Who is in Charge?

Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
October 4, 2020
Matthew 21:33-46

“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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Jesus is being challenged by the religious authorities in Jerusalem. He has just rode in triumphantly on a donkey, cleansed the temple with a whip, and cursed a fig tree. He is now engaging with a hostile crowd and because they may not have understood his point in the first parable, Jesus shares another. Another parable to tell the religious leaders that just because you are religious does not mean you understand what God is doing or saying. They didn’t understand Jesus riding a donkey or cleansing the temple or cursing the fig tree. And they did not understand the previous parable. They are stuck in their ways. They are unable to see the radical love and acceptance that Jesus is offering. They are stuck in imperial ways of thinking that there is not enough for everyone, that some are more deserving than others. 

So Jesus tells them one of his classic, over the top parables. I mean think about it, why does this landlord not send troops after the tenants the first time they rough up one of his servants? Why is he so generous? Why are the tenants so arrogant and foolish to think that by killing the landlord’s son that they will receive the inheritance? And instead of finishing the parable, Jesus asks the religious leaders what the landlord should do. They take the bait and say to kill the tenants and get new tenants. But here Jesus uses his patented parable flip and says, “You are the tenants! Not the landowner!” Gasps!

I began my study of this text this week with some very righteous anger. I looked at this parable and saw all the problems in the world coming from tenants who think they are landowners. I looked at companies destroying the earth through greed and consumption. I looked at the police systems in our country that cannot seem to stop killing black and brown people. I looked at the legal system which continues to not prosecute police for these killings. I looked at our society which tells police if they feel frightened it is okay to kill someone while simultaneously teaching everyone that black and brown people are scary (ergo this will continue to happen again and again). 

And I think this is righteous anger and that these systems need to be addressed. They are all wicked tenants, acting as if they own the land and get to decide everyone’s fate. But to use this parable to continue to distance myself from the tenants is the same problem that the original audience had. Like those religious authorities, I assume that I am the landowner and know what is best, or at least I am the good new tenant to receive the land and do a good job.

However, I think the crux of this parable has to do with the relationships in the story. There are tenants, there is the landowner, there are the servants, and there is the land. What the tenants in the story do not understand or perhaps intentionally ignore is that they are supposed to be stewards of the vineyard. The religious authorities were supposed to be stewards not owners. We are supposed to be stewards. 

When I assume that I am the landowner, I assume that I know better than everyone else. It means in terms of climate change that I challenge what the big companies are doing instead of challenging myself to do better (even though both are important). In terms of racism, it means that I, the white male, assume that I have all the answers to fix the problem and I end up not listening to my siblings of color or steamrolling right past them. When I assume that I am the landowner, I am not responsible to anyone or anything because it all belongs to me. But what Jesus is trying to teach us in this parable is exactly the opposite. We do not own anything. We are supposed to be stewards. Stewards of the earth. Stewards in our relationships. Stewards in our jobs. Stewards with our money. Stewards even of the church. 

And this parable, Jesus riding on a donkey, cleansing the temple with a whip, and cursing the fig tree show us that God will make goodness and justice come to our world with us or without us. So whether we have been great stewards or whether we have messed up completely, I believe this story offers us hope in two ways:

First, I was reminded this week on a podcast by Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement as she interviewed Desmond Meade who works with getting the vote out in Florida that hope is a long game, not an immediate thing. Desmond sees a lot of people acting like the wicked tenants especially in his work helping previously incarcerated folx get the right to vote. But Desmond shared some gospel hope with me this week. He shared that we are winning and changes are happening. They may not be moving as fast or look the same as what we exactly want. But he points out that 5 years ago no one would be caught dead saying Black Lives Matter, and today you see it being said everywhere. He points out that 50 years ago seeing a colored and whites sign on the bathrooms would have been commonplace but today you would never see that. For Desmond, he sees the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice. 

Our parable tells the story of God’s patience with us. God keeps reaching out and keeps reaching out. And if we learn anything from the Bible, it is that God does not stop reaching out to us showing us a better way. God has an astounding amount of patience with us, so much more than we deserve. 

And the second strain of hope we find in this parable is a choice. God has given us a great gift and a great responsibility. We see images of wicked tenants and we see pictures of great tenants all throughout scripture. The question this parable challenges us to answer is what will we do as the tenants? Will we continue in our wicked ways filled with greed and overconsumption and self-entitlement? Or will we embrace God’s messengers whatever they look like, and act like the stewards that God has called us to be filled with love and generosity?

Because in God’s vineyard there is enough for everyone. Enough work to go around, enough food for all to eat, enough love for each and every one of us. So I invite you this week to consider what God has given you to steward, maybe its your family or loved ones, maybe it is a unique position at work to call out injustice, maybe it is a relationship with a neighbor in need, maybe it is a strong financial position that can be stewarded to help others. But whatever it is, consider how you are stewarding that relationship and whether it reflects God’s love and generosity. Go and produce fruit.

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