Leaving Middle Management: Choosing Downward Mobility

Jesus’ parables have layer upon layer of meaning within them, and today’s story about the vineyard owner has quite the cast of characters.

Let’s search for where we are in this parable, and where we’d like to be.

So the basic plot elements are as follows:  the vineyard owner plants a vineyard and works quite hard at making it state of the art.  There is a fence, a winepress, and a watchtower.

Then he entrusts it to this group of tenants and leaves the country.

These tenants appear to have been a very bad investment, however.  They are angry, violent, greedy people.

Each time the landowner sends his slaves to bring in the harvest, they are beaten and killed by the tenants.

Not even the vineyard owner’s son escapes the same fate.

Jesus ends the story asking what will happen to the wicked tenants when the vineyard owner confronts them, and the chief priests and Pharisees predict a sticky end for them.

As we begin to mine the text for meaning and guidance, we are of course to begin by placing ourselves in the role of the tenants.

It’s not a very flattering picture of ourselves, but let’s explore it.

Of course we do not go around beating and murdering people.

But do we always welcome with open arms the people and situations God sends into our lives?

When God sends someone to us who is asking for the harvest, so to speak, challenging us to produce the fruits of the kingdom, it is very easy to want to dismiss, ignore, or push them away.

The slaves arriving to demand the harvest are God’s way of asking us for accountability.

You have been given this wonderfully rich piece of the kingdom to tend and cultivate. What have you done with it?

This question comes not just at the end of our lives, but over and over again, and we have to try and welcome the question, not seek to destroy the messenger like the tenants in our story.

But here is another interesting implication that might impact our view of the tenants: God, here represented by the vineyard owner, is absent from the land.

We might interpret this in several ways.

We might think of the times in our lives when God seems very absent to us—times of tragedy, of grief and loss, of anger at God.

We might realize that not chasing after God and seeking God in prayer and scripture study leaves us vulnerable to become as greedy and lost as the tenants.

And we might remember that this also means that God has given us an incredible amount of freedom to play with God’s creation, to take the riches and beauty of the resources all around us and do with them what we will, for good or for evil.

In that regard God has put us in a somewhat dangerous position.

With God seeming so far away from us and all this wealth right in front of us, how are we supposed to escape the fate of the tenants?

How are we supposed to triumph over our sinful natures and make our way into our better selves?

Well, we know that we really didn’t make it, because of course the vineyard owner’s son is Jesus, and his fate happened exactly as he foretold it. He died as a result of our greed and fear and sin.

The Pharisees predict a miserable death for the wicked tenants, and scary as it may seem, I think that’s exactly what we need as we continue to take ourselves inside this story and learn from it.

We need the wicked tenant within us to die.

We will never find a way to honor God and live in peace with creation and with each other if we continue to think of ourselves as middle managers.

The tenants have been given power and been corrupted by it.

What began as an honorable task to serve the vineyard owner has devolved into an orgy of greed, violence and destruction.

The role of tenant is inherently corrupting, and we need to get out of it.

We need the tenant within us, who represents our hunger for wealth and power and control, to die right along with the vineyard owner’s son.

In the old Baptist language, we need to let our sins be nailed to the cross with Christ.

So who’s left?

If we want to escape the role of the tenants, which has only inspired us to act out of our worst selves, whom will we be in this story?

There’s one role left that we haven’t explored: the slaves.

What do the slaves do in this story?

They work in the fields.  They gather in the harvest.  They bring the harvest to the vineyard owner.

That sounds like the role of a Christian.

Downward mobility, that’s what we’re exploring here.

We have to give up the role of proud, competent, powerful tenants and submit ourselves to be true servants of God and of God’s kingdom.

Following Christ is not about building up our reputation and power, but realizing more and more that our roles and titles mean so little, that our only role than means anything is servant of God.

We should be climbing down the ladder of prestige and power and wealth, to dwell in simplicity and service, rather than climbing up it, as counter to our instincts as that seems.

Going from tenant to slave, investing in the downward mobility of the Christian life, is a dangerous move.

Look what happens to the slaves! They are killed by the wicked tenants!

That is happening literally to many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world.

In fact it was one of the earliest marks of identity in the Christian faith.

Conversion meant both the strong possibility and the strong willingness to follow Jesus to the death, and then from death to resurrection.

But once we’ve entered death willingly, the death of our own inward greedy tenant, then any death we may encounter as a slave will seem small because we have already tasted the resurrection that is the fruit of it.

At peace with death, going into the fields to work and bring the harvest home to God, in company with the vineyard’s owner’s son, Jesus—that’s the life of a slave in the kingdom.

Sounds pretty good to me.

And of course the slaves in the kingdom have one other task.

They are the ones who ask the tenants to render the fruits of the kingdom.

That is evangelism. There are so many people who are stuck in the role of the tenant, trapped by their small and sinful selves, unaware of the holiness and goodness within them that waits to be uncovered.

We as slaves go around inviting people to join us in this path of downward mobility, offering escape from the endless round of self-aggrandizement and the peace of the life of simple service.

There is little chance of our being aggressive or judgmental in our invitation as long as we remember that that tenant still lives within us as well, and God’s grace is all that enables us to try and live more and more into the role of faithful servant.

All of this is possible because of the cornerstone that Jesus speaks of, quoting Psalm 118, which is, of course, himself.

He is the one that makes it all possible.

We do not become faithful slaves under our own power.

We invite him to work within us, to change and mold us, to open us up to our full potential as workers in the kingdom.

And as small as our own individual journeys seem, as insignificant to the fate of the world of one human’s leaving the tenant life and becoming a true servant is, God rejoices over each and every small step we take on that path.

Jesus says it himself as he quotes scripture: “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”

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