October 8, 2017 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Oct 082017

 Matthew 21:33-43

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes? Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

Let’s take a look at today’s parable. The standard interpretation is that God is the Landowner, the Vineyard is Israel, the agents are the prophets and Jesus is the Son. Although this is foundational, I’d like to come at it from a slightly different angle.

So, we have a landowner who is being given the run around by his tenants. They no longer want to pay their rent. These tenants want to be in control; they want to own the vineyard if you will. However, it is not for sale and it never will be. The owner is not looking for buyers.  He is looking for tenants who will give him his fair share of the produce at harvest time, and this is the key part, the real issue is stewardship, a word that puts many of us on the defensive because it challenges our sense of entitlement and ownership.

With few exceptions, we have worked hard for what we have; we have deeds and titles and fence lines to prove ownership of our property. We have registered land plats and mortgage payment books and tax bills and home owners insurance, all with our names on them. We have gone to a lot of trouble to get these things and hanging on to them requires no small amount of financial courage but according to today’s Gospel lesson we are simply deluding ourselves.

Our ancestors became divine tenants thousands of years ago; it was so far back that most of us have forgotten the circumstances. Somewhere along the way someone misplaced or ignored the tenants’ agreement and wrote up a deed instead, saying that we now own the property instead of leasing it and that is the basis of the problem in this parable.

In the story today, the Landowner—representing God—spent most of his time in a far off place.  His absence made him really, really easy to ignore. When he sent messengers to remind the tenants of their agreement, they said, “You have been gone so long and have been so undemanding that we’ve decided that things have changed. This vineyard, this land, is now ours.”

All it took was a little bravado and a couple of bursts of violence and—bada bing— the agents of the land owner who were still alive ran away empty-handed.

The owner could have sent the police or the sheriff or even recruited his own army of thugs. He could have returned violence for violence but he did not. He just kept sending messengers, one after another, each of them pleading with the tenants to come to their senses and honor their agreement with the landowner.

Finally, when there was a whole row of unmarked graves full of messengers outside the vineyard walls, the owner sent his son, unaccompanied and unarmed, to teach the tenants things they had clearly forgotten or had opted not to learn. He reminded them that they were stewards and tenants, not owners. In fact they were guests on the earth. He even might have reminded them of Psalm 24:1—“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…” It’s all His—none of it was theirs—or now ours.

The Son reminded them that being guests placed them in relationship with the landowner who also was their host, who also placed them in relationship with each other, and once they got over their delusions of ownership, these relationships, with him and others, could be based on our gratitude, not our fear, nor our resentment nor a false sense of security, nor even the mere desire for power.

He reminded them that as guests they had free access to far more than they could ever have earned for themselves. All he asked was that they take care of the vineyard and that they give him a prescribed portion of what they produced; not because he needed it, for he turned around immediately and gave it away, but they needed to be constantly reminded that they were tenants and stewards and not owners.

They needed to give, in order to remember who they were: grateful tenants and stewards who took their lives and the fruits of their efforts from the Lord’s favor and returned the favor by giving a portion of their largess back to him and to others.

The Son probably reminded them of the Hebrew Scriptures that God, the land owner, gave instructions on paying what they owed to him by giving to others. There’s a good chance he reminded them of the importance of honoring God with the “first fruits” of their labor. Most likely, he shared with them that they would be greatly blessed by so doing. He may have quoted Proverbs 3:9-10: “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce—then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”

He may even have told them of God’s confrontation through the prophet Malachi, referring to the only place in scripture that God challenges his people to test him. God says: “…you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and your offerings.  You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me.  [What can we do?, we may ask. The answer God says is to…] Bring the full tithes into the storehouse that there may be food in my house and thereby PUT ME TO THE TEST’ says the Lord of hosts. [See] if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down on you an overflowing blessing.” (Mal.3:8-10) By the way, this is the only place in all of the scriptures where God commands us to test him. In all other places we are warned not to test him. I think this was the son’s message.

But in the parable, the tenants weren’t buying it; they killed the son but he would not stay dead and to this day he challenges the tenants and stewards, reminding us that we are God’s guests, welcome on this earth and loved with a fierce love, all the while being reminded that we are not the owners. There is also the warning that violence will befall us if we do not heed.

All this is right in the wheelhouse of Pope Francis’s teachings, especially his 191 page encyclical on the environment, Laudato si. Although the Holy Father doesn’t hold much back about our troubling stewardship of the earth, I would like to share a word of hope with you. He writes:

…all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start. He does offer a word of hope. We can change our ways. And what does that mean?, we may ask.

Well to start, we must not spurn the owner and persecute his messengers because to do that is to court our own destruction. To do that is to forget, or ignore, who we are and what our purpose here is. We are God’s sharecroppers. We tend the earth and reap it’s riches on God’s behalf. We can love this vineyard, this earth, as our own. We can water it by hand and build fires against the frost and take deep pleasure in the harvest. We can even will pieces of it to our children or sell our part of the tenancy to others. But we are expected to represent God’s interests, being as generous with each other as God is with us. We are not owners. We were never meant to be owners. It may fly in the face of much of what we have been taught, but it is the way of the Kingdom of God and I will tell you, if we abide by God’s rules, the harvest will take your breath away.