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16th August 2020

Stealing The Grapes

Passage: Mark 12;1-12


I cannot remember a time when I did not know the story of the vineyard. Nor can I remember ever thinking I did not understand what it was all about. It was so obviously an allegory. The owner of the vineyard stands for God. The tenants stand for his chosen people-the Jewish nation. The Old Testament scriptures speak of Israel being a vineyard planted by God in the expectation that his people would yield the fruit-the grapes- of holiness, goodness and justice. The servants are the prophets- messengers of God sent to remind the people of the loyalty they owed to God. But the people would not listen to them and threw them out. The Son is Jesus, sent by God and murdered by those wicked tenants.
It is all so obvious. And in the Gospels Jesus finishes the story with a quotation from Psalm 118 where the stone rejected by the builders- in other words the murdered son- becomes the chief cornerstone of God’s new kingdom. (So there….)

Jesus is telling this story during a prolonged passage of arms with the Jewish leaders. They are hassling him from morning to night, asking him awkward questions in the hopes that they will catch him out saying something which will either discredit him in the eyes of his own people or give the Romans an excuse to arrest him. They wanted Jesus dead. You can hardly blame him for telling a story which suggests that the time will come when he will turn the tables on them? (So there….)

I suspect the early church understood the story in this way, especially when the first Christians were persecuted by the Jews. It has also been understood this way by more than one political leader in the two thousand years since then. These leaders have claimed that, since the Jews murdered the Son of God, it was now their religious duty to slaughter them; the last infamous claimant to this creed being Adolf Hitler. And this is what made me stop and think again about the story. Jesus never comes across as a vindictive person. He will stand up for what is right and true; he will remind people in strong terms of their duty to God and to their faith; he will warn them of the trouble they are bringing upon themselves but would he really be clapping his hands in glee at the thought of six million descendants of those tenants ending up in the gas chambers of Auschwitz? (So there….) Maybe it is time to think again.

There is another way of looking of the story. Several commentaries point out that at the time of Jesus there were a great many “absentee landlords.” Much of the land in Palestine was owned by people who did not actually live there. They would rent out their land to tenants, go off to live in another country and periodically send servants back to collect the rent and a share of the produce. And the locals-as you might imagine- did not like it. They were the ones grappling with floods and drought and pests and weather too hot and cold, struggling to get the land to produce food whilst the landlord was living happily off the profits. It was also common law that, if the landlord died without an heir, the land could be claimed by the tenants.
So, this story might have been told as a reflection on the legal use of land at that time, an arrangement which did not exactly bring out the best in anyone concerned. And if we pursue this line of thought it leads us into a widespread resentment against God.
It was all very well for Jesus to point an accusing finger at the nation of Israel and remind them how badly and foolishly they had behaved in the past and how they had let God down. But might not they have been thinking that it was all very well for God to waft around serenely in heaven whilst they were the ones struggling against natural disasters, enemy invasions, physical and spiritual weakness, differences of understanding and opinion?

Have we not seen this same rage in our own culture? People asking why should we take any notice of what we are told God demands when he has simply left us here to cope with corrupt Governments, two world wars, social injustice, deadly disease…. We don’t want to know. So yes, we will ignore and cast out your servants, God. And we will destroy your Son. And we will seize this world for ourselves because we deserve it and we will do things our way. So there….

Whichever way you look at it, it is, as our little video said, a sad story. It is all about broken trust, deep resentment and a fractured relationship with God.
Many people claim that the world is far better off without religion. I am not so sure.

I remember, a few years ago, seeing a television programme about prisoners who had to be kept virtually in permanent isolation because they were so dangerous. One of them was allowed to talk to a journalist only from behind a Perspex screen because this man was so violent that the journalist would not be safe otherwise.
This man ranted furiously that he was going to live his life the way he wanted to. He did not care about anyone else or what people thought of him. No-one was going to tell him what to do. But he was in a maximum-security prison, living his life under other people’s orders 24/7. And he thought he was free. How sad is that?

In the nineteen sixties, when I was growing up, “freedom” was our slogan. All over the western world young people were proclaiming themselves free to throw off the shackles of religion, social convention and sexual restraint. This generation was going to do as it pleased. A lot of what was thrown off needed to be thrown off. There was hypocrisy, abuse and corruption in church and state which deserved to be condemned.
It was just that this generation were not actually free of all constraints:
- The constraints of their own knowledge and ability to deal with life. Many hit the buffers when required to deal with the real world of economics, politics, social systems and family structures.
- the constraints of their own physical make-up. Sexual promiscuity led to sexually transmitted disease, some of which was deadly. Drugs may have given you a huge emotional high but destroyed your body and soul.
- The constraints of the natural world. As the consumer society celebrated its freedom to have anything they wanted, claiming their right to devastate the natural world if they chose, they were laying down a huge ecological crisis for their children and grandchildren
- The constraints of their own spiritual and social needs. It was all very well to declare that I am going to do what I want but who was there then to pick up the pieces when you took a serious tumble? And with local churches and faith communities fast disappearing, where would you go when you reached rock bottom and needed something greater than your own strength to get you up?

A lot of people have come to believe that they don’t owe God anything anymore. OK, but maybe Jesus’ story, however you take it, is not so much about what we owe to God as about what we owe to ourselves. Don’t you think that humanity deserves something better than the mess we are in at the moment?

At this point I turned back to what Jesus quoted at the end of his story. Unlike the story, Psalm 118 is a hymn of reconciliation and salvation. It is the song of someone who had hit rock bottom. Life had treated him badly, the world was a very threatening place; he felt, he said, as though he were surrounded by swarming, buzzing bees, crowding in and attacking him. I guess many of us have some idea of how he felt…..
But suddenly he was aware of God’s help and of God making him strong enough to push the forces of destruction away. “I was pushed back and about to fall but the Lord helped me… I shall not die,” he says, “ I shall live and let everyone know what God has done.”
He cannot believe how God has turned his life around. This is neither an absentee landlord nor a distant deity demanding tribute from struggling people. This is God who gets involved; who remains right beside him and gives him the victory.

And when the song gets to the saying about “the stone the builders rejected” there is no hint of malicious triumph (so there) on either side. It is almost as though this cornerstone is a collaborative effort. It is what happens when God and humanity come together. It is what happens when a disgruntled sense of “obligation” becomes an outpouring of thanks and praise.
Both St Paul and St Peter take this up in their letters to young churches- we are the bricks with which God’s kingdom is built. We are joined with Jesus Christ to shape the temple of God’s presence in the world, not because God demands this of us but because we choose to be there. In Jesus Christ we have met the God who gets involved; the God who never gives up; the God who came and gardened the vineyard with us no matter what the storms or what it cost Him.

Suddenly life looks a whole lot better. Suddenly God looks a whole lot nicer. Suddenly it makes more sense to join forces with God than to cast him off.
The vineyard that is our personal life may look to us seriously choked up with the weeds of past mistakes, fears, suffering and frustrations but God stands with a spade in his hand offering to clear it.
The vineyard that is our church may look to us under threat of dying altogether in the face of the huge challenges ahead, but God stands with a new plan and the promise of power to bring it to fruition.
The vineyard that is our world may look to us hopelessly chaotic as one disaster follows another, but God stands there with the wisdom of eternity and the love which never gives up offering both in all their fullness to the human race. I shall not die, I shall live and let everyone know what God has done.”
So be it. Amen.