Originally preached for Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on Oct. 3rd, 2014.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
‘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 watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 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.’
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”?
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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.
When I was a kid, I loved Peter Pan. So it makes perfect sense that in 1991 my favorite movie was the Robin Williams’ classic “Hook.” In the movie, Williams’ plays a stuffy grown-up version of Peter Pan who has left his old life and world in Neverland far behind him, until a family crisis at the hands of Captain Hook compels him to return to Neverland and save his kids.
Once they realize who he is, the other Lost Boys are all overjoyed to see their leader and friend Peter once again. Well, all of them except one. Rufio. Rufio is the new leader of the Lost Boys, the one Peter left in charge and told to take care of everything when he left long ago. And Rufio isn’t so keen on the idea of having this new older Peter Pan back in Neverland. He does everything he can to maintain his power and authority over the Lost Boys.
You’re not supposed to like Rufio, but I always kind of did. I couldn’t help it. And not just because he wore leather and eyeliner and had a red Mohawk. As much as I loved Pan, I understood where Rufio was coming from. He had spent years taking care of the other boys and fighting off pirates and keeping Neverland safe in Peter’s absence. And then out of nowhere, Peter returns and he’s just supposed to give it all up. It kind of stinks.
In our scripture for today, Jesus tells the Pharisees a parable that is meant to make clear to them that they are not really in charge anymore. The Pharisees are like the tenants in his story—and just like the tenants don’t want to give up the vineyard they’ve been tending to when the landowner’s son comes for the harvest—the Pharisees don’t want to give up their power and authority to this one who claims he is the Son of God.
This parable is the middle of three parables that Jesus tells to call out the corruption of the Pharisees as tensions mount between him and the Jewish leadership. We’re not supposed to like the Pharisees. And it’s not hard to dislike them, given their arrogant attitude and all that they will do to Jesus later. But even so, I have to confess that I feel a twinge of sympathy for them.
They have been taking care of their religion and its people for as long as they can remember, serving God, and now, suddenly, they are being asked to turn it all over and do things a different way. They may not be the good guys in this story and we may not like them, but I can imagine how they feel. Can’t you?
Even though Jesus’ message in his time was meant to specifically call out corrupt and wayward religious leaders rather than all the people, I believe his message is relevant for us today.
Every week at this service, when we have our time of offering, we acknowledge that all good things in our lives come as gifts of God’s grace. We say it and we pray it, but how willing are we to really accept it and live into it?
The truth that we proclaim is that this world and all that is in it—even our very lives—belong, not to us, but to God. But do we believe it?
Sometimes, when we take care of something for so long, we forget that it doesn’t belong to us. And that makes sense. This world and these lives are all we’ve ever known. And we work hard! To take care of them, to build them up, to make them good and fruitful. Think of all the effort that has gone into building up this church over the past century. And despite all of that hard work and care, we’re supposed to just hand them over to Jesus to serve his purpose? Honestly, it feels a little unfair.
In Jesus’ parable, the landowner sets up the vineyard before he ever leaves it in the hands of the tenants. The tenants work hard to care for the land, yes, but they forget that the owner’s work in the beginning is what made their work able to yield fruit in the first place.
The problem is that when we’re given power over something we forget where it comes from and we get possessive. And the more power and privilege we find ourselves with the more possessive we get. Then it stops being about what we were entrusted with—to care for and tend to—and becomes instead about what we have to gain or lose.
At our worst, we trade in our commitments to justice and a better world for bitter diatribe and corrupt, territorial volleys for power. We tear each other down and rip each other apart in the name of somehow building ourselves up. We get it in our heads that the only way to make sure we are okay, is to make sure that somebody else isn’t. This worldview is rooted in a myth of scarcity. It’s suggests that there is not enough to go around.
This fear of scarcity is what drives the tenants to kill the landowner’s son. It is what terrifies the Pharisees into seeing Jesus as an enemy that must be eliminated in the name of the very faith he has come to illuminate. We may feel like these acts of fear-driven violence are far beyond what we are culpable of even our worst days, but when we operate from this fear and possessiveness—when our sisters and brothers become nothing more than enemies to be defeated or obstacles to be overcome or objects to be exploited—are we not in some way destroying the image of Christ we are called to see in them?
When we operate from this perspective of scarcity—where life and this world are matters of winning or losing, the question that drives us is: what’s in it for us?
In our quest to answer this question; to gain more: more power, more influence, more comfort, more security—more of whatever we think we want and is ours to take—we lose sight of the one thing more important than all of it. The one thing we really need. Grace.
Grace—made known to us in Jesus Christ—is not just what we need, it’s the foundation upon which this whole world and our whole lives rest. Grace is what compelled God to entrust these things to us in the first place—not out of our deserving or earning but out of selfless love and boundless hope.
Grace reminds us that the question isn’t “what’s in it for us?” but “who is in it for us?” And grace gives us the answer. Jesus. Jesus—in all his grace—is literally “in it” for us. In the world. In human form. In pain and death. In resurrection. In it all with and for us.
For Jesus, it’s not a matter of winning and losing—for Jesus, it’s about sharing. Jesus loses everything, but what matters more to him is what he can share with us. He shares in all that pains or troubles us, and he shares in our joys.
When we think our lives belong ultimately to us, we can be overcome by what it feels like Jesus is asking us to give up. But the truth is that without Christ’s grace we don’t have anything at all. Jesus is who makes the vineyard fertile and grace is what brings about the good fruit. Without them and the harvest they bring about, we can never hope to possess anything more than a barren land.
Instead, Jesus offers us something better than we could imagine on our own. Jesus invites us to participate. To take part in bearing the fruit of the kindom. To share in his grace that makes our lives possible and to share that grace with one another and with the world.
When we work to share that grace, we too are compelled to give selflessly, to hope boundlessly. We are compelled to toil in the name of justice for all people and for creation. We are compelled to rejoice in community and the opportunity to share in the bounty. We are compelled to dream not just for ourselves, but for all. To dream not just of the ground beneath our feet or the things within our grasp, but of a better world, a holy ripened vineyard bursting with fruit enough for all, the kindom of God.
When Jesus asks the Pharisees what should become of the tenants, they can only think of violence and death. Kill them and be done with it, they say. But Jesus doesn’t write us off this way. He invites us to help bear the fruit.
At the end of Hook, Peter leaves Neverland again to go home and care for his family. As he’s leaving, the Lost Boys gather—curious to see who he will leave in charge this time. He paces before them before finally handing his sword over to a big, gentle boy named Thud. “Me?” Thud asks in awe, astounded that Pan would entrust him with such a task. Peter nods, and then turns to the next boy. “And you take care of everyone smaller than you.” He says, and then gives them each the same message in turn. When the smallest asks in wonder and delight what his job should be, Peter says, “you take care of the fairies.”
This is the mutual joy and grace that Jesus offers us and invites us to share in. This astounding gift and responsibility does beg a question, but the question isn’t “what’s in it for us?” The question is, “what more could we ask for?”