The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
A man had worked all of his life, saved all his money, and was a real miser. He told his wife, “When I die, I want you to take all my money and put it in my casket so that I can take it with me in the afterlife.” He made her promise on the Bible that she would do exactly that.
He died a few years later and she felt compelled to honor his wishes. When the service in the funeral home was concluded, his wife approached the casket, took a box out of her purse, and placed it next to her husband. Then the casket was closed and taken to the cemetery.
Her best friend pulled her aside as they were leaving the funeral home. “Girl,” she said “you told me what you promised that miser husband of yours, but you weren’t actually fool enough to put all that money in there, were you?” His wife replied, “Listen, I swore on the Bible. I can’t go back on my word. I promised him I would put all his money in the casket and I did. I gathered it all up, put into my account, and wrote him a check. If he can cash it, he can spend it.”
I suspect the deceased was a person of privilege and advantage. The vineyard was his and he was not about to let go of it. We see where that got him. I’ve done a lot of funerals, but I’ve never seen a Brink’s armored car following the hearse. In the end, we finally own nothing.
The story Jesus offers us today describes a common practice in first century Palestine where an absentee landowner planted a vineyard and leased it out to tenants who cared for it in return for a share in the final crop. Building on the imagery we heard in the reading from Isaiah, the vineyard in the parable Jesus told represents Israel and the landowner stands for God.
The slaves sent to bring the owner produce from the vineyard are the Hebrew prophets who endured insult, beating, capture, and even death in order to bring God’s message to the people. The final messenger is God’s Son. The wicked tenants are not Israel as a nation, but the leaders who have ruled Israel. What is condemned in this parable is the misuse of privilege or advantage.
After its pleasant opening, this parable Jesus told goes downhill fast. It is a violent story which, sadly, we hear even as we have been stunned and shaken by violence in our time. Just yesterday an atrocious and violent attack in the very places where Jesus told this parable.
Tragedy and heartbreak and human wreckage will always be the end result when people believe that they are the entitled and privileged landowner rather than a blessed and loved tenant. Gratitude for all we have been given is not the design of the culture today but it is the way of God’s reign.
This Gospel story has been used to convey a number of messages to God’s people. It is a favorite around themes and teaching about good stewardship. It warns us of the evil of greed. It has been offered as a lesson in the depth of God’s patience with us; it speaks to the rejection of Jesus as Messiah by the religious leaders of Israel. And we could preach several sermons on how it speaks to our abuse of Mother Earth and the consequences of that.
However, this story is more than a story about the rejection of Jesus and the misuse of privilege or advantage. It is also a challenge to those to whom the vineyard will be given. The vineyard, you see, is us—the people of God.
And, yes, we are the church, and the church exists for the sake of the world not for its own sake. It is grounded in God who “so loved the world,” not God who so loved the church and Christians in particular. The church is here to be a mediator, an instrument, of God’s passion for the world’s well-being.
What Jesus is railing against here is how the Pharisees and, yes, how religious leaders even today have perceived God in their image, made God into someone who acts like humans at their worst, made God to be an oppressive and exclusive landowner and have, essentially, masked the true face of God.
This exchange between Jesus and the chief priests and elders is set in Jerusalem near the end of Jesus' ministry. This final section of the Gospel gazes at the church that will carry on his witness to God's reign after his death and resurrection. Jesus is also addressing us in this Gospel.
After he finishes telling this violent story, Jesus asks, “What do you think will happen when the owner comes back?” It’s a relevant and significant question for the church today. What will Jesus find? What will the vineyard look like? For all of its flaws, it has survived for two thousand years.
Fortunately, God doles out mercy not vengeance and gives love and eternal life. The issue is no longer the old "vineyard," but rather a totally new structure of which Jesus himself is the "cornerstone." That structure is God's reign which Jesus has been proclaiming from the beginning of his ministry and which the church continues to proclaim in his name. We are the new vineyard.
We’ve all seen the impact of the best and the worst of religion depending on who occupies the role of the tenants. But, thank God, those of us working in this vineyard believe in and embrace the best of it—that is a quest for meaning and community—which includes everyone without exception—as a place where we both find and offer life and energy that heal rather than wound, love rather than hate, embrace difference rather than violently seek to eradicate it—instruments of God’s passion for the world.
And that we can take into the afterlife!