For those who want to succeed at any venture in life, preparation is essential. If you want to run a marathon and win, you need to prepare for the race and that involves training for endurance, strength training, eating a healthy and balanced diet and commitment to the goal. If your goal is getting into medical school, then your preparation is study, study and more study – biology, chemistry, anatomy. It is one thing to prepare to succeed in a goal when you are the only person participating, but when you are preparing for a goal which takes the cooperation of many people, it is not enough to simply get everything ready, to provide all the right materials, you also need to have the right people in the right positions doing the right things and committed to the right goal.
This morning we encounter a parable of Jesus about the Kingdom of God and the people leading others in that Kingdom. Jesus starts out telling about a man who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower (Mark 12:1). This vineyard owner is serious about protecting the investment he is making and ensuring that it has everything it will need to be a success. He puts a hedge of protection around it in order to keep the wild animals out so they won’t graze on the crop. The wall also provides a break from the winds that might rush through the valleys and disturb the plants. He provides a watchtower so that people can look over the estate and see any danger from fire, bandits or thievery. He provides a pit for the winepress so the crop can be preserved and a value added product produced which can be sold and of course he put in the actual vines so that there was something to tend. This guy has spared no expense in preparing his investment property.
But the one hiccup in the entire business plan was the character of the farmers. This guy got lousy tenants. And those who have been landlords know that a lousy tenant can derail the profitability of a rental. They may have been hard workers, but their ambition exceeded all bounds of acceptability. They refused to keep their end of the bargain. They worked hard, but refused to pass on the appropriate profit. They forgot that they were employed and starting believing that they were owners. They were like the employee who starts using the company money and tools for their own purposes and when someone asks them about it, they claim that they are the legitimate owner of this property. (Wall Street Traders bond, currency bets)
And as the story goes, they even believe that they can effect the actual transfer of the property into their own names. It sounds odd to us that the master would send his son after having such bad luck with the servants he sent, but the authority of the son would have been enough in the courts of the ancient near east to have the tenants forced to live up to their terms and so they kill him. The assumption being if the son is coming then either the owner is dead and the son is all that is left, or the owner has transferred the property to the son, but in either case if the son is dead, then possession is 9/10 of the law and the tenants can claim the deed.
Oh what a story. But it wasn’t a new story, in fact Jesus is retelling a story from the prophet Isaiah, but with a twist. In the 5th chapter of Isaiah we read, 1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. 3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? 5 Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. 6 I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” 7 The vineyard of the Lord Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
There is a lot of similarity in these stories isn’t there? From Isaiah, we know who some of the characters in Jesus’ parable are and that is important to know for the characters of the story are what matters most in this parable. The man who plants the vineyard is God, and the vineyard is the chosen nation, the people of the Lord. For these people, the Lord prepared a land, provided them strength and deliverance and even set them up for success as the apple of his eye. The psalms remind us, (Psa. 80:8-9) You [God] brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. 9 You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. And Hosea tells us that the vine God planted was a “choice vine” (Hos 10:1).
The Lord protected his chosen people from famine and persecution. He delivered them from oppression. He gave them his Word to guide them and lead them. He presented them a land flowing with milk and honey and he even fought battles on their account through the angels. God had secured a venture and it was a venture to claim for himself a people. But there are three other characters in the story Jesus told: the tenants, the servants and the son.
The presence of the tenants is what makes Jesus’ story different from its telling in Isaiah. In Isaiah, it is the vineyard that is unfruitful, the very people of God are declared to be bereft and desolate, but that is not the case in the Gospel of Mark. The vineyard isn’t condemned; rather it is the tenants who receive the bad rap. They represent the current leadership of the chosen people. In fact, we know who they are because in Mark 11:27 the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders are talking to Jesus and this story is told in direct connection to this previous encounter. These men are still present and as they listen to the parable, they come to recognize that they are in fact the wicked servants.1 Mark 12:12 records, “Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” Jesus’ parable draws out the very startling reality that the leadership of the people of God is corrupt, prideful, arrogant, deceitful and intent on killing God and his rule in the nation.
But God in his plan for the salvation of his people sent servants at various times and in various ways in order to collect some of the fruit of the nation he had planted. Simply put God desired to receive worship. But in a fuller description, the job of these leaders was to watch and make sure that the Love of God and the Love of others was flourishing and presented to the Master in such a way that he received honor. Yet these tenants didn’t tend to their work and according to Micah 7:1-4 What misery is mine! I am like one who gathers summer fruit at the gleaning of the vineyard; there is no cluster of grapes to eat, none of the early figs that I crave. 2 The godly have been swept from the land; not one upright man remains. All men lie in wait to shed blood; each hunts his brother with a net. 3 Both hands are skilled in doing evil; the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire — they all conspire together. 4 The best of them is like a brier, the most upright worse than a thorn hedge. The day of your watchmen has come, the day God visits you. Now is the time of their confusion.
And whenever God sent people to call the leadership back to their work, these servants of God, the prophets were not received properly. Rather they were ignored, rejected or killed. Listen to this cataloging of the way the prophets were treated according to one apocryphal source circulating at the time of Jesus:2
- Isaiah was sawn in two by Manasseh
- Jeremiah was beaten in life and stoned to death
- Ezekiel, Micah and Amos were all martyred
And this agrees with the words of the Scripture
- Luke 11:49-51 “49 …God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.
- Heb. 11:37 They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated
- Jer. 20:2 he had Jeremiah the prophet beaten and put in the stocks at the Upper Gate of Benjamin at the LORD’s temple.
The Leadership of the nation was given every possible chance to repent and come back into leading the way God desired. And unfortunately they failed over and over and over again, ultimately, arresting Jesus, the son, and having him put to death on a cross. And for this action the leaders of the nation will be judged most severely. They will loose their life, their influence and their position of authority. This is exactly what Ezekiel prophesied in chapter 34:10 “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”
The Lord was so upset that his people were not being cared for properly that he declares a change in the leadership structure of his holy nation. No longer will those serving as priests, scribes and teachers serve and from this time forth he will install a new set of leaders. But before we get into exactly who these leaders of the people of God will be, let’s talk about what good leadership does.
Good leadership is servant oriented. In Ezekiel 34:2 the Lord says, “should not the shepherds take care of the flock?” The leaders of God’s people are to have as their foremost goal the care of God’s people. They are to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and bind up the injured (Eze 34:4). In Jesus’ words, they are to Deny themselves, take up their cross and follow (Mark 9:34). They are to look and see the needs of those around them and fill the need, pouring out the very life as an offering to God for the enrichment of the people of God. This means that these leaders must set the example in speech, life, love, faith and purity (1Tim 4:12).
Practically this means having eyes that are on the lookout and see others. It means asking astute questions and listening for answers that are given. It means offering help when it is needed, even before it is needed. The Leaders of God’s people must live the very words they proclaim. If they call for hospitality, they must be hospitable. If it is generosity, they must give liberally. If someone is suffering, they must visit often and pray much. The leaders of God people must love others so that they prove their love for God. There are two great commandments: love God and love others (Mark 12:30-31) and we know that no one who hates his brother can at the same time love God (1John 4:20) If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. Furthermore, (1John 3:17) If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
Do you get the picture – the leadership of God’s people is to be servant oriented. They are to lay their life down for their flock. But there is more. They are to preach the gospel and declare solid doctrine that corroborates the life. The leaders of the church are to teach rightly as Paul instructs Timothy point these things out to the brothers…watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1Tim 4:6, 16). They do this because all scripture is god-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2Tim 3:15).
Now going back to our story, it was precisely because those in leadership at the time of Christ were not doing these things that Jesus declares that the mantle of leadership is being given to another, much like it was taken from Saul and given to David, only now it is being taken from the priests, scribes, and elders and being given to 12 ordinary fishermen, who are called apostles. And it is these men who are charged with establishing elders in the towns to which they are sent and they in turn establish the deacons. This is the new leadership, which God is establishing. The apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers will all work to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (Eph 4:11-12) and the King will receive his due worship and reward. The elders will serve in the church and by exercising their gifts, the people of God will be strengthened and matured. The lost will be sought, the young trained up, and the leaderless guided.
This is what we should expect from the leaders of God’s people. Will each leader do all of it perfectly, or even a large part of it well? Probably not, but this is the standard for leading the people of God. The apostles exercised their charge well, so did the first leaders in the early church, and so also must the leaders of God’s people seek to give themselves wholly to the task of caring for the sheep. And how is this done? It is done by following behind the greatest shepherd leader ever: Jesus Christ.
If I may be allowed to reference Ezekiel 34 again, the 12th verse declares, “As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them…I will pasture them…I will tend them…I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak…I will shepherd the flock with justice (Jer 34:12-16).
Those words describe the ministry of Christ perfectly. In fact he declares himself to be the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:14). He is the head of his body the church (Col 1:18). As head he directs her movements and watches out for her well being. In fact, Paul using the same analogy in the Ephesian letter says, Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless (Eph 4:25-27).
In another place, Paul calls Christ the head of the church, her savior (Eph 5:23). He is the leader of the Christian, all elders and congregants follow behind his direction and guidance. He leads the chosen people of God in victory. He guides them into justice. He wraps them in righteousness. He serves them sacrificially, loves them unendingly, and declares to them the truth of God’s word. This is what it means that a new set of leadership has been installed in the people of God. It is leadership founded upon the chief cornerstone, or the capstone. It is leadership founded upon the faithfulness of Christ who will render to God the first fruits of the kingdom and fashions you and I into the people of God we were meant to be.
So I urge each and every one of us to submit to his leadership. Follow behind him faithfully and never forget, that because he is exalted and risen from the dead, his leadership will never fail, falter or fade. He has a goal of a fruitful vineyard, and he has taken the lead to establish all that it will take to bring forth an abundant harvest. To God be the Glory!
1 Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus, p.357
2 The Lives of the Prophets, accessed 5/28/2013 3:22 pm at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lives_of_the_Prophets