Message from Sunday

First Reformed Church of Little Falls, NJ

             “Let me sing a love-song concerning his vineyard: He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines, and hewed out a wine vat in it—for he expected it to yield grapes.” “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it. Then he leased it to tenants. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to collect his produce.” Both of these passages today concern just what God expects out of God’s loving investments in the vineyard of the earth. What are the fruits that are due to God from the vineyard? What is owed to the landowner by the tenants?

             Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants clearly draws from the song of the vineyard in Isaiah. In this parable, Jesus seeks to establish some foundational facts; let’s say three foundational facts: 1) that God is the householder, the vinedresser, the landowner. 2) That we, as tenants, are tasked with the privilege of participating in God’s activity in the world for a time. And 3), that we, as tenants, are obligated by our role to give the landowner his due at the final settling-up.

             First, God is the householder, vinedresser, and landowner. The parable sets out clearly that the ownership of the land is totally God’s. The vineyard of the earth is not kind of God’s, it is not co-owned by God and someone else, it is God’s entirely. Psalm 24: “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.” The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. About this, Jesus is clear, there can be no question.

             Second, we, the tenants, are tasked with the privilege of living and working on the householder’s land, having struck a covenant of understanding wherein all benefit. God is at work in the world, and we are tasked with participating in that work! God is the prime mover—he plants the vineyard, builds a fence around it, digs the wine press, and builds the watchtower. When all is ready, he shares the work with others—“Then the landowner leased the vineyard to tenants.” The tenants are of course not the landowners, but there is a sense in which they work on the vineyard in the landowner’s stead. They live in the vineyard, enjoy its fruits in their season, till and keep it according to the landowner’s best practices, weeding, pruning, tying up, repairing the fence, harvesting in due season.

This reminds us that there is of course a similar sense in which we, too, in real life work on behalf of God in this world, in the stead of God on earth. When we as believers work, it is God working; when we as believers speak, it is God speaking. When we forgive, it is really God who is forgiving. When we love, it is only because God is loving. Our property is God’s property, our lives are God’s. We are tenants who are for a time gifted with the privilege of working this vineyard and sharing in its fruit. All those who insist that God has given us the vineyard of the earth as our very own to do with whatever we wish, or shall I say those who HOPE that God has given us the vineyard of the earth as our very own to do with whatever we wish—let them read this parable and beware. God has not deeded the vineyard to us; he has shared its care and management with us for a time.

So first, God is the one and only landowner. Second, we as tenants are tasked with the privilege of participating in God’s activity in the world for a time. And thirdly, we as tenants must give God what is due at the final cosmic settling-up. V. 34: “When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.” We have lived on God’s land and eaten from off it, we have mined his minerals, used our God-given giant brains to construct both weapons of war and tools of peace. We have, as tenants, thought of nothing but today. But the landowner is looking much further ahead—the Divine Landowner comes looking for his produce, in other words, comes looking for what is due him by rights. Who else but such a visionary digs a wine press the same day he plants a vineyard? God comes looking for the excellent wine of the kingdom, to be used in celebration of the establishment of his kingdom! The soil is black, the vines are healthy, the tenants are strong and capable—surely when the allotted time is up, there will be a feast with wine? The landowner is due that wine from the tenants.

The Pharisees, who hear Jesus’ parable, understand right away that it is they who are the wicked tenants who are, at best in their role confusion and at worst in their greed, the ones who are withholding from God God’s due produce. Jesus is vague, but the chief priests and Pharisees are cut to the heart for some reason. Perhaps the money from the Temple box was supposed to go the poor but went into certain silk pockets instead. Perhaps a beautiful young goat, bought with some poor sinner’s hard-earned money for a Temple sacrifice, doesn’t go to the altar after all but onto a Pharisee’s dinner table. Perhaps the chief priests had been asking for bribes before pronouncing God’s forgiveness, thereby withholding salvation. These, Jesus seems to say, are examples of how mere tenants begin to figure themselves proud property owners, keeping the produce for themselves, no longer content with serving God as a privilege but desiring ever more. Jesus warns—in the past, there had been violence against God’s servants the prophets as an attempt to keep God away—next there will be violence against the landowner’s own son.

The tenants owe the landowner his due, his fruit, his “produce.” This is mysterious for we the reader in the modern day. What is our end of the covenantal bargain; what is God’s due from us in the great cosmic settling-up? There are lots of ways to think about what is due to God from us, things we must get clear in our minds that must be returned to God with a free and open hand, not hoarded or hidden or guarded or kept from the landowner by force.

We might say, for instance, that our wealth is due to God. After all, it follows that what we have amassed from God’s earth is also God’s. This is the purpose of the 10% tithe command—the giving of 10% of our income to God, freely given away for God’s purposes, reminds us that 100% of our wealth belongs to God, and he gifts us with 90% to live on. The giving of that 10%, our firstfruits, never lets us forget our identity as tenants, for it is God’s due.

Our faith and devotion is also due back to God. We see that the tenants in the parable sin in their terrible disrespect of God. God’s servants are beaten, humiliated, killed. Ultimately the landowner’s own son dies at their hands as well, all in their cataclysmic miscalculation about how to make the land theirs. How much better it would have been for the tenants to have treated God’s emissaries with love and respect, to give them welcome, to hear them out, to keep perspective, to not have leapt to greed and violence. We owe our faith and devotion to God--his due is peaceful hearts toward one another.

And, as tenants we also owe the landowner the vineyard of the earth. The vineyard was leased to the tenants in the expectation that its goodness would be preserved year over year, a continuous source of superior wine to make glad the hearts of all who taste it. Woe to the tenants who poison that vineyard, who burn it, who use it all up. Let us give God what is due—our wealth, all derived from God’s earth anyway. Our faith and devotion, remembering that we are but tenants. And the vineyard of the earth, vital to the celebration feast after the good harvest. The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. Let us pray.