On loan

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This is an article that I wrote a number of years ago, but as the realization comes that in the not too distant future I will be ordained, it has gathered a renewed importance for me.

Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.

He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all,saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.  Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:

“‘The stone the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
    and it is marvelous in our eyes’[a]?”

 Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.

Mark 12:1-12

I stood in the queue at the check in desk of the library. Tucked under my arm was a little envelope. Inside that envelope was 30% of a CD of Pam Ayers Poetry. The Other 70% of the CD was in a variety of other places, mainly somewhere inside my CD player.

I was feeling slightly guilty for the fate that this library CD has suffered. Whilst it was a very old CD, and the fracture in it that caused the ‘explosion’ was probably already there when I borrowed it, I was responsible for the CD when the fateful event happened

Milton Keynes Library allowed me to take their CD home with one quite simple proviso: I would return all of it (preferably in one piece) by the date specified. I had spectacularly failed to keep to this very simply premise. A which underlines the whole concept of a library.

As I was the first person to take it out of the library since the mid 90s I suspect that it won’t be missed, but in the passage from Mark quoted above Jesus reminds us that we are so often careless and irresponsible with something far more important that is loaned to us.

This parable sticks out as one of Jesus’ most blatant ones. We see elsewhere in the gospels that the disciples weren’t opposed to taking Jesus to one side to ask him what he was getting at. There was no need here. This parable is so obvious that the Jewish authorities, spot that they are the target and so skulk off to plan a way to get rid of Jesus.

The use of a vineyard as a metaphor for the people of Israel was well established as Isaiah used it in the Old Testament. The tenants referred to in the parable are also clearly intended to be the Jewish leaders of the time.

The servants sent by the land owner with the message to the tenants are easily recognizable as the prophets. The same prophets that all those present knew had been horribly mistreated by Israel.

The final piece of imagery in the parable is the ‘son’ of the vine owner. This again would not be completely lost on Jesus’ hearers, and would provide ammunition for the Jewish authorities when Jesus is put on trail.

This parable was dynamite to it’s first century hearers, (it gives the Jewish authorities the impetus to start looking for ways to get rid Jesus) but it is potentially equally as explosive for Christians reading it today.

But what were the Jewish authorities doing so wrong? Well they were not being faithful with the things that God had entrusted them.

When God called the first priests of Israel he said this:

‘appoint the Levites to be in charge of the tabernacle of the Testimony—over all its furnishings and everything belonging to it. They are to carry the tabernacle and all its furnishings; they are to take care of it and encamp around it. …… The Levites, however, are to set up their tents around the tabernacle of the Testimony so that wrath will not fall on the Israelite community. The Levites are to be responsible for the care of the tabernacle of the Testimony.”

Numbers 1 v 50 &51

The language of this calling is very much a language of stewardship. They are to ‘take care’ of the tabernacle and make sure that ‘wrath will not fall on the community’. The role of the priests was to look after the temple and to look after Gods people.

By Jesus’ day however the calling of the priests has become a bit of a distant memory. The priests were now political as well as religious appointments with the original brief somewhat forgotten.

We saw an obvious example of this in Mark 11 (just before this passage). The Priests were allowing money changes and profiteers to exploit pilgrims as they came to worship God in the Temple. Showing a lack of responsibility for both the sanctity of the Temple (the replacement for the tabernacle) and the well being of Gods people.

In short the Jewish authorities had forgotten that they were loaned the leadership of the Jewish nation, not as a possession to build them up, rather as a responsibility, something to care for and to look after.

2000 years later, the state of play has changed somewhat. Jesus’ death and resurrection mean that the role given to the Jewish priests has now been passed onto all of Gods people. Also the vineyard now doesn’t represent only the nation of Israel, but all of Gods people across the whole world.

Despite these changes the warning remains the same. The gospel that we have been given to proclaim is not our gospel, rather it is God’s gospel. But we  (or at least I) don’t always behave like that is the case.

Soon I will begin the process of finding a curacy (that is finding a church in which I will serve after I finish my studies here at Ridley). There is a very real danger that I will turn into Goldilocks. This one is too bouncy whilst that one isn’t bouncy enough. That one is too high and this one is way too low.

Even when I settle on a church, the sermons might be too long (or short), the music may be too modern (or old). The pews may be too hard (or the seats could be too soft). To be honest (here is a confession for you as an ordinand) it is rare that I come out of a service (anywhere) that I did not have at least one thing that I would change about the service.

This is because I forget that the church is not there entirely for my benefit, sure it is good for me to get something out of  attending church, but church is not all about me.

I make this point because I don’t believe I am alone. I think that in any church there is a number of moaners like me. We sit at the back and think ‘I would have done that differently’ or ‘I don’t like this song’. But I say to my fellow moaners ‘that’s not what God sends us to church for’. Believe it or not whether or not the music group is destroying your love of  ‘Thine Be The Glory’ was not the top consideration on Gods list when he decided to create the church.

For the church to be successful in fulfilling its God given purpose, it’s members need to stop thinking that the church belongs to them. The church, and the gospel that it is here to proclaim, belong to God.

The Jewish nation was entrusted to the Jewish authorities to look after. The Pam Ayers CD was entrusted to me to look after by Milton Keynes library. The gospel and the church are entrusted to us by God. But he is coming back for it one day. When he does will he find it in the hands of people that used it as he instructed, or in the hands of people that have shaped it around all their personal foibles?

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