A Sermon for Today – The Parable of the Vineyard

5 October 2014

Matthew 21.33-46

We probably know the parable well.

God is the landowner, Israel is the vineyard,, the religious establishment the tenants, the prophets are the representatives of the landowner come to collect what is due, Jesus is the son who finally came to bring the tenants to account and who is killed for his pains, and the church is the group invited to work in the vineyard at the end of the episode.

That has been the traditional way of interpreting the parable.

It has been used in successive generations to blame Jews for rejecting Jesus and having him killed. It has also been used over that time to claim that the church has superseded Judaism.
The end result of this has been persecution, pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust.

It continues to this day with the church issuing platitudinal statements about the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK and the rest of Europe without really getting to grips with the obsession that has blighted the church for almost 2000 years.

Until we recognise what is going on the church will remain less effective than it could be. We know this to be so because our theology tells us that
• only the contrite will be forgiven
• only the willing will be transformed
• and only the redeemed will be effective in the kingdom.

The parable was included in Matthew’s account of the gospel just after the fall of Jerusalem, at a time when hostility between the followers of Jesus and their fellow Jews was beginning to break up.

The early church couldn’t blame Rome for the death of Jesus, even though it was a ruthless not a bumbling Pilate who ordered his death and Roman soldiers who mocked him, forced him through the streets and nailed him to a cross before raising his exposed body wracked to hang in excruciating pain prior to death.

The church couldn’t blame Rome for the death of Jesus as it was too dangerous to do so. It served the church’s purpose to placate the rulers for fear of being wiped out.

Instead it was easier to blame their closest rivals in order to win over the hearts and minds of the people.

An internal battle was taking place to become the dominant religion in the region. The Church finally won and the Jews got the blame. They have been paying the price ever since.

It is right and proper that we recognise this truth so that we can get to the heart of the message Jesus wished to convey.

Yes God is the landowner, yes those in authority fail to pay what is due because they are self-centred and have much to lose, if they can control their assets and make the most of what time they have on earth for their own selfish gain then they will. They are not interested in sharing what they have been temporarily given.

Even the message of Jesus which has stood the test of time is unacceptable to them because in their eyes it is not good news but bad.
The message of Jesus is that wealth has to be redistributed but in a fair and just manner. Those in charge have manipulated the system for their own gain. And they will have much to lose by that redistribution.

Last week the Chancellor George Osborne launched a blistering attack on charities.

I can’t help but wonder if he is not the tenant seeking to silence and kill off the messengers?
Charities such as Oxfam, the Trussel Trust and others have criticised Government policy. In the Chancellor’s eyes the charities have become too political.

How has he formed this opinion?

Well, those charities in his sights have been pointing out what they see to be the injustice of the government’s welfare reforms that
• leave people being evicted from their homes of many years because they cannot pay the bedroom tax,
• welfare reforms that block people’s benefits until an enquiry is held even though they may have been too ill to attend an appointment,
• welfare reforms that have caused fear, stress, illness and suicides.

– Is it political for a charity to stand up for those for whom they were founded?
– Is it political for a charity to fulfil the aims written into their constitutions?
– Is it political for a charity to satisfy the charity commissioners who must monitor their actions?

Governments have sought to silence charities and churches before.

Charities and churches are the messengers who urge the tenants, the Government in this instant, to pay what is due, to heed the truth, to recognise that they are only in charge for a while and that one day they will be judged by their actions and inaction.

The facts are clear, the wealthiest in our nation have done exceedingly well over the last four years.

Their income has risen way beyond inflation yet their taxes have been cut.
99% of the population have got poorer over that time.

True, there is a closing of the gap between the richest in the 99% and the poorest in that massive group, but the other group, the top 1%, is becoming wealthier than ever before, pulling away from the rest at an alarming rate.

This cannot be sustained.

It is the moral and legal duty of those charities set up to deal with poverty and the churches to question the policies that are creating the biggest divide in a century between the superrich and the rest.

And to now suggest that the Human Rights Act is to be repealed, well such a thought is beyond words.

Slowly but surely the clock of fairness, justice and equality is being turned back.

The gains those before us made through protest and cooperative movements are being lost.

The church of today has to raise its voice as it has done in the past
– for justice to be done,
– for the wealth of creation to be fairly distributed,
– for those who have no voice we have to speak out.

There have been attempts to silence us before and for a time the threats cowed us into submission. But disaster followed. History has shown time and again that when the church fails to stand up for the oppressed and poor in society breakdown in the moral and social fabric is the consequence.

The parable is quite clear, the kingdom will be taken away from those who squander it and given to those that produce the fruits of the kingdom.

If there was ever a time when the Church needs to be united and clear in its condemnation of what is happening to our nation and world then it is now.

We cannot serve both God and an economic system that leaves millions in our nation and billions in our world in poverty.
– It cannot be right that someone living in Kensington will live on average many years longer than someone on Glasgow.
– It cannot be right that much of our world starves while another great section of the population is obese.
– It cannot be right that the poor are having to pay for a deficit created by the wealthiest in our nation.

Elijah was one such messenger of God. He confronted the people in the presence of the priests of Baal and tells them they have to take a decision, to make up their minds. They cannot keep alternating between one and the other. The choice is clear If God is God, then the people should serve God. If Baal is God, then they should serve Baal. There has never been a time when this has not been more so.

We need to look again at our church programmes and ask where we can meet the needs of those about us whilst challenging the system that oppresses so many.

We need to look at our own discipleship and ask how we might challenge those in authority to stop punishing the poor and get the rich to take more responsibility for those who have helped create their wealth and privilege.

We need to say that we will be true to the gospel, be citizens of a kingdom that will never end and be the messengers who take on those who would seek to destroy it.

In all of this we will succeed for truth outlives all that would contradict it.

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