This is one of those passages where it helps to look between the lines, and to apply the Lutheran principle we call, scripture interpreting scripture.
There may be some here who memorized that core statement from John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that God sent his only begotten son…” If so, your ears may have perked up hearing the same thing in this parable about the landowner who, “sent his son to them,” to the tenants, to collect the produce. The landowner, frustrated by the treatment his servants have received from his tenants, thinks, or hopes at least, that “they will respect my son.” Jesus is making an analogy about himself, of course, just as John’s gospel was talking about God sending Jesus into the world to save it by going to the cross. “The scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian, Old and New Testaments, provide one witness after another that God’s mission to save the world will not be derailed by human wickedness, doubt or failure. The realm or kingdom of God is not built on human institutions or promises, but is built and planted in God’s grace-filled will to make it happen.
The servants in the parable that God kept sending, were the prophets at the time of the exile, who were rejected or killed, because the chosen people didn’t want to hear the truth about their misuse of the Vineyard. And later, the son with whom God is well pleased, Jesus, was also cast out, who is also “the stone that the builders rejected…” And so Jesus concludes, “the realm of God will be taken away from [those who aren’t good stewards of the vineyard] and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” The thing that keeps us from receiving the prophets and Jesus then, is our worldly rent-to-own values. We have worked the vineyard and we start to think it is ours. And we forget the covenant agreement, the promise, that God gave us the earth to till and keep, to be care-takers, and to be fruitful, delighted, and share it.
In one congregation, the story goes, this rent-to-own mentality became destructive when the choir, a long-time ministry of the church, believed they finally had arrived at ownership, and decided they were above the need to make financial contributions to the church any more. ‘We are claiming ownership of the Vineyard, and you can keep our envelope boxes,’ they declared! But what if everyone who contributed time and talents to care for the church, and tend the vineyard, decided they didn’t need to make an offering of their treasure in this way? When rent-to-own becomes possessive and exclusionary, or turns into a feeling of entitlement, it becomes divorced from the care-taking we are all called to, by our creator, the God who gives us the Vineyard to share and care for.
Answering the call to be good stewards in the Vineyard is more vital today than ever. Yesterday I heard the story of one Texas city that through careful planning and deliberate conservation of their water, has been able to avoid the worst of the drought there. At one time, San Antonio had been as carefree about water usage as any major city, until they were challenged in court by the Sierra Club. In the past, if a drought hit, they too would have simply pumped more water out of the San Antonio River until it was gone. But when the Sierra Club successfully sued them to protect a certain endangered species living in the San Antonio River, the blind salamander, well, at first they got angry. But then they got creative. First, they reduced water consumption, from a per day usage of over 200 gallons per person to about 130. And secondly, during times when the rains are plentiful and the San Antonio Aquifer is full, they aggressively pump out its overflowing waters and store it some 40 miles away in a sand formation called the Carrizo, which could ultimately store, perhaps as much as 65 billion gallons!
Caring for what we have as a gift from God, is something we can all practice, whether it’s the earth’s resources or one another. God gives us this world, this vineyard, not just to use and use up, but to care-take. We are all tenants in this rent-to-own world. But even owners must continue on as care-takers. There is nothing wrong with owning a home instead of renting. Home ownership needs good stewards as well!
Kim and I are renters right now and we are grateful to our landlords, the owners who live upstairs. We pay well for what we get: including a beautiful view onto the Blvd from our historic greystone, with heat, laundry services, and a garage parking spot, all included. But then the owners did something almost unheard of. When they heard that Kim was unemployed recently, they offered to reduce our rent! Maybe it’s because there’s an apartment next door that’s been for rent for many months!? But I like to think they were caring for their Vineyard as a whole, for their building, and for us, the renters, who also respect their property and help in its upkeep, and pay our rent on time. Owners are called on to be good care takers of what is entrusted to them, just as tenants are.
God has taken on the burdens that come with ownership, for repairing, saving and guiding this worldly vineyard, and covenanting with us for the ultimate promise that the Vineyard will be redeemed, and we will be saved. Our world has been created good, and we are invited in to be its care-takers. But if we take a rent-to-own approach, as if there are no longer any burdens or responsibilities for all the precious resources we have been entrusted with, what should God’s answer be? Is it to put us “wretches to a miserable death?”
In the parable, Jesus seems to say, the Vineyard is ours to share and care for, and the reward is up to us. We can choose to accept or reject the cornerstone, to fall on it and be broken to pieces, or, to build on it and be fed by the broken pieces of bread given for us, and the wine of the Vineyard shed for us, that builds us up as the whole Body of Christ.
The abundant life of God’s vineyard, a harvest of rich food and fine wine, is already ours! We are simply called to share and care for it. God’s answer then, is a place at the table in the promised vineyard, where care-takers – tenants and owners alike – find new life in the realm of God.