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With Open Hands
October 3, 1993

MATTHEW 21:33-46

Usually itís the employer who fires employees; but in the parable we heard read today, employees fired the employer. Jesus told a parable where the share croppers overpowered the absentee landlordís collectors, refusing to pay him his share. In frustration, the landlord sent more collectors who were also fired by the sharecroppers; they were literally thrown out of the vineyard. In desperation, the landlord sent his son, who was seized by the share croppers, thrown out of the vineyard, and killed.

The chief priests and elders who heard the parable angrily applied the parable to themselves. They evidently felt Jesus was calling them share croppers who reject Godís ownership and messengers. God kept sending prophets to Israel calling the people to repent and live in righteousness. The prophets were rejected, rejected by the kings, chief priests, elders. The chief priests were offended by Jesusí pointed parable and sought a way to get rid of him, to kill him, which further played out the parable where the share croppers killed the landlordís son.

Letís look closely at the parable with fresh eyes, and see what we can learn about ourselves. The share croppers acted violently, cruelly, and irresponsibly. Why? What lay behind their inappropriate actions? The share croppers thought the vineyard was theirs to do with as they pleased. They thought they were entitled to all the profits. They refused to accept their caretaker role. They had entered into a contract, into a covenant, with the absentee landlord. Their part of the bargain was to take care of the vineyard, farm it, irrigate, fertilize, prune, weed, harvest the grapes and make wine. In return for their labor, they received a large portion of the profit. The remainder was to be paid to the owner, who needed a return in order to pay his taxes. Fair enough? As long as the owner is fair, and treats his share croppers fairly, the system works.

But, the share croppers wanted it all. They wanted all the profits. With tightly clenched fists, holding on to what they thought was theirs, grasping what they thought they were entitled to, they hogged the profits, fired the ownerís collectors, and violently killed the ownerís own son.

Sound familiar? As with most of Jesusí parables, this one is timeless and fits our day as well as it fit first century Israel. As with most of Jesusí parables, this is a parable about all of us. And, this is a parable with a compelling and urgent warning, verse 43, Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

In this parable, God is the owner, and the vineyard is the earth. You and I are share croppers. We are tenants who lease everything we have from God. We own nothing. It all belongs to God. God has entered into covenant with us, into a contract with us. We are given the privilege to use Godís resources, to farm Godís land, to breathe Godís air, to drink Godís water. We are given the privilege of living in a country full of opportunity. We have been blessed, you and I. What a vineyard we have leased! The vines are healthy. The grapes are bountiful. And the wine press turns out wine fit for a king. Godís part of the covenant is to provide the vineyard.

Our part of the covenant is to take care of the vineyard, take care of the earth, take care of the natural resources, take care of the jobs and homes we have been given, enjoy most of the profit for ourselves, which is adequate to meet our needs, and contribute the ownerís share to do Godís work. The ancient, biblical system of stewardship is called the tithe. 90% for our needs, 10% to God to do Godís work. 90% is our share; 10% is Godís.

Thatís the plan. And, it works well when it is allowed to work. It is a beautiful, simple plan, and workable when we do our part.

The problem comes when we--the tenants, the share croppers--close our hands, get greedy, and try to tightly hold on to everything as if it belongs to us, as if it is ours to do with as we please. The first time I saw the bumper sticker on an RV, "We are spending our childrenís inheritance," I laughed. Then, I thought about it, and now I consider it sick. It is indicative of what is terribly wrong with our society. We think we can spend the future now, without regard for our children and grandchildren.

We think we own the air, and can pollute it as we please.

We think we own the water, and can waste it or contaminate it as we please.

We think we own the ozone layer, and can rip it apart with pollution as we please. We think we own the earthís natural resources, and can exhaust them as we please.

We think we earn our living all on our own and can spend our money as we please. We think we are self-made people, forgetting that we would be nothing if it werenít for the gifts and the grace of God.

We think we can close our hands, clench our fists, and hold on to the vineyard as if it is ours.

But, the parable warns, Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

The opposite of the closed fist is the open hand. We are an OPEN church. Iím developing this theme through the sermons this fall.

In contrast to closed, narrow minds, we are an open church. With open minds, we are tolerant and open to new ideas.

In contrast to the fetal position, where we are all wrapped up in ourselves, we are an open church. With open arms, we welcome everyone.

In contrast to closed mouths and action without words, we are an open church. With open mouths, we tell the stories and proclaim Godís saving love.

In contrast to closed hands, clenching, grasping fists, we are an open church. With open hands, we accept the terms of Godís covenant, and live contentedly as share croppers on this earth, in contract with God who is the owner.

With open hands, we receive. All we have has been given to us by God, entrusted to us to care for and pass on to others and to the future. From the past we receive, to the next generation we pass on. With open hands... When we clench our fists, and try to hold on to what we have been given, we end up with nothing. As the parable warns, it will be taken away from you.

Husbands, try to grasp, clench your wife, hold on to her as if she belongs to you, as if she is your possession., and you will end up with nothing. If she doesnít leave you and divorce you, she will become passive and apathetic, or resentful and hostile. She will be taken away from you. You will have lost someone who once loved you, who once cherished you.

Mothers, try to hold on to your children, grasp them, clutch them, over-protect them, possess them, control them, and you will end up with nothing. They will rebel and leave you, or they will become passive, withdrawn, resentful, lifeless. They will be taken away from you.

Try to hold on to your wealth, to your possessions, and you end up with nothing. A very wealthy woman died, and was greeted at heavenís gate by St. Peter. "Welcome," he said, "so nice to see you. Jesus has prepared a place for you as he promised. Let me show it to you." So she got into the golf cart with St. Peter and he started to drive. They passed some magnificent mansions. Even with all her wealth, she gasped, "Oh, how beautiful!" They passed one particularly splendid mansion and she recognized her maid. "Why," she said, "Is she the maid there?" "No," said Peter, "thatís her mansion." The woman got more and more excited thinking what her mansion would look like when her maid lived in such a magnificent palace. Peter drove and drove, the houses got smaller and smaller. Finally, he crossed the railroad tracks, and pulled up in front of a small, tiny, tar paper shack, a typical share cropperís cabin. "This is yours," said Peter. The woman gasped. Peter apologized, "Iím sorry, but this is the best we could do with what you sent on ahead." If you try to grasp, clench your fist, and hold on to things, wealth, possessions, you will end up with nothing. They will be taken away from you.

With open hands, we stand before God, owning nothing, deserving nothing; but responsibly, joyfully taking care of what we have been given, and paying God his fair share.

ã 1993 Douglas I. Norris