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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/14/2014

I’ve preached a lot of sermons on Jesus’ parables. They were his primary method of teaching when a question was presented to him, these little stories intended to make you think, sometimes intended to rattle someone’s cage a little bit, designed to challenge preconceived notions, to turn the tables on the audience. In a way, what Jesus did with his parables was to kind of set a trap and then gently lure his listeners toward it so that they finally wind up trapping themselves, and with that the point is made. Rather than direct confrontation which would have just given his opponents more ammunition in their conflict with him, Jesus used parables. The effect was the same but the indirectness of it made it harder for them to pin him down. His opponents convicted themselves rather than have Jesus do it.

I’ve preached on all of those things at one time or another, I’ve read a lot about the parables, I’ve studied them quite a bit, but it wasn’t until this week that I really experienced a parable. It wasn’t until this week that I found out how it feels to be the one lured into Jesus’ trap. It’s no fun to be alone in the trap, so in the next few minutes perhaps I can lure you in so you can join me.

Today it’s the parable of the wicked tenants. The landowner plants a vineyard, gets it all set up, leases it to tenants and then takes off; his laborers can do the work, he’ll reap the profits later. When harvest time comes, he sends his slaves to collect the produce, but some get beaten, some get stoned, some get killed. So the landowner sends more slaves and the same thing happens. Then he sends his son thinking they’ll respect him, but instead the tenants figure if they kill the son, they can then reap the profits, so that’s what they did. At that point, the trap was set and then it was sprung as Jesus asked, “When the owner of the vineyard returns, what will he do?” The chief priests and elders responded by saying, “He’ll put them to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the profit from the produce.”

Now…this has the Jesus story written all over it doesn’t it? Reading this as an allegory with each of the characters representing someone or some group, which is what is often done with parables, if the landowner is God, after giving his people the vineyard of the Promised Land, he first sends some of the Old Testament prophets as his representatives. They caution the people and tell them how to live, but the people don’t get it so God sends more prophets but the people are still disobedient so finally, he sends his son, Jesus, but even he is rejected by many.

That interpretation seems to make sense and in fact it has been the traditional interpretation of this parable and it’s an interpretation that the church has used concerning the Jews, saying that because they didn’t accept Jesus as the Messiah, God has now rejected them and turned the vineyard over to those who did accept Jesus. With that interpretation the early Christians would now be understood as God’s chosen people because the Jews blew their chance.

The anti-Semitic nature of that interpretation has rightfully caused it to fall out of favor so as a corrective the most common interpretation these days is not to focus on the failure of the first tenants of the vineyard, but instead to put ourselves on the hook as the new tenants and ask if we are doing a better job of tending it than the first ones. That way, instead of using the parable to point the finger at others, most notably the Jews, we make it about us.

That’s not necessarily a bad interpretation as it does make us do some honest self-evaluation rather than just self-righteously making ourselves the good guys but either way, it leads us into the trap along with the chief priests and elders. As I said, trap was sprung with the question, “What will the landowner do when he comes back?” and with the response, “He will put those tenants to a miserable death and turn the vineyard over to others,” we fall into it, or at least I did.

If you’re like me though, when you hear that response, you’re OK with it; it seems like the right answer, but that’s the trap. That response assumes a wrathful, judgmental, out to get you God, but is that the God revealed by Jesus? The answer is no and that’s where I got caught. I realized that as much as I preach grace and forgiveness, as much as I talk about a God slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, in hearing this parable I realize that I’m still trapped and possessed by the image of an angry God. I preach grace, but do I really believe it? Then, as I thought about it, I realized that this is exactly what a parable is supposed to do; it trapped me, it convicted me in my own inconsistency and maybe you’re now in the trap with me.

Jesus’ point to the chief priests and elders may have been, “That’s what you would do; you would put those tenants to a miserable death, but the God I call Father is about second chances and new life, not about wrathfully giving up on people.” Maybe he’s saying to them and to us, “You really haven’t been paying attention have you? You haven’t been paying attention to the difference that I represent.”

Having fallen into the trap though, now we can extricate ourselves from it and, with a clearer image of God, we can move back out into the vineyard. Seeing ourselves as the tenants we can ask, “What can we do, what should we do to be productive? How do we demonstrate our faith not in an angry God, but in the God revealed by Jesus? What can we do to help reveal his way and his kingdom?

What we can do, what we have to do in being good tenants is to be agents of hope in a world increasingly inclined toward despair. Looking at the CNN website as I was writing this a few days ago, among the headlines were…the first Ebola diagnosis in the United States, another breach of security at the White House, several ISIS stories, that’s not going away anytime soon, the volcano in Japan, protests in Hong Kong along with fear about what China might do about it. You used to be able to take cover in the sports report as the toy department of the news but even that has become the latest episode of boys behaving badly with domestic violence, sexual assault, drug violations, racism, drunk driving. It’s all pretty depressing but that makes it even more imperative that the church be an agent of hope.

What we have to offer is a story centered on a God who is a giver of new gifts, a God whose actions are not limited by the way things are and the way things always have been. It’s a story of new life and second chances that’s told over and over again in many different ways throughout the Bible and our task is to continue to tell those stories over and over again, stories that have this God at the center, the God revealed through Moses and the prophets, the God made flesh in the person of Jesus. Our story, despite all the cynicism and skepticism that’s out there, still has this God as the main character.

As faithful tenants of the vineyard, our hope is about imagined possibility. It’s hope that is interested in the past but not limited by it. It’s hope in new life, hope in God doing a new thing. It’s not a denial of all the bad stuff that’s out there, but it’s hope that insists that the God we worship and praise can transform even this.

As faithful tenants, another thing we can do is go to this God and say, “Have you heard the news this morning? Is this what you want for the world? We pray ‘Thy kingdom come,’ but where is it?” We have a voice in this relationship, God has given us a voice, and it’s a voice that allows us to question because we believe that our God can change things. It’s all part of being a good tenant.

I think I really did experience this parable this week. I fell into the trap, but it’s a trap that turned the tables on me and made me refocus and see things differently…and that’s what parables are supposed to do.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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