In the Name…
A farmer bought an abandoned run down farm and set to work on it. After a few months, the local preacher came by and said to him, “This place looks amazing, Brother Jones. You and God have done a great job.” “Thanks, Reverend” the farmer replied, “But, just remember what it looked like when God ran it by himself.”
Today’s Gospel is like any clear, simple narrative account in many regards. It is a story; the characters are anonymous and the setting is spare. It’s another in a long series of stories told by Jesus that we’ve been hearing for a few Sundays and will continue to hear for a few weeks yet. In this case, it’s a story about a landowner. And, in this parable, we can imagine the landowner as a metaphor for God the Father, the Creator of all that is.
Now, we know the Creator did a lot more than plant a vineyard, put a fence around it, dig a wine press, and build a watchtower; but those images show us some basic truths. God created this earth; God leased it to people; and God developed the property, with and through the work of human hands.
So, the lesson is simple. God owns the universe, and we are the tenants in it, or stewards of it.
The landowner’s son, of course, represents Jesus, God’s Son. And the son, like Jesus, comes to the story after a series of unsuccessful attempts to deliver a message. Yet when Jesus tells this story, he knows what he is saying more than his hearers do. He is predicting his death, his own murder. So, just imagine what it was like for Jesus to tell this story.
For, today’s Gospel is not a scene of Jesus walking on the water or visiting a village to cure the sick. Today’s gospel is about Jesus on his way to the Cross. Jesus, who knows that he has come from God and is returning to God, is telling us his story in simple, uncomplicated, ordinary terms because he wants to be sure we don’t miss the message.
Of course, we know that Jesus was talking about the people of Israel and this parable had a special application to the Early Church. Since at least the time of Isaiah the image of a vineyard had been used to describe the relationship of God and the Jews and this parable was seen as a prediction that Gentiles would be the new tenants of God’s vineyard. And, we know that’s how the priests and Pharisees heard it, which only increased their anger toward him.
But, this parable isn’t just about ancient history, something that happened long ago, and we can’t just dismiss it as something which doesn’t apply to us; because, on another level, how often do we act as if we are the owners of everything around us. Indeed, how often do we act as if we are the owners of ourselves?
The whole concept of being subordinate is difficult for human beings. That was the problem in Eden. What was the temptation? To be like God; in charge. And that is the besetting sin of any creature made in the image and likeness of the Creator. We value upward mobility.
In his letter to the Philippians, though, we hear Paul say that, despite all his impressive religious credentials, he had come to realize that the most important thing in life was his relationship with Christ. You can almost sense his passion when he says, "I want to know Christ". And he used this phrase, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but, one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
And, elsewhere, Paul writes about evil spiritual forces, the powers of sin and death which try to divert us from this faith and righteousness. "But, thanks be to God," he says, because through the redeeming work of Christ, "you who were once slaves of sin ... have become slaves of righteousness." That is, we have been liberated so that we can become slaves.
Does that sound a bit strange? I know people who have a problem with this concept and I wouldn't be surprised if some of you find this language challenging. America is a culture which values freedom. Mess with our freedoms and we get militant. The freedom of the individual has become the highest value in our society. So it seems very counter-cultural to talk, in church, about a slavery that is really a freedom.
I think, though, that St. John Paul II had a handle on it when he said: "Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but, in having the right to do what we ought." "Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but, in having the right to do what we ought."
In other words, freedom is not a license for self-indulgence. The French philosopher Rousseau wrote that, "Man is born free, but, is everywhere in chains." And, while Rousseau was writing about government, he was not far off understanding the moral point of both St. Paul and St. John Paul that freedom is the liberty to choose our servitude.
Our lives and our world are freely given to us, but, to be used with God the Creator in mind. And, we have a responsibility to use his gifts wisely and faithfully. Because, God gave us his gifts so that we could freely raise up a harvest of fruit – fruit like honouring, loving and trusting God above anything else, and in our dealings with others - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control.
The tenants in the parable were also free in this way. They had security, steady income, a roof over their heads, food on the table. But, they had started to use words like "our vineyard, our crop, our tools, our money." They resented the idea that the landowner should expect to get anything. And so, they got themselves deeper and deeper into trouble culminating in committing murder.
Yes, on one level, Jesus told this parable as a prediction that a new set of tenants were going to take over the vineyard, but he also told it as a cautionary tale for generations to come. When we read this, we should realise how often we forget to ask, "What would the owner want us to do"? We should realise that so often we have chosen our own way and not sought what was the will of the Lord the God who loves us so much that he created us, and made this world for us to live in as his beloved friends.
So, as great as the temptation always is to simply look after ourselves, may God give us an ever-greater vision of what he wants for us and what it means to be people bringing a rich and fruitful harvest for him. Let's be open to the prompting and guiding of the Spirit to be good tenants and stewards as we ask, "Lord, what do you want us to do?"
In the Name…