(watch here: https://youtu.be/vVktlj1HSdo)
Then he [Jesus] began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”?’ When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
Our reading for this morning reminds me of the one about an outgoing manager at a company who was getting ready to leave for good so he told the new manager that he had placed three numbered envelopes in the top drawer of the desk. He told the new manager that each time he ran into a crisis that he couldn’t solve to open an envelope, starting with the first one, and follow the instructions inside. For the first couple of months, everything seemed to be moving smoothly for the new manager until some issues with production developed and his division began to underperform. Trying to figure out what to do, he went to the envelopes and opened the first one. The note inside said, “Blame everything on your predecessor since he’s gone and isn’t here to defend himself.” So the new manager blamed the present problems on the previous operations manager and everything worked out. About a year into the job, something caused the products to have defects which then caused a dip in sales for the company. Not knowing how to solve this problem, the manager went to his desk and opened the second envelope. The note simply said, “Reorganize.” So the manager reorganized his division and the company somehow managed to recover. Another year went by when a shortage of raw materials caused the cost of production to sky rocket and the manager could no longer stay on budget while meeting his production quota. Unable to think of a solution, he went and opened the third and final envelope. In it was a note with instructions that read, “Prepare three envelopes.”
I hear Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants and find similarities with that panicky manager. The tenants come across as equally panicky. And not just “scared” panicky but “dangerous” panicky. Clearly! They killed several of the landowners messengers, even his own beloved son! Perhaps that was what they were instructed to do in their hypothetical three envelopes, kill any and all messengers who sought to collect on behalf of the landowner. Maybe they couldn’t work the vineyard well enough to satisfy the landowner. Rather than answer for their failure, they simply killed the landowner’s messengers. Maybe they had worked the vineyard very well and had allowed greed to take hold of them. They no longer wanted to give back to the landowner because they were consumed with amassing the products for themselves. Nevermind that they would have had nothing if not for the landowner entrusting them to work his land in his absence. No, we can only guess at what caused the tenants to become dangerously panicked.
Besides, we hear the parable and can’t help but feel the same guilt as those hearing it for the first time. “When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.” They were overcome with guilt and shame for either not working God’s land to his expectation, killing God’s messengers, or not giving back to God his rightful dues. We have the added guilt of having killed God’s beloved Son as the parable suggests. Jesus’ listeners were at least free of that guilt. But we live in a post-resurrection world and must bear the guilt and shame of having killed God’s most precious messenger. We are not any better than those who killed him 2,000 years ago. We’ve been entrusted with the same vineyard and we either fail to work it to God’s expectations or horde its blessings or forget to give God his due share. And if Jesus were to confront us, I wonder how panicky we’d get. Scared panicky or worse, dangerous panicky?
Even though we hear his judgment and feel our guilt, I think Jesus has another motive for giving us his parable. Yes, I think Jesus wants us to accept our responsibilities in life. Jesus wants us to be mindful of our responsibilities so that we don’t get in a panicky state. Killing God’s messengers is a foolish, childish response to having responsibilities. God entrusts each of us with responsibilities in caring for his creation. Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. Our health, our wealth, our families, our friends, our homes, our church, our country, our world…they’re all gifts from our loving and generous God. We are responsible for maintaining them though. We must take care of God’s gifts, nurture them, grow them, use them, and share them. In short, we must be responsible partners with God. God doesn’t give us three envelopes. He doesn’t give us excuses and ways out of our responsibilities. No, God gives us responsibilities and wants us to fulfill them. He doesn’t want us to feel guilt and shame over not fulfilling them. He simply wants us to fulfill them, that’s it.
And God, in his endless grace and mercy, gives us the means to fulfill our responsibilities through the wisdom of scripture. Recall what Paul advised the Galatians: “All must test their own work, then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads.” (6:4-5) We are all given responsibilities and work in our families, friendships, jobs, homes, and churches. God blesses each of us with a unique set of skills for meeting those responsibilities. We must all carry our own loads and accept the responsibilities entrusted to us. We ought not be afraid of our responsibilities or try to avoid them. That leads to drastic reactions like killing God’s messengers. Yes, we ought to bravely, resolutely accept our responsibilities and get to work fulfilling them. Why? Because we will all stand before God and answer for how well we fulfilled our responsibilities. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother and sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. So then, each of us will be accountable to God.” (14:10, 12) The wicked tenants failed to realize this or they simply didn’t care. God judges each of us on how well we fulfill the responsibilities He has entrusted to us, be assured of this.
Instead of feeling guilt and shame over past behavior, we ought to simply be more mindful of our responsibilities and get to work in fulfilling them today, tomorrow, and all the days we have in this world. Jesus didn’t teach as a way of laying on guilt trips. Jesus taught to ensure hope and fruitful living. Let us get to work in fulfilling our responsibilities! Paul wisely advised the Colossians, “whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ.” (3:23-24) What a gift it is to serve him and be responsible in this world! Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.