Sunday, 5 October 2014

Hearts, Wine and Death (Matt 21:33 ff)

Ah, I love a story about the abuse of religious power. After all, I've abused enough of it myself.

The People of Israel were supposed to be God's vineyard. All planted in the right place - down there between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. The breezes off the sea, just enough rain in the right places, the mountains to cool it down, and deserts to make it hard to get at the place; like a fence around a vineyard. Just beautifully placed to produce a good crop.

And the fruit of the vineyard was supposed to be the hearts of the people. A crop of holiness. The race that identified the Creator from the Creation. They didn't need idols; they didn't need to carve their gods. They twigged that God wasn't in any particular place - he was beyond the earth, and yet everywhere at once.

And the priests and religious leaders - they'd managed a great degree of faithfulness, compared to those days of the books of Judges and Kings, when Israel was constantly falling into idolatry. Must have been an exciting life, in those days. "Off to work, dear?" "Nah, just nipping up the High Place for a bit of idolatry. What Elijah don't know can't hurt him"

Wasn't like that in the 1st Century.  No, the Priests and the Pharisees hadn't fallen into the trap of thinking their God was a creature, or could be contained within the carving of one. Do you know, I'm not sure that the pagans ever really did, either. They knew they were reaching out for something else - something beyond the stone and wood, the sun and the moon. But the 1st Century Jews were, on  the whole, a faithful lot, if a bit fractious.

But what Jesus is criticizing was not the idolatry that confused the God with stone or wood - or even gold - figures. Jesus is saying that they've turned it round - rather, the leaders wanted the things God was entitled to.

What is God entitled to? Obedience, love, the hearts of men and women. What were these leaders after? Obedience, respect - control over the hearts of men and women. What were they - even if unconsciously - replacing God with? Not wood or stone. Themselves. They were taking God's place by demanding his authority.

What was the problem with Jesus? He was the rival for the hearts of those men and women. When he spoke - people were drawn away from what the Establishment was offering. They could get certainty, obedience, but with it - what? Guilt? The fear that at any moment they might fall off the tightrope of obedience. What does Jesus offer? The same God who is interested in the world, and God's children. The same God who is greater than the earth.

The prophets God sent - what were they for? To call people to give what was due - their hearts to God.  What did the Establishment do? Sent the prophets packing. Killed some of them. The Establishment wanted the awe, the hearts, the obedience of the people for themselves.

And so God sends his son. Who's going to get wine from the vineyard - the love of God's people - now? And what are the tenants going to do? Now they've got the ultimate challenge to what they claim?

The same, as it turns out. But this time, Jesus says, it's it. The tenancy of the vineyard is changing. The lease is terminated. The contract is going to be put up to tender. And, in a bit of rough justice that maybe wasn't unknown in Jesus's world, the old tenants are gonna die. Good news for Tesco senior executives that they live today, I reckon. New tenants are going to be invited to take over the place. Maybe they will know how to run it - and whom its profits belong to.

It's easy to see this story as a simple one of Church taking over the baton from Jews. One people rejected, another now being blessed. But I do think there's more than this to be taken out. The story is about where the produce of the vineyard belongs. I guess, given th landlord has leased out to tenants, that they're entitled to some of the wine - or else why be a tenant? The old Jewish system was entitled to the love of its adherents. But the landlord demands his share. So for us, what does that mean?

What it did under the old governors, I reckon. Any Church leader that puts himself (it's normally himself) in the place of  God - expects respect beyond what is really due, distorts God's word to his own benefit - fails to give to God what is expected - is not fit for the post. All Church leaders are under that terrible challenge - to help people to see God, to understand what it is God wants, but never to get in the way, or stand in the place, of God.

And for all of us a reminder - we're planted in God's vineyard to be productive. To produce the very best we can. To give a harvest to our Lord. The landlord expected the best of the wine, from his vineyard. And God deserves the best of our hearts, from our lives.


  1. Someone once told me that within the church the degree of respect and authority that you ought to expect goes down as you go up the hierarchy, because
    - the church members are the servants of God
    - the ministers / priests / pastors ... are the servants of the servants of God
    - the superintendents / rural deans / ... are theservants of the servants of the servants of God
    - the district chairs / bishops / ... are the servants of the servants of the servantsof the servants of God


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