Fifth Sunday in Lent 2007

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on March 25, 2007. 
Based on Luke 20:9-19 (V Lent, Year C).

All parables have titles; names that have become associated with these particular sayings of Jesus. Some of them are well known and loved, like the Parable of the Good Samaritan or the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Others are pretty distinctive like the Parable of the Widow’s Mite or the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Last week we heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But some of them have a bit more of an edge to them; they’re not so warm and fuzzy. This morning we hear what’s become known as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. And it’s a far cry from, say, the Parable of the Good Shepherd. 

But we need all of these parables. The ones that bring us comfort as well as the ones that take us out of our comfort zones. They are like two sides of a coin (and there is, of course, the Parable of the Lost Coin) – but you can’t focus exclusively on one type of parable to the exclusion of the other. To do so would be to miss the fullness of the gospel.

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is a not-so-subtle foreshadowing of the crucifixion. A man who plants a vineyard returns from a long trip and sends a slave on his behalf to receive his share of the produce from the tenants who have leased the land. The agreement was presumably above board. The owner’s return was not a mystery or a surprise to the tenants. But whether out of greed or entitlement or sheer malice, the tenants beat the slave and send him away empty-handed. So the owner sends another slave and then another, each with the same result. Finally, at a loss for what to do, he sends his “beloved son.” For “perhaps they will respect my son,” the owner supposes. But of course the tenants throw even the son out of the vineyard and kill him. As Palm Sunday and Holy Week loom, this story is all the more poignant. God is the owner, the prophets are the slaves, Jesus the beloved son, and those who kill Jesus the tenants.

But despite the murder of his son the owner in this parable remains in complete control of the situation. It’s why the question is asked, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” And the answer is resoundingly clear: “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The vineyard isn’t shutting down; it’s not going away. It is being given “to others.” You and I are the “others” to whom the vineyard is given. And so the next question becomes our immediate concern: How will we act as tenants of the vineyard? Will we be faithful stewards of it or will we, too, plot against the owner? We all start out with the best of intentions. And I’m sure the original tenants did as well when the lease was first signed. They probably had grand visions for the place. Maybe fix up the old well; paint the barn. The wicked tenants, as they’ve become known, presumably didn’t start out that way. They didn’t start out as murderers. It all may have started with just the slightest notion of greed – ‘let’s squeeze a bit more money out of this deal.’ So they beat the first slave, beat and insult the second one, and wound the third before killing the heir. Sin can start subtly, slowly, insidiously. It can start out as a seed and grow into a forest. But it inevitably builds upon itself. And when the cornerstone of our lives becomes sin rather than Jesus Christ, we end up living a lie; dwelling within a house of cards that is ready to collapse at any moment.

And so the question comes back: How will we act as tenants of the vineyard? Or, more to the point, how are we acting as tenants of the vineyard. Because that’s our status in this life. We’re renters, not owners. Fortunately God isn’t a slumlord. We can get behind on the rent without fear of eviction. But it does mean living responsibly; remembering that we don’t have complete control over the property. There are some things we, like renters, can’t do. So we can’t start taking down walls or painting green polka dots on the brick exterior.

None of you probably know that I had a real estate license for a brief time. While I was discerning my call to the priesthood and in an in-between place professionally, I worked for my mother’s small residential real estate company doing some marketing. And I figured as long as I was there, why not take the exam and get my license? I actually enjoyed the course, although I realized I would have been a lousy agent. Sales is not my forte. But I did get to see some rental property along the way. And it can be ugly.

I noticed there are basically two types of renters. The kind who respect the home and treat it as their own; and the kind who trash the place. Most of us have been renters at some point in our lives. And we were probably somewhere in-between these two extremes. If the utilities were included, you get a bit lazy sometimes and leave the lights on when you go out figuring, ‘what’s the big deal? The landlord’s making a killing on this place anyway.’

But maybe we should approach this life as if it were a lease with the option to buy. After all, Jesus tells us in John’s gospel that “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” So in a sense we become owners with the risen Christ in heaven. We leave our renter’s status behind and become partners in the resurrection to eternal life. A full price cash offer is accepted on the spot and we take immediate possession of one of the “many mansions.” Because even though we are renters in this life, we are also God’s heirs. Paul writes to the church in Rome, “When we cry “Abba, Father!” it is that very spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” So, through faith, we will one day take possession of the mansion that has been promised to us. And that is reason to rejoice.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2007

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