What then will the owner of the vineyard do?
He will come and destroy the tenants
and give the vineyard to others.
You need to know that the Church does not belong to you.
You need to know that the Church exists for the nourishment of the World.
You need to know that if the Church ceases to nourish the world, our stewardship will be taken away.
You need to know that there is still time.
I wrote a version of this piece in 2014, as a sermon in graduate school. It was a strange thing to be at a mainline seminary during The Great Mainline Decline of the 21st Century. The halls held a lot of fear.
The church is declining.
We are becoming obsolete.
We’ve got to save the church.
We’ve got to save ourselves.
This parable in Mark 12 is for us.
Hear the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark.
Then Jesus began to speak to them in parables.
“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. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
Have you not read this scripture:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?”
When they realized that he had told this parable against them,
they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd.
So they left him and went away.
This is one of the only times that Jesus tells a parable and everyone gets it.
Usually when Jesus tells a parable, he gets bombarded with questions about what could this possibly MEAN? The crowd is baffled, the disciples are befuddled, and Jesus ends with an exasperated do you not understand? But this time, as soon as he’s done, the chief priests, scribes, and elders that Jesus is speaking to “realized he had told this parable against them.”
In this parable, Jesus evokes an old metaphor from Isaiah – God as a displeased landlord, Israel as a vineyard – that Jesus’ audience of religious scholars would know by heart. In Jesus’ version, though, the religious leadership are the Bad Guys, the tenants that not only refused to turn over the vineyard to God, the landowner, but abused and killed everyone that God sends – prophet after prophet, messenger after messanger, and right up to Jesus. And in Jesus’ version, the tenants won’t have control over this vineyard forever. Once they kill the landlord’s son, the Landlord will finally say “enough!” And the vineyard will be given, for a time, to new stewards.
This is not a pleasant story. It is even less pleasant when the priests and scholars realize that “he had told this parable against them.”
Well, we know how the story ends already. The march to the Cross begins. Once they realized he had told this parable against them, the old guard got in line to eliminate him.
Thank God we have nothing in common with them.
I think that it’s easier to use the parables as swords instead of mirrors.
We’d much rather use them to condemn our neighbor than see in them a reflection of ourselves.
We’d all rather that the hard sayings in the Bible mostly applied to our neighbor.
We want to identify with the “new stewards,” the disciples, a scrappy bunch of upstarts who run against the grain of religious tradition to live into a new way of being inaugurated by Jesus Christ, fulfilling old promises and embodying new ones. We’d prefer for the parable to be about “them” – the Jewish people and their religious practice in the 1st century, the failure of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, the dead legalism of our parents’ churches, the Instagramable, hashtagged emergent church down the road. We want to use this parable to remind someone else that they are the sinners who are ruining the church.
As the Western Church experiences decline, the fear of church people increases. The fear is practical, because many of us have made the Church our paycheck. The fear is also existential, the terrible dread that if the Church as we know it declines, that says something about the validity of that Church. If the Church declines, Christianity is a failed project. If the Church declines, we have picked the losing team. If the Church fails, Jesus is a lie.
We want to use this parable to remind someone else that they are the sinners who are ruining the church.
If the Church declines, not only does our rent go unpaid, but the legitimacy of our God is thrown into question.
And in our fear, we hold on tighter.
We grip on to whatever power we have left. Our fingers wrap around the tiny pieces of control that we can still claim over the Church. We face the chaos of a changing world by obsessively organizing our corner of it. We respond to the cultural power of the Church slipping away by getting more shrill, more angry, more abusive with the shattered pieces of power that we still hold on to. We circle up the wagons. We build bigger walls. Our purity tests get more and more demanding.
In short – Jesus told this parable against us
He told this parable against us, and all the ways that we’ve tried to keep the Church for our own.
How we’ve commercialized the church or consumed the Church. How we’ve walked away from the Church when she wasn’t perfect. How we’ve made whiteness the standard in our sacred spaces. How we’ve demanded that our community be holier or more perfect than we are ourselves. How we’ve hated the church next door just because it was next door and wasn’t ours. How we’ve been resentful of others’ success. How we’ve hoarded the resources of the church for the “insiders” instead of spreading it out for the community. How we’ve sold the produce in the vineyard for our own profit, instead of using the food to nourish the world.
We took the vineyard that was loaned to us to care for and water and make fruitful, and instead of relinquishing power of it back to its Owner, we took it for our own gain. The vineyard that could have produced food and wine to feed and delight a whole community is now just a profit center for us and the people who look like us.
We have held on to the Church so tightly that we have forgotten why it exists in the first place.
We have held on to it so tightly that we have forgotten it isn’t ours.
The purpose of vineyard is to nourish the world. And if the community ceases to be nourished by the fruit of the vine, the vineyard needs new stewards to tend it.
If the Church stops nourishing the world, God will take it from our hands. Because God will make sure that the world is nourished, whether we do our part or not.
The end of the parable is heavy enough to make us tremble.
God responds to the tenants by finally saying “Enough.” My house will be a house of prayer for all people. This vineyard won’t stay in the hands of greedy tenants. You’re out, the landlord in the parable says. You’re out and someone else is in. Someone else will care for My vineyard, and you no longer are allowed to tend these vines.
I feel the weight of that. The weight is so heavy that I want to bury my talent in the sand, take my share of the inheritance and flee the country, somehow escape the weight of judgment that Jesus pronounces. And because the weight seems too heavy to bear, we flee from repentance, because repentance feels like leaning in to the weight of our sin, and we’re afraid that the weight is too heavy for us to carry. We play around on the edges of repentance, choosing a kind of wishy-washy, “prophetic” finger-pointing that we call “corporate repentance” but is really a way to avoid our own shame. It’s much less painful to repent for the Church At Large and ignore how we have each perpetuated Her injustices. It’s much less painful to repent for the injustices of the Church At Large but not how our tradition, our denomination, our remnant, has failed to love the world. It’s less painful to point a finger. Anything else stings too much. Anything else is too heavy to bear.
My sin is too great for me to bear, we whisper with our brother Cain. Hide us from Your presence.
But to the same people that Jesus stands and calls down judgment on, he weeps for, standing on the road looking down on His city, Jerusalem. “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings”!
This parable is heavy with judgment. But this parable is also heavy with grace.
This parable isn’t just about judgment.
This parable is about time.
The time in between God knowing that something had gone terribly wrong with the tenants, and God deciding that they no longer could tend this vineyard. This parable tells us about God’s long wait, that long heartbeat of time that the landlord took, while prophets and messengers suffered, and even God Godself died, before God would give up on us.
The parable is about the long wait of the Mercy of God, a God who desperately wants to give more time to the tenants because God is aching to pour grace into the world.
And Jesus Himself embodies the parable, placing Himself and the people around him inside the story, places us in the story directly in the moment before God acts. Jesus told this parable to the religious leaders before they killed him. Jesus told this parable to them while there was still time.
And because of this, there is even and especially grace in the moment that we finally hear and accept the heaviness of the fact that “he told this parable against us.”
There is grace in the revelation that we are the ones who are broken and sinful. There is grace in seeing Scripture as a mirror, even and especially when the mirror is judgment.
Because there are some things that we can only learn from repentance. And there is grace that we can only feel on the far side of the long walk through our own sin and shame. If we would be brave enough to look directly into the mirror of the parables, and not turn away, and face the darkness of how we have stewarded this Church for our own gain – if we could look at our sin without flinching, and without weaponizing it against the Other – we would find that His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. And we would find out that God is here on the other side of shame, aching to welcome us home.
In the moment between when we hear that it is spoken against us, and when we feel that the weight is too heavy for us to bear – there is solid grace that is firm to stand on, grace that only exists in the moment that we hear Nathan say “you are that man.”
Here on the edge of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, the Church has a moment where we can look in the mirror, put down our sword, and repent. There is grace that waiting for us all, for the Church and her leaders and her prophets and even and especially her failures. The Cross shows us how even the most terrible moment of humanity, the revealing of the depths of the cruelty of humanity, the greatest failure of humanity when we killed God Godself – even that moment of darkness had life breathed into it. Even that moment of darkness was transformed for the good and grace of the people that created the darkness in the first place. Through the grace of the God who waits, our failures and sins are transformed into a gift for ourselves and the world.
And there’s no way there except through repentance.
The mirror of this parable is a heavy burden to bear. Learning to put down our swords, and see ourselves in all our terrible darkness, can feel like too much. In the moment of despair, there is grace. And in the moment of repentance, there is transformation. Not just for us – but for the whole Church, and through the Church, for the whole world.