It’s natural for Christians to refer to the congregations they belong to as “my church,” but thinking that we really “own” the church can be a problem. In our text from Matthew, Jesus tells a parable directed at the religious authorities of his time in Jerusalem who acted as though they owned the temple and the community associated with it. Even though he was rejected by those authorities, Jesus has become the foundation of the church that is called to proclaim him.
It’s the most natural thing in the world. You’re driving through town with a visitor and, as you pass the building where you worship on Sunday, you say, “That’s my church” — or, thinking of your spouse and family, “That’s our church.” At other times you might say that “our church” is having a visiting speaker, a class on some topic or a construction project. You simply mean that you and your family are members of that congregation.
But the neighborhood can change, and different people can move in. Perhaps they’re from different parts of the country or even of the world. We’re happy that they’ve started coming to our church. But after a while, they begin to suggest that some things could be done differently — new kinds of music, concerns about different social issues or other approaches to parish education. Changes like that can be uncomfortable, and we may be tempted to say, “Look — this is our church.”
But who really owns the church? The answer may seem obvious, but let’s take it slowly.
The idea of “our church” can become a problem if we start acting as though it means not simply “the church we belong to” but “the church that belongs to us.” That’s what Jesus addresses in today’s text, in which he tells a parable about the owner of a vineyard and the tenants working for him there.
Jesus told this story after he had entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, thrown the money-changers out of the Temple, silenced the “chief priests and elders” when they questioned his authority and told another parable implying that “tax collectors and prostitutes” were more obedient to God’s will than were those religious authorities.1 Many of the priests associated with the temple and the laymen who belonged to the party of the Pharisees were already hostile to Jesus, and those events would have made them even more eager to get rid of him.
Jesus undoubtedly had in mind another parable that had been told by the prophet Isaiah around 800 years earlier.2 In Isaiah’s parable, “my beloved” — who will be seen to represent God — had a vineyard that he had carefully protected and tended and planted with “choice vines.” He hoped for a good crop of grapes, but the vineyard yielded only wild grapes. So he tore down its wall and let his vineyard be destroyed.
Isaiah didn’t leave his hearers to guess the point of his parable but immediately told them. “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”3 The people weren’t living as God had called them to live, and the consequences would be bad.
The house of Israel was the people with whom God had established a special relationship and to whom God had given the law through Moses. It was the community of those whose life and worship were to be centered on the Lord, the God who had revealed himself to their ancestors. In Isaiah’s time, they occupied just one small nation in the middle east. But by the time of Jesus, Israelites were spread throughout the known world, from Spain to India.
Still, Jerusalem with its temple and the religious authorities associated with it had special significance for those scattered Jews. In the week before Passover when our text is set, pilgrims from those distant lands would have been arriving in the holy city. Some would have been present when Jesus entered Jerusalem and would have heard his disputes with priests and Pharisees.
Jesus begins his parable much as Isaiah had done, and Jesus' hearers, knowledgeable in the scriptures, would have quickly seen the connection. “A landowner,” like the “beloved” in Isaiah’s story, has a vineyard. He builds a protective wall and other necessary structures, then leases it to tenants who are expected to do the necessary work there. Then he leaves for another country.
When harvest time comes, the owner sends people to collect the produce which is rightfully his because he is the owner of the vineyard. But the tenants act as though they own the vineyard. They beat up and kill the true owner’s representatives. The owner sends more representatives who are treated the same way. Finally, the owner sends his son — “Surely they’ll respect him,” he thinks. But instead, they “threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”
Many in Jesus’ audience probably saw the sending of the owner’s son as just a dramatic escalation of the story. Peter and the other disciples who were with him when he said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,”4 could have caught the deeper meaning. And we, who know the following events of Good Friday and Easter, can see here reference to Jesus himself as the owner’s son.
When Jesus asks his hearers what the owner will do, their answer is a natural one: He’ll kill the wicked tenants and call new ones who will recognize his ownership and give him the fruits the vineyard provides. Jesus doesn’t respond to that answer as such but translates it into the real-world situation. God — the vineyard owner — will get rid of the wicked tenants — the present religious authorities — and give the status of his covenant people to those who recognize his lordship.
It would be easy for Christians today to repeat a tragic mistake that goes back to the church’s early centuries. This is the notion that because Jewish religious authorities had condemned Jesus and connived with Pilate to have him crucified, God rejected the Jews as his people and gave that status to Gentiles. But that isn’t what the parable is about. In verses that come right after our text we’re told, “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.”5
Jesus’ parable was directed against the Jewish religious authorities of his time, not against the Jewish people, either 2,000 years ago or later. When Paul in the letter to the Romans asked rhetorically “has God rejected his people [meaning the Jews]?” he immediately answered himself, “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”6
But we need to get back to the question we began with.
After his hearers answer Jesus’ question about the fate of the tenants, he quotes from a psalm7 a verse that at first is puzzling because it’s about a building rather than a vineyard: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”
What does that have to do with the parable?
The one whom the workers in the vineyard rejected was the son, and in Hebrew the words for “son” and “stone” are similar. With a bit of wordplay, the psalm verse suggests a shift from the vineyard image to that of a building whose cornerstone is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. That’s an image used in other places in the New Testament, and one we sing in a familiar hymn: “The Church’s One Foundation Is Jesus Christ Her Lord.”
It may have seemed obvious that the answer to the question, “Who really owns the church” is “God.” That’s true but it needs to be said more fully. The church belongs to the God who is revealed most fully in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is founded upon him, the stone that was rejected but has become the cornerstone.
Of course, to continue with commercial language, God “owns” all creation. But the church — and here we’re talking about all the local congregations and parishes throughout the world — is not just one more part of creation. It is founded on Christ in a special way, and in other parts of scripture the church is spoken of as the “body” of Christ whose members are individual Christians.8
The basic task of the church is to proclaim Christ, crucified and risen, to sustain its members and to bear witness to what Christ did and does in the world. And when that is done faithfully, God’s vineyard will produce the fruits of the Spirit that Paul listed — “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”9
1 Matthew 21:1-32
2 Isaiah 5:1-7. This is the first reading for today in the Lectionary for Mass.
3 Isaiah 5:7.
4 Matthew 16:16.
5 Matthew 21:45-46 (italics added).
6 Romans 11:1-2.
7 Psalm 118:22-23.
8 E.g., Romans 12:4-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
9 Galatians 5:22-23.