The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Very Reverend Steve Lipscomb, Dean
Matthew 21:33-43

Greed can blind us to what is good—to what is right and just. And in today’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about tenants who were so blinded by greed that they not only refused to pay rent to their landlord, but, indeed, laid designs for stealing away completely the landlord’s property for themselves.

The landlord had planted the vineyard, built a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants who were to care for the vineyard, harvest the crop and return a portion of the harvest to the landlord as rent for the property.

But when harvest time came and employees of the landlord were sent to collect the landlord’s share, the tenants beat one, killed another and stoned a third. Finally, the owner sent his own son thinking that this would surely get their attention. But in their warped thinking, the renters rationalized that if they killed the owner’s son, the heir, then they would inherit the property. Does that make sense to you? These people weren’t just blind and greedy, they were downright stupid.

I mean everybody but the tenants must surely know what’s going to happen next. Jesus knew his listeners did, so he poses that very question to them: “What do you think the owner will do to the tenants?” Well, Jesus’ appalled audience didn’t hesitate to answer. They must have all shouted out simultaneously “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.”

And just like that, the Jewish leaders, to whom the parable is directed, have convicted themselves with their own words. They have rejected God’s prophets. They have rejected God’s Son. And now, they have been tricked by Jesus into revealing the just desserts for their actions. They are embarrassed, and they are enraged—especially when Jesus adds salt to the wound by quoting from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” And from that point on, the chief priests and Pharisees plotted even more fervently to arrest Jesus and to kill him.

But this parable isn’t just aimed at a few first century bad apples or to point out Israel’s ungrateful response to God. It is a parable that portrays timeless aspects of the human situation. First of all, the parable reminds us that we must come to terms with the limitations of life. It is a lesson doesn’t come easy in this day and time, because science seems to continue to stretch and extend those limitations. Just when we think we’ve seen it all, a new invention or discovery happens, and it leaves us, for good or for bad, with our mouths hanging open or exclaiming, “Well, what will they think of next?”

However, the truth of the matter is that there are some things in life that we cannot have, and there are some things in life we cannot do. And there are some things that we do not need. And the Bible makes this truth clear. In the Bible’s very first story, for example, the story of human nature, Adam and Eve could have everything in the Garden of Eden they wanted except to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But the tempter was already at work in the world, and he led both humans to believe that God was holding out on them. So rather than rejoicing in the many blessings they did have, they began to long for the things they didn’t have. The things that God in his wisdom denied them.

We’ll remain on the right track in life if we remember that we are stewards and not owners of the earth. & this is the great lesson of Adam and Eve and of the parable.

Whenever we begin to act like the owners, we are heading for trouble. The earth is the Lord’s and we are his children and his stewards. We have been provided with plenty, but once we lose sight of the fact that we are tenants enjoying a vineyard we didn’t plant, we lose sight of our place. We will lose the vineyard and, ultimately, we will destroy ourselves.

And this leads to a more specific truth. Which is we cannot rebel against God without consequences. I think many of us have embraced – perhaps we live in a culture that embraces – a sort of “Burger King” philosophy: “Have it your way.”… “Be you.”… “If it feels good, do it.” We rebel against anyone making demands on us or telling us there are limitations to what we can and cannot do.

Tension and power struggles almost always occur in families when children become teenagers (or when adults won’t grow up) for just this reason. This is a time of testing. Young people declare: “you have no right to tell me what to do.” Or as we in my generation used to say, with great conviction, “I gotta do my own thing, man!” Parents who go through this period of self-will with their children can only hope and pray that their offspring will come to themselves before disaster strikes – or before we kill them.

But my point is it must be the same with God and God’s children. Look at the parable again. The landowner has provided well. The vineyard was there – adequate resources for the tenants and their families – plenty of fruit for all. But the tenants were not content with enough (or their place as stewards), so they lost everything.

When we rebel against God, we lose—every time! Sin puts a wedge between us and God. As St. Augustine put it many centuries ago, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they find their rest in you.” Restlessness will continue in our lives until we come back to our creator God—until we understand our place as creatures (children) of the creator.

This parable also reminds us that there is no privilege without obligation. Our own country is an example of this truth. We’ve been granted natural resources in such abundance that Americans are the best fed, the best clothed, the most adequately housed people on the earth.

And I don’t say that to dismiss those in this country who are not well fed, or well dressed, or adequately housed. God knows there are folks right here in Topeka who need and deserve our help, and we need to respond to their needs. But the truth is, generally speaking, America is indescribably better off than most of the rest of the world. In fact, there are millions of people around the world who would make almost any sacrifice just to be able to come and live in America.

Because of who we are, and what we are, and what we have, we have been thrust into a position of world leadership. And some of us would like to be a little more stingy about that. We’d like to just keep what we have here for ourselves and let the rest of the world fend for itself. But none of us do that in our private lives, hopefully. We share our blessings, our privileges and advantages with others, because we have an obligation to do so. God has been good and generous to us and we have a responsibility to be good and generous with what we’ve been given.

And for our country, it’s the same way. All the privileges and advantages we enjoy must be shared, if we are to be in partnership with the rest of the human race—the rest of God’s creation. Other nations look to us to bolster their economies, feed their people, even help fight their wars. (And yes, we do overstep our bounds sometimes. Sometimes we go and do when we’re not asked or wanted.) But the bottom line is this: with privilege goes responsibility. It can get pretty heavy at times. But, honestly, who wants to trade? Who wants to be anywhere else?

But, we’d all better remember that no country, no group, no church, no family, no person can receive and not give. Sooner or later, those who don’t do their part, who don’t respond in kind to the gifts they have been given will come to no good end. Like the tenants who wanted to enjoy the vineyard without paying the rent, they eventually, ultimately, find everything taken away.

It’s a very poignant reminder as we consider our country’s economic state today. Though some may be more to blame than others, in general, we Americans have had so much but we have all wanted more. Maybe, from a stewardship standpoint, we’ve all been a little too self-concerned with our take—what is ours, what belongs to us—and a little less concerned with giving, and sharing and the caring for other causes and people. Perhaps our interests have been more focused for too long on how much we can obtain for ourselves – or our estate (our kids, our family) – than on how much we can share and what we can give away—out of our plenty.

At the end of Jesus’ parable, we are reminded that the rejected are chosen. Jesus quotes a passage from the Psalm mentioned earlier about the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone. The Christian Church itself is an example of this. There isn’t a more dramatic story in all of history than the worldwide expansion of Christianity, which in the beginning was made up of people that society considered “losers.”

Paul summarizes that early fellowship well in 1st Corinthians. “Consider your own call brothers and sisters, not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”

God made Jesus the chief cornerstone. And you and I as stewards of his vineyard. May we be faithful with what we have been given, and may we be generous in our own giving. In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.