By The Very Rev. Sherry Crompton

October 5, 2008

Read: Matthew 21:33-46

Today’s parable about the landowner and the vineyard is present in all three of what are called the synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. For me, that implies a significance to this story, that it made it in all three tellings of the story of Jesus’ life. It’s an important story, with important messages. And recall last Sunday, I suggested that we look at these stories in the context of our very own lives. The bible is the living word of God and a gift given to us to help us in our everyday living. So let’s say that we are the chief priests and the Pharisees, the difference today being that we want to hear what Jesus is saying to us and we want to adjust our lives.

This is a parable that presents stewardship in a powerful way. It’s about how all that we have and know in this world is a gift from God. We have been entrusted with all of the rich resources of this earth, with our own gifts, and with the gifts of other people; our neighbors. With the economic crisis we now find ourselves in, this story takes on a relevance to our time that is uncanny. So let’s begin by looking at this story from the perspective of the tenants; but in a different kind of setting.

“Once upon a time there was a rich businessman from Orlando who bought a derelict apple orchard in Clarkesville, Georgia. He pruned the trees, fertilized them, fixed up the sales shed and put a brand new hand-painted sign on the highway. Then he leased the place to a local family for less than market value with the understanding they would give him ten percent of the apples. With no business experience and high hopes of owning their own place some day, the new tenants agreed and sealed the deal with a handshake. Then the rich landowner got into his Lincoln Town Car and drove back to Florida and no one in Clarkesville ever laid eyes on him again.

The tenants loved the place like it was their own. They went out to tend the trees at dawn and they stayed out each day until after dark. They used organic pesticides. They hauled water by hand during the summer drought and when the first frost was predicted before the apples were ripe, they built small fires throughout the orchard and stoked them all night long, so that the trees stayed warm under a blanket of wood smoke.

Come October, the air smelled of applesauce. Every time the tenants took a deep breath, their mouths watered. Meanwhile, the trees were so heavy with fruit . . . it was time to harvest, and it had to be done quickly, so the tenants worked in shifts, half of them sleeping while the others picked. Seventy-two hours later it was all done, and mountains of apples rose from the wooden bins in the sales shed: Golden Delicious, Winesap, Arkansas Black.

Happily exhausted, the tenants were standing there admiring the fruits of their labor when they heard gravel crunching under tires behind them and turned around to see a sixteen-wheeler with Florida plates backing into the shed. Two big guys with bulging biceps got out and started loading apples into the truck without even introducing themselves first, and when one of the tenants went up to negotiate the ten percent business, one of the big guys just picked him up and set him out of the way.

So the rest of the tenants held a quick huddle and decided to introduce the truckers to the mountain version of People’s Court. One of them cranked up the Bobcat while the others got hold of some pitchforks and pruning hooks and before long they had persuaded the landowner’s men to return to Florida empty-handed. “Get lost,” they explained, and the big guys did just that.” [1]

“The first line of the parable gives us an important clue as to what is at stake in this story—”there was a landowner.” We seem to have some confusion about this single line. Who really is the landowner here? The tenants sure look and act a lot like landowners. They live on the land, take over the actual work that such an occupation requires. They are the ones who cultivate, fertilize and warm the trees when the temperature hits zero; then they harvest it, box it, and store it; and who else but the tenants place the “Fresh Apples Here” signs all over the county? They do it all—except the one crucial thing: own the land. And where, pray tell, is the landlord during all of the subsequent work? Who knows? We have an absentee landlord in this story who never makes so much as a cameo appearance back on the farm.

Long, long ago our ancestors became tenants on the earth. So far back in time, the details have eroded. Somewhere along the way the tenant’s agreement conspicuously got misplaced and a deed of ownership replaced it. Not to worry. The landlord was in some far off place; and he didn’t give anyone much trouble. But then they began to come. First one, then another. Different, but they all had the same message from the landlord: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” Being reminded that they were not the owners of anything, you can understand their resistance to the messengers. So violence erupted from time to time. And it usually worked. Some would run off, others would get beaten up. Some even got themselves killed.

So what about this absentee landlord? One would think that he would have sent the police or an army in at the first sign of resistance or rebellion. But he didn’t. No violence for violence. Just kept sending a stream of messengers to remind our ancestors about the difference between ownership and stewardship. And that’s what really caused the violence: stewardship challenges one’s sense of ownership. They had grown accustomed to deeds and titles, mortgage payments and tax bills with their names on them. Of course they were the owners. They worked hard for what they had.

Anyway, each messenger was sent to bring them to their senses and to honor their agreement with the owner of the land. In the end, however, with a whole row of unmarked graves full of messengers along the vineyard walls, the owner sent his son—unarmed and alone—to teach the tenants what they had forgotten.

“You don’t own anything,” he told them, “never did.” You are our guests on earth, not rulers, and the good thing about that is that once you get over the delusion of ownership you can really enjoy the good things that I have placed in the garden for your enjoyment. You just need to share it with the other guests.”

And best of all, I have more of everything you could ever hope for, you just need to ask.” So all the tenants needed to do was to receive and to give away and to be thankful.

The tenants killed the son just like they had killed all his predecessors. But strangely, this landlordly type wouldn’t stay nice and dead like the rest. And to this very day, he keeps haunting the vineyard, reminding all who will listen that we are God’s guests on this earth. And that we are welcomed to it just as long as we remember whose it is and how we are to care for it. And so we are invited on this day to represent God’s stake in our lives and world, invited to be generous with each other as God is with us. We are not the owners, but the tenants. The arrangement may not be our way–or any one’s way–but with a landlord like God, it is the very best way to live. The only way to a world filled with laughter, sharing, and peace.” [2]

“A woman recalled her childhood during the depression. She over heard her parents talking one night that there was only a dollar and change left between them. As a child she worried all night what would happen to them, how would they survive the winter? The next morning her mother called to her and her brother and said, “I want you to take this money and walk to the store and buy as much peach ice cream as you can, then hurry home before it melts.” Her mother handed her all the money that they had. When they returned from the store, the house was full of neighbors and her mother was at the piano playing music. The afternoon was one of laughter, singing and peach ice cream.

Many years later, this woman asked her mother about that day. She replied, “Honey when all you have is a dollar and change, you know it isn’t money that can save you. Only God can. I just thought we needed a party so we could all remember.” Amen. [3]

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1995), p. 96.
[2] The Rev. Thomas Hall sermon on this parable
[3] Author unknown

Copyright 2008-2012 Episcopal Church of the Trinity.

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