Sunday, October 9, 2011


“Mine!” October 9, 2011                                     Matthew 21:33-46 

The Story –
            Jesus stories are not always easy to understand, sometimes the good guys are really bad guys and the ‘bad guys’ are good guys.
But in this story nicknamed the “wicked tenants” it is rather easy to find the “right” side. Just imagine an owner, an investor, buying a prime piece of property and putting in the entire infrastructure for a good vineyard. A fence is needed to keep predators out. A wine press is needed to produce the product once the grapes are grown. Grapevine starts are planted and a watchtower is built to oversee the property. This Owner is investing for the long haul because it takes a while for grapes to produce. It could be five years before grapes suitable for wine can be harvested.
            Then the Owner advertises for help:
            “Wanted, responsible men & women to live on and manage new vineyard. Get in on the ground floor of this promising business. Farm experience a must, previous winemaking a plus.”
He hires his staff, makes contract agreements and goes off leaving them in charge of the farm. The Owner knows this is a long-term investment. The owner knows he is subsidizing the workers for the next few years. Yet the profit should be good when the grapevines mature and the grapes are ripe.

            The grape vines grow and are tended. The families live and work on the farm all year long. Its hard work, pruning vines is an art not a science. It takes skilled knowledge and long hours spent in the arbors to know what, and where to cut.  The new growth actually begins a year before the grapes shoots sprout.
Vineyard farming is slow. Patience is required and the hard labor of managing weeds, watching for predators and growing some intermediary crops to condition the soil around the vines must be done year after year after year. Eventually the quality grapes grow and mature, are harvested and crushed in the press. The juice is collected and stored for fermentation. Everything needs to be done just right for the juice to be profitable.  Then, when there is income, it is time to pay the rent and the owner sends his accounting staff to collect his profits.  The rent is likely high, as much as 40-50% of the profits since it’s been 5 years of building the business and staying in the red. But here the story takes a nasty turn;

            The tenants beat-up one employee, kill another, and stone a third.

Do we need to read any further? . . .What would you do if you were the owner?
I can imagine any number of responses that are different than what THIS owner does.

Instead of one of our solutions, another delegation is sent, more people this time – which makes sense, the first few were obviously not enough. Only the tenant farmers treat these representatives the same shameful way. . NOW what would you do?

            This Owner is determined or generous or, we might say, naïve? And decides to send his son to the tenants on the premise that the SON will be respected – at least as the Owner’s legal representative - and be able to collect what the others could not.

We know the sad ending of the story. The tenants decide that this is their chance to make the property their own. --Perhaps relying on the common law of the day that a property left alone for three years could be claimed by the settlers-- They seize the son, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.

If you were the owner, what would you do? (pause)

This is one of Jesus’ stories where it is actually easy to take sides. The hardest thing to understand is the Owner’s generosity. Why keep sending emissaries? Why give the tenants another chance – and then another?

But before we give up on the tenants all together, WE should give the a chance to relay their side of the story.
These workers were brought in at the ground level. They are skilled vintners. True, the infrastructure was already in place, but all the long years of labor are theirs.
Grapevines take a considerable time to mature before they are ready to be harvested for wine. The workers may have as much as 5 years of  “sweat equity” invested in this vineyard.
We can start to understand that as the grapes began to grow and the hard work of tending, weeding, trimming, & grafting continued, year after year, these tenants naturally began to feel “ownership” in the winemaking venture.
After all, the vineyard is their home and they have totally “bought into” the investment with their labor.
Even if we disagree with their methods, we can understand their perspective. 

In this nation we value people who work hard to provide for themselves and don’t rely on others or institutions for help, at least not for any length of time.                We hold to a work ethic that expects advancement for good labor. And ownership of a home or property is pivotal to the American dream.

            Dreams of ownership begin early in our culture and extend into all walks of life. I listen to the radio regularly and several advertisements caught my attention.
"Act now to make sure your grass is the greenest in the neighborhood."
"You TOO can own your own home."
"Update your Will so that your money stays in your family."
Ownership and the focus on what is MINE is ingrained and constantly reinforced by society.

I think we can sympathize with tenants who desire ownership of the vineyard. Ownership is a goal of life. Ownership is admired, understood and shared by people of every social class. We are conditioned to work toward ownership; Don’t we say, “owning is better than renting?” We even struggle to understand decisions where leasing makes more sense than outright purchase, so we search the lease agreement for the “buy out” amount at the end so we can OWN that which we’ve become accustomed to.
We even get tax breaks for ownership.  .  .  .

(slowly) From the understandable desire to provide for ourselves, can grow a greed that turns the sweat of hard work into justification for the gluttony of possession.
We understand greed as the “overwhelming desire to have more of something, more than what is actually needed”. Yet isn’t the ownership we value just a good step along the path of self-sufficiency?

The danger comes when our desire for self-sufficiency is raised to the level of a 'god’.  When the ideal, becomes an idol, we join ranks with the tenants and plot ways to keep what is OURS. .

Our desire for ownership is compounded by our fear of loss. We need to protect what is ours. We want to OWN it so no one can take it away from us. 

            I even find myself thinking, “It’s our land, we should be able to do whatever we want with it.”    The possessive tendency extends to MY job, MY insurance, MY benefits, MY pension, & MY rights.  How much of our time do we spend just trying to hang-onto what is OURS?

If we look closely at our own intentions, we can see how easily ‘fear of loss’ and ‘not getting what we “deserve”’ warps honest minds into re-defining what is FAIR. What’s “Fair” gets re-defined from playing by the rules, to whatever is reasonable – by my own definition-- that is.
“FAIR” when warped by my fear and self-interest leads t the justification of violence --- so that I can keep what is rightfully mine ---
                        so our nation can protect OUR OWN self-interest.

For the Vineyard tenants, fear of loss changed gratitude for gainful employment to tightfisted possession of something they didn’t own.
Fear of loss allows them to justify attacking the messenger.
The spiral of justifiable action spins downward until “what is fair” is linked to eliminating the heir of the Owner, the son, so they can KEEP “their” vineyard.
Ultimately understanding this parable is a matter of perspective …            IF we view it from owners’ eyes we say, “Certainly when the Landowner comes, those wicked tenants will be thrown out. They will get what they deserve!”

Or we can view it with wide open eyes and see that
‘they’ are us. . .                      
Just like Jesus’ audience of religious leaders, once we have pronounced judgment and Þ pointed our finger at the tenants, we realize there are FOUR fingers pointing back at us. . .

---   A time comes in every life when our eyes are opened to a greater wisdom.
 At a certain age, friends and family members may begin to give things away.
You’ll hear phrases like, “Well, I can’t take it with me.” Or
“They’re only things and I don’t need more things.”

True wisdom is more than realizing we “can’t take it with us.” Wisdom is the realization of Ownership. Who is the real owner of my life -and all I have?
(Or think I have?)
It is easy to lose perspective about what we own and what we are in charge of tending.
When fear rules us we sound like little children. “It’s mine!”
“Who will take care of me - if I let go of what is ‘mine’?”
If we let fear of loss control our decisions,
the tendrils of greed will warp our minds and choke off the breath of God that seeks to sustain us.

We are tenants and stewards of  the earth; it’s land, and it’s produce. This IS God’s vineyard. We don’t own it.

We are loved by the Owner; the One who knows us and who can be trusted to ‘keep’ us. Such Love -when let loose in our lives- drives us to FAIRLY distribute the produce of God’s vineyard.
Such Love makes us recognize our unity with all the other tenants of God’s world and realize that when we keep too much – we’re taking it from another one of God’s tenants.

Such Love is our ONLY possession.  It’s as close to eternal ownership as we can ever get.
and LOVE is the only possession that we may never fear losing.

God’s love is so great that we are given chance after chance to act justly
and to produce the fruit of justice. 
Then, when the Owner comes, we will happily show off the vineyard- and give thanks to the ONE who has provided for us- all our life long.

Pumpkin cottage ministry resources used.

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