I once knew a man in his fifties who was preparing to become a deacon in the church. Let’s call him Bill. The diaconal program was fairly rigorous. In addition to education, Bill needed to be approved by a board of deacons and a bishop, as well as work with a pastor for the duration of his education and training. Bill received unanimous and enthusiastic approval from the board of deacons—they saw that he had what it takes to be a lay leader in the church. Like the vineyard in today’s parable, Bill was producing good fruit. He could now begin his training.
Now, this sort of ministry was an unpaid position; and Bill had a full-time job. His work required him to travel to Europe four weeks out of the year. Bill shared with his pastor the good news of his approval, and then added that he would only be able to commit to working roughly 46 Sundays a year, as he needed to be out of the country periodically.
The pastor replied that Bill needed to be present for 50 Sundays a year or he would not take Bill on as a deacon. Bill tried to reason with the pastor, explaining that the difference between 46 Sundays and 50 Sundays seemed negligible. “If you can’t be here every Sunday,” the pastor snarled, “then you are telling our parishioners that it is okay for them not to be here every Sunday!” (Side note: it is okay) The pastor continued by saying that by choosing his work and his family over diaconal ministry, Bill was not honoring God. Bill calmly made his case, but the pastor wouldn’t budge—it was 50 Sundays or nothing.
Bill could not quit his job, nor did he want to. The choice, it seems, was made for him. Bill’s diaconal career was over before it started.
Today, Jesus tells the parable of a landowner who plants a vineyard. He puts some tenant farmers in charge of his land and then heads out of the country. The tenants work the vineyard but then refuse to hand over the fruit to the landowner, killing the landowner’s servants and son in the process. Jesus then goads some religious leaders into finishing the parable for him: the landowner will return, slay the wicked tenants and then set up new, more faithful tenants in their place.
Now, throughout history some have argued that the wicked tenants represent Jews and the faithful tenants represent Christians. Let me be clear that that is a hateful, anti-Semitic interpretation, and it is frankly just plain wrong.
Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah (5:1-7) shows us that vineyards were a common metaphor for the people of Israel. Later in the parable, we hear that the vineyard produces good fruit, but the tenant farmers on the vineyard fail to give the good fruit over to the landowner. The problem here is not the vineyard, which is to say, Israel; it’s the tenants, which is to say Israel’s religious leaders. The people of Israel are bearing good fruit, according to this parable; but the religious leaders are failing to steward that good fruit faithfully. And this makes Jesus angry.
Jesus’ anger is not unjustified. Indeed, Matthew’s gospel is one sweeping indictment of the religious leaders’ unfaithfulness.
Last Sunday’s gospel reading provides a good example. A group of religious leaders approaches Jesus, asking him by what authority he does his ministry. It’s a trap, of course. If Jesus says his ministry comes from God, he will be accused of blasphemy. If he says his ministry comes from humans, he will lose all credibility.
So Jesus flips the trap back onto the religious leaders and asks them: John the Baptist’s ministry, was it from God or from humans? The Pharisees argue among themselves. If they claim that John’s ministry is from God, then Jesus will scold them for being unfaithful. If they claim that John’s ministry is from humans, the people of Israel will revolt because they believe John to be a prophet. And so the priests simply mumble, “we don’t know.” And their treachery is revealed.
The religious leaders are interested only in themselves. They are all about self-preservation. They don’t want to give power over to Jesus so they will not admit that John’s ministry comes from God. They do not want to lose their power over the people and so they will not say that John’s ministry is a human invention. They are not concerned with the truth; they are concerned with their own power.
And make no mistake, these religious leaders had plenty of power. Not only were they in charge of the religion, they were also in charge of much of the government. When Rome invaded, the Roman empire gave the Jewish religious leaders the power to keep Israel in line. Indeed, many of these religious leaders would seem more like modern day politicians than pastors.
And, as is human nature, these religious leaders soon began to abuse their power. They became obsessed not with God’s will but with their own; and their self-interest placed a heavy burden on the Jewish people. The leaders no longer stewarded the good gifts of the Israelites for the betterment of God’s kingdom but rather for the betterment of the religious leaders themselves. And so Jesus tells this vineyard parable and condemns self-serving religious leadership in its entirety.
Abusive religious leadership is alive and well. Jesus battled it in his day; and we battle it today. A board of twelve deacons unanimously affirmed Bill’s skills for ministry. It was clear that he was bearing good fruit like the vineyard in the parable. What Bill needed next was a good leader, a good tenant, if you will, to steward Bill’s good fruit so that it could be used for God’s kingdom.
But Bill didn’t get a good steward. The pastor refused to accept Bill’s request and instead demonstrated his power by insisting that Bill conform to the pastor’s rules. Nowhere does God say that we have to come to church every Sunday; that was not God’s law, it was the pastor’s law. The pastor was less concerned about how Bill fit into God’s kingdom and more concerned about how Bill fit into the pastor’s kingdom.
Bill was trying to honor God by becoming a deacon, but his pastor couldn’t see it. Like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, the pastor was more concerned with maintaining his own power than stewarding his follower’s gifts. Like the tenants in the parable, the pastor wanted the good fruit but only for himself.
This week marks my one-year anniversary as a pastor. When I first stood behind this altar last October, I quaked over my new responsibilities—now, one year later, I hear this parable, and I quake again.
As a pastor, this parable humbles me. Here Jesus tells me that I am expendable. When the wicked tenants fail to live up to the landowner’s expectations, they are replaced with better tenants. So it will be with me, Jesus says, if I fail to be a faithful steward of your good fruit.
So often, pastors simply aren’t good stewards of their congregation’s gifts. They get caught up in their own ideas of what the congregation should be, rather than asking the congregation who they want to be, who they believe God is calling them to be. They get caught up in their own power, saying “it’s my way or the highway”…and when they say that, they lose sight of God’s way entirely.
The role of church leaders, whether the pastor, the council, or committee members is to steward the congregation’s gifts, not trample them. God calls those of us in leadership not to manipulate you to our own desires, but to encourage you to do what you desire, what you do well, for the sake of God’s kingdom.
It is in that spirit that I took this job a year ago, and, I hope, it is in that spirit that we continue our work together, not just the leadership, but all of us, for the betterment of God’s ministry here at Beaver Lutheran Church. And here’s the thing: sometimes people ask me about “my ministry,” but it’s not my ministry. It’s God’s ministry, and God has invited all of us to have a hand in it. My job, council’s job, is to steward your tithes, talents, and time for the benefit of God’s ministry.
I will not always do this perfectly. Council will not always do this perfectly. Your previous pastors, I am sure, did not always do this perfectly. We are, after all, human; and power is easy to abuse. I’m sure that some of you have been mistreated by a religious leader in the past, be it a pastor or lay worship leader or council member. If that is you, know that even though that person could not see your value, God does. You bear good fruit; and God desires it for God’s kingdom. Today’s parable points forward in hope to a day when there will only be good stewards; the wicked tenants will be cast out and the faithful ones will be ushered in. That day may not yet be here, but it is coming soon.
And as we look forward to that day in hope, let us pray: Gracious and merciful God, you have planted the vineyard of your people and they bear good fruit for your kingdom. Give us the strength to be faithful stewards of this good fruit and forgive us when we get caught up in our own power. May all that we do be in service to your good kingdom.