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Pentecost 18A Sermon
Matthew 21: 33-46
October 8, 2017

 

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May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

Whenever I hear the parable of the wicked tenants, I always recall the Old Testament story of Nathan confronting David regarding his sinfulness. You probably remember it – he had not only had an affair with Bathsheba, but he had done everything he could to cover up their relationship, even to the point of having her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. Nathan told David a parable about a man with a lot of sheep. He had a neighbor with one little ewe lamb who was very special to him. When guests came to the first man, instead of taking one of his many sheep to make a feast for them, he stole his neighbors little ewe lamb and killed it. You may remember how angry this made David, and how he demanded that this man die and pay the neighbor four times over since he had no pity. In response to David’s anger, Nathan proclaimed, “You are the man!”

At the end of this parable about wicked tenants killing the slaves and the son of the vineyard owner so that they can have the entire vineyard to themselves, the religious leaders proclaim that the vineyard owner will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time. Their anger is evident here, as they fail to recognize themselves in the parable just like David. Jesus basically does what Nathan does – confirms that these men are the bad guys in the parable; but instead of merely pointing it out with a simple phrase like, “You are these wicked tenants,” he goes a little further in his accusations. To be sure, they are right about the meaning of the parable – it is about stewards of God’s vineyard who claim it for themselves to the point of abusing and killing prophets and the son of God; they just don’t see themselves in them. They don’t want to hear Jesus say that the kingdom of God would be taken away from them and given to a people that will produce the fruits of the kingdom. Instead of embracing repentance and reconciliation like David did, they fulfill the parable by plotting to kill the son, Jesus.

The setting of Jesus’ story would have been very familiar to the people. It was not uncommon for a landowner to plant such a vineyard, then to rent it out to people to tend it. It still happens today – people who own land often rent it out to be farmed. But to treat the vineyard like it belongs to them, that is a shocking surprise. And to kill the vineyard owner’s son, that was totally unexpected. In that society, they would have been expected to respect his son, just as the vineyard owner said they would. They are so attached to this land and to its spoils, they are going to extreme ends to keep it all for themselves.
Do you see yourself in this parable? I do. I am right there with those tenants, wanting to run this vineyard all by myself, without interference or demands from the vineyard owner. I don’t think I would be driven to murder in order to keep it, but I certainly can count the times when I have been dishonest or cheating in order to keep control of my life and my household. Who gets the grapes in our lives? Certainly God does not want us to go hungry, but how much more do we have than we truly need?
Some of you may remember a number of years ago a video series that we watched on the topic of stewardship by Dr. Mark Allen Powell, a New Testament professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. Dr. Powell owns a nice house in Bexley, and a number of cats. In the video, he talked about how, when he and his wife travel, they will ask a student to come and stay at their house, to feed and take care of the cats and to generally tend to the house. The students don’t own the house; they are only there temporarily, for a short amount of time in comparison to the lifespan of the place. If he and his wife were to come home at the end of a trip and find the locks on the doors changed, and the tenants threatening them if they try to take residence of their own home, he would be extremely angry! He would do what he could to get them out.
Stewardship means knowing who the house belongs to; who gets the grapes at harvest time. Stewardship means we are called to care for and improve our life surroundings with full knowledge that it has been entrusted to us by a generous God who wants us to live and work in peaceful relationship with each other and with God. Stewardship is about trusting the owner of the vineyard to care for us, which often means giving up power or authority that we might have because of our gender, race or age.

This parable was not gospel, good news, to the religious authorities to whom it was first told. They believed that they made the rules for the vineyard, and to be told that the care they are giving over God’s people is overstepping their boundaries enrages their anger. In our Sunday school today we dealt with Martin Luther’s explanation to the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism. Identifying the vineyard with the kingdom of God, we might ask what the petition, “Thy Kingdom Come …” has to do with this parable. Luther explains that God’s Kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us. This is a humbling thing for those of us who want to make the rules to pray. We are acknowledging that if we continue to try to look out only for ourselves, we may indeed miss out on God’s kingdom! This is not a future, far off place, but is reality whenever God’s reign and rule happen here and now as well. We experience God’s Kingdom whenever we admit that ultimately the authority over our lives is in God’s hands and not ours.
This is especially difficult for someone like me: a while, middle aged male living in a culture where white males have traditionally been giving more authority or privilege in many ways. Even though I do not consider myself a racist or sexist, Islamaphobe or homophobe, I do see in myself a desire to be rigidly independent and take care of everything in my own way. If this parable does nothing else, it should make us more like David and less like the religious leaders: able to see our own faults and shortcomings in order to hand God the authority that is his in the first place. It is that message that is good news to all, even those of us who live in a society where we may no longer have the power or privilege we once did. Relieved of that burden, we can focus on tending the vineyard of God, loving each other and producing whatever God has planted in our hearts. We all have privilege in God’s Kingdom. May that privilege not lead to jealousy and resistance, but to accepting God’s rule and working to share God’s love. The grapes are God’s. The love is God’s. The world is God’s. May we steward this world in such a way that God’s Kingdom is made richer for his sake and not for ours. Amen.