Literature can be dangerous. Words are already powerful, and when those words are expertly crafted to deliver a point they can cut deep. When those cutting words are directed to critique or shame the powerful and comfortable there will often be consequences and retaliation. This last week a lot of libraries marked and celebrated “banned book week” and they highlighted books that had been banned or restricted at various points (or are still challenged today). Having a work banned though, is sometimes not the worst that can happen to an author. Hugo Bettauer was an Austrian writer and journalist. After the First World War, Hugo became distressed by the rise of anti-Semitism that grew in Germany and Austria. In response to this he wrote a satirical work in 1922 called The City without Jews. In the book Austria expels their Jewish population, only to find that life is worse without their contributions. In addition the government no longer has a scapegoat to blame and collapses before the Jews are welcomed back in with open arms. The book sold well and became Hugo’s best known work, but it also courted controversy. The book had several opponents, especially members of the National Socialist party that had recently moved into Austria from Germany. The Austrian Nazi party decried the book as having a corrupting influence on youth. Several tactics were taken to discredit Hugo, but his wit with the written word allowed him to get the better of his critics every time. This worked until his opponents took a more direct approach. In 1925 Hugo Bettauer was murdered by a Nazi sympathizer named Otto Rothstock. Rothstock’s legal defense was organized and funded by wealthy patrons with known Nazi ties. Rothstock got off with only eighteen months imprisonment, and it’s commonly understood that Hugo’s opposition to antisemitism and his writing of the City without Jews was the motivation for his killing. Telling a story full of truth that calls out the powerful can be dangerous. That was true for Hugo Bettauer and it was true for Jesus as well. This morning’s parable records the first time in the gospel of Matthew that the religious authorities sought to arrest and silence Jesus for good. What pushed them over the edge was a story where Jesus called them out. As we read that story, I think we should consider if Jesus is still calling out the religious today?
I think it is important to put this parable in its full context to better appreciate what is happening here. This morning’s scripture takes place during Holy Week. Jesus had made his triumphal entry into the temple on what we remember as Palm Sunday, then on Monday he returned to the temple courts. Matthew 21:23 tells us “Jesus entered the temple courts and while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him.” Starting there and going through Matthew 22:46 Jesus and then his opponents go at it. The chief priest and the Pharisees question Jesus, try to trap him, and trip them up. Jesus is not having it though, and each time he is able to out maneuver them. As this morning’s scripture shows Jesus is also not holding back one bit. He is calling it like he sees it, and he is calling out the religious leaders with a heavy dose of truth. He does that in direct debate and he also does it through a couple of parables including this morning’s.
Verse 45 of this morning’s scripture states, “when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’s parables they knew he was talking about them.” This is a brilliant detail for Matthew to include in his gospel as a literary device, because it allows us the readers the ability to instantly gain an interpretation of the parable.
Knowing that the parable is about the religious rulers of Jesus’ day allows it all to fall into place. The landowner represents God. The vineyard and all of the tools represent the law. The idea being that God had given all of the tools needed to live in right relationship with God and bear good, godly fruit. The tenants in the story represent the Jewish leaders. It is important to distinguish that the tenants are not representing all Jewish people, but rather the religious leaders alone. The ones who were entrusted with using the tools of the law to lead the people into the covenant they had mad with God. The servants that are seized and killed are commonly thought to represent the prophets who often were met with opposition. The son who is then sent to the rebelling tenants is clearly Jesus himself as he essentially uses the parable to once again foretell his own death.
One of the things that is interesting in telling this story, is that at first the religious leaders do not realize that Jesus is talking about them. In verse 40 Jesus asks “When the owner of the vineyard comes what will he do with those tenants?” The religious leaders reply that the landowner will bring it to an end and rent out the vineyard to better tenants. The religious leaders even call these tenants “wretches”. However, then Jesus drops the hammer. He makes it very direct that this parable is directed at them in verse 43 where Jesus says, “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.”
This morning’s parable is directed specifically at the religious leaders of Jesus day. It is meant to call them out and hold them accountable for not tending to God’s vineyard. Jesus lets them know in no uncertain terms that they have really dropped the ball. As a modern day reader and follower of Jesus, I try to appreciate this morning’s scripture in its appropriate context, but I also ask questions of how it applies to me, to us, today. As I ponder this morning’s parable there are two questions that really rise to the top to me. Do we do the same stuff that Jesus was calling the religious leaders out on today? And what exactly are the fruit of the kingdom of God that Jesus mentions?
I think it is best to consider the second question first, in the context of this parable what the fruit of God’s kingdom is. Again, if the unruly tenants are representative of the Jewish religious leaders, then the fruit they should be cultivating is people in right relationship with God. The point of the Jewish law was to give people the tools they needed to do that, and the point of the cross was to fulfill the law by reconciling us to God once and for all. The fruit of the kingdom of God are changed hearts and saved souls. The fruit of the kingdom of God is produced by making disciples. We see this from Jesus himself, because if this parable had a direct correlation to Jesus’ present time and the religious leaders were the unruly tenants, then Jesus’ original followers were the new tenants. The last commission that Jesus gives them is how to tend the vineyard and make it fruitful. He tells them in Matthew 28: “go and make disciples of all the nations.”
The tenants, in this case the religious leaders, are criticized for trying to claim the vineyard for themselves. Instead of facilitating people into right relationship with God, they used their position as caretakers for their own platform. The religious leaders of Jesus day upheld the letter of the law while ignoring the heart of the law. They created a legalistic system that they were the arbiters of, and that served their interest by keeping them in power and prestige. In church history we have seen this pattern repeated more than once. We can see how corruption crept in to the church. In the early 1500’s, the church literally sold forgiveness to build St. Peter’s basilica. In response, Martin Luther kicked off a reformation. A couple of centuries later in England, a general religious malaise had settled over the country. The clergy were comfortable supporting the powers the status quo even though their churches were more and more empty. John Wesley took the message to the fields and preached there about a life changing faith. He kicked off a revival and holiness movement that still has steam today. Throughout Christian history we have seen the church get complacent, we have seen systemic evidence of church leaders using the vineyard for their own purposes, and we have seen God respond by raising up people to bring revival and get God’s people back on track of fulfilling the mission of making disciples.
I have to wonder if collectively as the American church if we are in one of those phases where we are not doing a great job at cultivating the vineyard to make disciples. The growing evidence seems to be all around us. The vast majority of churches are not growing, and for those that are growing, the vast majority of the growth comes from people just switching churches. In their book Hero Maker, Dave Ferguson and Warren Bird estimate that only 4% of churches in the United States are reproducing or multiplying. Another way to put it is that 96% of American churches are not actively making disciples. We are not doing the best job at fulfilling Jesus’ final commission. The religious leaders of Jesus day were called out by Jesus for being focused on power, political clout, and their own standing. Unfortunately, we see that all around us today as well. Televangelists insists they need multiple private jets. Mega church pastors live in mansions and drive million dollar Ferraris. The term evangelical should mean people who are passionate about evangelizing the love of God, but in our modern era it is mostly commonly understood to be a political voting bloc. The primary passion of the church, any church regardless of denominational affiliation should be sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Our primary motivation for existence should not to be to further some sort of agenda, other than seeing people saved and disciples made.
When it comes to national trends, we cannot do much about that. However, we can focus on changing the local trends. We can focus on working together to be disciples of Jesus Christ who make disciples. However, in order to do that, in order to cultivate the vineyard of God’s kingdom here, in North Judson we need to be willing to do the work. Nashville based Pastor Todd Stevens tells about a time he was asked to come consult with a church that was, by their own admission, dying. As part of this process, he asked them, “What would you not be willing to change even if it absolutely meant that more people would be reached with the gospel?” After asking the question, he writes about their response: “They discussed the question for a few minutes and offered u a few things they simply felt were out of bounds and could not imagine ever changing. I told them, ‘The only acceptable answer that question is Nothing. There can’t be anything you’re not willing to do or change if it means people will be reached. . .You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to reach people. Otherwise, you’ve forgotten your purpose as a church.”
We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to produce the fruit of God’s kingdom. We have to be willing to do whatever it takes to make disciples. If we are more concerned about making sure we are always comfortable and cozy in our faith, then we are like the tenants who tried to make the vineyard their own. We have been entrusted with the life changing good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, and the life everlasting. If we keep it to ourselves then we are no better than the unruly tenants. We have to share it with others, we need to be willing to invite others into the community of faith. We need to be disciples who make disciples.
The religious leaders of Jesus day were more interested in their own status, standing and agenda than they were tending to God’s kingdom. Jesus had harsh words for them, and when we put our personal preferences and agendas over sharing God’s love then those words apply to us as well. This parable challenges us because Jesus does leave a lot of wiggle room. Either fruit of the kingdom is growing, disciples are being made, or the tenants are using the vineyard for their own purposes. Unfortunately, in the United States the bright spots where disciples who are making disciples who are making disciples are far and few between. It is my prayer that we might consider being one of those bright spots. We can start somewhere. We can reach out and we can invite in. We can share God’s love, and we can invest in one another. May we be willing to do work, and may we be willing to change whatever is necessary so that we are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish our mission. May we truly transform into a church that makes disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples, until our whole community is transformed by the love of God.