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On the Folly of Ownership: A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – Year A

Paul regarded everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord. But did he ever really have it in the first place? Do the tenant farmers in our parable really think they can own land by killing the vineyard owner’s son? Who really owns anything? Doesn’t everything ultimately come from God? And shouldn’t our whole life be an offering back to God what God gave us?

As I read tonight’s parable in preparation of this sermon, I started thinking, “Why does God always seem to be the 1% in these parables?” Of course, often we jump to the conclusion of who God is in these stories. But maybe many of these parables are not actually clear on who God is; we may just be used to the traditional interpretation.

However the Isaiah quote that begins this particular parable leaves no question about the identity of the landowner. God owns the vineyard and the tenant farmers are the Pharisees, Matthew lets us know that for sure. And the slaves were the prophets, and the Pharisees knew John was considered a prophet. John, Jesus’s cousin who had been murdered.

And Matthew’s Jesus is not kind at all to the Pharisees. Matthew gives us the greatest number of Jesus’ “woe to the Pharisees” sayings. Jesus lets them have it.

And that kind of gives us an out here. We can say, ah, this is a parable for the murderers of prophets and Jesus in the past; or if we interpret it in the present, a parable for the hypocritical religious leaders of today. And we know who they are – and they are never us.

And yet, initially, I found myself sympathetic to tenant framers in this story. I mean, tenant farmers even in the time of Jesus usually got a raw deal or were poorly treated. Certainly that was the case in the medieval feudal system. But these tenant farmers are murderers; can I still be sympathetic towards them? Well, kind of, I mean, I was thinking about just uprisings. Well yes, they can turn violent, but sometimes these things happen.

Who gets to decide who owns natural resources anyway? The person who builds a fence around it? And isn’t property usually acquired and defended through force and violence? Unless you’re a Native American, any land you might own in the US certainly was at one point. I mean who really owns land anyway?

And that’s the real question here. God is the landowner. God owns everything. The tenant farmers kill the son thinking they’ll get his inheritance, but the Father never dies. Everything will always belong to God. But God doesn’t own the way the tenant framers understand ownership. Nor for that matter the way the Pharisees understand it.

I was sympathetic to the tenant framers because I saw the landowner though their lens; a lens of greed and violence. That’s not the kind of landowner God is. God doesn’t put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants. God keeps sending messages through prophets and the Son, trying to get the tenant framers to repent, to change their mind.

Human landowners are the tenant farmers, under the illusion that they have wrested the vineyard from God. And that’s who our modern day 1% is. And they take and keep land and resources and maintain their power by violence. And like the Pharisees, they think (or claim anyway) that is justice.

None of us in this room are the 1% But let’s not get into the same “this isn’t a parable for me” mindset that is tempting when applying it to the Pharisees. Because in a world run by the tenant farmers and Pharisees, it’s easy to think of property the way that they do. And that way of thinking is on way of understanding the fall of humankind.

For those of you who were with us when we read Schmemon’s book on sacraments, you may remember this quote: (And please look past the non-inclusive language for the moment) “[T]he original sin of man is not primarily that he disobeyed God; the sin is that he ceased to be hungry for God and for God alone, ceased to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. The only real fall of man is his non-Eucharistic life in a non-Eucharistic world.”

And whether we see it or not, our lives do depend on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God. And I mean this quite literally. We don’t live in isolation from the ecosystem. Human life on earth relies on a delicate balance that is quite frankly in jeopardy. We have not been good farmers. And if we don’t listen to the prophets that are warning us about this, who knows, after we destroy ourselves maybe the new tenants won’t even be human.

The early believers may not have had the theological language of the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God, but I suspect they had an understanding akin to that. That something is described as being “…of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common.”

We in the order have chosen to live in Christian community, in part, to speak to the current economic system which has no sense of this. It’s an economy focused myopically on the creation and accumulation of wealth for individualistic benefit. We seek an economy of mutuality and the sharing of personal wealth and talents for both the common good and personal development, an economy beyond individual ownership and beyond all economies: the economy of the Kingdom of God.

Now, I realize this commitment to a way of life that those in the order and the house of the order have chosen, is not the way of life everyone here has chosen. And frankly, even those of us who have committed to this must make compromises to the system. Because the system is run by the tenant farmers, and they do use force and violence and other means, which in ways are more insidious. And so I’m not calling for us to give up all our possessions, to not own anything in the human sense of the word. No, I’m taking about a frame of mind. I’m talking about seeing the sacred in what you have; seeing the gift that it all is; seeing that it is all from God.

And Paul speaks to us this evening bout our personal talents. If you stop and think about HOW we think about ownership, that illusion goes even deeper than what we normally think of as possessions. Our physical bodies, our nationality, our race, our religion, our pedigree, our profession, our passions, our reputation, our morality, none of these are a righteousness of our own. I’m not so sure I’d go so far as to call them rubbish, but I do not consider them as belonging to us.

I really do think that we are all special little snowflakes. In the sense that we each have our own “crystalline pattern,” but remembering we are all made of the same stuff and there is never just one snowflake. I really do think that God wants us to be us. But almost everything I’ve adapted from Paul’s list didn’t originally come from us, and each one of these things may be more significant to some of us than others. But certainly our physical bodies, our nationality, our race, our religion, our pedigree, our profession, our passions, our reputation and or our morality shaped us, and in some sense make us who we are. All of these things are sacraments of communion with God. I have faith that God can and has and will continue to desire us to be authentic. And God sent us servants and a Son to tell us this: God loves who we really are and wants us to love God back in return. Being trinity, God is love in relationship, and all that was created was through that love. All that we have and all that we are is from love.

Readings for this sermon:
Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

3 comments on “On the Folly of Ownership: A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – Year A

  1. Excellent message, wish I could have been there to see it ‘live’. BTW-it is very refreshing to read a message about God and only have the ‘God’ as opposed to ‘he’ or ‘she’. You have true wisdom m’dear (That’s what I think and I’m sticking to it!!)

  2. Mother Jubi,
    Once again, your sermon is helpful.

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