A Vintage Tale
copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 9, 2012
A man planted a vineyard,
put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press,
and built a watchtower;
then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.
Whose vineyard is it, anyway? It’s a question put by Jesus – by means of a parable – to those who questioned his authority. Isn’t a parable an odd sort of way to address a question about authority? Maybe. But I’m guessing, since it’s Jesus doing the teaching, not in this case.
To understand Jesus’ parable, the first thing we have to think about is what it means to be tenants. Some of us probably rent homes or apartments. Some others of us probably own our homes...or imagine we do, until we have to send in that monthly mortgage check to the people who really own our homes. We may be more like tenants than we like to think, unless the house is completely paid off. And even if it’s paid off, just try withholding property taxes for a few years and see whose house it is then.
I have been a renter and I also have “owned” 6 different homes in my lifetime. Though, I have to admit, I never really owned any of them, don’t really own the one I live in now, the mortgage lender always has and still does own a pretty large interest in my home. In many ways, I am a tenant on someone else’s property.
These random musings about ownership of property might help us begin to make connection with Jesus’ teaching on authority through the parable of the wicked tenants in an absentee owner’s vineyard.
I remember my first years of ministry, living in what Presbyterians call a “manse.” Methodists and others call them “parsonages.” Whatever we call them, they are church-owned homes in which pastors are invited to live during the time they are serving a particular church. In the last half century, many churches have sold their manses in favor of a housing allowance for pastors. Still, when ministers gather, even if it’s been years since they occupied a manse or parsonage, there is almost invariably a time when tales of woe from bad experiences in the church manse are shared. I recall the story of a pastor friend whose wife had the audacity to move the sofa in their church manse from one room to another, only to suffer the wrath of church members who had collectively donated the sofa specifically for the room from which she had moved it. A great uproar ensued, and eventually the pastor and his wife moved the sofa back where it had been. Then, as soon as possible, they found another church to serve that did not have the “benefit” of a manse.
That little fracas involved, of course, a question of authority. Whose manse was it anyway? The title deed had the church’s name on it, and the church authorities had charge of the stewardship of it, and only by their leave did the pastor and his or her family live there. “By what authority are you moving that sofa?” the elders wanted to know. And, of course, they held all the cards, the authority over property in the church was theirs to exercise. “By what authority are you doing these things?” the priests, scribes, and elders asked, after Jesus had come riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, moving the moneychangers’ furniture on the Temple grounds. Jesus wouldn’t say, instead he told this story.
God’s kingdom is something like a vineyard, Jesus said, which an owner planted, improved with a new fence, wine press and watchtower. Then he leased it to some tenants and for reasons all his own, he went to another country, which is to say, out of sight and, judging by the rest of the story, pretty soon out of mind.
A few years back the newspaper carried a front page story about a California company, Premier Pacific Vineyards, that had purchased and developed six vineyards in Polk and Yamhill counties here in Oregon, as an investment on behalf of the retirement system for California public employees. Now I doubt that any of the front office folks at Premier Pacific come up here on a regular basis to cultivate and water the vines in their vineyards. My guess is that they hired vineyard managers who, in turn, hired workers to till and cultivate the vines. My guess is also that if a day dawned when the vineyard managers and their workers decided that they could just keep all profits from those vineyards for themselves, the parent company would put a quick end to their folly.
But that’s not how it went in Jesus’ parable. In his story, the tenants enjoyed the vineyard and all the owner-financed improvements for a while, and then began to develop a proprietary sense about the place. It wasn’t their vineyard, never was. They didn’t purchase the ground, had made none of the original improvements on it. They enjoyed the fruits of a vineyard established by someone else, who had invited them to live and work there on his behalf. That’s how things stood until that day, that seemingly normal day like other days, when the owner sent someone to collect the rent that was due to him for the benefits they derived from his property and its improvements.
Incredibly, the tenants in the story responded as if they were owners rather than renters. They shamelessly beat the representative the owner sent to collect the rent. The incredibly forbearing owner sent another unsuspecting servant to collect the rent, money which was clearly due him. What did the wicked tenants do? They pulled out the brass knuckles and baseball bats, beat him, and, for good measure, added insults to his injuries, and tossed him out the gate.
Unbelievably, the long-suffering owner sent a third unlucky servant to collect the rents, but now feeling empowered in their evil, they killed this one. Jesus said, “so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.” By now, we may recognize the servants as representations of the Old Testament prophets, and the land owner as a representation of God.
In exasperation, the owner sent his own son – and now we begin to see the parallel with the story of Jesus – the owner sent his own son to set things to right, but the tenants, consistent in their evil, killed the owner’s son, unceremoniously pitching his lifeless body outside the property. They believed that now, with the owner’s heir out of the way, they would inherit the property themselves, perhaps by squatter’s rights. What would you expect that the owner of the vineyard would do to these tenants? You know the rest of the story, and it wasn’t a happy ending for those tenants
Why did Jesus tell this story? It’s a parable that appears in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and each reports that it was told in response to a question about authority. By what authority, the presumptive authorities had asked Jesus, do you do these things? But Jesus knew whatever authority they had was only derivative. If the priests, scribes and elders had authority over matters civil and religious in Israel, it was like the authority of the tenants in the vineyard, derived, granted by another, by the God of Israel.
When pastors or musicians select a hymn or anthem for a Sunday morning, we frequently ask ourselves, “Do the people know this hymn? Do they like to sing it? Is it good music?” Rarely do we ask, “What does this hymn say about God? Will God be pleased with our singing of it today?” When we fail to ask these other questions, we are guilty of acting as if this were our church, our vineyard, owned by us and the members who gather here. It goes along with sentences like, “This isn’t the pastor’s church, it’s our church,” or “This church doesn’t belong to the session, it belongs to the people.” In truth it belongs neither to pastor nor session nor people. We are the tenants. God is the owner who has called us to come and till this corner of his vineyard for a time.
If we plan Sunday worship, or anything else in the church for that matter, saying, “What do we want from this worship or this activity,” by the measure of this gospel parable, the questions we ought to be asking instead are, “By whose authority do we do these things that we do? What does God require? Whose church is this, anyway?”
This teaching goes beyond the worship and fellowship life of the church, of course. In our confessions and by our study of scripture, we believe that the whole bountiful, beautiful earth is not ours to use for our own pleasure. We’re all tenants in this garden of delights, in spite of the fact that we often use and abuse the earth and its creatures as if we were gods unto ourselves, owing nothing to anyone else. In the end the church doesn’t belong to elders, pastors, or people, but to God. Easy to say, more difficult to live as though it’s true and we believe it.
Some have called Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants a parable of judgment, but is it really? Could it be that it’s a story of grace? When we ask ourselves, “What do I want from this church? What do we need to do to keep this congregation going, to make worship meaningful, to keep being faithful?” Ought we not to be asking ourselves, “By whose authority is all this singing, serving, and speaking done?” This is not our church, this place is God’s. This church is ours on loan. The one who created this church paid for it with the death of his Son.
There is grace in this message. A pastor can’t keep a church going. Nor can anyone sitting in a pew in the congregation or choir. This church is God’s. Worship leaders can’t make “it” happen for you on Sunday – whatever “it” is – no matter how hard we work on music, anthems, prayers, sermons. If something worshipful happens, it’s a gift of God. The church is gathered under the authority of God, not as a self-generating society of unfulfilled expectations.
A Methodist friend of mine shared the following story of a family he knew, visiting in a university town in California where the father was teaching for the summer:
When they entered town, they passed by a large, impressive Methodist church. Of course, this story could as easily be about Presbyterians or Lutherans as about Methodists:
The father said to his family, “Let’s go to that church on Sunday.”
On Sunday they got up, got dressed, and walked to church. As they came near to the building, they could hear music, loud music, guitars, drums, emanating from the neogothic building.
“What kind of church is this?” his son asked. The father replied, “Well, it’s one of ours, you’ve got to remember that we’re in California....”
A smiling usher greeted them at the door. When the door opened, they could see that the service had begun. In the service there was a band in full swing. People were clapping and swaying to the music, people of all ages, of every color of the rainbow.
“Is this a Methodist church?” they asked.
“Oh, no,” the usher said. “We rent this sanctuary from the Methodist church. If you like, I’ll take you to the Methodist church.”
And the usher took him around the corner of the building to a small chapel where there gathered a huddled, small group of … people, plodding through a traditional service. On the way back home, as they made their way through a sidewalk filled with people emerging from the larger service around the corner, the father looked back at that emerging throng of all ages, nations, and races, and said to his family, “That was the Methodist church.”
It’s important that we never fail to remind one another that our church is not ours. We just work here in the vineyard for the time being. It’s a vineyard which, if it belongs to anyone, it belongs to God.
Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved