I don’t seem to see them much anymore, but for years I would see tons of the them. Bumper stickers on the backs of cars, stickers that read “Question Authority.” I was never quite sure whose authority I was supposed to question. I’m not exactly against questioning authority, I’m certainly not against telling truth to power, but I was never that caught up in it. I suppose that in the end, I would have to question the authority of a bumper sticker that told me to question authority. God doesn’t seem to mind at all when we question Him and historically He has shown Himself to desire the whole truth, but when we question His authority, well, that doesn’t always go so well.
The ninth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, or at least the first half of it, is dedicated to the issue of authority, of who it is that has the final word, of where the buck comes to a halt. First the chief priests and the scribes and the elders catch up with Jesus in the Temple where he was teaching. They were not happy about the attention Jesus was drawing by His word and deed, by His teachings and His miracles. Those elders of the Temple ask Jesus flat out by what authority He does the things does, but Jesus doesn’t seem to particularly care about the question itself than the intent they had in asking. He weaves around them and makes them point out their own hypocrisy, something that greatly annoys anyone, certainly more so the chief priests and scribes and elders. And then, seeing that they were annoyed, Jesus did what He always did: He twisted the knife, so to speak.
He began to tell them a parable, Luke tells us. The parable we just heard is called the Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, though almost nobody uses the word husbandmen anymore. The husbandmen were the tenants, the men who tended the farm or the vineyard in the absence of the landowner. If the landowner had no heirs and made a habit of leasing out his land in this way, at his death the land would be given over to the husbandmen, so they had a skin in this game. In this parable, these husbandmen worked a vineyard for a man who went off to a faraway land. But the man did as landowners do, he sent one of his slaves back to the vineyard looking for his share of the proceeds, and that’s when things went bad. Those husbandmen beat the first slave and then a second and a third who were sent, and so he got a little frustrated. He thought to himself “What shall I do? I know! I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” But when the husbandmen saw the son, they remembered the law about the land going to them if their was no heir, so discussed it among themselves and said, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” So they threw the son out of the vineyard and killed him. That’s the end of the parable, so Jesus wrapped it up neat, He said that upon finding out the son had been killed, that the landowner would go and destroy those husbandmen and give the vineyard to others. The chief priests and scribes and elders were not happy to hear this ending, it goes against the Law, and they were beginning to realize that in the parable, they were not the good guys.
So quickly, the landowner is representing God, the slaves represent the prophets, the son represents Jesus, and the husbandmen represent the chief priests and their minions. So if you were a chief priest or scribe, Jesus was telling you that you were a bad neighbor, a brutish businessman, and a cold-blooded murderer. As you might imagine, this did not sit well with His audience, and so they huddled up and decided to get rid of this Jesus, and get rid of Him right then.
In a way, their response was understandable. Who wants to hear such things about themselves? Certainly we are not so wicked. But not so fast. Jesus was talking to us too. You see, as Matthew Henry taught us, those who enjoy the privileges of the visible church, that is, you and me, are as tenants and farmers, husbandmen that have a vineyard to look after, and rent to pay for it. God, by setting up revealed religion and having instituted orders in the world, He planted a vineyard, which he lets out to those people among whom He chooses to dwell; again, that’s us, that’s Christians. And we all have vineyard-work to do, needful and constant work, yes, but work that is pleasant and profitable. There are rents to be paid and services to be done in this Church, which, though bearing no proportion to the value of the premises, yet must be done and must be paid. Matthew Henry wrote that the work of God’s ministers, His priests, is to call upon those who enjoy the privileges of the church to bring forth fruit accordingly. The priests are, in a way, God’s rent-gatherers, to put the rest of the workers in mind that they have a landlord who expects to hear from them, and to receive some acknowledgment of their dependence on him, and obligations to him.
Now before you think that I, or Matthew Henry for that matter, are trying to tell you that I am some sort of robed collector for the holy bookie in the sky who’s after your money, let me put your mind at rest. I will not be showing up at your door looking for your pledge cards. But I would be a miserable priest if I did not remind you, and in reminding you remind myself, that all of creation, all of what we have and all that we use, all that we see and waste and give and enjoy, all of that is God’s. He planted the vineyard, He lets us work it and enjoy its fruits, but the vineyard is still His. God sent His prophets to us the husbandmen and we killed them. He sent His Son, and well, we killed Him too. But in His compassion and mercy we, if we only welcome the Son now, if we only accept His authority, we will be with Him the heirs, we will receive the inheritance that the Son has claimed for Himself, we will enjoy the fruits of loving kindness forever. We are already husbandmen in God’s vineyard, the Church. It’s up to us what kind of husbandmen we will be.