Matthew 21 33-43 (Sermoncentral)
The Sermon for Pentecost 19
October 6, 1996
Christ the King Lutheran Church
The Rev. Dr. Robert G. Moore, Associate Pastor
The Lessons for the Day
- Isaiah 5:1-7
- Philippians 3:4b-14
- Matthew 21:33-46
Grace is yours and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
On my side of the family there has been a steady arrival of tiny nieces and nephews. When we gather for holidays or other occasions, it is interesting to watch the toddlers handle the toys. My little nephew Bryan is about two years old, and his cousin, Kate, is four. One day Bryan and Kate were playing at my parents' home. Suddenly I heard those adamant words, "mine, mine." They were at both ends of a toy pulling with all their might. "Mine, mine," they would repeat as though no one got the point. After two days I began to understand "toddler property laws:"
1. If I like it, it's mine.
2. If it's in my hand, it's mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it's mine.
4. If I had it a little while ago, it's mine.
5. If it's mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I'm doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks just like mine, it is mine.
These rules are easily observed in the lives of children. They seem to continue in force even among us adults.
Jesus told the parable of the wicked tenants to a group of religious leaders who had forgotten who is Lord in the kingdom of God. Jesus had come preaching, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 4:17) The invitation to repent was a challenge to return to God, the true owner of the vineyard. In the Gospel according to St. Matthew the kingdom of God consists in a right relationship to the true owner of the vineyard.
The religious leaders have questioned Jesus' authority. Keep in mind that Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem. While in the temple, he is angered by the sight of numerous activities. Moneychangers have nice booths in which they carry out the business of changing world currencies into the money suitable for use in the temple. Some merchants are there to sell animals and other paraphernalia. All of this activity has become more prominent than the most important activity: the worship of God.
Jesus goes through the temple overturning tables and disrupting all operations. The religious leaders ask him, "By whose authority do you do this?" Jesus narrates a series of parables in answer to this important question and he sets a trap for the religious leaders. The parable of the Wicked Tenants answers. My authority comes from the owner. The vineyard is the kingdom of God. The kingdom is like a vineyard: God planted it, put a fence around it, dug a winepress, and built a watchtower. It all belongs to God. The vineyard is under lease, but the tenants have forgotten who is the true owner. They now think that the land with all its improvements belongs to them. "Mine, mine," they say.
It is very telling how the tenants in the story talk about their relationship to the vineyard, to the owner, and to the owner's son. They say among themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance." Their relationship to the owner of the vineyard is distorted. They think by killing the heir they can take possession of the vineyard. These are fairly stupid characters! But they are the key to the trap that Jesus sets. The religious leaders condemn the wicked tenants in the story; and, so doing, they condemn themselves. Of course, anyone listening to the story would know what the owner of the vineyard will do. He will react by killing the wicked tenants and putting good tenants in their place. The new tenants will recognize the sovereignty of the owner over his vineyard. They will give the owner the fruit of the vineyard as is proper.
This parable serves to constantly warn the Church. We must be vigilant that we do not act like the wicked tenants. After all the most arrogant sin is the sin of believing that all this is ours and forgetting who is lord. It is an easy step to make. It does not take long (not even three years) for a pastor to labor and to slip into the attitude that the congregation belongs to him or to her. If a committee or a church council makes opposition, we cry, "mine, mine." But we are called to serve the Word of God in word and sacrament, that is, assist the congregation in the proper worship of God.
A congregation can stay very busy in activities that are meant to support the primary mission of the Church. We easily slide into comfortable positions that isolate us from the true work of the Church, to proclaim God's love to one and to all even if it agitates "the powers that be." Let's look at four examples of how this can happen.
First, we can establish The Melanchthon Institute for the continuing education of ourselves, our fellow Lutherans, and our community. But such an enterprise is demanding of time and resources. We can become too busy trying to raise money to pay teachers, print brochures and build offices, a library and classrooms. At some point these activities eclipse the very reason for having an institute. If there is success, we start hearing the subtle strains, "Mine, mine." But The Melanchthon Institute can and will help many people understand the Christian tradition from a Lutheran perspective so that we may worship God properly.
Second, our buildings have been built so that we might assemble to hear the Word of God in scripture, sermon, song and sacrament. But buildings demand upkeep, air conditioning and heating, lighting, furnishings, and beautification. It is a full time job for pastors, musicians, custodians, members of the Altar Guild, the Stewardship Committee, and the Property Committee. All of this work within the bounds of a budget can be distracting so that we forget our mission. Each one of us in the well-intentioned efforts on the buildings can tend to spout, "Mine, mine." But the true purpose of these buildings is for the worship of God who is the true owner of the vineyard.
Third, our music program demands much from many people whose talents include singing, playing instruments, directing and transporting people to and from the church. We have also established the Bach Society, not only as an organ for artistic production. The Bach Society was established to educate and inspire us so that we might continue to hear the gracious Word of God through the musical heritage that comes down to us through the Lutheran Reformation. All the effort to raise money, to rehearse, to perform as competently as our talent allows can end in a closed world of sensate beauty that forgets the giver of music, worshiping the gift instead of the one who gives it. Here the word is, "Mine, mine." But the true purpose of music is to release us from ourselves so that we might be available for the proper worship of God.
Finally, we can work hard to establish a family ministry in order to support our families in a particularly difficult time in history. Ministries to families, especially families with children, demand much money, gasoline, wisdom, and patience. The overwhelming responsibility to be a parent can be so intense that we are blinded to everything else. Families feel pressure with the demand to raise children, take care of the sick, and to care for the frail. Instead of compassion the strain can produce anxiety and anger. The family can become a political football and even an object of worship. In the name of the family we hear voices demanding, "Mine, mine." But God gave us families so that we might taste of his caring goodness. It is in the family that we learn to worship God properly by caring for others.
We live in a vineyard which we only rent from God. Those who go through life grabbing and grasping at the vineyard in the attempt to own it will only hurt themselves and their neighbors. Those who learn to worship the owner of the vineyard will keep the tradition alive, they will take care of the land and buildings, they whistle while they work, and they will care for their fellow workers. This is the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Amen
 Thanks to Pr. Jeff Whillock of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Aitkin MN.