Forming Faith Blog

Whose Authority? (March 15, 2020)

A bunch of red grapes in a vineyard. The wicked tenants thought they had the authority, not the owner.

This week’s text is designated for the third Sunday of Lent, which marks the halfway point through this season. In our 2019-2020 Living the Word Narrative Lectionary resources, we have been examining God’s call for us to serve others. This is explained most pointedly in last week’s reading on Jesus refocusing his disciples on service rather than power and glory. Today Jesus touches on the fact that we are stewards, not owners.

The Story So Far

Last week, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to wrap up this chapter of his life and ministry. He warned the disciples about what was to come, but they didn’t understand. The lectionary skips chapter 11 for now (to return in part on Palm Sunday). This chapter narrates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, his cleansing of the temple, and an odd bracketing story of a fig tree (odd to me at least).

More than any other time, Jesus is here claiming his authority in the seat of Jewish religious and political power. This challenges the current religious leaders and likely scares them of the potential consequences from their Roman overlords. It is not surprising, perhaps, that the whole spectrum of Jewish leaders would want to know by whose authority Jesus thinks he is acting (Mark 11:27-33).

Whose Authority?

Jesus pushes this question back at the leaders. He connects himself to the quandary they have had over John the Baptist. Perhaps Jesus is curious, but most likely he is making a point (trying to trap them as they do to him later on). They clearly didn’t believe that John was doing God’s work, but it was an unpopular opinion, as the crowds did. They were trapped.

A Pointed Parable

It is specifically in this context that Jesus tells them a parable. Like other parables, this one is over the top. It starts grounded in reality. Wealthy people owned vineyards and had tenant farmers work them. Then, the parable enters the ridiculous. In real life, the owners were the ones with authority in this situation and could use physical violence to ensure obedience. But here the tenants were acting like the ones with authority. A dangerous assumption with a very obvious response.

The Crime Compounded

But that response doesn’t come (or rather is delayed). A real landowner would have punished the tenants at the first sign of disrespect. Here the landowner keeps sending representatives, who, unsurprisingly, experience worse and worse fates. Why, then, would he send his son, at least without an armed escort? The tenants now have a more ridiculous thought. “If we kill the heir, we can inherit the vineyard.” What? How is that even logical? The owner is still alive, and no judge would ever allow this to happen.

An Obvious Allegory

This illogic can only mean one thing: this story isn’t about a vineyard at all (which of course is obvious from the fact this is a parable in the first place). It is also not specifically describing God’s kingdom as many other parables do. The image of a vineyard might remind the listeners of Isaiah 5 or other examples where the vineyard represents the people of Israel. Who then could the tenants be? Well, the leaders. It is then immediately clear to the leaders that this is about them.

We’re Not with Them

This may just be my brain making connections that the leaders might not have, but the fact that the parable has a singular group of tenants (leaders) who have violently rejected God’s servants, the prophets, directly connects them to the leaders of Israel prior to the Babylonian exile. The exile was a traumatic event in Israel’s past. My understanding is that it had been one of the Jewish priorities to figure out how to avoid this from ever happening again. One group doubled down on temple worship (the Sadducees) and another focused on scrupulous obedience to God’s Torah (Pharisees). They were trying to prevent what those horrible leaders before the exile caused. Jesus lumps them all together here. Ouch.

God’s Authority

Whether this was a thought or not, Jesus is clearly accusing the leaders of gross negligence and abuse of power. He also answers their question about his authority. Probably. At least from our perspective. The vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the leaders, the landowner is God, the slaves are the prophets, and the son is… Is it clear to them that Jesus means himself? If so, then Jesus is claiming to represent (and therefore have the authority of) God. His quote of Psalm 118 also hints at his authority being from God.

Authority and Stewardship

The core problem with the tenants was that they thought that they were in charge, that they had the authority over the land. In their view, the land was rightfully theirs and the actual owner was possibly a tyrant needing to be overthrown (grasping at straws here to understand their motivations). They forgot (or willfully denied) that the land belonged to the owner and they were just caretakers of it. They were managers, or stewards, of someone else’s property.

Not the Villains

It is important to me to try to sympathize, or at least understand, the positions of Jesus’ opponents. It is easy to see ourselves as Jesus’ disciples, or often as super-disciples because we would never make so many mistakes as they did. Hopefully, we can see ourselves as first-century followers, but what about the Pharisees? How are we like them?

We Are the Tenants

The Pharisees and Sadducees had good intentions. They wanted to follow God’s way and (probably) thereby avoid God’s wrath. This is what is in the Torah. But they got caught up in their power and prestige, and many might have forgotten their original motivations. But what about us?

  • Have you ever started out with good intentions but found that you have strayed into pride and hypocrisy?
  • Have we, as church leaders, ever done that?  
  • Have you forgotten that all things are God’s and we are just tenants and stewards of it?
  • Have we ever done that with our churches?
Free Resource

This week we are offering an activity from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship (NL, 2019-2020) product called “Care for the Kingdom.” Here, intergenerational small groups discuss the difference between ownership and caretaking, a good starting point for the day’s reading. Intended to be used intergenerationally in worship, it can easily be adapted to multiple other audiences or settings. Check it out!

May you experience the peace of God this Lenten season.

In Christ,

-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

Exciting news! Our Living the Word (Narrative Lectionary) resources for 2020-2021 are now available to order! On our website, you can find more information for our Year 3 (2020-2021) products and see our current release schedule.

We are also excited to announce that we are introducing our first product for the Revised Common Lectionary, a Cross+Gen Education curriculum inspired by our Narrative Lectionary Cross+Gen Education product. More information coming soon!

If you would like to know more about our perspectives on faith formation and cross+gen ministry, you can check out the following links:

For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our complete Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!

Be sure to download our free Narrative Lectionary 2019-2020 Planning Tool, NL Readings Overview, and Scope & Sequence

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