Last November, I had the opportunity to preach at my Friends meeting, North Valley Friends. I was asked to share about Query 19 in our Faith & Practice document, which has to do with being a Christian steward of God’s creation. A re-visioning of the Parable of the Tenants came to me then, and I thought I’d share it here, in case it’s inspiring to anyone else. (If you want to listen to a podcast of the whole sermon, it’s available here.)
Matthew 21:33-40 (NRSV): “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 watchtower. 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.”
Usually we read this passage in the context of people misunderstanding who Jesus was, and not getting the fact that he’s the Messiah. Yes, but I think there’s another meaning going on here: God has set us up as stewards of the vineyard. I thought that was particularly fitting due to our location here in the Willamette Valley. So if we’re supposed to be stewards of this vineyard, if we’re tenants here, taking care of this place for the Creator, how do we do that? We want to, but how?
And those tenants seem pretty hopeless, right? They seem like they are the mean, spiteful, greedy kind of tenants who want everything for themselves.
What if we imagine the landowner giving the land to some new tenants? Imagine there’s a piece of property open out in the vineyards around Newberg. The previous tenants haven’t done a great job with it, but there’s a good infrastructure built up: gnarled old vines that need some TLC but are planted in good soil. A wine press, and maybe a rickety old house. A young couple has fallen in love with the Newberg area, and they are so excited about the prospect of making really great wine. They plan to do this by putting every ounce of love and care they can into growing and harvesting their grapes, and passionately practicing their craft in order to make an artisanal local organic wine, perhaps to be paired with their friends’ local goat cheese on bread from the Newberg Bakery. So this young couple is so excited to try to find a piece of land where they can practice their craft. They recognize they have no idea how to make wine besides what they’ve read in books, but they hope that they can learn, and they’re open to learning from others.
They meet with the landowner of the vineyard we’ve just heard about, the one where the previous tenants did not exactly care for it, and, in fact, murdered any of the landowner’s envoys, though there’s no way to prove it. At this meeting, the landowner sees this young couple and sees that they are passionate about treating this land well, and bringing forth the best fruit the land can support. The landowner also sees that this young couple is clueless—they have no real experience. They can see the wine that they want to produce so clearly they can almost taste it. They are ready to put in countless hours of labor and to do so with love. They are open to learning, and they’ve started reading. In fact, they’ve read everything this landowner has written on the subject of vineyards and winemaking, and they can quote much of it verbatim.
And so, the landowner makes a decision. He or she (whoever you’ve been imagining) decides to move back onto this piece of land, and invite this young couple to work the land alongside. Every day they work together, side by side. As the couple works, they listen to the landowner tell stories of that land, the vintages that have grown out of it in years past, the previous tenants, the faithful stewards who have worked it before. They listen as the landowner tells them about pruning a vine just here, caring for the soil, collecting and distributing water, dealing with pests, when is the exact time to harvest, and what to do to produce the wine. Sometimes when the landowner sees a particular situation, s/he invites the young couple to help come up with a creative solution, and they work together to make it happen. Sometimes, these ideas fail miserably.
The first few vintages of this couple’s wine are terrible, and sometimes they wonder why the landowner even lets them help at all. But at the same time, they are so grateful that they get to be part of the process, and they hold tenaciously to their dream, and step by step they see themselves becoming the skilled crafts-people they envisioned when they came to the land.
The seasons pass, and the young couple is not so young anymore. They have children, and teach them the ways of the landowner. They tell their children the stories and teach the craft. The children also learn firsthand from the landowner, and the landowner delights in hearing their ideas. And new stories are created as the family grows up, being nourished by and nourishing the land.
Now, I don’t know about you, but this second story gives me a lot more hope. And I challenge us this morning not to think of the tenants in the first story as the Jews, or evil corporations who are ruining our planet, but to think of the not-so-good tenants and the young couple in the second story as parts of ourselves. Because at least for me, I notice that there are days when I feel like the old tenants, and days when I feel like the new ones. And maybe these tenants aren’t so different. Maybe the old tenants were just the same as the new ones, just as clueless about how to grow grapes and make wine, but they made different choices about what to do in that situation. The old tenants, out of fear, locked down their land, struggled on their own to try to produce what they could from this land that wasn’t theirs, and refused to give even a drop to the landowner. But the new tenants, the young couple, face life with joy and passion. They are teachable. They are open to community. They have a vision and they work hard to make that vision a reality. When an obstacle pops up between them and their goal, they brainstorm and problem solve and tenaciously hold on to their vision until they can bring it to fruition.