October 8, 2023

"Our Kuleana

Rev. Scott Landis

Matthew 21:33-46

If you listened carefully to the story Sue read just a few moments ago your response may have been something like, “wait, what?” It’s not an easy parable to understand. It’s basic point is not readily apparent. 

Like many parables, we could go in several different directions highlighting one aspect of the story or another. But what tugs at my heart as I read it at this time and in this context is the whole notion of responsibility – or how WE would say in Hawai’i, our “kuleana.” I believe that Jesus is pointing out an important life principle, that there are consequences for each of our actions. But he also seems to suggest that too many are conveniently ignoring that basic construct of civil society. In this case we see how greed can so easily distort one’s vision for the common good. 

In the parable the greedy farmhands or the “wicked tenants” as it is often translated have done just that. They apparently have little or no regard for the consequences of their actions. Focusing solely on getting what they want – the proceeds of the grape harvest – they will stop at nothing – not even murder – to achieve their desires. There is no sense of accountability of how their actions will affect the owner, or the harvest, or anyone involved in any way. Their only concern is for themselves. 

After getting rid of each one of the servants who prevented them from stealing all the profits, the owner decided to send his son thinking, “Surely they will respect my son.” But the farmhands have only one thing in mind – getting as much as they can – with no consideration for the consequences of their actions. 

“There he is. That’s the heir. All we must do is get rid of him. Then we’ll have it ALL for ourselves.” They can think of nothing other than what they believe will be good for them. Grab it and go – without a care IN the world. Without a care FOR the world. 

The parable continues with Jesus asking those listening what they thought of all that. To which they responded that the scoundrels would eventually get what’s coming to them. But we know that’s not always the case. Good guys don’t always finish first – but neither do bad guys necessarily finish last. 

The prophet Ezekiel offered a similar observation but said it a bit differently as he spoke words which amplify this parable. He said, “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” His point is well taken. Consequences – good or bad – are not always experienced by the perpetrators of any given action. But every action DOES involve consequences. What we do – how we live – our actions – WILL affect the lives of those around us and perhaps more importantly, the lives of those who follow.  

I’m not sure the wicked farmhands understood that – or wanted to. We are not given the end of the story or the result of their action. That’s the beauty of teaching in parables. We are invited to ponder the message Jesus communicated in light of our own circumstances. Which begs the question, “How will our actions, and the way we are living our lives have a direct impact on the generations that follow?”

Here is where we could go in a multitude of directions, but notice the parable’s setting. While Jesus often defaults to agrarian illustrations to make his point, I don’t think it is a coincidence that the greedy farmhands are supposed to be caring for a vineyard. I wonder — how we are supposed to be doing the very same thing today. How are we caring for our vineyard?

There’s a lot going on in our world today that causes me great concern — the political drama playing out in Washington D.C. notwithstanding. But nothing gives me greater pause and deeper concern than the way in which we are treating the greatest gift that God has given to us – our home – the ‘āina (our land), the wai and kai (our water), the makani (the wind – the air we breathe). It is all a gift that we have been commissioned to care for. If you don’t believe that reread the first few chapters of Genesis which command us to be stewards of the garden, the vineyard, our island home. But we have done a lousy job as caregivers. 

We are living as if WHAT we do will have little or no consequence for the future despite all evidence to the contrary. The Christian church in many ways has promoted such profligate living. In fact a whole theology known as “dispensationalism” purported the idea that since Jesus is coming back soon and God’s reign will be established on earth, we can use up anything we want. It’s all good. After all, God’s got this and we’re heaven bound anyway. Right?

If dispensationalism is not your jam you may have sought refuge in denial – convincing yourself that climate change is all a hoax – a normal cycle of geologic rhythm but that’s a defense mechanism rapidly becoming untenable. 

Global warming IS a real; we can no longer pretend it is not. The planet is responding in the only way it knows how – by trying to compensate for the extreme abuse and pressure it is under. Where seasons are more noticeable the summers are hotter, the winters colder. Even here we see extreme drought – one of the contributors of our recent wildfires, or horrendous downpours resulting in floods and muddy debris flushing into the ocean. The evidence is not only compelling but a stark reminder that our actions are having a profound impact even more rapidly than previously predicted. 

I walk the beach nearly every day. Even in the last 4 years I have observed a gradual yet steady rise in the sea level leaving less and less room for a peaceful stroll as my walking space narrows. While we are often deluded with several weeks of clear and pristine water and a nice low tide offering a much easier stroll – the daily stench of the unusually dry Kealia Pond is evidence that the drought is real. Denial is no longer an option.

We have to wake up. We have to realize there are direct consequences for our actions. That we are abrogating our responsibility of tending the vineyard. We must heed the warnings of both Ezekiel and Jesus that the way we live today will affect our children, and our grandchildren – in fact, those decisions are even affecting our lives. But Jesus takes it a step further.

Notice in the parable that our kuleana is not only for our planet, and for the people, but for our enemies. Dang. Just when we thought we could be smug about our eco-responsible lifestyles by recycling, driving an electric car, and affixing solar panels to our roofs, Jesus expects us to take one more step – to show mercy toward those who haven’t yet gotten with the program. It took us some time to become enlightened and to change. Part of our kuleana is to love others into a more responsible lifestyle that will contribute to the common good. 

You may remember the old Pogo cartoon published in 1970 to commemorate the message of Earth Day. Pogo is standing in a forest with many lovely trees ahead of him but he is unable to see the path because of all the trash that had littered the forest floor. The caption beneath the cartoon is telling in so many ways, “We have seen the enemy, and it is us.” 

As stewards of God’s vineyard, we are the first who must change. But that change of the heart involves not judging others or using them for our benefit but embracing all siblings as God’s children. We must care for all creatures and their habitats as if they were our own. It’s a way of life that begins with us doing our part. 

Yesterday I was upcountry officiating at an ash scattering on a family plot of  Auntie Dolly Kaiaokamailei. Burial in a family plot was a first for me of which there have been many since coming to Maui. I asked her nephew about the plot and the land on which we we’re standing inquiring how it came to the family. He said it was a kuleana given by the Ali’i before the overthrow. Puzzled, I told him that my understanding of kuleana was that it meant responsibility - and then it dawned on me. Oh, the Native Hawaiians had this understanding of caring for - being responsible for the land a long time before we ever conceived of Earth Day. 

Our kuleana - is the land, the water, the air. It’s all a gift - a treasure - and one we have got to care for or none of us survives.  Our kuleana — is our action and our possession. Our kuleana begins with me. 


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