them: when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death. It wasn’t Jesus pronouncing their judgment but themselves.
The wicked tenants received all they needed from the owner, but they refused to accept his graciousness and turned their backs on him, his servants, and even his son. And that’s what judgment is – our continual refusal to receive God’s grace and forgiveness. By their actions they cast themselves out of the vineyard in a similar way Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulted in their loss of the benefits of the Garden of Eden. The judgment we receive is by our failure to accept the grace of God. But we have been given a second chance (and a third and a fourth…..) The Second Chance is Jesus, the suffering Jesus, who became the Risen Jesus.
The Pharisees pronounced their own judgement. God, the landowner kept coming again and again in grace even to the point of sending his own Son both in the parable and in real life. The judgment comes from our selfishly acting as if the vineyard is all ours – no one else’s, let alone God’s. What we are seeing here is the question of what we call “Stewardship”. Stewardship is central to the life of the church and the life of Christians so we do not become focused on material things and claiming them only as our own. We are called to remember that what we have is not ours to own, but is granted by God for our use AND to bless others. When we look at the waste in our world and our desire for more and more and the starvation and homelessness around the world, is it God who is at fault? God’s grace and love is calling on us to respond to our good fortune of living in his vineyard by reflecting that love in our actions toward others. The tenants weren’t doing that – they were keeping the landowner’s harvest for themselves. We care for God’s creation by our stewardship of his gifts – especially by caring for our fellow human beings – we do so as a reflection of God’s love.
God’s love is poured out into us in such measure that it should overflow from us, and through us can overflow onto all creation. It is an overflow that allows us to maintain creation and preserve it and protect it from harm. An overflow that moves us to love others and share with them the Good News of God in Christ.
We are tenants of God’s creation, not owners. Everything we have is a gift by God so we should not think: “It’s my money and I can spend it as I please.” “It’s my body and I have a right to do what I want with it.” “It’s my life and I don’t need anyone to tell me how to live it.” It’s clear from the beginning of the Bible when God gave Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden, that they didn’t own it, they were tenants sent to care for it. Life is a gift. And we have a responsibility to use God’s gifts wisely and faithfully and generously. And God gives his gifts in the hope of finding a harvest of fruit – fruits of repentance – fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Today’s parable shows how humanity responds because of greed. The tenants had the land but they wanted the land for themselves even though the landowner had been generous to them – but they lost it all. It is the foundation of the very first sin when Adam and Eve, though given everything, still wanted more when tempted by Satan to “be like God” – and they lost it all. The sadness for Adam and Eve is that they were more than that already. They were more than being “like God” – they were created “in the image of God”. And so too for us, when we allow what God has given to us to become our god our very nature changes. We no longer reflect the unconditional love of God shown by sending his own Son. We show love that is conditional both in how we love and who we love. The judgment of death proclaimed by the Pharisees is an example of what you would expect under those circumstances without grace, in particular for putting the landowner’s son to death. But the judgment of Jesus’ death is the opposite of what God did. When God’s son was killed, God didn’t destroy the people who did it. Instead, God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him back to us to lead us to a new and better land. Not as tenants but as heirs.
Until that day…