[Jesus said] Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now 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, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
Way back when – back in the olden days – we ministers were able to go visit members of the congregation inside their homes. Like many of you, we used to visit people who hadn’t been able to attend church in a long time – we often use the term “shut-in” or “homebound,” which many more of us qualify as nowadays. Often people who have felt out-of-touch ask about how the church is doing. Throughout my ministry, I’ve always found it a measure of how connected people feel to their church by the way they ask. “How is the church doing?” “How is OUR church doing?” Sometimes people ask, “How are THEY doing down at the church?”
Throughout church history, church members have used the word “they” a lot. Sometimes the list of “they”s pointed to the religious officials of that day, like the Pharisees and the chief priests. But the “they”s also included Gentiles, women, the uncircumcised, eunuchs, and all sorts of sinners. I think all of us have a tendency to put distance between ourselves and those labeled “the bad guys.”
An example: A Sunday school teacher gathers her class around in a circle and tells them the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. As you may recall, in this Bible story the Pharisee stands so everyone can see him. He brags to God that he isn’t like this other man. The tax collector meanwhile stands in the shadows and whispers, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” After telling the story, the Sunday School teacher then talks about the piousness of the Pharisee and ends by saying, “Now class, let’s bow our heads and thank God we aren’t like that mean old Pharisee.”
But often, we really are like that mean old Pharisee. That’s the meaning of the whole story. “We” in our own ways are just like the “they” we criticize.
In today’s lesson, the tenants are given a plot of land to tend. The owner has already done a lot of the heavy lifting. “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.” Then he left his vineyard in the hands of the tenants. When the owner called them to accountability, asking for the fruit they had produced, they didn’t respond well. They killed the messengers.
The tenants thought the land belonged to them. They forgot that they were stewards of someone else’s property. The owner sent servant after servant and finally his own son, to no avail. The tenants thought the land was owed to them, since they’re the ones who had been left in charge.
Hasn’t humanity done the same thing? When the vineyard has been left in our hands, what have we done with it? We’ve filled it with war and terrorism; climate change and ecological disaster; social and political division; fear and pessimism everywhere. We humans may not have caused COVID-19, but we’re certainly responsible for how we deal with it.
When confronted with the fact that we’ve been less than great tenants, we protest that, no – the problem isn’t US. It’s THEM. It isn’t our fault. We blame it on someone else. Like in Genesis, the man blames the woman. The woman blames the snake. We blame things on the tenants before us. We blame our woes on the government or a political party. We blame things on extremists. On the elites. On the Trump supporters. On the courts. We blame police. We blame the Black Lives Matter movement. We always blame someone who is an OTHER. Some of the darkest chapters in the life of the Christian church are the times we blamed the Jews, using just this chapter and verse from today’s passage.
The words “we” and “they” are miles apart. But Jesus won’t let us off the hook so easily. He brings the two words “we” and “they” closer together. In today’s passage, even the chief priests and the Pharisees know Jesus is talking about them. As we read, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.” Because “we” ARE “they.” The people we label “they” are “us.”
Why was this parable included in the Gospel? Maybe because it was a warning to all religious groups. This story reminds us to be careful that we don’t forget we are only the tenants. It says: be careful if you don’t listen to the servants or the prophets God sends. Be careful when the owner sends his own son that you don’t ignore him or crucify him yet again.
The church today has been having a hard time, even before the pandemic hit. We seek to be relevant – like when we’re competing with kids’ sports on a Sunday morning, not to mention a town meeting! We seek to find our voice in a multi-religious and often agnostic culture. Even internally, we’ve been known to argue among ourselves about priorities and procedures.
Maybe our trouble is the same as the Pharisees. We forget this is God’s thing. This is God’s world. This is God’s church. We forget we are only tenants. We forget that the owner of the vineyard will one day come and ask us for an accounting.
So maybe we need to stop pointing fingers and look at who we are and what we’re doing. Maybe it isn’t the liberals or the conservatives to blame. Maybe the problem isn’t Trump. Maybe it isn’t Congress. Maybe it isn’t the climate change deniers, or the insistent mask wearers, or the immigrants, or the terrorists, or even our inadequate parents.
We have been told to faithfully tend the garden we’ve been given. We’re called to receive those who God sends our way. We’re supposed to make sure that when God walks down our street and stops at our house, we don’t miss God. We’re told not to forget to entertain strangers, because we may be unaware that they’re angels. That one we consider “other” may be Christ himself.
How much easier to point fingers at the Pharisees, or the Jews, or any of those other folks over there. How much harder to contemplate the question: What does it mean to be a tenant in this day? What does faithfulness look like, especially in this year of 2020?
The call to faithfulness, which means tending the vineyard, begins at home. It doesn’t end here, but it starts here.
As much as this upcoming election is important, we need to remember that no matter the outcome, we are still called to tend the vineyard: to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoner. No matter who wins or loses, we still need to care for the meek, to work for righteousness, and advocate for peace. Whether Littleton and surrounding towns go from green to yellow to red during the pandemic, whether we’re able to gather in this building or not, we’re still called to be the hands and feet of Christ in whatever ways we can, to care for the people entrusted to us. We can’t point fingers or make excuses – we need to tend to the vineyard.
Jesus said we all have been given this plot of land. It was in good shape when God gave it to us. Now our task is the same as those who came before us. It’s to leave the garden better than we found it. We need to reach out and join hands and hearts with our sisters and brothers – even strangers and enemies. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God will be…given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”
You and I are here because of God’s generosity and God’s tender care. God planted the vineyard. God put in the fence. And the wine press. And the watch tower. God has given us all that we need. We’re asked to remember that. It’s God’s vineyard. It’s all a gift. So let us go and produce abundant fruit with what we’ve been given. Amen.