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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 28, 2014

 Whose World Is It?

Exodus 17:1-7;Matthew 21:23-32

              Jesus must have loved vineyards because He told a handful of parables about them. Of course, given how central to the Jewish diet and religion that wine was, this should not come as a surprise. Jesus and His original audience also knew that Isaiah had likened Israel to a vineyard, with God as the owner of that vineyard. So in this parable of the vineyard, Jesus is talking to His own Jewish people about images and word pictures that were familiar. In this parable, a very violent one, Jesus is especially talking to the religious leaders in Jerusalem, maybe more than Jesus is speaking to the rest of His own beloved people.

             The parable is told the day after the first Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday marked a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. In entering the city through the Eastern Gate riding on a donkey, as throngs of people adored Him and shouted, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”, Jesus was clearly making a statement. They all knew the other Isaiah text, “Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on an ass….” From this triumphant entry Jesus went into the Temple, and drove out the moneychangers and those selling sacrifices, overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Jesus said, quoting from Isaiah again, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers.”

             This is one of the most provocative moments of Jesus’ life, and as much as any of His actions, it probably led to His arrest and to His crucifixion. I am sure that by this time, Jesus understood the forces that had been unleashed in Jerusalem. So this parable needs to be read in the light of Palm Sunday and Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple.

             In the parable, the owner is described as a man who lovingly creates a vineyard. In the first verse alone there are eight Greek verbs that describe what the landlord does to create this vineyard. He “planted” it, “put a hedge” around it, “dug” a winepress in it, “built” a tower to watch it, “leased” it out to tenants, and “went away” into another country. The parable starts with the owner, clearly Yahweh, the God of Israel, lovingly making a beautiful, fruitful vineyard and entrusting it to His tenants. Pierre Bonnard, the noted French New Testament scholar, makes the point that in “going away,” the owner is expressing his confidence in the tenants. You might even make the argument that this landowner has made the whole vineyard for his tenants, much like Lord Grantham, in Downton Abbey, feels like Downton exists to provide a way of life and a living not just for his family, but for the whole community. Of course, what is so winsome and admirable about Lord Grantham is that he does not think of himself as the owner of Downton. He sees himself as its caretaker or steward. He inherited it, and he will pass it on to the heir, and Lord Grantham feels immense responsibility to be a faithful steward.

             Here the tenants are not so mindful of their role as stewards. In point of fact, they really don’t want to be tenants – they want to assume ownership over what is clearly not theirs to own.

             The owner sends two groups out to collect his share of the fruit at the harvest. They beat one of the servants, kill another, stone still another. Then he sends another group of servants, and they do the same to them. For Matthew, and for Jesus, it is easy to imagine that these servants in the parable are the prophets God sent over and over again to the people of Israel. God keeps sending the prophets to speak His word of love and justice, and they keep rejecting them, stoning them, persecuting them.

             Then the landowner sends his son. Actually, the text says “finally” he sends his son. Mark calls him “his beloved son.” And he says, “They will respect my son.” The idea Jesus is trying to convey in His parable is the patient, persistent love of God for His people. God seems willing to go to any length to work things out for His people and the vineyard God has provided for them.

             But the tenants in this parable don’t want to be tenants. They decide that they will kill the son, the heir. So Jesus asks, “What will the owner of the vineyard do with those tenants when he comes?” The people answered, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their season.”

             The parable is clearly one that Jesus is telling about Himself. Jesus is the son whom the Father has sent. And Jesus came so that we, God’s people, might bear fruit, so that our lives might be productive, and lead to human flourishing.

             So what are we to make of this parable today? First, that even though we don’t like to think of ourselves as tenants, we are. We use words like “my” and “mine” and “ours” all the time. “My kids.” “My husband.” “My wife.” “My house.” “My car.” “My money.” “My life.” “Mine!” “Mine!” “Mine!” But, in truth, God owns everything. We are tenants, stewards at best. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell within it,” says Psalm 24. The Bible repeats this truth over and over. God owns everything. God made everything. Everything! And all that you have, you have as a gift entrusted to your care, to your careful stewardship.

             God has lavished us with blessings, but they will only remain blessings if you will remember that they are not yours. They belong to God, the Landlord, the “Life Lord,” who entrusts them to your care, to your faithful stewardship. God does this because God loves you and believes in you. And God does this so that your life will be a fruitful one, one that blesses and enriches this world.

             And of course, even when they killed God’s son Jesus, even then, God did not give up on us. God did not actually kill the wicked tenants, as the hearers of Jesus’ parable supposed that the owner would. God did not respond to violence with more violence. No! God sent His only Son, who from the cross would say, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And God raised this crucified Son from the grave to teach us of the triumph of God’s love even over hatred, violence, sin and death. We call this message the Gospel – Good News.

             It is better than we deserve, but this is who God is at heart. We are tenants. God owns everything. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof….” And God entrusts this world, this vineyard, this life, to us so we will bear fruit, so we will bless as we have been blessed, “to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” Is that too much to ask?

                                                                                     Amen.

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