Proper 22a, October 5, 2014

October 6, 2014

Farm Management
Matthew 21:33-44

21:33 “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 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.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

You could have stayed home this morning to watch CNN and heard a better story than what we have in this morning’s scripture lesson. What we have here is not a pretty picture. It’s sort of a reverse fairy tale. This is a story with a happy beginning and a sad ending. But I’m glad you chose to come to church. What Jesus had to say is not easy to hear, but trust me – it’s not all bad. Maybe hearing this story has already made your workplace feel much more hospitable than you previously considered it to be. It could be worse – you could be working with people like this!

Matthew labels this story Jesus tells as a parable, but it seems to function more like an allegory. Unlike a parable, which usually involves a story with a familiar circumstance that goes off in a strange direction in order to disrupt your usual way of seeing and interpreting the world. A parable causes you to think. An allegory is a literary device where the characters in the story are designed to represent identifiable characters, and it’s usually not very hard to figure out who represents who.

And it seems very clear in this story who the various characters represent. The landowner is God, and the vineyard that the landowner established is Israel. The members of the Jewish establishment are the tenants, and those who came throughout time to collect what was due are the various prophets. Of course the landowner’s son that was killed by the tenants represents Jesus, and the new tenants of the vineyard would be the church.

It was pretty clear to the chief priests and the Pharisees who was who in this story, and they didn’t like it, but they didn’t choose to change their role in the story. Upon hearing this story they became even more determined to have Jesus arrested and killed. There isn’t much of a surprise in this text, and if this was the end of the story it really would be a downer, but this story ends with the vineyard being leased to a new group of tenants. That new group of tenants is us, and our challenge is to be better tenants than those who went before us. I think it’s important to note that we weren’t given the vineyard – it has been leased to us. We have an arrangement with the landowner – not a deed to the property.

I didn’t grow up around a vineyard economy. I grew up around rice and soybean fields and farms. In fact my grandfather carved out such a farm. And he created a very nice farm. It wasn’t as picturesque as the vineyard portrayed in this morning’s passage, but there are some similarities.

My grandfather didn’t start out with much, but his hunger for a better life matched up with some opportunity, and it turned in to some good fortune. Tom (that’s what we all called my grandfather) figured out how to navigate the economy of the twenties and the thirties. During that time he became a successful Chevrolet/Oldsmobile dealer, and in the forties he bought some swampy forest land west of Wynne, AR and he turned that land in to a rice and soybean farm. But he didn’t just want to make money, he wanted a place to hunt ducks, so he left a perimeter of trees on the lowest part of the land so he would have a place to hunt ducks, and my cousins and I continue to enjoy the benefits of what he established. We don’t have the duck population that he had, but I feel very fortunate to have access to some flooded woods to go stand in on cold winter mornings.

My grandfather loved his farm. When I was a child he would pick me up and drive me out to his farm. It seemed pretty boring to me at the time. He didn’t talk much. We would drive around fields that all looked the same to me, but there would be some fishing or shooting at something sprinkled in with watching the crops grow, so I went along with him often.

Our roles reversed when we both got older and he could no longer drive. He loved for me to drive him out to his farm. I’ll never forget one of the last times I ever drove him out there. It was about this time of the year. We drove around the fields and saw what was harvested and what wasn’t, but then he wanted me to drive him in to the woods. As I say, he didn’t talk much. He didn’t tell me why he wanted to go in to the woods, but I did as I was told.

The road in to the woods was more of a trail than a road, and we were in a car – not a truck with four wheel drive. I kept stopping thinking we had gone far enough, but he kept motioning for me to go on. I kept driving until we were literally surrounded by these thick vines. I stopped the car and when I did he said one word, muscadines. And sure enough we were in the middle of a muscadine vine. My grandfather was a man who knew what he wanted and he would push until he got it.

My grandfather loved his farm. And he had a good tenant on his farm. The same man farmed the land for probably forty years. I don’t know how fair their arrangement was. My grandfather wasn’t an overly generous man, but I guess he was fair enough because a number of people worked for him for decades.

I didn’t grow up with the same passion for business that my grandfather had. He grew up hungry and in search of opportunity. I grew up comfortable but in search of meaning. He carved out enterprises and I spend my time trying to understand this enterprise we call life. You might say I had the luxury to embark on that enterprise.

And it seems to me that there’s an interesting relationship between the physical economy and the spiritual economy. We tend to think the word economy only refers to financial matters, and that is about the only way we use the word, but the word, economy, is derived from two Greek words that combine to mean something like: household management.

And it’s interesting that Jesus would use these economic examples to help us understand how to be more spiritually awake. What we have in today’s passage is the story of how a particular household was mismanaged in order for us to understand how things are managed in the household of God. Of course understanding how our current physical economy functions is as esoteric as the mysteries of heaven, but on a very basic level I think we can see what Jesus was saying.

What I get from today’s story is that God loves this world, and God wants us to live in this world in a harmonious fashion. God didn’t expect the tenants of God’s vineyard to give up the entire yield of the vineyard – God wanted them to release a fair share of the produce. The problem was that they wanted to keep everything for themselves. The problem was that they wanted more than their share – they sought to put themselves in the place of God.

I guess this is always the problem that comes with a degree of success in this world. It’s always hard not to think that the most important thing is to maintain and expand your influence over others. It’s easy to think that the power that comes to us when we are in charge of a physical enterprise is more important than the power we receive when we become active participants in God’s spiritual enterprise.

I don’t know how to live in this world without participating in the physical economy. We are all involved in one kind of enterprise or another. We all play a role in those various enterprises. Some of us are in positions of authority in those enterprises – some of us do as we are told. Many of us experience a little of both.

I don’t think Jesus expects us to live without engaging in the economy of this world, but he’s also very clear about the need for us not to take the roles we play in the vineyards of life too seriously. None of us have as much authority as we think we have, and if we put too much stock in the physical economy we will fail miserably in the spiritual economy. If we spend all of our time and energy managing our physical households our spiritual households will suffer.

I had the good fortune of growing up around a man who had a lot of authority in this world. I am the beneficiary of a man who knew how to make things happen. I also had the good fortune of seeing how inconsequential money really is when your health fails and death looms near. When I told Tom I was going to seminary his response was typically brief and memorable. He said, Well, money isn’t everything.

Of course the lure of power and money doesn’t go away for people who go in to ministry. Today’s passage clearly points out the way in which religious professionals can become particularly twisted by the power of the position. A career in ministry doesn’t provide immunity from godless pursuits – it just provides you with a thin mask to hide behind. The truth is that it’s a struggle for us all to not become consumed by worldly pursuits and to seek the rewards of earth at the expense of those that come from heaven.

Learning to become good tenants of God’s vineyard is a challenge for us all. Each day is filled with opportunity and fraught with danger. As followers of Christ we are challenged to be those rare economists who understand the dynamics of this world and the next. May God help us all to understand how we might best manage our resources, invest our lives, and provide the most bountiful yield. May, by the grace of God, we become worthy tenants of all that has been given to us. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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