Stewards of a Fragile Planet – The Parable of the Tenants
(Based on Psalm 24 and Matthew 21:33-41)
Offered by Toby Jones to the People of ChxUCC on April 25, 2021
Have you ever loaned or even rented out something precious to you, only to have that renter or borrower mistreat or even destroy your possession? Or perhaps you’ve loaned someone something, and they simply never returned it. This is the essence of what Jesus is talking about in his parable of the tenants.
It is a disturbing parable, to say the least, highlighting a lot of the worst aspects of what we call “human nature:” greed, selfishness, disrespect, disregard for authority, and the tendency to commit violence. Traditionally, Christians have looked at this parable, which Matthew placed just before the crucifixion, as just a prediction or foretelling of what was about to happen to Jesus. In that interpretation, which certainly makes sense, the prophets of the Old Testament and right up through John the Baptist seem to be represented by the various servants the master sends to the vineyard, hoping to collect the harvest. They are beaten and mistreated, but then when the master finally sends his own son, the vineyard stewards go even further by killing him. We can’t help but think of what the Romans did to Jesus.
But this morning, I’d like us to think of this parable in another light, in the way we have interacted with Planet Earth. In the parable, the critical error that the vineyard workers made was either unconsciously forgetting or consciously disregarding to whom the vineyard belonged. The first few lines of the parable establish that vineyard belongs to a landowner, who decides to rent it to some tenant farmers. By definition, tenant farmers are paid to take care of an owner’s land. The tenants are stewards – caretakers – NOT owners. But something goes horribly awry in this arrangement, and we really don’t know why at first. All the parable says initially is that they “seized his servants, beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.” Only when the landowner sends his son do we get a sense of the tenants’ motivation. “This is the heir,” they say. “Let’s kill him and take his inheritance.” It’s pretty clear that the no matter how the tenants felt about the arrangement initially, over time they decided that they wanted this vineyard and all its fruits, produce, and profit to be their own.
I can’t help but see an incredibly close parallel between these tenants of the vineyard and the way we humans have dealt with the earth. It probably didn’t happen suddenly or all at once, but little by little, century by century, we have either unconsciously forgotten or consciously disregarded whose planet this is. We have a landowner too. We are just tenant farmers, mere stewards to the One who provides all of this – this land, this beautiful water, this air, the skies, the plants, the animals, the mountains, the valleys. And in the beginning, as in the very beginning, Genesis 1 tells us that “God created human beings in God’s own image, blessing them and telling them to be fruitful and multiply.” We’re told that God provided “every seed-bearing plant, every tree that has fruit with seed in it in order the feed everyone.” And this amazing creation narrative ends with this line: “God saw all that He had made, and it was very good.” There is no question to whom all of this belongs. God is the Creator, the landowner. We are blessed to be part of the family of creation and given a special role within it, the role of overseeing and taking care of creation. We are stewards, and again, the very definition of a steward is one who takes care of what belongs to another…One who takes care of what belongs to another.
So on this Earth Day in 2021, I ask you: Is that how we see ourselves in relationship to the earth? Do we really see ourselves as taking care of a planet that does not belong to us? Or have we taken on the perspective of the tenants in this parable, thinking how nice it would be if the fruits and profits of this planet were ours, if we didn’t have to take care of it but could use it, manipulate it, bleed it of its resources to boost our pocketbooks or just make our lives easier?
Many of us might be sitting here or in our living rooms thinking, “I’m not a profiteer. I’m not trying to bleed the earth of its resources. I care about the planet; I really do. I recycle. I don’t litter. I put all my trash where it belongs.” Well that’s good, and that may have been enough 40 or 50 years ago. But Mother Earth is in a whole lot more trouble now than she was when most of us were growing up. There is literally no place left on earth to put our trash. Landfills are overflowing, and there is no land left to bury our trash in. There are barges right now filled with garbage floating out on our oceans and lakes, wondering where to go. You’ve all read about the huge islands of trash in our oceans, one measuring the size of the state of Texas. We’ve burned through the majority of the protective layer between us and the sun, known as the Ozone layer. Being a true steward of this planet that belongs to God requires an awful lot more in 2021 than recycling and putting all your trash in a garbage bag.
When we were kids, we used to be told to throw our trash “away.” But we’ve long since passed the point where there is no “away.” So the key to being an effective faithful steward of God’s earth now is to figure out how not to generate trash in the first place. How do we purchase the products we need, making sure that those products are not packaged in environmentally harmful packaging. This makes shopping a lot more challenging and requires a great deal of creative thought. Obviously, it starts with using your own reusable cloth bags to bring your groceries home. That’s pretty easy, but finding products that aren’t wrapped in plastic, Styrofoam, and other harmful, single use packages is much tougher, but it can be done. If you don’t believe me, check in with Amy Korst, author of an amazing book called The Zero Waste Lifestyle. Some of you may have seen her TED talk. She’s the woman from California who walks out onto the stage holding a 16 oz glass jar stuffed with trash and begins her talk by holding up the jar and saying “This is all the waste that my family of 4 generated in the last calendar year.” 12 months in a family of four, and they could fit ALL of their trash in a single 16 oz jar. Her book, The Zero Waste Lifestyle, tells you how she does it.
Now, I’ll grant you, her approach is extremely extreme, and she is well aware that people like you and me aren’t likely to get all the way to where she and her family have gotten. But why not try to move as far as we possibly can in her direction? If we love God and we recognize that this fragile planet is NOT ours to waste and to ruin, but ours to take care of and to steward on God’s behalf, why shouldn’t we seek to reduce our participation in the trash and waste economy? Why shouldn’t we start refusing to buy products that are packaged in single use plastics or Styrofoam? Why should we ever buy another plastic bottle of water, much a less a case of them? Use a thermos or metal water bottle, for God’s sake!
I will be the first to admit that I am nowhere close to being an example of green living. But in the last 5 or 6 years, I have taken some steps that haven’t been that difficult, and I’ve significantly reduced my waste. Let me share just five of them with you this morning:
- When I buy meat, I don’t buy the pre-packaged stuff. The pre-packaged meat most often comes in a Styrofoam bottom which is then wrapped in plastic. I go to the butcher and ask him or her to wrap it just in the paper.
- I use local co-op farms as much as possible for produce. Not only does it come in a single, recyclable cardboard box and no plastic bags, but it hasn’t had to cross the country in a huge carbon-producing truck to get here.
- I found a person in Gaylord who makes her own totally environmentally sound deodorant and other personal products. Her deodorants come in a hard plastic roller, and when I finish, I return the bottle to her and she puts my next stick in the same roller. You can do this same sort of thing with laundry detergent, by the way. Just have one big plastic jug that you keep refilling with detergent each time you run out.
- I buy more and more products from those bulk bins at the store, filling my own reusable bags, things like nuts and dried fruits. I use glass jars at home to store that stuff. There’s an awful lot of stuff you can buy that way.
- I’ve stopped using plastic wrap and plastic bags for storage in the fridge and freezer. Instead, I found some cool products that do the job just as well but can be reused. I’ve got some pot and bowl covers made of beeswax that cling just as well as cling wrap. I also have some mesh bags for produce that further eliminate my need for single use plastics.
Now I’m sure there are at least some of you out there who are thinking, what does all this have to do with our faith in Jesus? Why is this guy talking about the way we should grocery shop in a worship service? I totally understand those questions, because there was a time in my faith journey when I would have wondered the very same thing. But here is what God has shown me. First of all, without a planet, Christian faith or Hindu faith or any faith isn’t going to do us any good, and it certainly isn’t going to do our children and grandchildren any good. Second, the way we treat someone else’s property says everything about the way we respect, honor, and love that person, does it not? That’s why loving every other person on the planet is so important – everyone is a precious child of God. So loving them is the best way to love God. It’s the same way with your friends, right? You can’t love your friends but then mistreat their children or their house, and if you did, you wouldn’t be friends with them much longer. The planet we live on is like God’s body; that’s how I think of it. We mustn’t abuse it, and if we do, we have no right to claim that we love God. We are the tenants; God is the owner. We are blessed to be here, breathing God’s air, drinking God’s water, eating God’s produce and game, and surrounded by God’s other children.
The writer of I John put it this way: “Beloved, whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” I believe that this passage applies to loving and honoring this planet and the environment every bit as much as it applies to loving and honoring people. It’s all God’s stuff. It’s high time we stared acting like it was. Otherwise we’re no different than those tenant farmers in the parable of the tenants. It’s like the banner says that our Outreach Team just hung up at both ends of town: “Every Day is Earth Day.” Let’s change some of our habits – our shopping habits, our consumption habits, our eating habits, and our “throwing out-the trash” habits as a way of loving God and of making every day Earth Day. Amen.