This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Earth/Vineyard.


Matthew 21.33-46

I.
This is the third vineyard parable Jesus tells during his last week, as he is teaching in the Temple.  It involves a landowner who established, planted, and cares for a very productive vineyard.  Jesus makes the point of telling us that he “put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower,” meaning that he has invested in the vineyard, provided for its protection and its continued prosperity.  The owner has done everything necessary to make the vineyard fruitful and profitable.  It is a self-sufficient, balanced system, designed to produce good grapes and fine wine. 
Here, the vineyard reminds me of the Earth itself.  The beautiful garden, the perfect environment for life, the only place we know of in the whole universe where life exists, a living, balanced, changing, growing system, designed for beauty, joy, delight, and fulfillment.
Then the owner goes away on a long trip and leases the vineyard to tenants.  All the tenants have to do is keep the vineyard going and it will serve them, and the owner, very well.
Our time on the Earth is like this.  God often seems absent.  At least God’s presence is not obvious and visible to everyone. 
The vineyard has been left in the care of some tenants.  That is, the community — whether it be Israel as God’s people or even the planet itself — has been left in the care of human beings.  All we see is the beautiful vineyard and its amazing productivity.  We don’t see the owner.  
Seasons pass and harvest time comes.  The owner sends slaves back to the vineyard to collect the produce.  It was only being managed by these tenants on the owners’ behalf.  The produce of the vineyard belongs to the owner.
These slaves of the owner represent the prophets who came and called the people back to peace, righteousness, and justice, which are supposed to be the fruits of the vineyard.   
But the tenants don’t want to hear about what the owner wants.  They are doing very well living off the produce of the vineyard themselves and they see no reason to send a portion back to the owner.  So they abuse these slaves.  They even kill them, and send the others away empty-handed. 
The owner then has an idea.  He will send his own son, the heir, whom he thinks, for some reason, that the tenants will surely respect.  The owner is apparently very naive, patient, forgiving, and trusting.  What is he thinking?! 
But, somehow, the tenants think that if they kill the son they will somehow come into possession of the vineyard themselves, possession being, as they say, “nine-tenths-of-the-law.”  So that’s what they do.  They kill the owner’s son. 
Jesus then stops the parable and asks his hearers, which include priests and elders in the Temple, what they think they owner will do to those tenants.  “They said to him, ‘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.’”

II.
Indeed.  Jesus has these religious authorities basically condemn themselves.  Because in the parable, they are the wicked tenants who take over the vineyard, refusing to give the owner his due, abusing and killing the owner’s representatives, who are the prophets.  And it is they who will shortly kill the owner’s son, who is Jesus himself.
What is the produce of the vineyard?  That is, what does God want from us and from the creation?  What does God expect to receive?  What is God looking for in us?  What are the desired fruits of the vineyard, that is, of the creation over which we have dominion?
Obviously, an actual vineyard is supposed to produce grapes, from which people make wine.  The creation is designed by God to produce what?  Well, the scriptures include many lists of the good things God wants from us.  There is Micah’s famous summary about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.  And there are others.
One of the most important of these is the set of commandments we read earlier.  The Ten Commandments are God’s rule for living on the Earth in peace, justice, equity, and righteousness.  They are designed to separate God’s people from the corrupt and exploitative values and practices of Pharaoh.  God is saying, “If you live like this, if you keep these commandments, if you live together in justice and peace, you will be making a community, a neighborhood, that produces what I want from my creation.  If you live in loyalty to me, without idolatry, honoring my name, keeping my sabbaths, honoring your parents, not killing, not stealing, not committing adultery, not lying, and not desiring the things your neighbor has, you will find contentment and prosperity, and you will be giving me what I want out of creation. 
For it turns out that all God wants out of creation is our happiness.  God wants us to live together in peace and justice.  God wants us not to fall into the destructive corruption of Pharaoh, where a few people had all the power and wealth, and everyone else had to scramble to get by.
That is the fruit, the produce, the result, the profit that God wants from the Earth.  That is the whole point of the vineyard in the first place. 
Our primary example is Jesus, who keeps God’s commandments perfectly.  His life demonstrates conclusively what God wants from creation.  He shows us what the fruits of creation are supposed to be.  He reveals the desired produce and profit from creation that God is looking for from us.  And in him we see, as he identifies in places like his blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the kind of life God wants.

III.
Instead, the tenants, that is, the people who were originally given the vineyard to manage, but who, over time, let it go to their heads, did not produce those fruits.  Instead of justice, they allowed inequity and exploitation to fester.   Instead of peace, they supported oppression and violence, propping up the rule of the Romans and making deals with kings like Herod.  Instead of forgiveness, they piled more rules on people, inciting guilt and shame, and making it so no one could ever measure up.  The tenants came to think that the vineyard, the whole creation, was there for their benefit.  They could do with the produce what they pleased.  It was for their own consumption and distribution. 
This view remains prominent today.  Many believe that the Earth exists for us to exploit and waste, to use and exhaust.  It is God’s gift to us and we may do with it what we wish.
It is amazing to me that these same people are the ones who feel, and loudly proclaim, that they are the most tight with God. They have the most confidence that God is going to save them first.  It is as if when Jesus asks his question at the end of the parable, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” many folks today apparently think that the owner will reward them with heavenly glory!
For make no mistake, God will not look kindly upon those who took the produce of the vineyard for themselves.  For they did not produce and return to the owner what the owner desired.  They did not do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  They did not keep the Commandments, but found ways to justify their own very profitable breaking of them.  They did not lift up and cherish the values of Jesus’ blessings by living in gentleness, poverty of spirit, purity of heart, peacemaking, mourning, and desiring righteousness. 
Instead, they created and rationalized a system with which Pharaoh or Caesar would be far more comfortable.  Instead of justice, we have vast inequalities in wealth between the few rich and the multitudes of the poor.  Instead of peace we have violence lifted up as the way to solve problems.  Instead of humility we have a system based on pride and status.  Instead of caring for the Earth as the theater of God’s glory, we have gutted it for its resources, polluted air, land, and water, and kicked the climate out of balance.    
In Revelation 11:18 we find that when the owner, that is, God, returns, one of the early items on the agenda is “to destroy those who destroy the Earth” (REB).  So the complacent, wealthy, and powerful, eagerly awaiting their reward, receive instead a miserable death, a booting out of the vineyard, to watch the vineyard turned over to others who will produce the fruits desired by the owner.

IV.        
We are the tenants.  We are the ones into whose care this glorious planet has been given.  We are the ones who are called to exercise stewardship and responsibility over this tremendous and spectacular gift.  The owner, the Creator — God — intends that this be a place of joy and peace, equality and love, goodness and truth, righteousness and justice.  The owner has given us meticulous guidance and specific rules concerning how to live here in peace and justice with each other.  The owner has even sent numerous blessed souls to remind us of this sacred calling, culminating with his only Son, Jesus Christ, from whom we learn conclusively how to live.
Will the owner return to discover that we have enriched ourselves and allowed our neighbors to suffer in poverty?  Will the owner return to find that the vineyard has been exhausted, polluted, wasted, and corrupted?  Will the owner return to see a world out of balance, where a privileged few own everything?  Where people chose to follow Pharaoh and Caesar, rather than the Creator?
Or will he find us joyfully living in communities of peace and justice, maintaining and cultivating the vineyard, in harmony with creation and each other, following Jesus’ commandments, living in humility and gentleness?  Will he find a vineyard where the poor are lifted up, and sick healed, and the outcast included?  Where violence is renounced?  Where economic inequalities are balanced?
I hope we are found doing God’s will with the resources that have been entrusted to us, returning them to God in the same spirit of generosity, peace, justice, forgiveness and love, with which they were given.  
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