Who owns the vineyard.
One of the questions I get, as a pastor, is how I go about writing a sermon. For me, it begins with a review of the scriptures we have been given for the week. I think all of you know that we are a tradition that uses the common lectionary, which is a three year cycle of readings, that includes an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament Reading and a Gospel reading. I start by searching for one of the readings that might have a relevant message within in it.
When I read through the Gospel lesson, however, which was only verses 9-20, I was a little confused because the parable by itself made no sense at all. So, I pulled out one of my bibles and began reading from the beginning of the chapter and continued on a few verses beyond the parable. This is what I just read to you, and when I had the context of the situation it made much more sense to me. It was then that I could see that Jesus was begging the question, “who owns the vineyard?”
The chief priests, the scribes and the elders knew they had been bested by this question so they plotted further to trip Jesus up. So they send spies who pose the question of taxes. I am going to actually begin with that question, because it offers us a little context of the day.
The Jews of Jesus’ day were vexed at living under a foreign, pagan government, whose rule was enforced by an army of occupation. The Jews paid a land tax, an income tax, a poll tax, an import tax, and a tax on grain, wine, and oil. We may think we are heavily taxed today, but things were far worse in first century Israel. Well that is unless, of course, our current governor gets her way.
She has already killed the job-producing line 5 tunnel project and threatens to close the government down if she doesn’t get a 45 cents a gallon gas tax for new roads and education.
At any rate, the situation leading up to our gospel reading was that the religious leaders wanted to put Jesus on trial for heresy, but they had no civil authority, and so they were left with charging Jesus with sedition against Rome. At the beginning of this chapter they asked: “…by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority.”
So the question posed was devious – if Jesus spoke in favor of taxation, He would appear disloyal to Israel, and His popularity would drop considerably; if He spoke against paying taxation, He would be undermining the state and they could claim he was a dangerous revolutionary. The Pharisees and scribes despised Jesus so much that they were prepared to hand Him over to Pilate – to the very government they despised. They thought they had him trapped, that he was in a no-win scenario.
I find it cute that the spies address Jesus with flattery, outwardly appearing to honor Him as a respected teacher. They claim to value His opinion…yet they really hated Him and wanted to discredit Him. What they say about Him is absolutely true, except they don’t believe it. The word “catch” in verse 20 was used in the sense of snaring animals in a trap. Their loaded questions oozed with hypocrisy.
The question posed, “is it lawful” refers to the Law of Moses which sites that paying taxes was illegal. It invites Jesus to council the people to act as the wicked tenants from the preceding parable and refuse to give the emperor his due. In both cases the the Greek verb didomi is used, which means to give.
So, in the vineyard parable Jesus poses the question, is it lawful to give the owner his due, and here we have the spies posing the same question, is it lawful for us to give the emperor his due. In both cases we are asked, “who owns the vineyard?”
Yet, Jesus does not enter the trap set for Him. His answer catches everyone by surprise. Jesus was not a political revolutionary, but neither was He a nationalist. His answer says two things: first, government has the right to exist – and – its presence does not negate our allegiance to God. This may be the closest Jesus ever comes to making a political statement. His answer suggests we have parallel duties to God and our government, but when these two authorities are in conflict, our primary allegiance is to God. So, while Caesar had a right to impose taxation on his Jewish subjects, he had no claim on their souls.
In his book, Politics According to the Bible, Wayne Grudem addresses this passage in Luke. He says that Jesus is showing how there are two different spheres of influence – one for the government and one for the religious life of citizens. Some things belong to the civil government, and the church should not try to intervene in such areas. Other things belong to religion, and the government should not try to control them either. This is the same distinction Jesus is making – Caesar should not seek to control “the things that are God’s.”
We pay for the benefits accorded to us by the state. We enjoy protection and an orderly society. It was, after all, the peace procured by the Roman Empire that made it possible for the Early Church to spread the Gospel. Ironically, the same empire later persecuted Christians for refusing to revere Caesar as Lord. When Christians said “Jesus is Lord” it was clear they meant Caesar was not. They refused to worship the Emperor.
We also need to be careful not to rely on government as a substitute for God’s rule.
The worship of freedom can displace the worship of God. Human government has a right to exist and paying taxes doesn’t violate our commitment to God. As Christian citizens, we have both civic and moral obligations; we obey secular law, yet we owe everything to God.
God has established government and He expects us to submit to it; Romans 13 clearly spells this out. We submit to the civil authorities, even when they’re not very civil. Democracies, and our own Republic, exist today where it is possible to practice faith openly under the protection of laws that provide for the free exercise of religion. We submit to the authority of the state except where doing so involves disobeying God.
But what is it that belongs to the state or to God? It’s the tough question, “who owns the vineyard?” Well to answer that question you have to first identify the vineyard. So, let’s go back to that first parable. The vineyard in that story is the world and everything in it. And who owns the world? GOD!
But for a moment, let’s suppose the vineyard is the house we live in, the car we drive, the job we have, our savings account, the minutes in our day, and everything about our lives. Here we will give the mountains and the oceans to God. And I am not doing this because I’m goofy, but to make the point that we all struggle with who owns our time, our money, and our rights.
Yet the vineyard story teaches us that God owns it all – and He has let us use it to bless us, to make us happy. He did not have to do it. He does not owe it to us. It is because our God is a God of Grace.
Remember that the people in this parable were unemployed, likely homeless. They had no food, nothing but the clothes on their backs. So a man comes to them and offers them a place to live, a job, a partnership in his vineyard. What did they contribute? NOTHING!! He didn’t just hire them, he made them partners in the profits.
But who owned the vineyard, and why do they end up thinking they own it?
Sure, they have lived there for some time and they had toiled and sweat, and spent many hours in the fields, but was that reason enough to forget the gratitude bestowed upon them in the first place? Sure, the master had been absent from their sight, but was that a reason to see only their work and thus view the owner as some outsider with no right to the vineyard?
Well, from time to time we all do the same thing.
- We are the ones who get up early and go to work.
- We are the ones who put in the hard labor.
- We are the ones who put up with the job, the travel back and forth and deal with the unruly boss.
So when the paycheck comes – we believe it is ours! We deserve it. We earned it. And all too often, when it comes to giving God His share – our response is: “get in line, God.”
Maybe we worked hard all week and we had been waiting for the weekend. When it comes down to it, do we think it is ours? We did work hard for it after all. Do we think God is an intruder and stealing our time if He asks for an hour? Are we the owners of the vineyard?
Just a few moments ago – for the purpose of illustration – I tried to separate that which belongs to God from that which belongs to us. But God is the owner of the vineyard which means God owns our job, our house, our time, our tongue, our actions. It is He who puts air in our lungs, gives us sight, sound, touch and life itself.
When we forget that God is the owner – when we become the owners – when we try to make ourselves God – that is sin. When this happens we are lying to ourselves and we are cheating God out of what is rightly His. And guess what, in the end we will be losers.
Adam forgot that God owned the garden and he consequently brought sin into the world. The servants forgot who owned the vineyard and they too sinned against the owner – and whenever we think we are the owners we too fall into that same trap.
The story of the coin at the end of our gospel lesson reveals the very same scenario. We owe God our very souls. We owe God honor, praise, worship, adoration, obedience, love, and trust. We should give God our all. The coin belongs to Caesar; but we belong to God. We bow our knee to no one else.
Ideally, human government should neither compel nor prohibit religious expression. That was certainly the intent of the framers of our constitution when they wrote the first amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion… That part we hear about all the time, but the part we don’t often enough hear about is the second part: or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Government cannot force people to believe; that is a matter of the heart. But neither can legislation bring about a righteous and just society. That is a matter of faith; a matter of knowing who the vineyard belongs to and paying proper tribute to that owner.
We have an obligation to speak out when society promotes matters that violate our moral principles. There are times when we must speak truth to those in power. For example, the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements were propelled by ardent Christians who sought to influence Caesar. They didn’t wring their hands and say “Oh well, this is a fallen world and we can’t hope to make a difference.” We can and must seek to influence the world in which we live, to transform our culture for Christ. I’ve said that before, haven’t I?
Neither of these traps set for Jesus worked. Astonished and out-smarted, these spies were sent off speechless, silenced before the logic of the Wonderful Counselor.
When all else failed they falsely accused Jesus before Pilate, claiming He spoke against paying taxes – but they had to lie to do this.
Some of our money may belong to Uncle Sam, but we belong to God. We “render unto Washington” while our true citizenship is in Heaven. We bow before the throne of God; we proclaim Jesus as Lord and live to serve His Kingdom.
When Jesus returns, He will establish a perfect government. Till then, we are a people in (an unavoidable) tension, with dual citizenship. We submit to imperfect human rule. In so doing, we avoid two extremes: one – seeing government as the enemy of God, and two – not regarding government as the solution for all earthly problems. Our security comes from Above. God is above all earthly powers and warrants our highest loyalty. As Christ’s followers we seek ways to live out our faith. We live in this fallen world and we must learn to live faithfully in it.
One last thought about this gospel lesson is in regard to the timing. This event occurred just after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The chief priests, the scribes and the elders were already planning to put Jesus to death. They were trying their hardest to trip him up, so that they would have the satisfaction of getting rid of him – but Jesus would have nothing of it. When Jesus went through the series of trials during Holy Week they had nothing on him. Why? Because Jesus was to own his own death. He was destined to walk to the cross of his own volition. He did it so that he would own our sin. And why not? After all, Jesus owns the vineyard.