By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
He was, by all accounts, a successful man. This builder of fine homes in an upscale American suburb was known to all as a creative craftsman, a shrewd businessman, a fair-minded employer, and a generous benefactor. But he was aging now, and before he set out for Florida for the winter, he approached his top superintendent and told him that he was retiring. “I want you to build me a home, the finest home this company has ever built. Spare no expense, use the finest materials, employ the most gifted tradesmen, and build me a masterpiece before I come home next spring.”
The next day, the superintendent set out to build that home, but not exactly to orders. If his boss was retiring, that meant he would be losing his job, so he needed to pad his own savings account, lest he be destitute. He ordered inferior concrete blocks for the foundation, but charged the builder for premium blocks, and he pocketed the difference. He hired inexperienced carpenters, plumbers, electricians, roofers and landscapers, but he charged his boss wages that would be paid to master craftsmen, and he put the difference in his own bank account. He installed cheap appliances and lighting, insufficient insulation, inferior carpet, and drafty windows, and he skimmed a tidy sum off the top for himself. In the spring, when the home was finished, it looked spectacular; it was the signature home in the neighborhood, and the only thing that made the superintendent happier than how the project looked was the bottom line in his personal bank account, which had grown by hundreds of thousands of dollars that winter.
When the elderly business owner arrived home from Florida that spring, he toured this home fit for a king, and he was ecstatic. The superintendent handed him the keys and thanked his boss for the privilege of working for him all these years. And then the owner did an unthinkable thing: he said to the superintendent “You have been a trusted friend and a loyal partner in my business for all of these years; you deserve a home like this.” And he handed him the keys.
Greed is what that story is about, and greed is everywhere. This week, we have all had front row seats to witness greed at its best…or should I say, at it’s worst? Both houses of congress have now bitten their collective lip and passed a bill costing 700 billion dollars to solve a problem that was caused by greed. O.J. Simpson, on Friday, was convicted of trying to steal back sports memorabilia, and could now spend the rest of his life in prison. Local businessman Tom Petters is being investigated for swindling as much as a billion dollars from unsuspecting investors who put their life savings into his house of cards. Incidentally, on Friday afternoon I received an email from a former member of this congregation, which said this:
“Steve, I am writing today to ask for your prayers. You have no doubt heard of the fraud investigation of Tom Petters. I am sad to say that we have lost our entire retirement savings in this scheme. Everything. And we don’t know what we’re going to do. Please pray for us.”
Those are the casualties of greed. And those are just the highlights. Examples of human selfishness and greed surround us everyday. And that’s why this parable that Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel is so timely and so relevant; because as that wise homebuilder knew the heart of his superintendent, so Jesus knows the selfish condition of our hearts, and he desires that we change our ways. So here’s the story that Jesus told…
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A certain landowner decided to plant a vineyard; he hauled in the finest soil, he planted the finest grapes, he built a wall to protect his crops, and a tower to watch over them. Then he leased the vineyard out to tenants; not an unusual practice in farming, even today.
A farm family I got to know in South Dakota owned 1000 acres of rich land along the Missouri River, and they grew popcorn; if you ever ate Jolly Time Popcorn, you may have been eating some of Lois and Gary’s crop. But Gary died and they couldn’t actively raise and harvest a crop any longer, so Lois leased out those thousand acres. She might have charged so much per acre for rent, or she might have required a percentage of the harvest. Either way, every year, Lois got a check, just like the landowner in the parable.
But in the parable Jesus tells, the renters got greedy. They looked at all the effort they invested in growing the crop, caring for the vines, harvesting the grapes, taking them to market, and yet they resented the fact that the landowner received just as much from the sale of the grapes as the workers did. “Not fair!” they cried. We deserve better. No they didn’t, but their greed tells them that they did, so the next time the associate manager of the landowner comes for the check, they kill him. And then, when the assistant manager of the landowner comes to collect the rent, they kill her. And when the head manager arrives, they beat him up and leave him to die. Finally, the landowner has had enough, and he reasons “If I send my son, surely they will respect him.” Wrong again, because now the renters believe that if they kill the son, the vineyard will be theirs.
And Jesus concludes the parable by asking the Pharisees “When the owner of that vineyard finally shows up, what do you think he will do with those renters?” And the Pharisees respond in one voice, “He will kill the renters for their greed, take the vineyard away from them, and give it to someone else who will be faithful in paying the rent.” “Right you are!” Jesus says, “And God will do the same thing to you!”
I love the last line of the text. “When the Pharisees realized that Jesus was speaking of them, they wanted to arrest him and made plans to kill him. ‘He was speaking of us’ they said.” Well, duh! But that’s how it is with greed, if we’re good at, we don’t think we’re being greedy; we’re simply taking what we have rightly earned. And if we’re really good at it, we point to others and blame them for their selfish, unethical and hurtful behavior.
Who is to blame for the Wall Street fiasco; was it the greedy lenders? “You’re darn right it was the predatory lenders!” Who’s to blame for the high cost of a gallon of gasoline? Well Exxon, of course! Who is to blame for the high cost of health care; the insurance companies? Yes! It’s certainly not our fault; our hands are clean, our motives are always pure, our actions are always selfless and benevolent. Well, here’s some breaking news from the bible, folks: He was speaking of us, too. Jesus was speaking of us in the parable of the wicked tenants. In fact, we are present in every parable that Jesus ever told.
German theologian Helmut Thielicke says that we will never understand those parables until we see ourselves staring in them. People, the wicked renters are us. We have been placed in the most lush vineyard in the world. We have essentially been given everything we need for life; food, clothing, shelter, meaningful work, family, friends, church, and community. And it ought to be enough; for some it is, but for many, it is not. So we get greedy and ask for more. We structure our lives so that we can accumulate more stuff, more success, more fame, more power, and more trophies.
And every once in awhile, the Landowner shows up and asks “What about me?” Whaddaya mean, “what about you?” And the Landowner replies; “I have given you all of this to use, and now I’ve come for the rent.” And we kill him. We still his voice and ignore his claim upon our lives. We refuse to acknowledge that he is the source of everything we have, and insist that, no, it is our own doing. But now the rent comes due.
The rent God seeks from us is our time. There are 168 hours a week, and yet we begrudge being asked to spend one quiet hour in worship each week to give thanks.
The rent God seeks is our abilities. We have been gifted with amazing talents and skills, but we often dismiss what we can do, and we covet someone else’s talent.
The rent God seeks is a portion of our money. Everything we have in this world actually belongs to God, and is simply on loan to us. He asks that we use what we have, and return a portion of it to the work of the Kingdom. But we forget to pay the rent, or we refuse to pay the rent, and then complain that all the church ever speaks about is money.
The rent God seeks is righteous living, but sin and greed and selfishness are the weeds of our lives. God can accept that; he knows we’re sinners. But what we fail to do is confess our shortcomings to this gracious God. We hide our sin, we justify our sin, we compare our sins to others and take pride that we sin less. And God cries out “How can I forgive you if you insist that there is nothing to forgive?”
In this parable, Jesus is not speaking to us. That’s too vague. Jesus is speaking to me. I have met the wicked renter and it is me. But I have also met the Landowner and find him to be a gracious God. He gives me a second chance. He gives me more time, but his patience will not last forever. I vow today to take a look at my life and to confess and correct the greed that lies within me. And I invite my fellow renters to join me. The vineyard is ours to use; the Landowner is ours to love. And his is the purpose to forgive us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Copyright 2008 Steven Molin. Used by permission.