You won’t believe this – but there are some Christians who misuse Jesus’ parables. They say things antithetical to Jesus’ life and teaching – making him sound excluding of people, not the gracious grace and inclusion of God’s heart for all people. They use this parable to say the Jews blew it, and now they, these Christians, not all though, are the new tenants. Somehow they think that means they’re going to heaven, and the others – well, go figure. Jesus does warn religious leaders they’re about to lose their place. But unlike those about to lose their place predict, Jesus merely says – God looks for those who will bear the fruit of his kingdom. Let those with ears hear. What do you think this owner would do with us?
You haven’t asked me, but I will tell you anyway. Frankly, I think it’s a pretty screwy parable. Jesus warns us parables confuse, conceal, and sound outrageously offensive. They don’t yield simple conclusions or moral lessons. Parables are like earworms. They get into our heads and squiggle around – challenging us to question ourselves – even change our view of the world, God, and our place, if we dare listen.
Today’s parable is a case in point. Jesus’ audience would associate the vineyard with Israel and God as the landowner. But this landowner becomes absentee unlike the God Jesus reveals, who is always with us. He even leases his vineyard to the natives. Is that the God we know – to go away for awhile? Many people experience God that way, absentee – these days. God has a diminished place in them, fades to being a nonentity and irrelevant. And then comes a day of reckoning that gets our attention. The owner will want his due.
All goes fine. The tenants tend well and work hard. One afternoon three guys with wagons ride up and start loading grapes. It’s that day of reckoning. The landowner wants his cut. Granted tenants don’t own the crop, but they have made it happen – sort of. You have to admit – beating up and killing the owner’s servants is extreme, regardless of how much you think you’re getting ripped off. And then the owner is crazy enough to think they’d respect his son. He sends him. They kill him thinking they’ll inherit the vineyard. How crazy is that? This is one disturbing parable.
Jesus tells the religious leaders they are about to be replaced – giving them another chance to repent and change. In that sense, it’s a parable of grace – and grace for some becomes judgment for others. Jesus is a stumbling block for some – a cornerstone for others. It’s by grace we hear, examine ourselves, and change direction. By grace we see God’s larger world and have hope in times of despair. Grace teaches us to live as if this is God’s world – we are squatters, not owners. We work the vineyard for God. We are stewards and we are accountable to the maker and owner. What do you think the owner would do with us?
Soon we shall create new goals in the VIVA process, and plan how to accomplish our goals for this church’s future. Will we listen for God’s voice and will in setting goals – or wing it on our own? Do we attend church when it suits, or because this is our loving response to the experience of God’s grace, goodness, and love? We’re beginning our stewardship and budget emphasis soon. We talk about money as if it’s ours – we earned it, we never have enough – and we decide how we spend it. What would the owner do with us? We tend to talk about church as if it’s ours – my church, our church. By our actions, would others know it’s God’s church? When we think we own, or we’re in charge, we tend to forget we’re here by God’s grace. And we can act like tenants who reject Jesus. What will the owner do with us?
God is opposite of the revenge-filled tyrant the religious leaders would expect. God rejects violence, vengeance and revenge. We just didn’t see that fully until Jesus comes along. God’s love for us is revealed in a cross, an empty tomb, a beloved Son who gets murdered – only when this owner, his father, comes to collect his due, God brings new life, offers a way out of lies, revenge and death. God’s kingdom comes to us in bread and wine, mercy and grace poured out through us to neighbors and families, to the homeless and hungry. If we mess up, neglect our mission, God won’t take it from us. God lets us lose it. If we live the life of the Crucified One, we live in divine union. We embody forgiveness, healing, reconciliation – the servant life for others.
A professor takes his family on a business trip to a major city. He sees a large Episcopal Church, where he decides to take the family on Sunday. When they arrive, a woman warmly greets them, hands them a worship program, and introduces them to a couple who’ll sit with them. The man says to her, “Wow, this isn’t like our Episcopal Church back home. You are so welcoming.” “Oh, well we rent this sanctuary from the Episcopal Church. It’s next door. Let me show you.” So around the corner they find a small chapel, a few people scattered about, mostly elderly, keeping to themselves, muttering half-heartedly through the service, vaguely staring without singing the hymns. The service ends, the family leaves – no one speaks to them. They walk past the large Episcopal Church building, filled with children, young couples, babies, the elderly, diversity of peoples, love and friendliness. The man stops, looks in at what’s going on and says, “Honey, that was once the Episcopal Church.” What will the crazy landowner do with us?
 Adapted from a story from William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, (October – December, 1996), p. 4.