Bertrand Russell once said, “It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.” Since Russell was an atheist, I’m very careful how and when to express agreement with his philosophy of life. But this is one area where I’m tempted to say the same thing when it comes to people’s possession of religion.
Surely possessiveness lies at the heart of Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants, as related in today’s Gospel from Matthew. For the past few weeks, Jesus has been on a roll, telling one parable after another in rapid-fire succession.
Parables can be like alternative worlds, little “twilight zones” we unknowingly walk into, and at the end see something about ourselves and about God that we somehow had managed to overlook before. Some parables are comedies, where things are turned upside down and everything ends in surprise. Other parables, like the one we’re looking at today, are tragedies, where things don’t end the way we’d like them to end, where we’re forced to trust a God who sometimes doesn’t deal with the world in the way we think the world ought to be handled.
Listen to a modern parable: One afternoon a secretary who worked in a large office building took a well-deserved coffee break. She stopped by the vending machine and bought a bag of cookies. Then she waited in line for a cup of coffee. After she got her coffee, she found a vacant chair at a table in the break room and sat down to enjoy a few brief minutes away from the office. She became engrossed in her smartphone.
After taking a sip of her coffee, she reached out and took a cookie from the bag on the table. To her astonishment, a man sitting across the table from her also reached into the bag and took a cookie! She was a little bit upset by this, but she didn’t say anything. After all, it was only one cookie.
A few moments later, she took another cookie. Once again, her table companion also took a cookie from the bag. Now she was getting a little bent out of shape, especially since there was only one more cookie left in the bag. Apparently the man also noticed that only one cookie was left. He reached into the bag, took it out, broke it in half, offered one half to his break companion, and ate the other half himself. Then he smiled, rose from the table, and walked away.
By this time, steam was coming from the woman’s ears! She was livid! How dare this jerk ruin her coffee break by helping himself to half of her cookies! She hastily gathered up her belongings and snatched up her purse, which fell open to reveal her unopened bag of cookies. All this time she had been helping herself to someone else’s cookies, and he didn’t seem to mind at all! Actually it was the person with whom she shared the table who had every right to be offended. She had taken what had belonged to him without asking or even acknowledging the generosity of her host with a word of thanks.
The same mistake – but with a decidedly different amount of anger and violence – was made by the tenants of the vineyard in the parable Jesus sets before us today. The tenants didn’t own the vineyard they were working in, nor did they own the fruit it produced. As tenants, or sharecroppers, as we would call them today, they had only leased the land. They didn’t pay any purchase price, they only paid rent. And the rent they agreed to pay was a portion of the harvest.
Now, if you’ve ever rented a house or an apartment, you know that legally the renter’s first obligation is to pay the owner. This is the obligation the tenants in this story had agreed upon with the owner of the vineyard. But when the owner sent agents to collect the rent, the tenants reneged on their obligation. Instead they said to each other, “Why should we give him anything? We’re the ones doing all the work around here! Did he offer to help with the harvest? No! And since we’re doing all the work, this should be our vineyard, not his! And if it’s our vineyard, the harvest belongs to us, too!”
Then they proceeded not only to deny the owner the rent they had agreed upon, but to mistreat and kill the ones the owner had sent to collect the rent. Like the weary woman on coffee break, the tenants of the vineyard took for their own something that rightfully belonged to someone else.
So it may be with us. All our lives, we’ve been helping ourselves to God’s bag of cookies. Whether we realize it or not, whatever cookies we have are cookies that come from God. Have we acknowledged the source of the gifts with which we have been blessed, or do we simply claim them as our own and dare anyone to try to take part of it away?
Once at a parish meeting a wealthy member of the church rose to tell the rest of those present about his Christian faith.
“I’m a multi-millionaire,” he said, “and I attribute my wealth to the blessings of God in my life.” He went on to recall the turning point in his relationship with God. As a young man, he had just earned his very first dollar on a Saturday and he went to church the next morning. The speaker at the service was a missionary who told about his work in the mission field. Before the offering plate was passed around, the preacher told everyone that everything that was collected that morning would be given to this missionary to help fund his work on behalf of the church.
The wealthy man wanted to give to support mission work, but he knew he couldn’t make change from the offering plate. He knew he either had to give the whole dollar, all he had, or nothing at all. At that moment, he decided to give all that he had to God. Looking back, he said he knew that God had blessed that decision and had made him wealthy.
When he finished, there was silence in the room. As he returned to the pew and sat down, an elderly lady seated behind him leaned forward and said, “I dare you to do it again.”
When we start out, it’s easy to remember that the gifts and opportunities that come our way are from God. But something happens along the way. We forget the owner. We come to think of the vineyard and everything it produces as something we own.
I realize there is an element of judgment in this parable. Any time you encounter a parable about a vineyard, you can expect judgment to enter the picture. But that’s not the only theme we can draw from this story, is it? No, I think this parable is also about stewardship, about our obligation as tenants of the vineyard to give a portion of the bountiful harvest we have enjoyed back to the One who gave us everything, including life itself.
In whose kingdom do we live – in our kingdom or in God’s kingdom? In whose vineyard do we labor – our vineyard, or God’s vineyard? And what difference does that make in our life, our work, or our worship?
The psalmist sang, “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” And that’s true. The earth is the Lord’s. We are tenants of the earth, not the owners. As much as we seem to like to think, we never own land. We simply lease it for a little while from the One who created it.
We need to remember, in all of our dealings, that this is all God’s, not ours. And make no mistake about it, God will judge us one day by how faithfully we have ministered to one another in His name, using His resources.
“You mean to say we’re going to be held responsible for something we don’t own? How is that fair, preacher?” Well, if we are parents, we have children, and we are responsible for our children, aren’t we? But we don’t own them, do we? Similarly, we are tenants of this earth, stewards of what has been entrusted to our care.
And, as the tenants of God’s earthly vineyard, we gather as God’s church every week to celebrate God’s victory over death, and to offer back to the owner of the vineyard a portion of what the land has yielded to us. We offer up the sweat and the tears and the laughter of our own lives. And as we do that, we receive back from God the body and blood of the Son who was crucified that we might be redeemed. Come to think of it, we’re getting paid a lot more than we’re worth, aren’t we?