God’s Sharecroppers

Matthew 21:33-46
Preached FCCW, October 15, 2017

Like most of you, I’ve been watching the frightening images of the deadly wildfires that are ravaging Northern California.

It’s hard to believe it’s the same place of such serene beauty that Sue and I saw when we vacationed in Napa Valley years ago.

One of the highlights of that trip was a visit we made to the Francis Ford Coppola winery.
During our tour of the vineyards, our guide explained why Napa Valley produces some of the best grapes for winemaking in the world.

It begins with an ideal climate for growing the grapes.
But almost of equal importance is the human element of cultivating the growth of the grapes to produce the best harvest possible.

In other words, being good stewards of what God has provided.

God’s abundant provision and our stewardship of what we’ve received.

In the parable I just read, could it be any more obvious which of the two is lacking?

In this story, a landowner abundantly provides for a vineyard planted on his property.
He equips this vineyard with everything needed not only to grow grapes, but also to make wine from those grapes.

He surrounds the vineyard with a protective hedge to keep out wildlife, and builds a watchtower for the security of the workers.
Then he rents the vineyard to tenants, to live there and work the land while he is away.

The deal is: the tenants get steady work and a percentage of the crops they raise to keep for themselves. The rest goes to the landowner.

This arrangement was fairly common in Biblical Palestine.
It was not unlike the sharecropping system that existed in the Southern states of our own country during the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War.

Sharecrop farmers were loaned a plot of land to work, and in exchange owed the owner a share of the crops, come the harvest.

The owner made money off his land, while the sharecroppers, who couldn’t afford land of their own, nevertheless were able to raise what they needed to live.

Everybody got something they needed, but the sharecroppers knew that they could make out a whole lot better if the land was their own and all the crops were theirs.

The tenant farmers of the vineyard in the parable must have come to the same conclusion.
So, they turn the watchtower that the owner built to protect them from outside threats,
into an early warning system so they can be ready to rough up or murder the landowner’s representatives when they came to collect the crops owed to him.

When the owner, who demonstrates remarkable patience and restraint, sends his own son,
the tenants realize that if they kill him,
not only will they get to keep all the crops,
but they will inherit the vineyard.
What belongs to the landowner and was entrusted to their stewardship will become theirs.

There is a pretty unmistakable lesson on stewardship, our relationship to God, and what we do with what God entrusts to us in this parable.

But like most of the parables Jesus told, the real lesson is not in the story itself, but in the reaction of those who hear it.

This story ends with the sharecroppers carrying out their plot to kill the owner’s son so they can claim full ownership of the land that was entrusted to them.
Jesus then asks those who were listening to the parable, what the owner should do about the rebellious tenants.

They tell Jesus that those “miserable wretches” deserve to be punished, and the land taken from them.

Now, Jesus told this parable to religious leaders who were opposing him.
Like the farmers who plotted to do away with the landowner’s son, they were themselves scheming to eliminate Jesus.

Yet, it is as if they somehow don’t make the connection between themselves and the tenants in the parable.
Until Jesus says to them, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”

Only then, does it say that they realized he was speaking about them.

But do we realize that he is also speaking about US?

If Christians lay claim to the privileges of being tenders of God’s vineyard, we must also accept the great responsibility that comes with that mission.

Just as the landowner spared no expense to equip the vineyard with everything needed to produce fruit, God has supplied us with all the resources and opportunities we need to bear good fruit for God.
We are God’s sharecroppers.

There is a particular harvest of fruit that we are to bring forth.
It is a harvest of justice and righteousness.

There is a particular kind of seed that we are to be sowing.
Seeds of compassion and peace.

We are responsible for this world we have inherited.
We are responsible for each other.
Ultimately, we are responsible to God.

If we apply this parable to ourselves, then we have to conclude that God provides us with everything required to be faithful Kingdom sharecroppers, without denying us anything that we need for ourselves.

But like the farmers in the parable, mere contentment with being stewards of what God provides us does not always come easily.

It can be a struggle to remember that all we have is a gift that has been entrusted to us, to be used for God’s purposes.

That struggle is usually the gist of jokes about stewardship, like the ones Jim told, right?
Which can be a good thing if the joke helps us see where we miss the mark so we can do things differently.

Not a good thing if we just laugh it off and go on doing the same as we’ve been doing.

We’ve been using the word “generosity” a lot, lately.
So, I looked it up in the dictionary.
The definition of generosity contains two parts.
First, generosity means a readiness to give.

But there is another side to generosity.
The second part of the definition says generosity is freedom from meanness or smallness of mind or character.

During this “Generous Giving” campaign, the question has been asked, “How does the church meet your needs?”
Hopefully, you’ve identified a number of ways that you get important needs met by being a part of the church.
But, Jesus’ parable reminds us that we all have a need to give, as well to receive.

Maybe you don’t immediately think of generosity as a need.
But the dictionary definition says that opportunities to be generous actually give us freedom.
A freedom from smallness of character that is born and bred by thinking in terms of scarcity instead of abundance.

I believe we all like to think of ourselves as generous.
At the same time, this parable presents us with the humbling truth that much of our readiness to give only comes by resisting the smallness of thinking of what we have as being purely our possessions, rather than as God’s gifts.

That is why praying about our giving is so important.
Praying reconnects us with how the use of our money and our possessions is integral to our relationship with God;  instead of being something that stands outside of that relationship.

When Jesus told those who opposed him that the Kingdom would be taken from them and given to people who produce good fruit, I don’t think he was talking about something God does to us so much as what we do to ourselves.

To be “in” the Kingdom of God is to be God’s sharecroppers.
It is to be actively working with God to produce a world that reflects God’s glory.

When we start to see ourselves as owners instead of stewards, it is we who remove ourselves from that relationship.

God does not take the Kingdom experience from us.
But, when we remember our rightful role in the vineyard, we renew our covenant with the vineyard’s owner.

And, we find that what we receive through our generosity is so much more than God ever asks of us.

Copyright 2017 Raymond Medeiros