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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There are some topics of conversation which always generate excitement- grandchildren- for example. Until of course, your grandchildren embarrass you. In front of her grandmother’s card club, one little girl crawled up onto her grandmother’s lap and asked, “Grandma, are you rotten on the inside?” Curiously, the cautious grandmother replied, “No, sweetheart, why do you ask?” Innocently the child answered, “Because when apples are all wrinkled on the outside, they are rotten on the inside.”
There are other topics which leave men and women speechless- such as death and salaries. Three friends were talking and one asked rhetorically, “When you are in your casket and your friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say about you? I’ve been thinking about it, and I hope they’ll say that I was one of the great doctors of my time-and a great family man.” The second man said, “Well, if I’m in the casket, I would like to hear them say that I was a loving husband and father, and a devoted schoolteacher who made a difference in shaping the adults of tomorrow.” The third thought seriously for a moment and then said, “When I’m in the casket, I would like to hear them say… ‘Look, he’s moving! He’s still alive!’” This morning’s gospel lesson can leave us equally amused, puzzled and speechless.
In St. Matthew’s gospel, we read the third of Jesus’ parables set against the backdrop of the vineyard. The first parable, you may recall, was the story of the day workers who received the same wage- regardless of their hours spent working in the vineyard. The simple message was that it is honor enough to work in the Lord’s vineyard, so we should not begrudge God’s generosity in rewarding his servants equally. Last week we heard the story of the father who sent his two sons out to work in the vineyard. The one son said no, but later relented, while the other said, yes, and then never carried through on his promise. The parable portrayed the frequent human failing, that there are some people who state boldly that they follow God, but in truth do not.
In this morning’s reading, Jesus tells the horrendous and fool hearty story of a renegade group of tenants who rejected the vineyard owner’s representatives and wound up killing the owner’s son in the mistaken belief that this would enable them to steal the harvest. Even the chief priests and elders who had gathered to challenge Jesus’ authority and his teaching knew what these wicked tenants deserved. “He will put those miserable wretches to death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time!”
And ever since, theologians have debated who the wicked tenants really were. In the gospel, we read that the chief priests and elders seemed to identify themselves as the parable’s evil tenants. Though they were offended, there was nothing they could do since the crowds regarded Jesus as a prophet. In the first centuries of the church, scholars claimed that the Jewish leaders were the wicked tenants. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the German reformers proclaimed the Roman Catholic clergy to be the wicked tenants. And now today, new religious movements claim that the former Mainline Churches are the wicked tenants from whom the kingdom of God should be taken away and given to others. Yes, you might even hear people whisper such words about your own beloved Lutheran congregation -leaving you speechless.
But my friends, I do not believe that the parable is simply an historical allegory of the passing on of the kingdom of God from one religious tradition to another. Nor do I believe that it is merely a metaphor colorfully foreshadowing the death of God’s son. I believe that it has something to say to us today. It is inviting you and me to look at our lives and how we have chosen to manage that little corner of the vineyard that God has entrusted to each one of us. Surprisingly, the parable can be either good or bad news depending on your life circumstance.
The act of evil performed by the wicked tenants who killed those who had come to represent the vineyard owner is ghastly, to be sure. But the parable’s underlying sin is far less dramatic and disturbing. It is so prevalent in our attitudes that we hardly notice it. And what is that evil? It is the tenants desire to keep what rightfully belongs to the owner and to claim it as their own.
We know that stealing is wrong. It is one of the first lessons that we teach our children. But that never stopped people in difficult economic times from justifying their attitudes and their stealth. Over the course of the past 25 years living in the former communist bloc of Eastern Europe, I heard countless rationalizations. Laborers lived by the creed, “They pretend to pay, and we pretend to work.” Even today people in the former Eastern Bloc accept the notion that “To not steal from the company is to steal from your family.” But my friends, the same happens in our own society, in our tempting lucrative times. Yes, we know that stealing is wrong, but does it really matter when it comes to God’s creation? Men and women justify their actions in claiming what does not belong to them- regardless of the harm it may cause their neighbors, the environment or other nations. It is done in the name of business and profits- and the belief that they have the right of inheritance. It is to deny that all things belong to God and we are merely stewards of these gifts.
For others, however, the poor and downtrodden, those who have known financial disparity and oppression, Jesus’ parable offers the possibility of truly good news. You see, there will be a day, when the landowner will return with a vengeance. On that day he will reclaim the vineyard which is his own. And he will hand it offer to those who will offer him the good fruits of the land. In the parable’s closing verses, Jesus warns, that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and will be given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That is good news, for those who have struggled all their lives to leak out a living.
So, my friends, how does the final parable of the vineyard speak to you and me? Unfortunately, Jesus’s words force each one of us to ask the question: And which tenant am I? Am I producing the good fruits of the kingdom and offering them back to God or not? I am reminded again of the three friends who were talking and one asked, “When you are in your casket and your friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say about you?” Would they say that you produced good fruits?
As Christians, we begin cultivating God’s good fruits by speaking kindly and listening passionately to those we love, and by caring for the needs of the world. A hundred years ago, when the telegraph was the fastest means of long distance communication, a young man applied for a job as a Morse code operator. He responded to a newspaper add by going to an office and filling out an application. The office was very busy, filled with noise and clatter, including the sound of a telegraph in the background. When he finished, he sat down with several other applicants for the job. After a few minutes he stood up, crossed the room to the door of the inner office and walked right in. Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on. Within a few minutes, however, the employer escorted the young man out to the office and said to the other applicants, “Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but, the job has just been filled.” “Wait a minute,” said one of the waiting applicants, “I don’t understand. He was the last to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. That’s not fair!” The employer said, “I’m sorry, but all the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse code: ‘If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.’ None of you heard or understood the message.”
My friends, do you hear the message of those who are trying to speak with you? If you do not speak to your loved ones, you will never learn the language of their hearts. If you do not listen to those less fortunate, you will never know what is missing in their lives. Cultivating God’s expected good fruit begins by listening to those you love and those in need and then sharing abundantly the gifts God has entrusted to your care.
Now, you may be wondering: so where is the good news in Jesus’ parable? The joy and laughter of new wine and the beauty of the vineyard seems to be lost. There seems to be nothing more than judgment and loss. There is, however, a truth which is not portrayed in the parable, but it is portrayed in the fullness of scripture. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ parable ends with the death of the owner’s son, but that is not how the story of Jesus ends. Yes, the wicked tenants may have believed that they were now the owners of the vineyard and its harvest. They may have seized Jesus, thrown him out of the vineyard, and killed him. But the tenants did not claim a final victory. Jesus rose again from the dead. And surprisingly, he returned to the tenants one more time, to you and me, still bearing the message of God’s desperate love for his vineyard.
That is how passionately God longs for you to be his good tenant and to cultivate the good fruits in your life for sake of others around you. Yes, God sent his son to make you free. Free from what? You may ask. Sin, death, the power of the Devil? To be sure, but especially he sent his son to set you free you from yourself- from your own selfish desires, your own guilt, your own shame, and the judgment of your own sin. For only when you experience the true freedom that Christ offers can your eyes see, and your ears hear, and your heart respond to the needs of those around you- and produce the good fruits that God desires. That is why Jesus came back from the grave- to make you free to be the servant God intended you to be.
My friends, “When you are in your casket and your friends and family are mourning over you, what would you like to hear them say about you?” Will they speak of your good fruits, or will speak of what you kept to yourself? That is why God sent his son. So that regardless of your past, they can say, “Look he’s still moving. He’s still alive.” Let God’s Son make you truly free. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.