Owners or Tenants?
by James Lincoln on November 7, 2004
The messengers in Jesus' parable of the tenants (Lk.20) is a good example of our passage in Romans. In Romans, Paul makes the argument that because God is offended by the way we respond to Him we all need the gospel. He says that by nature we suppress the truth about God and fail to give God the honor that is His due. Without the gospel we live in the illusion that we are independent and autonomous instead of being dependent upon our Creator. Without the gospel mankind defaces and belittles God. God will not stand by and do nothing while His glory and His creation are defaced and distorted. Instead, because God is good, He responds by revealing in tangible ways His wrath. This is a grace because it reveals how much we need His grace. One thing you can count on is that God's wrath is always reasonable, appropriate, always just and holy. Unlike our wrath God is never arbitrary, out of control, unreasonable, irrational or petulant. God's wrath is a messenger or a series of messengers.
Paul continues with his argument pointing out the various ways our natural aversion to His authority show up. When we pick other things over God's honor, we exchange fulfillment for futility, wisdom for foolishness and the splendor and glory of God who is incorruptible for an image of corruptible or perishable things. Paul writes in v.22, "Professing themselves as wise they become fools." I read this to be a deliberate and covert reference to Eve's thinking error in Gen.3. She thought that if she ate of the forbidden fruit she would become wise like God. Instead, by rejecting God's wisdom Adam and Eve became enmeshed in the greatest folly ever. Disobeying God never lives up to its bogus promises. And like them we have all chosen the same.
The impact of the more subtle forms of idolatry shows up in verse twenty-four and following. Any time we seek more satisfaction in something other than God we are elevating that thing over God. And that is the definition of idolatry. First, Paul gives two specific examples (24-27) and then he list a catalog of generic ways our natural aversion to God as God shows up in (v.28-32). Now remember Paul said in verse 18 that by nature we suppress the truth about all of this. So, our natural reaction is to say, "Not me!" Or, "Maybe so, but others are much more guilty than I am." By nature we will do anything to get out from under or suppress this indictment.
An Analogy in Psychology
There is an analogy in psychology. Counselors tell us that when we have conflicting feelings that we don't want to face we may repress them. They even say that these repressed feelings are so strong that they can actually determine your behavior. For example if you don't deal with your anger or resentment head on it can manifest itself in behavior like kicking the cat or slamming a car doors. If we repress our anger it can show up in ulcers, migraine headaches or some forms of depression. Counselors used to define depression as anger turned inward. It's not that we are totally unaware of our anger; it's just that we can push it down far enough so that we can't address it successfully. It controls us not the other way around.
And here's what is interesting. The Bible says that human behavior cannot be understood except by a deep dynamic of spiritual and moral repression. In Roman 1:18 Paul says that by nature and without the gospel we "suppress the truth." The Bible says that you can't understand yourself unless you understand what that is.
We can easily suppress all kinds of truth about ourselves like the depth of our sexual attraction, our fear of death, the depth of our sin or our aversion toward God's authority. By nature we don't want to honor or submit to God as God and we suppress that enmity or that truth so that we wont have to face it straight on. Paul says in Romans 8:7, "the sinful mind is hostile or at enmity against God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so." Why? By nature we hate the fact that we can't be independent and autonomous. But we try to hide this or suppress this fact. The Bible says what counselors already know. And that is that real hatred hides itself so that it can do its work without obstruction. If you would have told me that I was hostile toward God before I heard the gospel, I would have said that you were nuts. But when Christ came into my life and showed me the gospel, He opened my eyes to see the reality of my behavior and my heart. I couldn't deny the evidence. The truth was that I wanted to be my own God. I didn't want to submit to God's rightful authority in my life. Deep inside I didn't want God to tell me what to think. I hated the fact that I couldn't be my own god. I was at enmity with God as God.
By nature people believe in gods. There is no argument here. The problem arises when we are called to believe in God as God as He reveals Himself in His word and in His son Jesus. Jesus says controversial things about heaven and hell and who gets to go there. He said by nature we are all evil. How do you think that message would go over today or in any setting? He uses alarming language like someone doing an intervention. Why? That's what He is doing. In the gospel He wakes us up out of our deep spiritual denial. Some don't respond well.
"A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. 10 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11 He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. 12 He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.
13 "Then the owner of the vineyard said, 'What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.' 14 "But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. 'This is the heir,' they said. 'Let's kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.' 15 So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. "What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16 He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others." When the people heard this, they said, "May this never be!"
Isn't it interesting that the very thing Jesus illustrates in His parable He evokes in their hearts. What do they want to do when they hear this? They are so full of hatred that they want to ring His neck. These otherwise moral religious leaders began to plot ways to kill Jesus. They suppressed the truth to the degree that they were not even aware of how irrational their anger was. Why do they take up sides with the tenants who steal the owner's assets for themselves, abuse his messengers and kill His son? Why do they hate Jesus for telling such a reasonable story? It's because they have a deep aversion and antagonism toward the Owner. We see it in children. A six year old says, "Leave me alone. Let me do it!! Stay away from me while I cut this board with your skill saw."
There are three key relationships in the parable. 1. First there is the relationship between the tenants and the owner; 2. The tenants' relationship to the messengers, and 3. Finally the tenants' relationship to the Son
What is the relationship between the tenants and the owner?
We all know this. Tenants are supposed to work the Owner's vineyard according to His wishes and for His profit. That's self-evident. The Owner invested His money; the owner took the risk, improved the property and bought all the equipment. Yes, this is a pre-capitalistic society but still if you put up the money, take the risk and hire someone to work for you, the profits and the deficits belong to you. Yes, the tenants do get their pay but they have to tend the vineyard for the Owner by His word and for His profit. They can't tend it anyway they want to. They have to find out what His policies and standards are. They will get their pay of course but He gets to make policy and he gets the profits.
Now Jesus was talking to the religious leaders of Israel (cf. Jeremiah. 5 & Psalm 80). God called Israel His "Vineyard." God gave them children, a homeland, a law, a temple and His word. This was the vineyard. The leaders were tenants and supposed to govern Israel by His word and for His glory. Not according to their own wisdom, for their profit, for their own power and aggrandizement. He gave them these gifts for His profit and His glory. But what did they do? They assumed the role of the Owner and forgot that they were only tenants.
Beloved the broader point is critical here. All of us have done the same. It's the nature of the human heart to think of itself as the owner. Yet, we are all tenants acting like owners. By nature we hate this arrangement. It's not that we kind of dislike it; we really hate it.
We take the gifts, talent, creativity, smarts, and education, and act as if we own them instead of seeing them as free gifts to be regulated by God's word and for His profit. Here's the truth we suppress by nature. We are only tenants!
You don't get to do with your mind anything you want. You don't get to believe anything you want. You can't just use your sexual desire anyway you want. The same is true with power, possessions, money and your other privileges. They don't belong to you. They are on loan. You must tend the vineyard of your life by His word and for His profit. The tenants took the Owner's prerogatives for themselves.
God Gave Them Over
Now, in Romans 1 Paul illustrates how we have done this. By nature we suppress the truth about God and we do not honor God as God; we want to be the Owner. Here's what God does. In His goodness He reveals His wrath or His righteous indignation. And then He consigns mankind to the consequences. Three times he says that God, 'gave them over' (vv. 24, 26 and 28). "God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin." (Romans, Moo, p. 111) God does not merely let a person go, to follow their desires, but he purposefully consigns us to them. He intentionally and repeatedly sends messengers to us. And we would never repent if the message weren't clear and forceful. It' like an intervention.
Now whether or not this giving over leads to repentance, renewal and reformation depends on whether we get converted or not. But when sin becomes easy we should be terrified not relieved! That's why many of you are struggling. God is making it clear to you that He will never let you get comfortable in your sin. And to some degree we are all still fighting enemies in this battle. And as agonizing as this struggle is, it's the only path to freedom.
This consignment to the consequences of sin is a series of messengers. In vv. 24 & 25 he says,
"Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator - who is forever praised. Amen."
Sexual Immorality (24-25)
God ordains that the consequences have an affect. When we exchange the truth of God for a lie He makes what we are doing plain. God is not vague about the message. He is not hiding His will behind His back making it hard to discover. Sexual passion expressed outside of God's word and not for His profit (glory) reveals our deep-seated wish to be the Owner and not a tenant. Does any of this happen in our society? Are these messengers showing up in our times? If the truth were known about you and me would we escape the bright light of this truth about our own sexuality? Either in thought or deed it lays us all bear before the living God. Remember, our duty as tenants is to serve His vineyard according to His word and for His profit. This is why we all need the gospel. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God the Owner.
Friday I asked Debby. "Why does Paul use sexual distortion as his illustration?" I think the reason is that by God's design, sex is holistic. It involves all of what a person is, your full identity. You may think that you can have casual sex. But you can't. You can attempt to suppress this. And oh how we try. But sexual intimacy has a way of touching every aspect of your person. Our bodies were made to be temples to worship God with our whole being as Jesus said, "Worship the Lord Your God with all of your heart, soul and mind and might."
When we distort God's purpose for our bodies through our sexual drive it's the most comprehensive expression of sin. It may not be the worst sin in terms of badness but it is the most comprehensive. With sexual immorality you give everything of yourself in some way to the sin. And as a result we dishonor the whole person. It illustrates how far we will go to assume the right of Ownership. We will leave no area untouched by sin, mind body and soul.
In 1972 Time Magazine reported, "After the ordinary cold, syphilis and gonorrhea are the most common infectious diseases among young people, outranking all cases of hepatitis, measles, scarlet fever, strep throat, and tuberculoses put together. In 1982, twenty million Americans had contracted the sexually transmitted herpes virus. Time wrote that the reason for the virus's exponential increase has been "the escalation of sexual license." We may be in denial about it but God has made it plain. His messengers are successful in communicating the message.
In verse 25, Paul says that without the gospel we exchange the truth for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. In other words by nature we deny that there is an Owner, or an Author that has Authority over us. We deny that we are contingent and dependent beings and we take hold of divine prerogatives. This shows up in the drive we have to do with our lives sexually what we want. Notice that the behavior follows the thinking. If you convince yourself that there is no God or that there is no God like the God of the Bible, then you can create your own God who never challenges you, never upsets you, never tells you things you don't want to here. In reality you will only be worshipping and serving the creation of your own imagination and not God. Underneath this passion for freedom is contempt for the Owner who has restricted our autonomy.
In his second illustration (26) of what mankind will do apart from the gospel Paul writes,
"Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion." Rom 1:26-27
He uses homosexuality because in addition to being sexual and holistic, homosexuality illustrates how unreasonable and foolish we can get without the gospel.
Now, let me say that I'm not mocking those who are driven to do this. I'm a sinner saved only by the grace of God. I know what it feels like to feel as if I could never overcome temptation. When we cluck our tongues at other sinners as if we have some innate moral superiority we abandon the gospel of grace. Paul will pick up this argument in ch.2. Let me ask heterosexual men this, "Have you ever fallen prey to sexual temptation that prevailed over you and as a result you gave into it?" My guess is that most of you will answer "Yes." The rest of you are lying. The temptation to homosexual passion is no less strong. He says they were inflamed to do this. So, shouldn't we have compassion for those who struggle with sin just like we do? The word compassion means to suffer with. Do you have any compassion or do you just judge? What would you think of blind Bartimaus if he went around mocking other blind people because they couldn't see? What did he do to regain his sight? What innate moral superiority did he have? None. It was all of grace! Having said that we still need to know that we aren't the Owners. So, we have to be clear about what God has said is wrong. And we must be clear about the mercy and compassion of the gospel. So, I am not mocking a sinner for being a sinner. I'm empathetic with those who fall under the power of sin. But God tell us that this is really foolish.
Like few things homosexuality exchanges the plain truth for a lie. And it's so obvious that everyone should know this. It's a plain distortion of God's design for the sexes. There could be nothing more unnatural that this. The male anatomy corresponds to female anatomy. Female anatomy corresponds to male anatomy. Nothing could be more clear, plain and manifest. If you don't know this, come see me after the sermon and I'll explain it in clearer terms. You couldn't find an easier way to transmit deadly and incurable diseases than through sodomy. Anyone who is old enough to understand the basics of anatomy would know this. What Paul is saying is that when God is not honored as God, mankind can become so foolish that he ignores what is so natural and obvious. The fact that we would endorse something so patently and manifestly foolish and unreasonable reveals our great aversion for the Owner's authority and our need for grace.
A Catalog of Messengers
This final list in verse 28 through 32 needs no comment except to say that if you read this list you will probably see yourself in its mirror at some point. I know I do. In His goodness God consigns us to the tangible outcomes of the fall. They show up. They are manifest. They are incontrovertible. They are messengers. And in verse 32 he tells us that without the gospel of Christ we will not remain neutral about these things but we will find ways of approving those who do them.
OK: To the parable. How did the tenants treat the messengers? They abused them and sent them back to the Owner empty handed. They know that they are tenants and they hate it. They don't want to have their illusion of self sufficiency and independence shattered. Jesus is talking about the prophets who told Israel they were not tending the vineyard by his word and for his glory. They literally killed the prophets.
What about us? Notice that God is so patience and forbearing that he sends us messenger after messenger. For some of you the messenger is a parent or both parents. For others the messenger is a ministry or an individual friend. The old teachers used to talk about providential messengers. God sends a frustration, disappointment or an unfulfilled longing. The message is this, "You are not in control of your life." And by God's grace life will never let you control it. If you don't think this is true just wait. Life will never let you believe in the end that you are the owner. And if life won't act as if you are the owner, the best explanation is that you are not the Owner. So don't be foolish, repent. Nothing about you is yours; it all belongs to God. And when you give yourself these privileges you are like an eight year old who insists on driving when he can't see over the steering wheel. Are listening to the messengers? What are the messengers God is sending to your life that you are abusing and rejecting?
The tenants' relationship to the Son or the Heir.
What do they do? They killed Him. The hidden enmity erupts and they kill Him. The one time in the history of the world when God made Himself visible He was rejected, dishonored, despised and killed. They hated Him without cause. What did God do about this? Jesus says, "The stone that the builders rejected became the corner stone (Psalm 118). Jesus is the stone upon which either you can build or reject. He is the wisdom and beauty and glory of the gospel. The very killing that comes from our enmity is the way in which God slays the enmity. In Ephesians 2:15 Paul says that on the cross though we were enemies, God slew the enmity. Ephesians 2:16. He made Jesus the enmity. In 2Corinthians 5 Paul says that God reconciled us to him by making Jesus sin, who knew no sin. He treated Jesus as the enemies that we are and He paid our debt so that we could have life. Either you build your life on the Stone of Jesus or that stone will crush you. There are only two alternatives. George McDonald wrote,
Either sometime during this life you will say, "God, Thy will be done, I'm not my own," or else at the end of your life Jesus will say, "OK you are your own, thy will be done you are your own...you wanted to be the owner, you want to be in charge of your life. Go into the outer darkness."
Jesus was willing to die for us and be treated as an enemy of God for us. How could it be dangerous to give control to a God like that? Wake up out of the sleep of denial with the thought of His love! He was slain on the cross so that instead of enemies we might become friends. Listen to the messengers.