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19 th Sunday after Trinity Year A, 2nd October 2005:
The tenants in the vineyard
“A judgement on people of the past, or a warning to the Church today?"
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Jesus had the ability to be very direct with people. He also knew how to get a message across in an indirect way, but with the result that everyone could tell what his point was. Today’s parable of the tenants in the vineyard is a case in point. The message of that parable would have been highly disturbing, indeed threatening, to those at whom it was aimed.
A landowner entrusts his vineyard to some tenant farmers, to look after it while he was away. At harvest time, he sends some servants to collect the grapes that had been harvested. The farmers beat them up and send them away. This happens twice, after which the landowner sends his son, whom the farmers kill. At the conclusion of the parable, Jesus says that the landowner will take the vineyard from the wicked farmers and entrust it to others, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.
As the gospel reading says, the message of the parable would have been clear to those at whom it was aimed. The people who held religious power and authority – notably the chief priests and the Pharisees – were being compared to the wicked farmers. The vineyard was Israel – an ancient simile, which is found in several places in the Old Testament (including today’s reading from Isaiah). Jesus was accusing the chief priests and Pharisees, therefore, of failing in their responsibility to lead the people of Israel towards the kingdom of heaven. This responsibility, then, would be taken from them, and given to others, who would produce a spiritual harvest fit for the kingdom of heaven.
Much of this will be familiar, I’m sure, to some of you. But my title for this sermon may not be what you would expect. It is, “The tenants in the vineyard: a judgement on people of the past, or a warning to the Church today?”
So that we can see why this parable can be seen as a warning to the Church of today, lets look more closely at its original context and meaning. Why was Jesus so critical of the chief priests and Pharisees, as to say that their role as stewards of the faith would be taken from them?
There are quite a lot of examples in the gospels of occasions when Jesus rebuked these people. I am going to refer to three particular ways in which, according to Jesus, they failed to be true to God’s teachings.
(i) First – there were those whose behaviour did not match up to what they claimed to believe. In other words – their holiness was only skin-deep. They would say one thing and do another. Jesus called them hypocrites: those, for example, who would not allow him to heal someone on the Sabbath, because this would break the Jewish religious law. Or those who would pay great attention to fulfilling the most minute – and insignificant - commands of the religious law, while putting heavy religious burdens on the backs of those who were not able to bear them. The people, then, who despite their outward appearances of piety, had no love, and whose hearts were hardened; who did not care for the poor and the outcast, as long as they themselves had done what they thought they had to do to be holy. Which of course led to a certain self-righteousness and arrogance.
(ii) Secondly – those for whom money and possessions got in the way of their faith. What Jesus said about money and possessions lay at the heart of his teachings. Money, he said, was not bad in itself; but it could easily distract you from leading a life which was holy and good. If you had wealth, you should be generous with it. It was all too easy for money to become an idol, a false god, an object of worship. It is hard to believe that religious authorities of Jesus’ were not included in these warnings about the perils of money. In fact we know that Jesus regarded the temple as having become corrupt, as having become infected with commercialism – when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, he said, “God’s house will be called a house of prayer, but you have turned it into a den of robbers”.
(iii) Thirdly – those who thought that having a suitable spiritual ancestry was enough to guarantee them God’s favour. There was an occasion when Jesus rebuked those who claimed that being descended – spiritually, and racially – from Abraham gave them natural advantages spiritually. Theirs would be the kingdom of heaven simply by virtue of their lineage. Jesus, however, said that it was how you led your life that mattered, not who your spiritual ancestors were.
We can see why criticisms such as these would have made the chief priests and the Pharisees want to do away with Jesus. But I said that the parable of the tenants in the vineyard was a warning to the Church today as well as being a judgement on people of the past. How is this so? It is, of course, because the ways in which the chief priests and Pharisees had failed in their responsibilities are always temptations for the Church in any age.
(i) Failing to live lives which match up to what we say we believe. If, for example, we say prayers for those in need but actually do little to help others. If saying prayers conveniently lets us off the hook – so we end up leaving it to God to help those in need. If going to church, praising and worshipping God doesn’t result in any change to our lives, but just gives us a comforting feeling of being loved by God.
(ii) Money … failing to take seriously the command not to make money into a god … in our own lives and in the Church … either by being over-anxious about it, or by being mean with it … contrasted with the generosity of spirit which comes from being generous with the things we possess … Churches: not too preoccupied with material things – churches which are closed because of all the valuable things they contain … Cathedrals which charge entry fees … or allow their buildings to be used for doubtful purposes.
(iii) Allowing our membership of the Church to become like membership of a club; buying into that club confers automatic benefits without our having to do anything to earn them (rather like claiming spiritual benefits from being descended from Abraham). Just because we are Church members doesn’t than mean that we are excused from doing the things we need to do to make ourselves worthy of that membership.
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