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Are we tenants behaving like landlords? – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: Are we tenants behaving like landlords?

Date/time/service: Sunday 4th October 2020 Trinity 17 Eucharist

Passage of scripture: Matthew 21.33-end

Apparently Jesus told 46 parables. To be more accurate, 46 of Jesus’ parables are recorded in the gospels. He may have told others that were not recorded. I would like to say that I discovered this by carefully reading and cross checking all four gospels, but the truth is that I ‘Googled’ it, so I hope this number is accurate! Most of the parables Jesus told were directed at his followers and his disciples in particular, they were designed to show what God is like; the extent of God’s love, compassion and mercy. It seems clear from the gospels that the disciples were not very good at parables. Often they did not understand them and they needed Jesus to unpack and explain them.

The parable we heard in the gospel reading this morning is different. It is not directed at his disciples but at his critics, the Chief Priests and the Pharisees. It is interesting that they seem to be better at parables than the disciples because they realise immediately that in the story Jesus tells they are the tenants of the vineyard who kill the servants of the landlord and then his son, so they can keep the vineyard and all the produce for themselves. This explains why their reaction is so negative.

So, if this is a parable directed at critics of Jesus, what is in it for us, people who love Jesus and want to be his faithful disciples?

In essence The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is about greed. Someone has invested a great deal of money and time to create a vineyard. It has everything needed, vines, a winepress, a watch tower to be able to guard against thieves and a sturdy hedge to stop wild animals entering and snaffling the grapes. In the parable this fully functioning vineyard is the Jewish nation, the people of Israel, God’s chosen people. The tenants are the religious leaders of Israel, those charged by God with the responsibility of caring for and nurturing the people of Israel. The landlord’s servants who were sent to receive what was due to the landlord from the vineyard, are the old testament prophets, sent by God to make sure his people were being faithful and fruitful and that they were thriving in the ways of justice and peace. The problem is that the tenants, the religious leaders, are enjoying the power and the prestige of their role so much that they reject the landlord’s servants and kill them. The tenants are greedy. They want the vineyard for themselves. They ignore the fact that the whole enterprise belongs to the landlord and seek to take it over for themselves. Matthew cleverly blurs the ending of the parable into real life by telling us that the Chief Priests and the Pharisees, having heard and understood it, wanted to have Jesus, the landlord’s son, arrested …… but they did not because Jesus was popular with the crowds, who at that time, saw him as a prophet.

So far so good ….. a little bit of interesting bible study here tells us about the failings of powerful religious leaders over two thousand years ago in Palestine, but what does this parable have to teach us today?

I love the Church and I believe that, at its best, it is the body of Christ bringing healing, peace, compassion, justice and love into the world through what it says and stands for on the international and national stage, but also by what it says and stands for in every little community and parish; building community, caring for the vulnerable, helping people navigate life and accompanying people through times of joy and times of sorrow. But, my spectacles are not rose tinted, and I know how easy it is for the Church to succumb to the temptation to think too highly of itself, to become self-serving and to spend more time arguing about itself than truly serving God. This parable becomes very uncomfortable if we read it as the Landlord being God and the vineyard being the world and everyone in it and the tenants being the Church which can, at times, lose its way and ignore or misinterpret the landlord’s servants of scripture and tradition to promote only itself and end up ignoring and therefore rejecting Christ. Please do not misunderstand me, a great deal of the time I think the Church gets it right and embodies Christ in what she says and does, but I also see that the Church sometimes gets it badly wrong, and it is when this happens that we need to read this parable, learn from it and renew our focus on following Jesus and the way of sacrificial love which leads to us to the Kingdom of God.

There is, of course, another way we can read this parable which will cause us even greater discomfort. We are disciples of Jesus. That is why we are here this morning. We love Jesus and seek to be faithful to him in all that we do and say. We believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We are called to follow him and we believe that the more people who follow him the better because the way of Jesus leads us to experience life in all its fullness and it leads to the establishment of God’s kingdom. But, maybe it would be helpful to grit our teeth and read this parable as being about us as individuals. God is the landlord of the vineyard. The vineyard is our life and all that we are, the gifts we have, the people we love and all that we possess. The servants of the landlord are the bible and Christian teaching and the Son is Jesus calling us to be more fruitful, to follow him more closely, to walk the way of vulnerability and sacrificial love, to live by the hard truth that we actually possess nothing, all is God’s and we are simply stewards of God’s gifts. Jesus calls us to live lives of radical obedience which may risk crucifixion ….. do we listen? Do we take this on board and adjust our lifestyles and priorities accordingly? Or do we act like the greedy tenants in the parable and seek to keep everything for ourselves and use the gifts we have been given to ensure we remain comfortable and safe while at the same time deluding ourselves that we are actually in charge and in control of our lives and of the bit of the world in which we live?

Uncomfortable thoughts! May we have the courage to read this parable in all its richness and many layers of meaning so that we are reminded as the Church, and that we are reminded as individual disciples, that the world and our lives belong to God.

The Chief Priests and the Pharisees Jesus was talking to would have known the verse from the first book of Chronicles I am going to close with, but they were ignoring it. The question this parable forces us to ask is, are we ignoring it too?

‘Yours, O Lord, are the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the heavens and on the earth is yours; yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all.’

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