By The Rev. Sherry Deets
17 Pentecost, Proper 22 – October 5, 2014
He was, by all accounts, a successful man. This builder of fine homes in an upscale American suburb was known to all as a creative craftsman, a shrewd businessman, a fair-minded employer, and a generous benefactor. But he was aging now, and before he set out for Florida for the winter, he approached his top superintendent and told him that he was retiring. “I want you to build me a home, the finest home this company has ever built. Spare no expense, use the finest materials, employ the most gifted tradesmen, and build me a masterpiece before I come home next spring.”
The next day, the superintendent set out to build that home, but not exactly to orders. If his boss was retiring, that meant he would be losing his job, so he needed to pad his own savings account, lest he be destitute. He ordered inferior concrete blocks for the foundation, but charged the builder for premium blocks, and he pocketed the difference. He hired inexperienced carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers and landscapers, but he charged his boss wages that would be paid to master craftsmen, and he put the difference in his own bank account. He installed cheap appliances and lighting, insufficient insulation, inferior carpet, and drafty windows, and he skimmed a tidy sum off the top for himself. In the spring, when the home was finished, it looked spectacular; it was the signature home in the neighborhood, and the only thing that made the superintendent happier than how the project looked was the bottom line in his personal bank account, which had grown by hundreds of thousands of dollars that winter.
When the elderly business owner arrived home from Florida that spring, he toured this home fit for a king, and he was ecstatic. The superintendent handed him the keys and thanked his boss for the privilege of working for him all these years. And then the owner did an unthinkable thing: he said to the superintendent “You have been a trusted friend and a loyal partner in my business for all of these years; you deserve a home like this.” And he handed him the keys.
You know that phrase made famous by the cartoon character Pogo – we have met the enemy and he is us.
Greed is what that story is about, and greed is certainly present in our parable of the tenants in the vineyard. The first lesson we learn from the vineyard story related to God’s incredible patience. We find that the landowner had invested a lot in the vineyard. The verbs in verse 33 tell us that he planted, set, dug, built, let and went. These strong verbs point to the active, caring, loving attitude of the landowner toward his vineyard. Then he went away entrusting the responsibility to the tenants to till, cultivate, and harvest. He expected his vineyard to produce fruit.
We must notice that the landowner placed a phenomenal amount of trust in the tenants, just as God does in us. When ready to claim his harvest, the master sends representatives, not once, but twice. His patience seems unending. The first group was beaten, stoned, or killed. The second group met the same fate. But the owner was still patient. Finally thinking it inconceivable that his own son would be rejected, he sent him. “They will honor my son,” he says.
However, the wicked tenants failed their final opportunity. In the ultimate test, the son was cast out and killed. An ordinary landlord would have sought revenge on these ungrateful tenants. He might bring a legal action against them or even armed forces to claim what is rightfully his. But this landowner is like God, not like us. God sent his Son! The essential character of God is love, and such love is patient.
And a second lesson is here regarding stewardship. The tenants were provided with everything they needed. They were given the freedom to do the task as they wished. This was an opportunity for growth! But they blew it. Instead of showing faith, they resorted to greed and their murderous instincts. The behavior of these tenants was the perfect example of humanity’s rebellious response to God’s love. The people of God resisting God’s love.
The servants in this parable worked the land, but they treated the land as if it was their own. Somehow that they forgot that it never belonged to them, they forgot, or rejected their covenant with the landowner. They owed something to the landowner that they were unwilling to give. The same is true for us. These tenants forgot that they were merely stewards or managers. We sometimes forget too. We are under the delusion of ownership. We think we own things, when in reality God is the owner of all things. All we have belongs to God. We are stewards.
What does “ownership” really mean to us anyway? My friend’s father owns forty acres of land back in Arkansas. But what does that really mean? His father is 79 years old. He may have possession of that land for 10 or 20 more years, but one day he will be buried on that land. The land will own him. The same is true to a lesser degree of all that we own. There are no U-Haul trailers behind hearses. We leave everything when we die. So we see that the Bible is accurate when it describes us as stewards. We have possession of things for a little while.
Once we get over the delusion of ownership we can really enjoy the good things that God has placed in the garden for our enjoyment. And we may just share it with the other guests as well.
Christian novelist Flannery O’Connor has written, “You cannot understand life and its mysteries as long as you try to grasp it. Indeed, you cannot grasp it, just as you cannot walk off with a river in a bucket …. To have running water you must let go of it and let it run. The same is true of life and of God.”
Robert Newell was driving along an isolated road one night when his car suddenly stopped running. He was stranded. Then the lights of another car approached, pulled alongside, and stopped. After exchanging pleasantries, the other motorist pulled a rope from his trunk and towed Newell’s car several miles to the nearest garage. Newell tried to give money to the man, but he refused it. Newell then said, “Well, I must in some way return your kindness.” The stranger replied, “If you really want to show your gratitude, buy a rope and always carry it in your car.”
God is like that. He has put us in the vineyard, and invites us to enjoy its fruits–but he wants us pass the blessings on–to live righteously, to care about each other, and to bear witness to our faith. God’s emphasis on fruit-bearing is not unlike the motorist saying, “If you really want to show your gratitude, buy a rope and always carry it in your car.”
Our God is a patient, loving God. Amen.
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