A Lament for the Vineyard

By Debie Thomas

In April of this year, National Geographic published a “flip” issue of their magazine — basically, two issues in one — to explore two starkly different futures for our planet. One half of the magazine presented the worst case scenario: what Planet Earth will look like in fifty years if we do nothing substantive about climate change. The writer described a grim, dangerous world of mass extinctions, searing forest fires, deadly heat waves, fierce storms, and widespread suffering for the human race.

The other half portrayed a more hopeful, verdant vision: what Planet Earth could look like in fifty years if we harness our time, ingenuity, resources, and technology now to undo at least some of the damage we have already done. In this scenario, we would find sustainable ways to feed ourselves. We’d clean up our oceans, rivers, and lakes. We’d provide carbon-neutral energy for all. We’d reimagine our homes, streets, cities, and corporations in light of the most pressing needs of the environment. We’d begin to reverse climate change, and prevent many, if not most extinctions.

“It’s impossible to know who is right,” Susan Goldberg wrote about the two contrasting visions in her Editor’s Note for the issue. Everything will depend on the decisions we make in the coming days, weeks, months, years, and decades.

In our Gospel reading this week, Jesus tells the chief priest and elders a parable about some tenants who make ghastly decisions — decisions rooted in greed, arrogance, disrespect, and selfishness. A landowner, Jesus says, lovingly planted a vineyard, leased it to some tenants, and traveled to another country. When harvest time came, the landowner sent his servants to the vineyard to collect his share of the produce. But the tenants seized the servants. They beat one, killed another, and stoned the third.

In response, the landowner sent a second group of servants to the vineyard — but the tenants killed them as well. Finally, the landowner decided to send his own son into the fray to reason with the tenants. Surely, the landowner thought, “they will respect my son.”

They did not. When the tenants saw the heir of the vineyard approaching, they hatched a plan to murder him and claim his inheritance. So they seized the son, threw him out of the vineyard, and took his life.

Jesus concludes the parable with a question for the chief priests and the elders: “When the landowner returns to his vineyard, what will he do to those tenants?”

I know that “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants,” (as this story is popularly called), isn’t straightforwardly about climate change or the environment. Jesus tells this particular story to indict the religious leaders of his day for exploiting and mistreating God’s people — the people of Israel, God’s “vineyard.” The parable is meant to expose the corruption of the religious elite, and condemn their obsessions with privilege and power. Through the pointed story of the vineyard, Jesus implies that the chief priests and elders are like the wicked tenants. They abuse their authority, dishonor God’s house, and mistreat both God’s messengers (the Prophets) and God’s son (Jesus).

At the heart of this parable, though, is a distinction that I think speaks very pointedly to our current environmental crisis. What the tenants in the story neglect to understand — or very deliberately choose to ignore — is that they are stewards rather than owners of the vineyard. When the landowner asks for his rightful share of the harvest, the tenants take offense. As if the vineyard belongs to them, and it is the landowner who is in the wrong for making a claim on the land at all. Somewhere along the way, the tenants have forgotten their place. Their vocation. Their standing in relationship to both the land and the landowner. To put it bluntly, they have forgotten that they own nothing — nothing at all. Everything belongs to the landowner. Theirs is not a vocation of ownership; it is a vocation of caring, tending, safeguarding, cultivating, and protecting — on behalf of another.

It’s worth noting here that Jesus does not describe the evildoers in the story as thieves or marauders. They are not outsiders — they are the landowner’s trusted tenants. He chose them, and granted them creative license to steward the vineyard for the benefit of all. How much more tragic, then, when they abuse the landowner’s trust so cruelly.

The analogy I’m drawing is of course obvious. Have we not, like the tenants in the parable, deluded ourselves into thinking that we “own” the earth and all that is in it, when in fact, we are meant to be stewards only? Have we not, like the tenants, assumed that God is absent, or apathetic, or uninvolved — and hoarded the beauty and bounty of creation for our own selfish ease, gain, comfort, and convenience? Have we not, like the tenants, ignored and even maligned the countless messengers who have warned us over the past many years that our rapacious relationship with the planet will lead us to destruction?

The truth is, we humans crave ownership. We like possessing things. We like controlling things. We like believing that things exist primarily to please, feed, entertain, soothe, empower, and protect us. We are “rent-to-own” folks by both temperament and preference, and the idea that we don’t in fact own anything deeply offends us. Stewardship deeply offends us. It insults our core sense of entitlement, and threatens our core identity as consumers.

This is the case even when creation itself exposes the ridiculousness of our stingy notions of ownership. I have seen news stories about people actually going to court because they want to “own” their view — meaning, the narrow slice of Pacific Ocean visible outside their living room windows. I’ve seen neighbors fighting over who “owns” the 500 year old redwood tree on the border between their properties. What does it mean to own the sea? What does it mean to own a tree that existed before your great-grandparents were even born? A tree that will outlast your great-grandchildren by another several centuries?

When it comes to the planet, the bottom line is crystal clear in Scripture: we are NOT owners. We are caretakers of a vineyard God cares about deeply, a vineyard that will not thrive or even survive if we continue to treat it as a cheap, inexhaustible commodity. One need only glance at environmental news headlines — “8.8 million tons of plastic waste enter the ocean each year,” “A quarter of all mammals are currently threatened with extinction,” “Sea levels will rise by 1 to 8 feet by 2100,” to recognize how precarious our situation really is.

This week, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, commemorating the life of a 12th century monk who cared deeply about creation. On Sunday, many of us will “Bless the Animals,” recognizing God’s care for the creatures that live among us. We may also pray for what the Book of Common Prayer calls, “this fragile earth, our island home.” This year, perhaps more than ever before, I think many of us will flinch at that adjective. Fragile.

Living in northern California as I do, I’ll admit that I’m flinching pretty hard right now. We are only halfway through wildfire season here, and we’ve already lost over 3.6 million acres — not to mention countless homes, neighborhoods, lives, and livelihoods. A few days ago, the sky here in the San Francisco Bay Area turned such a bizarre shade of blood orange from the smoke pollution, we truly felt like the world was ending. And the air? We literally couldn’t breathe the air outside our homes for weeks.

I want very much to believe in the optimistic half of National Geographic’s April magazine. As a Christian, I do believe that the earth will be renewed and restored. That somehow, God’s coming kingdom will bring healing to all — even to all of creation.

But I don’t for one minute believe that we — the stewards — are somehow off the hook because the landowner will ultimately reclaim his vineyard. Our vocation is lifelong, and our relationship to the landowner is eternal. Unfortunately, reclaiming the vineyard will always meet with opposition from those who have a vested interest in keeping the vineyard broken. So our calling isn’t even close to over. When we hoard, exploit, abuse, or ignore the work of God’s hands, we wound and reject God’s heart.

It’s not my usual practice in these lectionary essays to ask my readers to “please take action.” At the risk of being too forward, I want to make an exception this week. If your church, your Bible study group, your workplace, or your neighborhood is active in the fight against climate change — and you’re not already involved in their efforts — please prayerfully consider getting involved now. If there’s no one around you doing this work, then initiate an effort in your own community. There are countless ways — small, large, and everything in between — to steward our fragile island home.

If nothing else this week, just sit with the possibility that we own nothing — not this planet, not our ministries, not our churches, not even our own lives. All of it is God’s, and all of it is precious beyond reckoning. But the fact that God trusts us to steward any of it? Us? That is pure miracle.

Debie Thomas: debie.thomas1@gmail.com

Image credits: (1) National Geographic Magazine; (2) Fine Art America; and (3) Fine Art America.

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