“We are tenants of the vineyard-God is the owner. So our obligation as tenants is to give a portion of the harvest we have enjoyed.” Photo: Shutterstock
I once served a church in New York State that was located next to a Masonic Lodge, which had a small parking lot. The church was allowed to use that lot every Sunday in return for a one-dollar-per-year rental fee. Every year the treasurer of the lodge would send the church notice to pay one dollar. Once I asked the treasurer why he bothered to collect such a small fee. Of course, part of the reason was legal, but I shall never forget the treasurer’s response: “We collect one dollar each year so you’ll remember that the lot belongs to the lodge, and not to the church.”
The treasurer made a good point, one that is echoed in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33−43).
Jesus tells a story about a landowner who rents out his property to a group of sharecroppers. They can use the property any way they choose, but they need to keep in mind that it belongs to the landowner and not to them. They are the tenants, not the owner.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? All of us have a tendency to claim for ourselves what belongs to God. We sometimes act like owners when we are only tenants. The truth is: God has given us everything we have-food, clothing, family, friends, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the rain and the sun that nurture the crops, and life itself. God has entrusted the whole of creation to us. It is given into our possession, for our use. Like the owner of the vineyard in the parable, God has turned the property over to us.
There is only one condition: we need to keep in mind that we are the tenants and not the owners of the property.
But that’s our problem, isn’t it? We think we are the owners when we are only the tenants. We think the vineyard is ours when really it belongs to God.
Much of the world’s problems can be attributed to the fact that people usurp the role of God in the furtherance of their self-interest. They think that the world revolves around them. They have this sense of entitlement that everything should be theirs for the taking. They think they can do what they want with what they have, regardless of the consequences-regardless of who they may hurt or the damage they may do-as long as they gain by it.
Whether it’s a petty dictator in some Third World nation stealing from his country and piling millions into his private Swiss bank account, or a corporation that pollutes the water and poisons the air in the pursuit of profit, or financial wizards whose creativity for greed sinks the economy into recession, the trouble today is that we humans insist on acting like owners when we are only the tenants. We have lost a very valuable word in our moral lexicon: STEWARDSHIP.
Listen to a modern parable: one afternoon an office worker took her well- deserved coffee break. She stopped by the vending machine and bought a bag of cookies, which she slipped into her purse. Then she waited in line to buy a cup of coffee. Finally, she found a vacant chair at a table in the break room and sat down to enjoy her time away from office tasks.
She’d brought a magazine with her and started to read as she sipped coffee. She took a cookie from the bag. To her astonishment, a man sitting across the table from her also reached into the bag and took a cookie! She was upset by this, but she didn’t say anything. After all, it was only a cookie.
A few minutes later, she took another cookie. Once again, her table companion also took a cookie from the bag. Now she was getting somewhat bent out of shape, especially since only one cookie remained. Apparently, the man noticed-he reached into the bag, took the cookie out and broke it in two. He offered one half to the woman and ate the other half himself. Then he smiled, rose from the table and walked away.
By this time, the woman was furious. How dare he ruin her coffee break by helping himself to half of her cookies! She hastily folded the magazine and put it in her purse, which fell open to reveal an unopened bag of cookies-the ones she had bought. All this time, she had been helping herself to someone else’s cookies, and he hadn’t seemed to mind at all! She had taken what had belonged to him without asking or even acknowledging the generosity of her host with a word of thanks.
The same mistake-but with a decidedly different amount of anger and violence-was made by the tenants of the vineyard in Jesus’ parable. The tenants didn’t own the vineyard, nor did they own the fruit it produced. As tenants, they had leased the land. And the rent they agreed to pay was a portion of the harvest.
If you have ever rented a house, you know that legally the renter’s first obligation is to pay the owner. In this story, the tenants are similarly obliged. When the owner sends agents to collect the rent, the tenants renege on their obligation. “Why should we give him anything?" they say. "We’re the ones doing all the work around here! Did he offer to help with the harvest? No! And since we are doing all the work, this should be our vineyard, not his! And if it’s our vineyard, the harvest belongs to us, too!” Then the tenants proceed not only to kill the owner’s agents but even his son.
Like the office worker on her coffee break, the tenants of the vineyard took for their own something that rightfully belonged to someone else.
That may be true of us. All our lives, we have been helping ourselves to God’s bag of cookies. Whether we realize it or not, all our cookies come from God. Are we grateful for what God has given us, or do we simply claim them as our own?
I love the story about the multimillionaire who gave his testimony in church. “I am a wealthy man,” he said, “and I attribute my fortune to the blessings of God in my life.”
He went on to recall that as a young man, he had just earned his first dollar and he went to church that evening. The speaker was a missionary who told of his efforts in the mission field. Before the offering plate was passed, the pastor told everyone that everything collected that night would be given to this missionary to help fund his work.
The millionaire said, “I wanted to give to support the work of that missionary, but I couldn’t make change from the only dollar I possessed. I knew I either had to give it all or nothing. At that moment I decided to give all that I had to God. Looking back, I know now that God has blessed that decision and made me wealthy.”
When the multimillionaire finished, there was silence in the church. When he had returned to the pew and sat down, an elderly lady seated behind him leaned forward and in a loud voice said, “I dare you to do it again.”
When we start out, it’s easy to remember that the gifts and opportunities that come our way are from God. But something happens along the way. We forget the owner. We come to think of the vineyard and everything it produces as something we own. That’s why stewardship is so crucial to our souls. We are tenants of the vineyard-God is the owner. So our obligation as tenants is to give a portion of the harvest we have enjoyed-or, in our case, our income-back to the One who gave us everything, including life itself.
Quite simply, we are not giving back to God what is ours; we are giving back to God what is already God’s.
So here’s the question for us this Harvest Sunday: in whose kingdom do we live-in our kingdom or in God’s kingdom? In whose vineyard do we labour-in our vineyard or in God’s vineyard? And what difference does it make in our life, our work and our worship, that the earth and all that is, belongs to God?
This morning we will dedicate the St. Francis Memorial Garden, which will be a place of repose for the ashes of our deceased pets. When we think of our pets, our special friends and companions, we know in our hearts that all life comes from God and belongs to God. God is the maker, the creator and the source of all that is. We are here on this earth as stewards of God’s bounty, called to care for and enjoy what God has given us, including our special animal friends. Yes, we are the stewards of life, not the owners. We are here to nurture and care for life on earth, not to ravage or destroy it. Cecil Frances Alexander’s beloved hymn sums it up so well:
All things bright and beautiful,
all creatures great and small,
all things wise and wonderful,
the Lord God made them all.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.
St. James Church has a tradition of celebrating Thanksgiving twice-on the first and second Sundays in October. Sunday October 9 is Harvest Thanksgiving and the following Sunday, October 16, is National Thanksgiving-the official Canadian Thanksgiving celebration. Mr. Nicolosi will offer two Thanksgiving reflections-one this week and one next week.