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Is there anybody there? Bad tenants and a more humble church

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Matthew 21:33-46

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?

My sister-in-law  recently decided she was going to buy a boat…

‘Ah how exciting, a boat!’ we said…

‘Well not like that, she said, something for a canal, she said

Ah – a canal boat we said… well no, not quite she said;

May I introduce Clementine… A oil-rig rescue vessel!

And there i was yesterday taking large granite slabs from skips in Southall to use as ballast. The stone that was rejected….. the perfect sermon illustration!

“No more beating about the bush – get on with the parable!”

Parables are the primary teaching method for Jesus, picture-making stories; simple, short, and always inverting expectation; subverting the usual reading of the world around us.

This parable is complex and challenging; its violent, puzzling, and apparently full of judgement. It provokes a response, provokes action and enables listeners to recognise God with new perspectives.

Jesus is responding (for the third time) to the Pharisees question ‘by what authority are you able to speak these things?’ They are pulling rank on him… but he raises the stakes by invoking God himself! He responds to the question with a more probing question woven into a story.

Isaiah 5

It’s worth noting from the outset that Jesus is unmistakably alluding to a song in Isaiah 5. This song—from God—concerns a vineyard which is built (including a tower, hedge and wine vat) to bear fruit. But the fruit does not come – only wild grapes, God laments the way that the land and its inhabitants have been exploited, as greed and arrogance have taken over;

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!

And so God allows the hedge to be taken down and the land turned back to the wild.

We must remember that for the Hebrews, land was deeply integral to God’s covenant. The land belonged to God, but Israel would remain on the land as long as they could be a blessing to other nations. Breaking the covenant, breaking Torah, (as summed up in the commandments of Exodus), meant that God broke down the blessing given to both the land and to the people of the land.

1, A True Ending?

The key to a parable is often hidden in the detail… let’s look

Jesus method is to use everyday scenes and characters –familiar to the rural and agricultural villages he visited. Everything would be familiar, and stories would unfold in familiar ways.. but then a turn; something unexpected.. something different to the norm inverts the expectation. That’s how Jesus understands the kingdom of God – it’s common place, everyday, (“in your midst”), yet radically different to what we see and expect – it turns order upside down, disorientates and surprises us!

The parable starts believably… sending collectors, (a common practice), and resentment grows, (realistic that the tenants would resent the vineyard owner who had perhaps bought up their family plots and turned them into a vineyard, a common practice at the time). But then… violence and no reprisal? That is suddenly hard to believe! And then more violence? And a idea that having by murdering the heir they would receive an inheritance? The plot has now become absurd and surreal!

Like with all of the parables Jesus allows the listeners to reflect on what they would do… (and in turn what we would do).

So a question arises – did the writers, (evangelists), add the ending – and was it necessary? Jesus way was usually to allow the question to linger. Certainly a version in the Gospel of Thomas simply stops at Jesus question, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” allowing it to probe.

It’s almost like we don’t need to hear the vindictive response, whoever listens the story will always provoke anger – this parable cuts deep!

2, Who is the gospel speaking to?

It may well be true that if you were a Pharisee listening in… you might think literally; ‘well the landowner is us’.. they were often landowners with many servants, (although maybe hadn’t acknowledged they too might have broken the woes of Isaiah 5 and built field upon field and house upon house – they would have exploited the land, the people, and the tradition they were charged to care for). They might have gloated at the punishment given to the tenants…

Which means many peasants listening would recognise themselves in the angry tenants.. this was their story; being exploited, unfairly taxed – like many people struggling today. The expulsion of tenants may have been a retribution they were already familiar with… a typical story of a bad landowner.

The sending of a son may appear naïve, but– in a culture based on shame and duty – it would have been a significant challenge to any wayward tenant. This could be read as further exploiting authority and religion.

However in later years, as Christianity gained influence, another reading took centre stage.. The landowner was God and the (beloved) son Jesus. This interpretation said that the responsibility of salvation was given to the Jews, but they mishandled it… and now it is given to ‘others’; the church! Tragically this reading has allowed both anti-semitic actions in the historical church, and fostered an arrogance that came when the church regards itself sole custodian of God’s gospel.

Jews, So who’s who? It’s not clear.. the parable is actually open to many interpretations… and it is the listeners only (or evangelists) who suggest an ending,

40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They (not him) said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

But Jesus neither confirms nor denies their response, he simply allows the parable to germinate inside the minds and imaginations of those around him… The point is given if the fruit does not grow, (Isaiah5) or if the workers are arrogant or abusive, then the landowner will try to be reasonable, and try again, always gracious always ready to give… but eventually the kingdom is shared elsewhere. (But to where?)

The question is turned over to us too, as contemporary listeners of Jesus’ words… we all become ‘the other’….and we too are asked about fruit. How do we respond to the radical call of God’s reign? What harvest emerges in our lives?

With its focus on grace, patience and rejection, what would this parable have to say to the troubled relationship we have with our child, or parent, or awkward friend? What does it have to say to our inability to forgive others, or ourselves? What does this parable have to say to our reflections on criminal justice, ecology, business, politics, education and health? What relevance would it have to guide our responsibility to helping people in society who, (some say), have brought their troubles upon themselves?

Think on this for a moment

3, Fruits of what? We spoke already of the gospel being given to the church.. and began to ask.. how effective that actually might be? Negatively it can breed a complacency and protectiveness around ‘the gospel’, which makes the same Gospel ineffective? Who looks after God’s mission; the church or God?

I was recently at a training event about Mission and Evangelism – (it was pretty painful)…. Missio-Dei, is a mission-theory that simply says ‘mission is finding out what God is doing in the world – and joining in’, but that didn’t go down so well among some colleagues. “It must be believers who bring the gospel!” But I ask you, how limited or expansive is the Gospel? When we consider groups like Friends of the earth, Kate Raworth’s doughnut economics, Art that inspires, Amnesty Oxfam, Readifood, Communicare, kindness in the community. Is this the Gospel? What is God doing – breaking down borders?

The logic of saying God only works in the church echoes an arrogant from the past; ‘you cannot trust God with Mission! We know better.’

43 “And so I tell you,” added Jesus, “the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.”

The actions of the landowner show a remarkable goodwill and trust towards the tenants, even when they create such havoc and use such violence. Owner/God show compassion and mercy, ready to give and give again – endlessly naïve – endlessly generous? (Jesus reaching out to the Pharisees?)

We cannot control God. The church cannot contain God. And we cannot control mercy. (two weeks ago we heard… “are you envious because I am generous?”

Ultimately the parable points towards the kingdom of God, its surprising and ever-giving emphasis on mercy, grace and trust, yet it remains realistic about the world and those who seek to exploit it;

In coming to reclaim what belongs to his Father, the Son sets out to restore the world to its divinely created order. Jesus brings wholeness to a broken world, providing glimpses into the kingdom of heaven. This is what God’s creation is supposed to look like.

But the restoration of God’s creation meets opposition from those with a vested interest in the brokenness of the world.

This final cornerstone reflection (Psalm118) becomes a reminder too that all things will be ‘judged’ in the light of Christ, (all things, made through him and for him – as our Eucharist prayer says), a ‘judgement’ which will cause many to stumble. It’s worth reminding ourselves that this judgement refers to understanding and reconciliation – it calls to account those who have exploited and abused both people and the earth. Judgment is the inversion of world order where oppressors are bought low and the humble lifted high. This cornerstone has been rejected, but will in the end become the most significant thing of all, the centrepoint of all creation. The light by which all is truly seen.

How do we end this morning?… with four questions maybe – questions which reframe the deep question at the heart of this parable, and ask something of us;

  1. What does the Gospel of Christ look like, feel like, taste like, smell like – what are you looking for?
  2. And how gracious do you truly believe God is in evoking, provoking and waiting for this kingdom to be received and understood?
  3. Who hold the keys of this kingdom; who truly are its prophets and activists – working both in the church or outside of the church?
  4. And finally, The wicked tenants try God’s patience. Do we really dare to let God be God? In our lives, our world, our desires and our hopes.. will we look, and recognise, and be transformed—as Christ inspires us—to see the fruit-bearing kingdom emerging in our midst?

 

Gary Collins October 2017

 

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