Dr. Anne M. Cameron
March 4, 2012
Lake Highlands Presbyterian Church
Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But those tenants said to one another, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?”
When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.
I know there are at least several of you out there who have been bitten by the Downton Abbey bug. I know because I am one of you! If you have not yet seen this captivating BBC series, you are in for a treat. The basic story revolves around the grand family and lowly servants who reside at Downton Abbey in Great Britain in the early 1900s. It is a world of inherited wealth, status, and service, unlike anything most of us have ever experienced. The TV series definitely casts the nobility in a positive light. The Lord and Lady Grantham are benevolent, generous "employers" of their many servants, all of whom always seem fresh, pressed, and well dressed. The Lord and Lady worry about even the scullery maid. They go out of their way to provide medical care and even legal advice.
One of the fascinating aspects of the series is its theme of one's "proper place." It was a time in which even wealthy women had few rights. Well-born women had no future beyond securing a "proper marriage." This is a major preoccupation of the entire Grantham clan with their three young adult daughters. Persons who "worked," even professionals such as doctors or lawyers, were considered vastly inferior. To give you a taste of this, there is a funny dinner table scene in which the third cousin, the unknown heir, Matthew Crawley (himself an attorney), mentions doing something over the "weekend." "What, pray tell," sniffs the Dowager Countess (the grandmother), "is a weekend?"
Above all, servants must know "their place," their hierarchy in the line of service, and proper behavior in the presence of nobility. Never speak unless spoken to, make yourself as invisible as possible, and do not presume to entertain an opinion about what goes on "upstairs" in the grand halls. Expect no privacy, own no property. Don't even think about getting married.
I speak of such things this morning because there is a strong theme in our scripture today which I believe underlies this dreadful story of the vicious tenants. The tenants in our story seem to think nothing of repeatedly rebuffing the landowner's efforts to claim what is rightfully his. They even resort to murder.
I refer to the themes of "proper place" in Downton Abbey because in 21st century American culture, we have very little experience of what one's "proper place" means! In many ways this is a good thing. Goodness knows we do not want to go back to the days when only white landowner males could vote! When it comes to our relationship with God, there may actually be something valuable in "knowing one's proper place."
Let's look at what the gospel writer Mark tells us. First, the context. This parable is only the second one told by Mark. It appears late in the gospel game. Jesus approaches Jerusalem and his final days. All along in the gospel of Mark, Jesus has been duking it out with the religious leaders, arguing about rules and allegiances and what's important in the life of faith. Jesus contends the religious leaders have the whole thing upside down. They have forgotten what's truly important. They are so worried about maintaining the institution of the Temple they have lost track of God. It is in this midst of these contentious discussions Jesus chooses to spin off the story of the tenants who also seem to have things upside down. They think they are in charge, but they are not.
They are but tenants. The vineyard was given to them, with everything necessary for a successful operation. The landowner set them up. But they were greedy. They wanted more. They didn't understand their place. They wanted to BE the landowner, even though that could never be their place. It would be as impossible for them to become the landowner as for the butler to exchange places with the Lord of the manor!
The tenants here refused to give back a portion to the landowner. They do not understand their "place" in relationship to the landowner. They do not understand how well they've got it. The fundamental problem here is there is confusion about their relationship with the landowner.
The relationship between tenant and landowner is like the relationship between us and God. God gave us this world to live in, with everything we need for fruitfulness. Everything we need to make good wine. God set us up. We have all the tools we need and all the resources we might want. But we are sometimes confused about our role. We do not understand our place. We think we are in charge, but we are not. We do not understand the fundamental nature of our relationship to God. We may try to be like God. More often, we just forget or dismiss God.
We do not appreciate that we are but tenants on this earth. Even our very lives are gifts we are given only for a season. We believe this place where we reside belongs to us, that the talents and abilities we are given are "ours," and the resources we have been given are to be used for our own purposes.
We may resent the idea that we are supposed to "give back to God" a portion of what God has given us. More often, we simply do not even consider it. We ignore it.
Of course, in the gospel, the tenants are far worse than misguided, selfish, and greedy. They are wicked. They not only refuse the landowner his rightful payment, they abuse his servants and even murder them. Again and again they mistreat and abuse those whom the landowner sends. They are given many chances to repent and pay their debt, but things go from bad to worse when the landowner sends his only beloved son. They murder the son! In the wake of this repeated injustice, there is nothing else the landowner can do but apply justice.
It is here where we tend to tune out. It is here where we tend to believe that the parallel between ourselves and these wicked tenants ends. We dismiss this part of the scripture at our peril. Let's not ignore the strong message of justice here. God loves us. God provides all we need. God is patient and repeatedly seeks us, again and again, even when we reject him. And, we are reminded in Mark's gospel---God is also just. As Marcus Borg put it:
“The God of love is also the God of justice. The two are related, for in the Bible justice is the social form of love. Thus the God of love is not simply “nice” but has an edge, a passion for justice. God loves everybody and everything. . .To take the God of love and justice seriously means to take justice seriously and to be aware that prolonged injustice has consequences.” 1
In this gospel, we can see that prolonged injustice has dire consequences for the wicked tenants.
Our place with God is secure. God asks only that we give Him his due: a portion of all he has given us. God asks only that we honor him, obey his will, and remember that he has sent his son for us, not to steal away what he has given us, but to add immeasurably to his gift of love.
Now in the Season of Lent, we move toward Easter, but first toward the cross. The Son who was sent to us dies, yes (humans killed him), but we know there is more to the story than this. This one whom the Father loved so dearly becomes the cornerstone for a small movement that will grow and expand and be so enlivened with the loving and merciful Spirit of God that it will indeed change the world and the very course of history. It still has the power to change our lives.
Love and justice. Thank God we know our place.