Is the Vineyard in good hands?
I have a confession to make. I spend a seemingly inordinate amount of time on computers. That may sound surprising to some as I am a Physiotherapist, and for a lot of people that creates a vision of infra-red lamps and massage (all sorts of things that I or my colleagues hardly do any more). Actually I suspect that I spend at least 50-60% of my time working at a keyboard. Then there is the inevitable work at home, including preparation for this very sermon, not to mention the apparent absolute necessity of social media sites such as twitter and facebook. Some of you may be thinking what really is the point of all this, and how does it impact on God’s message to humanity. Well, for my part I am inevitably exposed to opinions from people both Christian and non-Christian about a range of issues. Some of that opinion can be inspiring, and can lead me to reflect deeper about my own relationship with God, a lot of it sadly is the opposite, and can leave me wondering about whether we are being a force for good or not.
A case in point recently has been the biased support for either Israel or Gaza in the most recent uprising. I became aware of one such discussion, and when I proposed that God loves the Isrealis and the Palestinians, and in my view is saddened by warfare, it was suggested to me in no uncertain terms that I shouldn’t create difficulties.
Our readings today, echo that frustration in speaking of God’s own frustrations with us humans when he places us in positions of responsibility. Although we immediately think of national leaders or church leaders when we think of positions of responsibility, I think it is important that we should also consider that we have all been given responsibility, whatever our role in life. We may be a husband, or a wife, we may be an older or a younger sibling,we may be a work colleague, a best friend. God isn’t just talking to Kings and ministers here. He is talking to all of us.
Matthew’s Gospel provides us with a parable by Jesus set in a vineyard. There are two tales set in vineyards in as many chapters and this is the second. By this time, Jesus has made his entrance into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, has further upset the temple aristocracy by causing a disturbance, so that we are now in the rarefied atmosphere of Jesus’ last week, in the run up to the Passover festival. Suffice it to say that emotions are running high.
The setting is the Temple courts and probably on the Monday, in other words, only yesterday Jesus had cleared out the money changers. No doubt then that Jesus is already attracting focused attention from the Pharisees and the Chief Priests. And so Jesus delivers a parable aimed straight at them. Parables have been described by Nick Page, one of my favourite authors as “chocolate coated chilli peppers, without the chocolate” In other words a sugar coated pill, but without the sugar. The message was designed to sting.
So we have an audience no doubt including Pharisees and Chief Priests. They would have realized the symbol of the vineyard meaning Israel, and as those given responsibility for keeping the faith safe, they would have been left in no uncertain terms that they are being given the parts of the murderous and unfaithful tenants. If that is not enough, and here comes the exploding chilli pepper, Jesus then points out to them that because they have rejected him, and through him God, that they are going to lose everything. No one can accuse Jesus of avoiding a difficult topic.
Matthew playfully uses an echo in his writing with saying after Jesus had his authority questioned in ch21 . 23 that they (the chief priests and Pharisees) were afraid of the people as they held that John was a prophet; and then after the parable of the tenants in Ch 21 v 46 he says of Jesus, “They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet”. Matthew obviously wishes to make it clear that the ordinary folk were very much on Jesus side and were his main protection.
For many of us today, this parable is a story where we quite like to see the Temple Leadership – the defenders of the faith – if you like as the perennial bad guys. It is a nice comfortable read, Jesus is nicely giving it to the bad guys and walking away, albeit after adding insult to injury by letting them know in v 44 that not only will they lose everything but that by the way he knows that they are offended by him so much that as a consequence the punishment heading their way is destruction
And yet that would be missing a trick, and missing the mark. Especially if we open our hearts and minds to scripture, and accept, truly accept that Jesus is King. So, just when we are feeling comfortable with the bad guys getting crushed, perhaps it would be better if we spent time reflecting on our own actions. Are we being reliable tenants of the vineyard ourselves?
What might this parable have to say to the church today. By the church, I mean the wider body of Christ, not just the North Kent Methodist Circuit.
Have some of us donned the cloak of the Pharisees or the Chief Priests? How are we looking as Tenants of the vineyard? In the words of that commonly used phrase, “What would Jesus do today?” What would he say?
Perhaps we shouldn’t sit quite so comfortably in our pews and chairs, in our social media virtual churches, in the multi million dollar concerns stateside. We also stand guilty of rejecting messengers of God, with examples sadly all through church history, Paul himself was persecuted by some of the Jerusalem Church, Luther was threatened, Swingli one of Luther’s peers in Switzerland was killed in an armed battle between Protestant and Catholic factions, and closer to home when Hugh Bourne was expelled from the Methodist Church for, of all things, preaching in the open air! And this was only a decade or so after John Wesley’s death.
In recent times of course we have seen violent tirades against homosexuals, the abuse of women and children and the justification of war.
What sort of tenancy does this look like? Those who carry out those acts certainly don’t appear to be following in Jesus’ footsteps, not in the Jesus I have come to know, and I fervently believe that there are people heading towards the same judgment Jesus spelled out so clearly at the end of the parable.
So today, yes this scripture still speaks a strong word to us. For we are Christ’s body on Earth, we have been given responsibility for the vineyard. Woe betide us if we fail to remember whose vineyard it is! We need to remember whose Church it is, whose mission it is, who the King is. This is really important because the warning at the end of the parable is for Christians too if we forget our relationship with Jesus and reject him in favour of our own perceptions and beliefs.
As Christians, you and I are the new tenants in the vineyard. Will you join me in helping to remind others that we are tenants not owners, and that we are here to follow God’s will and not ours.
Be bold then, whether you are meeting with someone in person, or virtually on Facebook, on Twitter, on email in being a voice for Christ, reflecting his light to others and sharing his love and life.
As Children of God it is our role to use all the means of communication that God has given for his purposes, we need to make sure that we do not abuse them, but in their use, open the way to God for all
In Jesus Name