Monday, 9 October 2017

Love is made the cornerstone

Sermon preached at Kilsby URC on 8th October 2017. Main text: Matthew 21:33-46.
Photo by Rebecca Calcraft
What do we found our lives upon? What is at the heart of our lives? How do we live out our relationship with God? In terms of practical day-to-day living that’s the subject of the Ten Commandments, and more figuratively it’s the subject of this extraordinary parable. Like all parables it has many layers and many meanings, and many possible interpretations – and this parable is especially complicated. But as American theologian Ched Myers said, “a parable is a way in which prophets speak to kings – reframing issues so the hearer is roped in, thinking it’s not about them, and then wham, it gets you”. And I think that’s how Jesus was talking, and I hope that’s how it’ll work for us.

I have one word of caution. One reading of this parable that has been popular in the past is that it’s about the unfaithfulness of the Jewish people, or perhaps the Jewish leaders, and their supplanting by Christians. I find this reading really objectionable. As well as being grossly anti-semitic, and having been a contributor to persecution of Jews by Christians over centuries, it’s a complete misreading of the text. Because Jesus was a pious Jew, deeply knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible and of rabbinic thought – and this parable is absolutely full of deeply Jewish ideas. You can certainly say that he was arguing against a particular way of thinking, but he was speaking from and within the Jewish tradition.

When he was speaking is an interesting bit of context. In the gospel of Matthew, this parable occurs among a set of teachings that Jesus gave in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. He had showed the form of king that he was, riding on a donkey to challenge the Roman authorities; had confronted the corruption of the Temple authorities in turning over the money-changers’ tables; and was challenging the ideas of the Pharisees and rabbis through his teaching. Jesus was not in a safe place, and the cross loomed as a very real possibility. And this is not a safe parable.

We hear it at harvest-time, with many churches observing harvest services. The full moon of the past few days has been the harvest moon, all wide and bright as the cold air comes. So the parable begins by talking about the harvest time for the vineyard. That’s the phrase in my translation but the literal phrase in Greek is ‘the time of the fruits’, and that word time is the unique Greek word Kairos. You might know that the Greeks had words for two kinds of time, the cyclical time which recurs again and again, like the seasons – that was Chronos. And the unique time when great events happen, when change occurs, the time above all times when only one thing could happen – and that’s Kairos. So the parable is set in a time of great significance, just as Jesus was talking in a time of great significance.

Now let’s look at those tenant farmers. At first glance the story is written hugely against them. They’re tenants, hired to do the work of looking after the vineyard and making it ready for production. And their treatment of the owners’ slaves and son are horrendous. But I think we have to read it as the reaction of an oppressed people against their circumstances. Jesus was talking in a place where the people were deeply oppressed – their land had been stolen by the Romans, who demanded huge taxes from them and had a whole series of unjust laws; but the local kings and religious authorities were also money-grabbing and unjust. And the result, as has happened throughout history, when people have been oppressed, was a series of rebellions and violent acts. That doesn’t make them right, it doesn’t make them justified by God as sometimes people try to make out, but it does explain them somewhat. And I think it’s part of the idea behind the parable.

I read this week an amazing poem by the African-American poet Langston Hughes, which he wrote in the 1950s at a time when the black people of the United States were treated horrendously by their governments. It captures that feeling of hopelessness and what can come out. It’s called Harlem and reads like this:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Of course black people in the US achieved something like equality – though they have a long way to go for that – without mass violence, not least because of the power of Christian witness from preachers such as Martin Luther King, but only after great despair and hopelessness. The tenants’ scheme to kill the heir and take his inheritance sounds daft – wouldn’t the owner notice, or return violence with violence? – but it’s the kind of hard bargain that oppressed people try to make. In the days when this country had an empire, we oppressed people in so many countries – took their money and labour, mistreated them and gave them unjust laws and hierarchies – but just as bad was the legacy of colonialism, in setting one group against another, so that when the British left, the idea of conflict and scratching out a little advantage was left really entrenched. In biblical times, we can see an echo of this in the story of Jacob and Esau – the younger twin, less loved by his father, who found a way to weasel his way into the inheritance and created a huge rift with his brother as a result.

Not all violence that involves oppression comes from below. Just as bad can be the violence of the powerful upon the powerless. This week, look at the photos of the police in Catalonia beating people on the streets for coming out to vote – whatever the rights and wrong of the referendum, it’s a terrible sight of violent power exercised upon the powerless. Or the scenes from Las Vegas, of gun violence which is enabled by the Americans’ love of weaponry and inability to control their violence; and which as many commentators have said was also about race and thus about power – because if the murderer had been non-white, the response would have been hugely different.

And both kinds of violence were deeply present in the history of the people of Israel. There had been plenty of revolts and rebellions – the founding story of Israel was the escape from oppression in Egypt through God’s help; just 150 years before Jesus’ time there had been the rebellion of the Maccabees which is commemorated in Hannukah, and there were regular rebellions against the Romans. But likewise the people of Israel had perpetrated some horrendous crimes, of mass killings of their enemies, of keeping of slaves, and of oppression of their own peoples. It was the latter kind of violence which the prophets spoke against so often, and so powerfully, in their message that God seeks justice for all and mercy to everyone, rather than retribution and violence. And it was in that prophetic tradition – that in more modern times we call speaking truth to power – that Jesus was speaking so often, and I think including in this parable.

Because one of the key images for the prophets was the idea of Israel as a vineyard. Almost certainly Jesus’ listeners would think of an early part of the book of Isaiah, which parallels the start of this parable very clearly. It begins:
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones, planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
After a few verses, the prophet talks of the injustice of God’s people in the vineyard:
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!
Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
This is pretty clear stuff. The people of Israel are likened to a vineyard, but their oppression of others, their injustice and mistreatments, are condemned utterly. And I repeat – this is not an anti-Jewish message. This is a message from within the Jewish tradition to the whole world. God is on the side of justice. God is on the side of mercy. God is NOT on the side of violence. God is NOT on the side of those who take others’ land and livelihoods, whether with weapons or with law-courts or with money-lending schemes or with slavery or with concentration of wealth in the hands of elites. That’s a message for the time of Isaiah, and for the time of Jesus, and it’s a message for today. Our God is a God of justice and of love.

Now as I said, all parables have layers and multiple meanings, but most people read the vineyard owner as God in this parable, and the son as Jesus. And there’s an important note here. Jesus asks his listeners how the owner might react, and they reckon he’ll do further violence. But there’s no evidence of that in the story – instead we see a vineyard owner, we see a God, who loves and loves and loves some more. He sends slave after slave, he sends his son. His goal is an extravagant wish to bring more love, and to give more and more chances. This story is sometimes called the parable of the wicked tenants, or in more old-fashioned terms the parable of the wicked husbandmen, but as some have said, we could call it the parable of the long-suffering God.

So instead of supporting more violence, Jesus quotes from Psalm 118, the culmination of the Hallel Psalms which give especial praise to God and which were and are recited on all great Jewish occasions. He alludes to the rejected stone and how it becomes the greatest of all stones. There was a story that would be known to all Jesus’ listeners, of the building of the temple in the time of King Solomon, which was linked to Psalm 118. It said that the temple was carefully planned, stone by stone, and each stone carved out in its right shape for the temple, some distance from the temple site. The first stone to be delivered but the last to be used was the capstone. So when it arrived, the builders didn’t know what to do with it, putting it to one side and forgetting about, as if they rejected it. And eventually the temple was all but finished so they sent to the quarry for the capstone and received back the word ‘we already did’ and only then did they remember that funny-shaped stone way over in one corner of the site.

And so in humility Jesus pointed out that God’s way of responding to violence is by love, and by picking out the most unlikely person from the most unlikely place. And his great intervention in the world came in the shape of a peasant born in a stable to an unmarried mother who had to flee as a refugee, who lived with people on the margins and died an enemy of the state on the town rubbish dump. But on that basis, on that wonderful marginal basis, God changed the world.

Because this is the message of the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. God is against oppression, and God is against the violence which comes against oppression. But God uses the most unlikely tools to change the world. And so he can use us, in the words of the first letter of Peter to become living stones, to let ourselves be built into a spiritual house and to be a holy priesthood. We won’t do this by perpetuating the cycle of violence, by retribution and punishment and war. We do this in the way that Jesus did – by coming from nowhere, but by being everything and by sacrificing everything. And in that way we overthrown the rule of domination, the rule of violence, and bring in the kingdom of God and the kingdom of peace. And in that way love is made the cornerstone of the temple of God, now and for ever.


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