Saturday, March 6, 2010

Connections… (the parable of the Tenants)

Matt 21:33 There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 34When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.
35"The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37Last of all, he sent his son to them. 'They will respect my son,' he said.
38"But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance.' 39So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.
40"Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"
41"He will bring those wretches to a wretched end," they replied, "and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time."
43"[Yes!] Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.

The first thing about this parable that we need to notice is the fact that it is serious. Really serious. When people come to a “wretched end” at the end of one of Jesus’ parables, it means that it is really important to pay attention. It means that Jesus is telling someone that their very soul is in deadly peril. In Luke chapter 20, Luke records the same parable, and there Jesus listeners respond with shock: “may this never be!” they say. This is the appropriate reaction, of course: may this parable never be a description of what happens in my life. May it never be a description of what happens in your life! So let’s take it as a warning – just as Jesus meant it to be.

Now as serious and as important as this parable is, would you believe that this parable is mostly ignored in most churches today? Can anyone remember hearing a sermon on this parable before? Not too many. Hmm. So how did people turn this parable into something that folks imagine is not profitable for our reproof or correction. Very simple: the excuse people use to think that we don’t need to pay personal attention to this parable is to say that the parable is for somebody else.

Now I’m going to ask you to use your imagination. I want you to imagine that you are ten years old. Not a stretch for some – a little more work for others. And I want you to imagine that you have a little brother named Jeff. You are in your room, playing together and having a great time. But while you are playing, your father discovers that your brother is in deep trouble. He found one of your toys taken to pieces and thrown in the garbage, and he is smart enough to know that it probably wasn’t you that did such a thing. So he calls out “Jeff! Come here at once.” Now you and your brother Jeff both hear your father. You hear the tone of his voice. You know that it is important. You know that it is serious. But because you are playing hard, neither one of you heard who it was that he was calling. So you both do the smart thing – you jump up and come running to your Dad. So that’s the scene, and here is the question: will your Dad be angry at you for coming when he really only called your brother Jeff? No. Of course not. Taking instructions personally is never a crime. At worst, it is only a misunderstanding.

But let’s change the scene a little bit. This time, you’re up in your room playing with your brother Jeff but your Dad discovers that you are in trouble this time. Last week, he had asked the two of you if you knew why the cat was suddenly purple, and you both said “I don’t know.” And today, he found some paper towel in your school bag with nail polish all over it. So he wants to talk to you not only about the cat, but also about being honest. And he calls out your name, and then says “Come here at once.” Now once again, you and Jeff both hear your father. You hear his tone of voice. You know that it is important. And because you are playing hard, neither one of you heard who is was that your Dad was calling. But this time, you decide to use it as an excuse. You aren’t sure that you were being called, and you are having so much fun playing, you decide to ignore the call. That’s the scene, and here’s the question: will your Dad be angry at you for ignoring his call? Yes. Of course! And since you are already in trouble over the purple cat, ignoring your father’s call is precisely the thing that you really ought not to do.

But I’d like to suggest that this is exactly the reason that we need to pay particular attention to this parable this morning. We’ve already established that it is serious. Now if it wasn’t intended to be taken personally, God will forgive us if we take it that way. But if it was intended to be taken personally, it will only add to the charges against us if we choose to ignore it!

So with that in mind, I will certainly agree that we do have reason to think that the parable of the tenants has at least one interpretation that really is “for somebody else” – we’ll call it the “historical” interpretation, and it is pretty simple: the people of Israel (that’s the “somebody else”) abused God’s prophets and they eventually killed God’s Son. And so God removed the Kingdom of God from them. That’s it. But just because there is a historical interpretation doesn’t mean that there can’t be a personal interpretation as well. Jesus is really smart. He can certainly tell parables that have two correct interpretations at the same time: one for “somebody else”… and one for us, too.

Since we have had some practice imagining that you have a brother named Jeff, I’d like you to imagine another scene. You’re going to Granby Zoo and your Dad is driving. You are sitting behind your Dad, and Jeff is beside you, behind your Mom. Now you and Jeff are playing, and because it is more fun, you slip out of your seat-belts. After a bit, your Dad turns and sees that Jeff isn’t wearing a seat-belt. He can’t see you since you are sitting right behind him. Your Dad says sternly, “Jeff, put on your seat-belt!” …and you say “yeah, Jeff” at exactly the second that your Mom turns and notices that you aren’t wearing your seat-belt either. Will she be happy with you? No chance! It doesn’t matter that your Dad’s instructions were originally directed at your brother, and it doesn’t matter that your brother deserved his reprimand. It was a big mistake for you to pretend that the instruction wasn’t for you, too.

Well, the same is true for the parable. We know that there is an historical interpretation. But that shouldn’t be our excuse to ignore the personal interpretation. All of Jesus parables were told in order to touch his listeners’ hearts – not just to teach them history lessons. In fact, there is a big hint in the text this morning that Jesus intended his listeners to take this parable personally, isn’t there? Verse 43: “I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” – Jesus himself was applying it personally to those who heard the parable the first time.

Now in order to understand the parable of the tenants personally, it is necessary to connect two themes that show up in many of Jesus’ teachings. Now as everyone knows, good connections are very important. Brilliant people are brilliant because of the connections that they are able to make between ideas. Successful businessmen are successful because of the connections they are able to make between the market and people.

So let’s make two connections from the Bible in order to help us interpret the parable of the tenants. The first connection is with the theme of fruit-bearing and harvesting. I bet almost all of us at one point or other have gone apple-picking. We’ve seen first-hand the business of fruit harvesting. It is a lot of work. And farmers who work hard expect to get something back for their labor, don’t they? One can well imagine what a farmer thinks about a tree that is taking up good land, being pruned and watered and fertilized and fussed over, and yet doesn’t give apples.

But Jesus tells us that our lives are just like fruit trees, and that we, too, are expected to give some return of fruit to God! And in John 15, Matthew 3 and Matthew 7, we are told that “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” – hey! That’s serious business, too, isn’t it?

In Luke 13:6, Jesus told another parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' 8" 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. 9If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'” Our time on earth is limited, my friends. We must use the time we have to bear as much fruit as we can. But God in his mercy is very patient, and often gives us second chances.

Now in the parable of the tenants, the landlord is also expecting fruit from his vineyard, of course. And the tenants who withhold that fruit are very much like the fig tree that doesn’t yield any. The theme of fruit-bearing – which, incidentally, is a personal theme not an historic theme – is very much present in our parable this morning.

But what kind of fruit is God expecting from us? Well, it isn’t a big stretch from Jesus’ theme of fruit-bearing to a very famous verse about fruit. I expect most of you know it: Galatians 5:22,23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These are the things that God is expecting to be developed in our lives – and, of course, they only makes sense in the context of how we interact with others, don’t they?

Well, we’re going to come back to these things in a few minutes. But I’d like you to stop for a second this morning, and think about how much of a harvest of Love you could deliver to our Heavenly Landlord. Or Joy. Or Peace. Or Patience. Or Kindness. Or Goodness. Or Faithfulness. Or Gentleness. Or Self-Control. According to the Jesus’ words (not mine!), your membership in the Kingdom of God depends on it.

But before we return to that important theme, I’d like us to make a second connection – a connection to another theme that shows up in Jesus teaching – that is, we don’t get to choose who God’s representatives to us are; God does! This is really important – especially in this day and age when we get to choose almost everything… we choose the church we go to; the books we read; the shows we watch; we get to choose our friends; and we get to choose the music we listen to. But heads up: we do NOT get to choose who represents God to us. God does. We might not even like it! It doesn’t matter. If we don’t like it, that isn’t God’s problem – it is ours! The most famous lesson to this effect is found in Matthew chapter 25 (please listen carefully):
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'
37"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
40"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'
41"Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. [wow! Serious stuff!]42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'
44"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'
45"He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
46"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."
Please notice that everyone in this parable is surprised at who God considers to be his representatives! Not one of the people in the parable makes the connection between how he treats others and how he treats the King. Not even the good ones! But Jesus is saying that when God looks for kindness from us He looks for it to be shown to the “least”. We don’t get to choose. God does. And he might very well choose people who are annoying. He might very well choose people who are smelly, or rude, or insensitive, or difficult, or any manner of things. But in the very moment that we interact with those smelly or rude or insensitive people, our choices determine our destiny. Remember what Jesus said? “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. ....But love your enemies [and] do good to them. [Luke 6:32,35]”

Now if God looks for a harvest of kindness in our behavior toward his weak and human and difficult representatives (which the parable we just read certainly teaches), it also make sense that He is looking for a harvest of love, and joy, and peace and patience, and gentleness and self-control in exactly the same way.

In fact, we could well imagine that every last person we come in contact with throughout our lives is one of God’s representatives. Truly! What’s more, God’s servants include even more than that! God can even use circumstances as his servants. Do you know that this (the Bible) is one of God’s servants? There might be things in the Bible that some people make fun of. There might be things in the Bible that are difficult to understand. But God is looking for a harvest of Faithfulness and Goodness, and he has given us the Bible for that purpose, among others. What about your parents? They might not understand you. They might be on your case far too much. They might cramp your style. It doesn’t matter. God is looking for a harvest of Patience and Kindness, and he has given us parents for that very purpose.

When that guy pushes you in the hall? That’s God sending His servant to you for a harvest of Self-control. When your teacher blames you for something someone else did? That’s God sending His servant to you for a harvest of Peace. When you come home to an enormous mess in the kitchen? Faithfulness. When your neighbor doesn’t clean up the mess his dog left on your lawn? Patience and Kindness. When someone cuts you off on the highway? Self-Control. When you are mocked because of your faith? Goodness and Faithfulness. When that child runs into you in the basement and spills your coffee? Gentleness. When your sister calls you stupid? Love.

And Jesus makes it clear in the parable this morning that our very salvation depends upon our harvest of fruit. “Hold on,” you might say. “I was paying attention in Sunday School, and they told me that we aren’t saved by our actions -- we are only saved because Jesus died for us.” Very good. Your Sunday School teacher was correct. But notice just how Jesus connects exactly these two things in our parable this morning.

The tenants’ abuse of the landlord’s servants is strongly connected to their abuse of the landlord’s son, isn’t it? The tenants who will not provide a harvest to the landlord’s servants are the very tenants who are held responsible for killing the landlord’s son.
Yes: our salvation depends on how we receive Jesus. For there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved! But how can we receive Jesus if we don’t pay attention to Jesus’ own words? And Jesus teaches quite clearly that those unwilling or unable to deliver God’s harvest of love, joy and peace to his lesser servants are exactly the same people who reject him. May this never be in my life! May it never be in yours!

Remember what the Bible says in 1 John 4:20,21: “If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. 21And [God] has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

So in this coming week, remember: We are the tenants in Jesus’ parable, and God’s servants are all around us. Most won’t even know that God is using them! And you won’t even like some of them – they might even be down-right irritating! But that doesn’t matter! God is asking you for a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control just the same! And if you truly accept Jesus, you will certainly offer a portion of that precious harvest to the representatives of your Lord.