Sunday, March 25, 2007

Parable of the Fearful Tenants

Fifth Sunday in Lent – Year C
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; Luke 20:9-19
Sunday, March 25, 2007 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Today’s Gospel lesson, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, provides a scathing indictment against the religious establishment of Jesus’ day. What we do not specifically get in this reading, is the context of the parable. Earlier, in chapter 20 verse 1, Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in the Temple in Jerusalem. In the lead-in to today’s lesson, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders question Jesus about the source of his authority – about who gave him the authority to do the things he has done and to proclaim his “good news” to the people. Realizing that the Temple authorities are attempting to trick him, to get him to say something incriminating that would provide justification for having him arrested, Jesus turns the question back onto them. They in turn realize that they cannot answer Jesus’ question without eliciting a negative reaction from the assembled crowd. Jesus then tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants as a way of answering the original question about his own authority.

In this parable, the symbolism, and the message that emerges when these symbols are woven together, is unmistakable. The vineyard is used throughout Scripture as a symbol for Israel. The vineyard owner, the man who planted it in the first place, is God. And the tenants, those charged with caring for the vineyard, with caring for Israel in the absence of the day-to-day involvement of the vineyard owner, are the religious authorities – the chief priests, scribes, and elders. There is an agreement, a covenant, between the vineyard owner and the tenants, establishing the terms of their arrangement. Three times through the course of the parable, the vineyard owner, God, sends servants to enforce the terms of the agreement. These servants represent prophets that God sent as his messengers to Israel. Like the prophets, the servants were mistreated and sent away – the tenants did not want to hear what they had to say. They hoped if they ignored the messages, they would be left alone to do as they pleased. In a final, desperate attempt to get the tenants’ attention, the owner sends his son, who is obviously a symbol for Jesus himself. Through the parable, Jesus reveals his own fate – that he would be murdered in a last desperate act by the tenants, the authorities, to retain control, to attain ownership, of the vineyard Israel.

At this point, I want to step back for a moment and take a fresh look at the parable. For a moment, let’s consider the motivations of this group of tenant farmers attempting to gain ownership of the vineyard. What is the motivation for their actions? Why are they trying to swindle the landlord out of his property? Why to they act as they do, mistreating the landlord’s servants and killing his son? Many commentaries on this parable indicate that the primary motivation is greed. The tenants are tired of working the land and then having to turn over a portion of the produce to the vineyard owner. If they are doing all the work, why shouldn’t they have the benefit of all the produce? Out of their greed, they hatch a scheme to take ownership of the vineyard through violence. That may well be the case. But I would like to propose another possible motivating factor – fear.

Placed in the context of fear, the tenants may have been fearful that the vineyard owner might cancel their contract and give the rights to tend the vineyard to another group of farmers. If this were to happen, they would be evicted and left out in the cold, with no home, with no means to earn a living, with no income to support themselves and their families. Out of their fear, they chased off the servants. This happened three times. Each time, the level of fear-induced violence escalated. The first servant, they beat and sent away empty-handed. The second, they beat and insulted. The third they wounded and threw out of the vineyard. In a final, desperate attempt to communicate with the tenants, the vineyard owner sent his own son, sure that they would respect him. But by this time, the tenants had too much at stake. Their fear had gotten the best of them, leading them down a path of increasing violence. By this time, their fears had convinced them that there really was a threat to their well-being, to their livelihood – a threat that had to be dispelled at all cost. And in their delusion, they killed the final threat, certain that they were only protecting their rights and their interests.

Yes, fear is a persuasive motivator. It can distort our perceptions of reality, convincing us of threats that don’t really exist, enticing us, encouraging us, to take a course of action that may seem warranted in this distorted view of reality, but which, in actuality, may be wholly unfounded. When fear takes hold, it drives out all other emotions. It has been said that fear is the mind-killer. But fear can do more than kill the mind. It can also kill the soul. Fear can become so insidious that it drives out all that makes us human – namely, it can drive out faith, love, and compassion.

I would venture to say that we have all experienced fear at some point in our lives. Now fear is certainly not always as insidious and as destructive as it may have been for the tenants. Admittedly, fear, when properly checked, when properly tempered by faith, love, and compassion, can serve a beneficial purpose. Fear of getting into an accident can keep someone from driving 100 miles per hour on a crowded freeway. Fear of falling can keep someone from climbing up a rickety ladder. Fear of being bitten may prevent someone from approaching an angry, barking dog. But there are times when fear can and does warp our perception of reality, despite what we may rationally know to be the truth.

I experienced this type of fear first hand in one of the most unlikely places I would have ever thought – in seminary. For me and most of my classmates, the majority of seminary was a great experience. We didn’t always like the massive amount of reading the professors piled on us, or the numerous research papers and reflection papers we were required to write, or the seemingly unreasonable demands placed on our time. But amongst those things that we did not like, there was one thing that we all generally agreed upon – we had developed a great community. From the very beginning of our seminary experience in September 2003, from the day we all moved onto the Block, as the campus at Seabury is fondly called, our class bonded. We helped each other move into our dorms and apartments, we attended class together, we studied together, we worshiped together, we helped each other with difficult assignments, we played together, we went out to dinner together, we complained about our professors. We shared our most intimate feelings, our thoughts, our hopes, and our fears. We laughed together and we cried together. We were more than just classmates. We were more than a mutual support system. We were more than a community. We were a family.

And then, about February or March of our senior year, Fear moved onto the Block. Fear moved in and interjected itself into our happy little family. At the time, I don’t think any of us really knew what was happening. It just seemed like our classmates, our family members, changed. They became more serious, more distant and withdrawn, less fun to be around, and more secretive.

You see, after the seniors complete the dreaded ordeal of General Ordination Exams, the week-long series of exams that test whether seminarians have successfully and adequately learned what they need to know in order to be accepted for ordination, there is a brief period of elation that the ordeal is over and we can move on with our lives and our vocations. But that quickly means the onset of another dreaded ordeal – deployment. Our minds turned toward the practicalities of trying to find what would be our first job after ordination – our first position as a clergy person.

I was one of the lucky ones. In this Diocese, you are pretty much assured of being placed in a job after ordination. But unlike here, many dioceses do not assure jobs or even have much available for new ordinands. So you are expected to beat the bushes and find your own job, often in other dioceses and others parts of the country than where you’re from. And that’s where Fear jumped in and made its ugly presence known and felt. Friend turned against friend. Family member turned against family member.

I heard stories of someone having a great lead on a job prospect, and then another classmate would find out about it and finagle his or her way into being considered for the same job. I heard stories of classmates using their political and even family connections to gain an advantage over another classmate being considered for a position. There was even outright backstabbing, with one dear friend working hard to cultivate the necessary relationships just to get her foot in the door in a diocese that was not her own. Then another classmate from that diocese found out and complained to the bishop that “outsiders” were being considered for jobs, at which point the door was slammed in my friend’s face.

Many of my classmates engaged in such tactics of manipulation and backstabbing out of fear that they would not be able to find a job. And the result of all this manipulation and backstabbing was that people withdrew and became secretive about job prospects they were pursuing, out of fear that a potential job may be snatched from them. I have to admit that even I was not immune. I felt reasonably certain that I would be placed in a position by the Diocese, so was not too worried. But after I found out that I was being considered for this position here at St. Alban’s, I became fearful that someone might try to take it away from me. When anyone asked me how things were going with deployment, I would merely answer that there was nothing specific, but that I was working with the Diocese to find something. I was as vague as possible so as not to allow anyone else the opportunity to possibly get the job that I wanted.

Everyone was operating out of fear. And because of the pervasiveness of this fear, community was damaged, if not destroyed. Our family was being torn apart. All because of fear. All because of unfounded fear about what might or might not happen.

And that’s what happened back at the parable of the vineyard. The tenants, in relationship with the vineyard owner, were uncertain about what might happen to them. Would the vineyard owner let them stay there forever? Would he throw them out in favor of some other tenants? The people, in relationship with God, were uncertain about what might happen to them. Would the people continue to enjoy their status as God’s favored ones, as God’s chosen people? In their fear, they were only able to trust in themselves, in what they could do for themselves. In a misguided attempt to gain control, their efforts led to violence and, ultimately, to the loss of the vineyard. They lost the vineyard because of fear, because of a lack of faith in the righteousness of the vineyard owner, because of a lack of faith in the righteousness of God, because of a lack of faith in God’s love and compassion for them. They attempted to gain the inheritance of the vineyard, of their very lives, by killing the son. What they did not realize is that the inheritance of the vineyard, the inheritance of God’s love and compassion, is not gained by killing the son, but by having faith in God’s Son.

We ourselves are tenants of a vineyard, graciously bestowed upon us by a righteous, faithful, and beneficent landlord. God has given us stewardship over a rich and fertile field – this place called St. Alban’s, the field across the street called UCLA, this glorious heritage called The Episcopal Church. Just as in Jesus’ time, we too live in turbulent times, or as our Rector is fond of saying, “we live in interesting times.” So much is uncertain. Will we be able to grow? Will we be able to meet our financial obligations? Will we be able to attract students from UCLA? Will we be able to keep them? What will happen to The Episcopal Church? Will we continue to be part of the Anglican Communion?

All of these, and many other questions weigh heavily on our hearts and minds and souls. Questions about our lives, about our parish, about our ministries, about our broader church. I wish I had some answers. But the truth is I have as many questions as you do. But what I can offer is a very important message from today’s Parable of the Wicked Tenants – from today’s Parable of the Fearful Tenants. And it is this – in attempting to discern the answers to all our questions, we have a choice. We can react out of fear, as did the vineyard tenants. We can operate out of fear, which will lead us down a path of withdrawal, of insulation, down a path that will close off community when we need it the most, down a path that leads to violence – if not physical, certainly emotional and spiritual. We can operate out of fear, which will lead us to isolation from God’s graciousness, from God’s unbounded love and compassion. Or, we can choose to operate out of faith – faith in God’s love and compassion toward us, faith and even certainty that we are God’s chosen people, that we are heirs to his love and compassion, and as such, the certainty that we are called to share that love and compassion within these walls and beyond.

We are the new tenants to whom the vineyard is given. Rather than operating out of fear, let us have the faith and the foresight to be more responsive to God’s purposes, to boldly proclaim the truth of the Gospel, and to be witnesses to God’s unlimited love and compassion.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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