By Paul Koch –
I have been doing this for a long time now. As a pastor, I realize that I’m at that age where the old guys no longer try to give me any advice, but I’m too young for any of the young guys to care about my advice. Yet overall I’ve been a pastor for a decent amount of time. I’ve performed more marriages and funerals and Baptisms than I can remember. And I come to church every week to preach the Gospel and teach the Word of God as together we receive the gifts of our Lord. And yet there are times when I wonder just what it’s really all about. What is the purpose of church and this life together that we’ve grown so fond of? Most of the time church doesn’t seem all that important. When life is going well, when things are moving along without incident, church falls pretty low on most people’s lists of important things. In fact, it is usually used as a fallback plan when there is suffering or great sadness in one’s life. Only then does church become something more important.
But is that all church is? Is it just an emergency room for those who have nowhere else to turn? I mean, there has to be more. There is a reason that you gather here. There is a reason that our Lord has assembled this particular group of wonderful and somewhat mischievous believers into one place. Perhaps we are here to shine the light on a more holy way of living, to show others what a morally upright and pure life can and should look like. We are to be models of doing good so that we might go to heaven. Are we here to guide the world to righteousness? Should our goal be to grow in numbers and resources and so be a force for good in a corrupt world? Should we police our neighbors, make sure that they don’t just run off into wanton sin and debauchery. Is that what we are about? Or perhaps our purpose is to be a sort of political lobby guiding the government into God-fearing actions. Maybe it’s some amalgamation of all of these.
In Luke chapter 20, our Lord tells a parable that is helpful in our endeavor to fully understand just what it is the church is supposed to do. He tells a parable about a man who plants a vineyard and then lets it out to tenants as he goes away. There are a few things we should note. First of all, these are tenants. They are not the owners of the vineyard. Presumably they live there and care for the vineyard and make sure it produces good grapes. No doubt their agreement is that they get to make a profit off of this. They get to enjoy the fruit of their labor yet a portion of that labor, some specified amount, is given to the owner of the vineyard. That is how they pay for their use of the land and their means to make a living.
So, it is finally harvesting time and the lord of the vineyard sends his servant to collect what is his share, but when he arrives, they beat him and send him away empty-handed. These tenets have no intention to give any of the fruit of the vineyard away. They think it is their vineyard and they can do with it whatever they please. But the lord sends another servant, and this one they beat and treat shamefully and once again send away empty-handed. A third time he does the same thing, and a third time the servant is wounded and cast out. Now this vineyard owner seems to possess an awful lot of restraint. His first move isn’t wrath or destruction but sympathy and even compassion. Perhaps these tenets are just confused. Perhaps they don’t know that these servants of mine actually represent me, that they bear my authority, my right, my claim upon the fruit of the vineyard. So, he says, I will send my son. They will respect my son. Surely, they will know that he is my voice, my presence in their midst. They will do what is right.
And they see him coming. Those wicked tenants know exactly who this is, and they say to themselves, “This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.” So, they throw the lord’s son out of the vineyard and kill him. They’ve gone too far. They’ve destroyed their last hope of reconciliation, their last chance to do what was right. They’ve killed his son. But the lord of vineyard will get his fruit. Jesus asks, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” He will come and destroy them and then give the vineyard to others, give it to those who will hand over the fruit that the vineyard is supposed to produce, those who will be faithful in carrying out their task.
Now if the church is the vineyard, if our gathering here this day is akin to the tenets working away in a vineyard that they do not own, then there is much to learn here from our Lord’s parable. What we find is that the church is not ours; it is our Lord’s. He creates and sustains it. We are tenets in it. We have a clear purpose, a reason to gather together. And it isn’t to be morally superior or overtly judgmental. It isn’t to simply be a light on a hill showing people a better way to live. No, our purpose is not only to rejoice in the blessings of the vineyard but to hand over the goods that our Lord requires. The vineyard, the church, is going to produce fruit, and we are to cultivate it and encourage it and help it along. But in the end, we need to give it to others.
The reason that our Lord tells this parable in the first place sheds a little light on our situation today. At the beginning of chapter 20, Jesus is in temple teaching and preaching the Gospel when the scribes and chief priests come up and stop him, demanding to know by what authority he does these things. They desire to stop the proclamation of Good News. The Good News is the fruit of God’s vineyard. It is this that they are to hand over. But the tenants, the chief priests and scribes, who were entrusted with vineyard, refused to hand over the goods. They were fine in demanding obedience and giving steps for more faithful living, but when it came to forgiveness, when it came to compassion and love, then they refused. And when the Son himself came to get the fruit, then they rise up to kill him, to cast him outside the walls of the vineyard and crucify him there.
So, the vineyard was taken from them and given to others. In fact, it has been given to you.
And you are tempted at times to believe it is your vineyard, that you own it, that you control it, that you decide what is important how it ought to function. As we come to church week in and week out, we begin to devise our own plans as to what the vineyard ought to produce. And there are a plethora of choices available to you. Perhaps you want the church to be a moving emotional place that provides community and support for the lost and confused. We could certainly do that. Or perhaps you want to be the place that has a lot of programs so that everyone feels welcome and part of the fellowship, a sort of religious country club that fills your schedules and gives you a sense of belonging. Then again, perhaps you are fine with being a sort of emergency room triage where you gather to provide for the griefs and sorrows of this world.
And any or even all of these would be wonderful, faithful, and enjoyable things to be a part of. But at some point, the Lord of the vineyard will demand that the vineyard tenants do what they are supposed to do, hand over the goods, hand over the fruit of the vineyard. And the fruit that he demands is the proclamation of the Word of God. The fruit is the Good News of Jesus Christ. The fruit is to kill with the Law of God, to empty hands of their own glory, strength, and selfish desires. And then the fruit of the vineyard fills those hands with forgiveness and hope and all the works of Christ alone.
The Gospel is the fruit that brings you together into this vineyard. It is the word that is foreign to every other gathering in the world. But that Gospel is not only for you; it is for your neighbor as well. It is for those who come in search of community or meaning or comfort. It is for the lost and wandering in this world. It is light in the darkness, hope in despair, and life in the midst of death. The Lord will have his fruit, what a joy it is that we are the ones who get to hand it over.