Saturday, 7 October 2017

From a Height (Matt 21)

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: ‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes”? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. 

I know a church where this is the reading this weekend. And it's baptism week. This is a heck of a baptism text. This is not a happy reading. This is not really a good news reading. Given the typical baptism congregation, this is not even an appropriate reading for a baptism. Because the type of people normally turning up one-off for a baptism aren't fitting into any of the categories that are being dealt with here- not the chief priests, not the Pharisees - not even the "crowds" that they are  so scared of.

And this appears to be a bygone fight. This is the sort of passage that would have meant a lot to the early Church, as it scrapped with a Jewish establishment as to who was right and who was wrong.

But maybe not.

What were the Pharisees and chief priests doing? They were maintaining their own power over against others. They were using their positions to get others to respect them - whether or not they deserved it.

And we still see that in the Church - people who think their being in the right place, doing the right job, saying the right words, wearing the right things are what is important.

But the "crowds" following Jesus - they weren't interested in position or power or their rights. They'd not had rights in the first place. They knew there was something wrong in their lives - they were ill, or their families were ill, or they just needed loving or they were struggling with the concept of this thing called "sin" which meant they felt so far from God yet all the normal rituals and readings - or the pagan gods, if they were Gentiles - weren't able to bring them closer.

And this man appeared to have something else. He taught with an authority that seemed to come from God. He backed up his claims with wonders. He didn't care whether he was dealing with men, women, children - he'd even deal with Gentiles. He preached an acceptance they'd never experienced, a direct knowledge of God they'd not heard of - and they just wanted to know more about it. So they followed him.

And the Pharisees and chief priests saw him as a threat. They could see what everyone knowing God - unmediated, without the need for ritual priests - would mean. Hadn't they spent two thousand years doing their best to shut the prophets up? When the prophets kept demanding justice, hadn't they kept pointing people to order, to ritual, to good behaviour?

And here he was - another prophet - and in that parable claiming to be so much more than one messenger from God. He was claiming to be God's son. No wonder they were angry.

The "stone that the builders rejected," the psalmist cried, "has become the cornerstone." The builders - the people who laboured in Israel - Jesus identifies with the establishment. The stone - with himself. He's telling them - you will lose your positions, you will lose your rights. The Temple - the place from the which the priests gained their rights - would be lost. The Pharisees would regroup, would remake the Jewish people and faith in exile - would be the builders of the faithful Jews of today. But they'd never rule the roost again like they did, there, in Judah.

The stone, Jesus says, will crush them if it falls on them from a height. That height was a cross. In trying to protect their power, they would lose it. In 40 years, the powers of priests was broken - the Pharisees scattered, as what they had worked to preserve was destroyed by the Roman Empire.

The things they harvested, the things they kept for themselves - respect, offerings, earthly power - they should have given to God. The thing they should have hung onto - the true rock - they rejected. Jesus says to the Pharisees, to the Priests, to the crowds - and to us - what is important? Our temporary powers, our rights, our rules, our personal authority? All these things that will pass? Or the life of God, given from the Son, poured out by the Spirit, which will last forever?

No contest, is it?

No comments :

Post a Comment

Drop a thoughtful pebble in the comments bowl