October 4, 2020
Vineyards aren’t something that I can very easily picture or relate to. My mind automatically jumps to old black and white movies where Italian grandmas in floral aprons are stomping barefoot on grapes in giant wooden barrels. But for the people of Israel, especially in Jesus time, vineyards and the grapes they produced were what allowed them to produce wine, which because of the way it was made, could be considered safer to drink and easier to store than water was. So a vineyard was a source of life, safety, security, both for the vineyard owner and for those who benefited from what the grapes produced.
When I think of a place where I’m safe, secure, protected from potential harm, that gives me an opportunity to acquire food I may need to live, I don’t think of vineyards, I think about canoes. Being born and raised in Hawaii, the ocean was our source of safe and reliable food, and boats were how you obtained it. You had to care for your boat and maintain it well so that you didn’t end up in danger out at sea.
As a child, my church even used to use boats for Sunday school. Church members who had extra kayaks and canoes would store them at the church, so that every week the children could use them. We would meet early every Sunday morning, take our individual boats out in small clusters with our Sunday school teachers, paddle out, anchor, and pull our bibles out of zip lock bags to do our lesson for that week. Our lessons would often relate back to the ocean, the reefs, the fish, and our responsibility to be good stewards of it all. On the way back, we would learn to identify invasive species, and would pick them up along with any floating trash we could find. We’d get back to shore and would each have to hose off our boat, lay them in the sun to dry, and later come back to gently carry the boats back to the church basement one by one. We were taught from the time we were little to take good care of what was entrusted to us – the borrowed boats, the ocean, the reefs. We understood these things as gifts of God that had been entrusted to us, and it was our responsibility to learn how to properly care for them.
The priests and the pharisees in today’s text didn’t seem to get that lesson. They were the highest-ranking religious authority figures in all of Israel, they oversaw the Temple, and the wellbeing of all the Jewish people in the land. And they are not doing any of that particularly well. They see the temple as their own, not as God’s, not even as the people’s, and that completely disregards both the gift that it is, and the stewardship that it places on them. On top of it all, they disregarded all the prophets, and Christ himself who had come to try to teach them to know better. And that’s what leads them into even deeper trouble.
As I said before, from the time I was young, I learned to be out on the ocean – I had wonderful teachers who instilled in me those lessons about stewardship and responsibility. When I was old enough, I eventually became a competitive outrigger canoe paddler, since canoeing in Hawaii is a high school sport. So, I would go out with my crew of 6 teammates, paddling together in these 400-pound, 40-foot giant outrigger canoes. If you have ever seen Moana or Lilo and Stitch, you can get a fairly good idea of what I mean. At paddling practice, our coach would send us out, through the channels, around the maze of reefs, in between sets of breaking waves. We’d head to open ocean, a few miles off shore, where the waves were a little calmer, the water was a lot bluer and much much deeper, and there was no one around for miles.
One day at practice, we got out to sea and paddled for several miles before pausing to take a break. 3 of our 4 boats from our team caught up to each other within a few minutes, but our last boat, the JV boys’ boat, was nowhere to be seen, and never caught up. We turned around, tried to retrace our path, which in an ocean is incredibly difficult, and my canoe finally spotted them. Miles behind us, their boat had flipped over, because they ignored the coach’s warnings about where to point your boat to prevent waves from capsizing you. We quickly realized that not a single one of those Freshman boys had paid attention the day we all learned how to flip a boat back over, or the day we learned what to do in open water, or the day we learned what to do if you’re stranded. They had attempted to flip the boat incorrectly so many times that they had cracked the nose of the boat, and that beautiful, handmade, several thousand-dollar boat was starting to sink. Them holding onto the boat was only making it sink faster. Their paddles had floated off in every direction, these boys had already been treading water for almost half an hour, they were miles offshore, with no life jackets, a sinking boat. The waves were pummeling them because they’d ignored our lesson to always keep their boat pointed into the waves, so they’d drifted so far that by the time we found them, they were in deep, choppy grey waters which is where sharks tend to be lurking, and the jagged reefs were getting closer and closer and closer.
They had so many coaches before this day teach them what they were supposed to do, trying to instill what a huge responsibility they were taking on. Even as my varsity crew reached them and were explaining to them again exactly what to do, they still kept going back to the same things they were doing before. The second varsity boat catches up, and tries to help and to organize them, and still, there is no change. They were too proud, and too shocked to change their ways, no matter how wrong they knew they were. The boat kept slowly sinking, and paddles kept floating farther and farther away. When I picture our pharisees and temple leaders from today’s parable, standing in front of Jesus, and realizing how wrong they were to ignore those lessons, I see all those 14 year old boys, panicking in the middle of the ocean, boat sinking, and still not listening to those who’d come along to help them.
At this point in the text, Jesus has tried several times in a row to show them – you’re doing this all wrong! And yet they still just do not seem to get it. So, Jesus launches into the parable of the evil tenants, and finally the temple leaders connect the dots that they are the evil tenants. Ding ding ding! They are the ones who are taking advantage of the role God has given them and are making it worse by continually rejecting those God sends to make things right with them. They finally understand what is going on, and yet their response does not change. Christ’s teachings are meant to change us, and to save us from ourselves. They are not just food for thought or forgettable old folk tales. They’re lessons that help us to recognize our own sin, so that we can change our ways and be in better relationships with God and our neighbors, as we care for all that God has entrusted us with.
Change isn’t easy, especially in the midst of pride and old habits. The temple leaders have always done it this way, why change now? Besides this, they’re feeling threatened by Jesus, as they realize their own fault, so their shame and fear of consequence is outweighing their common sense, just like freshmen boys trending water with a sinking canoe worrying what’s going to happen when the coach shows up. The temple leader’s response to all this is to go on wanting to arrest Jesus. Completely disregarding the parable they just heard about the wicked tenants doing the same to the landowners son, completely disregarding the full awareness that they are the wicked tenants in God’s house, who have already cast out and killed many of the prophets God sent before, and who are about to finish the final evil the parable tells of. If they had done this in a boat, out in the ocean, ignoring all the lessons they’d been taught, disregarding the warning signs, doing exactly what they’d been told not to do, they’d could have been killed.
We are not called to death. We are called to life in Christ. These parables help us to recognize all the ways in which our actions are leading us away from that life, they call us to recognize and to change. You better believe those freshmen boys recognized and changed. As bad as things had gotten, they learned from it all, and gained a much deeper respect for the boats they were entrusted and the ocean they were paddling on. I wish I could say the same for the temple leaders, but unfortunately, I can’t.
So, let us hear this gospel lesson and learn what they could not. Let us recognize what God is teaching us throughout our entire lives – to love one another, to care for all that God has entrusted to us, to honor the Lord our God who has given us grace upon grace. Let us listen to the teachers God sends us along the way, calling us back to God. Let us have the humility to learn from ourselves and from those before us, that Christ may come to us, and not be rejected but become the cornerstone of our lives. Amen.