Over the past few months, I have been thinking a lot about how we can improve our churches. (I think some of this train of thought is in response to the process of fully returning to church attendance in the wake of the worst of the pandemic.) Ruminating on this subject made me think of the story in the book of Luke. In Luke 13:6-9 Jesus tells what seems to be a straightforward parable. A master owns a vineyard with a fig tree that has not borne fruit for three years. When he then decides to have it destroyed, the keeper he has hired to take care of the vineyard intervenes. He asks the master for one more year. The vineyard keeper wants to dig around it, fertilize it, and give it another chance to bear fruit.
This would be an interesting though somewhat confusing parable if it followed the usual parallels. Normally the master of the vineyard is God. Normally the vineyard keepers are the Pharisees and scribes, and the vineyard itself (and everything in it) is the Jewish nation (or the church in modern parlance). (See Luke 20:9-18 for such an example.) If those parallels held, it would be the Pharisees asking God for more time to help save a failing member of the church when God wants to cut that person off. This would seem to be an odd interlude until the parable is juxtaposed with the actual events that take place immediately following the parable. A woman afflicted with a spirit has been doubled over for 18 years. Jesus sees her in the temple on the Sabbath and heals her. A synagogue official sees the healing and chastises them and the crowd because Jesus healed on the Sabbath—a supposed violation of what they understood to be God’s law. The synagogue official wants Jesus and the woman to follow the rules. There are six other days of the week when she could get healing. She could come tomorrow. Why can’t she just follow the rules? Jesus immediately points out the hypocrisy of this position. After all, the Pharisees allow all kinds of work on the Sabbath day. When I read this story, I was struck by the lack of patience that the synagogue official showed. He is supposed to be the vineyard keeper. Why is he not pleading for grace for the woman instead of leading the chorus to criticize and chastise her?
It made me think of the way we treat some people in the church. Too many times it seems to me that we are too much like the synagogue official. We’re willing to turn people away because they show up on the wrong day, or in the wrong clothes, or with the wrong “problem.” And even if they get a chance to come through the doors, we don’t give people time to grow. At best we’re too impatient. We want so badly to see progress in people that we are intolerant of the simple fact that it takes time to become what God wants us to be. I’m nowhere near where I want to be with God, and we’ve been wrestling for a long time. I thank him that he is still patient with me. How can I deny that time and patience to someone else? How dare I interfere in the process of growth for someone else simply because I believe I know better? The lesson I’m learning is that my supposedly superior knowledge of what God wants does not give me carte blanche to insert myself into the work of God.
It’s so unfortunate that we tend to treat people like the master in the parable, ready to cut them off because they do not seem to bear fruit. That would be ok—if we were the Master. But we’re just the vineyard keepers and the question for us all is what type of vineyard keeper we will be. Are we going to be like the synagogue official, who is impatient with the people in his vineyard, who exposes himself as a hypocrite for extending grace to himself but not to those who are truly suffering? Or will we be like the vineyard keeper in the parable, willing to plead with God himself for just a little more time to invest in grace, patience, and love for those who seem too far gone? A vineyard keeper who wants the same grace extended to others that we have received ourselves. God is constantly showing me how longsuffering he has been with me. If we can be as long-suffering with others, I think we can begin to create an environment in our churches where people can grow and where we all can become more of what God wants us to be.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found by clicking here.
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