Readings: Matthew 21:33-46, Psalm 19
How do we discern the will of God? How do we work towards the coming of the kingdom, to fulfilling God’s vision of a just and peace-filled world where all are valued and loved? How do we know when we get it wrong?
At Wednesday night worship this week, Mark led us through thinking about these words in the Lord’s prayer – ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’ and asked just the same question.
Now is the time I should invite Mark up here to answer those questions for us?
Seriously though, these are also exactly the same questions that the psalmist has. “I know how you want me to live, O God, your law and your precepts are sure and perfect, but I need your help. Left to myself, I will get it wrong; I will make errors in my living. Help me to get it right, help me to live in your way. “
And then we come to Gospel reading, the parable of the wicked tenants – an allegorical but very sharp spear thrust that exposes just how badly astray Jesus thinks the leaders of the Jewish nation have gone from living in obedience to God’s law. This, along with the surrounding parables in Matthew, pull no punches about how Jesus perceives the state of Israel – the wedding where the invited guests cannot be bothered turning up and the table is filled with prostitutes and tax collectors , the contrite debtor whose debt is forgiven but does not show the same mercy to one who is in debt to him, and today’s killing of the slaves and the son in order to take control of the vineyard. All point to the way in which the Jewish authorities of the time have rejected have failed to see the will of God in the Son.
And the troubling thing that is common with each of these parables is the seemingly vindictive judgement which pours over those who have got it wrong. The landowner putting his tenants to miserable death, the wedding host killing and destroying those who had violently rejected his overtures, the unappreciative debtor re-burdened and tortured ...it is like Jesus has done a very human thing and has just got really angry and vindictive – killing and mayhem all over the place, divine retaliation, ultimate judgement. It is difficult to imagine this face of Jesus alongside the one we know as grace and love and mercy, seventy time seven, gathering the children to him.
I want to thank PCUSA minister Rick Spalding for his thoughts on this- let me share them with you as a helpful way of understanding this seeming paradox.
Spalding tells us that an allegory does its literary work obliquely; that its strategy is evocative, not predictive. The intent is to draw us into the story in such a way as to make it not about the characters but about us, to force us into making compelling ethical choices in our own stories and relationships, to recognise the dangers and harm caused by rejecting Gods laws and precepts. Spalding uses the analogy of a drill which uses shock as its bit to get through the layers of denial we can put up to reach a heart level of recognition of right living, one that will bear fruit for the kingdom.
So this is a really uncomfortable challenging space for us, is it not? For this parable is directed not at those outside of the church but those within; those who have accepted God’s authority in their lives yet who do not recognise the very presence of God, through the man called Jesus; those who need a sharp hard shock to make them even hear the possibilities before them.
And it’s not so much that the Pharisees don’t believe his verbal claim of relationship with God, (anyone can state their claims that way) but that they also completely reject the way Jesus lives out the laws and precepts of God. Are the church leaders so far removed from living out the vision of God’s kingdom that they reject the very essence of God in the life and teaching of Christ Jesus.
The frustration would be huge. Put yourself into the story in Matthews time – the Christian disciples were trying to speak into and position themselves within the Jewish faith – much as the earliest participants in the reformation were seeking to change things within the Roman Catholic church – but Jesus followers were increasingly pushed to the edges by the unbending and often violent acts of rejection by the leadership of the established faith community.
And so these leaders are to be set aside! And in their place are put those who will be fruitful– those who will restore the vision of kingdom, those who will reconcile, not reject, be open, not closed to new ways, who will be the effective people of God in their time and place.
And who are these people – well they are you and me, people who, as Mark suggested on Wednesday, seek to carry out God’s will and live in God’s way, to create a better world and nourish and care for God’s people, especially the vulnerable and the dispossessed. The people who gather in community as church, who pray and listen, who read and discuss and sit quietly, who experience and participate in worship and who go from here having heard God’s vision for this world, renewed in their determination to live it out in actions of kindness, love, compassion, justice and mercy.
It is for all of the community to care for the vineyard, not just the leaders who can and have over time got it badly wrong. We are the ones who are to keep the church honest, on a path that is inclusive and caring and, yes, can be angry at injustice and courageous in our speaking out- but ultimately who seek always to discern and follow the way of Christ in our lives and our community. And on this World Communion Sunday we especially remember that this same call goes out to all the people of faith throughout the world as they too seek to hear the word of God in Jesus and work to restore wholeness and peace to all people, to together care for God’s vineyard.
We know that it is not easy, we know that we collectively and individually sometimes get it wrong, and that prayer is one of the ways that we participate in the healing of God’s world - and so today I invite you, in the time of silence after the sermon to write down on the card in your seats your prayer for a community of faith throughout the world, maybe a place you have a special connection with, maybe a people you have read or heard about – when you come forward for communion please place this prayer in/on the basket/table that they might be part of our communion as the people of God around this table. Amen.