I have a garden in my back yard. It isn’t big, but we plant a few different types of tomatoes, green beans, and some carrots. I go to sleep each night and wake the next morning to find that the once dormant seeds have come to life. They break through the fertile ground and are drawn to the warm, radiant and welcoming sun, and then are refreshed by the cool waters that fall from the heavens. Who knew that having a garden could be such a spiritual experience?
The crazy thing is that I have several bags of seed in a cabinet in my garage, and not one of the seeds is growing. But see, somehow you already knew that they weren’t growing, right? I know this is a ridiculous example, but it doesn’t matter who you are, where you live, how much money you make, how intelligent you are, or the time period in which you live, you know intuitively that in order for seeds to grow, they need to be planted in soil that has been worked and cultivated. The seeds must be scattered in the soil by the sower. The water must pour down on the thirsty soil enabling the seed to be nourished. The light must shine down to summon the seedlings to break through the soil and grow. And ultimately, the good fruit will spring forth in bounty from the branches.
Images like this have been understood from the earliest of ages and have cut across cultural, ethnic, educational, economic, and historical lines. That is precisely how Jesus spoke of life’s most sacred truths and one of the ways he announced the good news of the Kingdom of God, the reason for which He was sent. He used those things that are common to people and that could be understood through the ages. In addition to seeds, soil, birds, and weeds, Jesus used fish, nets, wheat, yeast, dough, workers, employers, and money as visual images to teach people. These are images that people can identify with and that were used in parables to continually reveal the great beauty and mystery of God here on earth for those who have the eyes to see and ears to hear and understand. But while, on the one hand, parables may serve as a means to reveal the great beauty and mystery of God to people, their messages can, on the other hand, cut people to the core.
One parable that Jesus told to the religious leaders of His day that completely cut them to the core was about a vineyard. In this parable, the workers ignored the great task in the vineyard that they were given by their boss. Jesus, through His parable teaching, spoke squarely and directly at God’s chosen people in Israel who had become incredibly religious, neglecting their identity and task in the world. They were those who had been given the responsibility by the owner of the vineyard, God, the task of producing the fruits of right-living, justice, and mercy for the sake of the world, but they had instead neglected it.
Story of the Vineyard
God is like the owner of a vineyard that stretches along a magnificent hillside. The fruit that God wants to produce in the lives of His people is right-living, justice, and mercy. However, this vineyard, once in its full glory, was devastated by a jealous neighbor, along with his buddies, who was bent on becoming the owner of the vineyard himself. In response, the owner hired some local workers to begin repairing the devastation, with the goal being to build up the vineyard so as to produce a good fruit. The owner of the vineyard entered into a contract, or covenant, with a group of workers who agreed to do the work. They agreed to follow the list prepared by the owner, which would help them repair the devastated vineyard and grow an abundance of fruit.
It was soon apparent that the workers were not repairing and building up the vineyard as they agreed; rather they were further contributing to the devastation and lack of fruit. Israel, the workers whom God hired to work the land and be His image-bearers in the vineyard of the world in order to bring the fruit of right-living, justice, and mercy, became religious, unjust, oppressive, and enslaving to her own people. The vineyard was already in disrepair before the workers where hired, but it stayed in state of disrepair after they were hired. Because of their negligence, the fruit produced by the workers shriveled and dried up. This angered God, the vineyard owner.
One of Israel’s great prophets, Isaiah, described it this way:
The vineyard belonging to the Lord All-Powerful is the nation of Israel;
the garden that he loves is the people of Judah.
He looked for justice, but there was only killing.
He hoped for right-living, but there were only cries of pain. Isaiah 5:7 NCV
Despite the warnings of the prophet Isaiah, God’s people continued to neglect the work. Isaiah wasn’t the first, nor was he the last, to speak up against his “co-workers” on behalf of God. The prophets, who spoke on behalf of God, called on their co-workers, the people of Israel, to change their ways, understand their identity and purpose, and fulfill the agreement they had made to care for the vineyard of the world in order to produce the good fruit of right-living, justice, and mercy. But nothing changed, and the results were always the same. In many instances the workers mistreated, injured, and sometimes even killed those who spoke up about the work that was not being done and the fruit that was not being produced.
The angry vineyard owner, God. Hoping for a change of heart from the vineyard workers, he finally sent his son to talk to the workers and show them how the work ought to be done. Surely, he thought, they will respect my son. Soon enough the son arrived and began to show the workers, not just through words but through actions, how the vineyard was to be repaired, worked, and cared for in order to produce the good fruit for which the owner had hoped.
Several of the workers, who were cut to the core because they had let down the vineyard owner, began to follow the son around the garden and help him with the work. The son, Jesus, and the workers who followed him around the vineyard, his disciples, began to repair the broken vineyard lives of the people by sowing the Kingdom seeds in the fertile soil of their hearts. These Kingdom seeds were taking root and growing and producing the good fruit of right-living, justice, and mercy.
This was great news to the vineyard owner, to all of the workers who were following the example of the son, and to everyone the son was inviting to help with the work. The vineyard was being repaired. Seeds were being sown. People from everywhere began to join the good work of repairing the vineyard and scattering the Kingdom seeds to produce good fruit that the owner had hoped for all along.
All of this angered the wretched workers who still refused to join the son in his work. “How dare he come into this place, make us look bad, and take away our workers.” Upon hearing the grumbling of the wretched workers, the son met with them and said, “I am taking away the vineyard work from you and am now giving it to people who will produce good fruit and continue to sow the seeds of the Kingdom of God. As of this moment, I am also tearing down the wall surrounding this vineyard and opening it wide to people around the world who want to follow my way and extend my Kingdom by producing good fruit of right-living, justice, and mercy, and who will continue to sow the Kingdom seeds throughout the vineyard of the world!” In a rage, the wretched workers tore their clothing, grabbed the son, and began to beat him up. They dragged him up on the hillside for all of the workers in the vineyard to see and then they killed him.
Despite their best efforts to control the vineyard, the wretched workers were already too late. They were immediately seized and evicted from the premises by the owner. And the vineyard workers, who continued the good work that the son had taught them through his example, were now even more empowered by the way and life of the son than ever. They began announcing that the vineyard was hiring anyone who wanted to follow the example of the son and who would work to produce the same good fruit that he had produced. Multitudes of people came from everywhere to work in the newly expanded vineyard of the world. They followed the example of the son diligently to produce good fruit, while continuing to sow the seeds of the Kingdom of God with their hearts, minds, and souls.[i]
Today, we find ourselves in the same exact vineyard, yet it is not as well-maintained as it used to be. We know that there are many factors that can positively or negatively influence the quality of the fruit. As we have found, the most obvious and important factor that can negatively effect the entire vineyard and the quality of the fruit, is if the workers completely neglect the way of the son, ignoring the vineyard and failing to produce good fruit in their lives.
It might seem obvious after reading the previous story, but the vineyard must be tended and cared for appropriately in order to yield a rich bounty of good fruit. Did you get that? If not, let me write that again, but this time more emphatically. It might seem obvious after reading the previous story, but the vineyard must be tended and cared for appropriately for it to yield a rich bounty of good fruit! How can the harvest be ready if the workers have neglected the work? If we find ourselves in the same vineyard and it is not being well-maintained or if it is not producing fruit, we, as those who have been given the task of working the vineyard and producing a rich bounty, may have a problem on our hands.
The Vineyard Today
So let’s say the vineyard, which stretches along one of the most magnificent hillsides you have ever seen, has been handed over to you and some other workers to fix-up in order to begin producing a good fruit. If you are feeling under-qualified or uneasy about this endeavor at this point, don’t worry. Even if you have never worked in a vineyard, the workers you are joining have an intimate knowledge of what it takes to care for this vineyard.
Within the first couple of days on the job you are overwhelmed with excitement. The workers gather together as you begin listening to them talk about the vineyard. You are blown away by their knowledge of the vineyard, the process, and the variety of grapes. Everyday you think- how could people know so much about the process of growing grapes? What a wealth of knowledge! The amount of information you are learning is staggering and invaluable. You have learned so much in such a short amount of time. You are beginning to feel confident and completely prepared to begin the work.
As the days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, the workers continue to gather together to talk about the same things. They talk about the vineyard, the work, and the grapes. What was once new information has become repetitious, redundant, and really quite religious. Each morning they perform the same routine. They have a group chant that celebrates the graciousness of the owner for letting them gather together. Then, the workers break bread together at lunch. Finally, one of the workers stands in front of the others to speak, and his message is the same each time. He typically talks about how the workers should behave on the job, how the vineyard is falling apart, how the workers need to recruit more potential workers to meet with them, and then he wraps it up by saying that he can’t wait until the owner calls and invites them to live in his vacation home with him as a bonus for behaving so well on the job.
They usually wrap up the day by discussing their plans for a larger and more up to date maintenance building that will hold more workers, their plans to add more worker programs that will attract and impress more potential workers, and their need for new, clean, and vibrant uniforms so that those who are being interviewed won’t think that they have to get dirty on the job. The workers absolutely love it! They are just as excited to talk about the run-down vineyard and the vacation home as they were the day before. Long live the vineyard owner!
Quite confused, you begin to wonder if the workers have any intention of really ever going into the vineyard to do the work rather than just talk about it. What sense does it make to hire more workers and spend more money on new facilities and worker programs when all they do is sit around in the maintenance building all day and talk about how they ought to behave on the job?
Your confusion turns into nervousness as you contemplate whether or not you should confront the workers about the work that is being neglected. Instead of the prized and abundant vineyard that it could be, and once was becoming, the land has become nothing more than dried and cracked ground, parched and begging for water. The vines and branches are broken, and have been left dangling above the dusty ground. What was expected to be the finest yield of grapes of this age have turned into black, shriveled shells of an opportunity lost.
Mustering courage from down deep, you finally gather the workers together and walk them out to the scarred hillside. For what seems like moments of eternity, all you can do is stare at skeleton vines dancing in the dust. Finally, you ask the question that should have been asked a long time ago.
“Fellow workers, look at this hillside! Do you realize that while we have been talking about the vineyard, the facilities, the programs, and the vacation home, the work in the vineyard was never done and now it is too late?”
The workers all look at each other in shock and utter amazement as one replies, “What do you mean? We don’t understand what you are talking about.”
“You don’t understand what I am talking about? Are you kidding me? We were hired and given the task of working in this vineyard and producing a good fruit. Not only that, but the owner gave us everything we needed to get the job done and get the job done right! All we have been focusing on is how to be better workers, having bigger and better facilities and programs, and contemplating ways to recruit more workers to hang out with us!”
The workers huddle together as if deliberating a verdict. Finally, the same man who spoke earlier steps forward and announces, “While it is true that we were hired by the owner, you were not correct when you said that we were hired to do the work.”
“What do you mean!” you yell perplexed and exasperated. “What exactly do you think you were hired for anyway?!”
“Well, you may have been hired to work in the vineyard, but when we were hired all we were asked was, ‘Do you know how to work a vineyard?’ and we said, ‘Yes, we most certainly do know how to work a vineyard, and we may know more about it than any other group of people in the area.’ In fact, we pride ourselves in how much we know. Sure, we see there is a problem in the vineyard. But, we also trust that the owner will be calling soon to invite us to his vacation home. To tell you the truth, none of this vineyard business will really matter in the future. So, in the meantime, we get together and talk about how much we know, while singing the praises of the owner, hoping to get more people to join our team. So calm down and just trust that everything will be just fine. The owner won’t mind the condition of his vineyard, like you say he will. It is our understanding that he is way more concerned with us having the correct knowledge of the vineyard, and showing him how loyal we are to him. Hey, did I mention the vacation home?”[ii]
The Church and the Vineyard
Much like our story in which the workers talked about their intimate knowledge of the vineyard while working to improve their facilities, programs, and services, the Church has become obsessively inward-focused and more concerned about itself than working in the vineyard of the world. As was noted in the previous chapter, this is one of the central reasons why the Church is viewed as hypocritical and why it has lost credibility with many people. The Church talks a good talk, but does not walk the walk. The Church remains untransformed and distant from the great issues in the homes, neighborhoods, and communities of our world.
In the same way it did not make sense for the workers in our story to spend money creating a bigger maintenance building to house more workers who were not working the vineyard, churches spend millions of dollars adding additions and building entirely new facilities to attract new members, while the great vineyard work in our lives and in the larger world are neglected.
The work that longs to be done begins in our own hearts, minds, and souls through the power of the Holy Spirit in order to produce the abundant fruit of God in our lives, so that we may, in turn, let God work through our lives to sow seeds in the hearts, minds, and souls of others. The vineyard begins in our own hearts and extends outward into the lives of those who are dealing with the great issues of our time: marital struggles, addictions, generational poverty, broken homes, materialism, and so on. The vineyard extends even further into the great global issues of hunger, poverty, and the slave and sex trade, just to name a few. But while churches are dealing with the affairs of the building, finances, programs and services, petty arguments, self-centered attitudes, judgmentalism, legalism, superficiality, and putting on a good presentation for the consumer, the important matters of right-living, justice, and mercy are being neglected in our lives, our churches, our communities, and throughout the world. There is no doubt that the vineyard is in disrepair. How desperately we need the way of the Son, Jesus Christ, in our churches!
There is a mindset that exists with many in the Church who believe the problems of the world ought not to be the concern of the Church. This mentality is much like the workers in our story who said, “We were not hired to work the vineyard. We were hired because we know how to work the vineyard.” Our churches operate as if our only function is to “get people saved,” have them say the right words, or get them to have the same knowledge about Jesus that “the saved” have. All the while, we run from and neglect the exact task that the “saved” should be compelled to do. Our task as “saved people” is to follow the way and example of Jesus Christ in all aspects of life while taking it into every part of the world, helping others experience liberation and freedom from the entanglements and trappings of the kingdoms of the world. It is not only our task and responsibility to go out into the world and tell others about the way of the Son, Jesus Christ, and to baptize them in His name. We are to also teach and train others up in the “life to the fullest” that Christ gives us.[iii]
“It is not our job,” the church member cries, while complaining that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. “It is the responsibility of the government, the social service agencies, or other community organizations! The church’s responsibility is to ‘get people saved and wait for heaven’, not to get in the messy affairs of the world.” Others cry, “We don’t know how God is going to fix all the problems of the world, but I am saved and I know where I am going for eternity.” All the while the world stands and watches the mystery and hypocrisy of the self-proclaimed vineyard workers who were hired to work in the vineyard but who live untransformed lives, never leaving the safety of their ever-growing churches and the comfort of their self-serving programs and services, but preaching to the world at arm’s length about how it ought to live. Are you hearing me?
If ever there is a parable that needs to be told to our generation, it is this one. The message needs to resonate loud and clear. The workers in the vineyard are being put on alert. You have not been hired solely for the knowledge or information that you have about the vineyard to the detriment of the work that needs to be done. You were hired to live transformed lives and to put your hands to the task. You were hired to be a hand in repairing that which is broken, to work the land, and to produce an abundance of fruit in your own individual life and in the world around you.
Faith in Action
“But we were saved by grace and not by works!” Great, I agree. That is not the point. Do you not think that your belief, faith, salvation, and knowledge of God transform your individual life for the work in the world that God is doing? It is amazing and fantastic that you have a wealth of knowledge about the vineyard and that you enjoy getting together to talk about it, but your knowledge ought to inform who you are in Christ and your task in the world. Knowledge, even if it is the right knowledge, without action does not produce fruit. In fact, and as we have seen, knowledge without action does not produce life, but death.
Let me say it another way. Your salvation should not propel you to laziness, self-centeredness, or apathy! Salvation so affects the entirety of your life that it animates you to progression, not regression or apathy. Salvation propels your life, your belief, your knowledge toward right-living, justice, and mercy. Salvation breaks outward in your life to an active faith (as if there really is anything other than an active faith). The truth of the matter is that faith not lived outwardly is a dead faith. Or, as the New Testament writer James would say, “Faith without works is dead.”[iv]
We have this puny idea of faith within the Church. It is as if we are absolutely terrified to say that faith is more robust than simply our knowledge about God and individual salvation. We are fearful that if we believe our faith is anything more than just our knowledge of God’s saving power then someone might think we suddenly believe that our salvation is earned if we put our faith into action. There are movements of Christians who rightly argue that we ought not guilt or coerce Christians to live an outward faith because it is equivalent to a law, and we no longer live under the law. But I would quickly point out that Scripture indicates the law has now been written on our hearts through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is through God’s law, written on our hearts, that the Spirit makes us alive to live out our faith in real and powerful ways each day.
Faith is so much more than our belief or knowledge about God. Even demons believe and have knowledge of God…and they are demons![v] We certainly do not want to share company with demons by only believing or knowing about God. Faith has to be more than just something in our heads. We live our faith! Our faith is holistic in the sense that it is the full belief, experience, knowledge, and saving power of God that is so overwhelming and transformative that it changes us at our very core and then expresses itself outwardly in our lives. That is the fullest expression of our faith! One without the other is dead. Faith without action is a dead faith. Action without belief or knowledge in God is a dead faith. The Spirit transforms us to be people used by God in real, everyday life situations. That is faith.
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[i] This original story is based upon Isaiah 5: 1-7.
[ii] This original story continues on the same idea about the vineyard from Isaiah 5 and continues the indictment from God. This time the indictment is directed to the Church.
[iii] Matthew 28: 18-20.
[iv] James 2: 20.
[v] James 2: 19.