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Listening to God

Last week, America suffered yet another mass shooting. This time it was on a huge scale as Stephen Paddock, previously unknown to the police, reigned down bullets on innocent victims at a music concert from a hotel room in Las Vegas. As the dead are buried and the injured treated, once again America is forced to look at its soul. Is it right that guns and other armaments are so freely available? Is it right that more guns are in the hands of private individuals in America than anywhere else in the world? In reflecting on these issues last week, a BBC news reporter spoke of history repeating itself. It was inevitable, he said, that America was in this place again. Sadly, he was sure that another such event would happen again before too long.
Repeating the mistakes of the past. Not learning from history. It’s not just America that’s at fault here. I am sure you could all think of examples from other parts of the world where it would seem lessons have not been learnt. Surely history should have told the Spanish government that sending in riot police to prevent the referendum they deemed illegal in Catalonia would inflame rather than defuse the situation. In our own lives, we all know our weaknesses. We will eat too many cream cakes or chocolates even though experience will tell us that we will not feel good afterwards. No doubt there are many other lessons we are slow to learn which have much worse consequences.
The story which Jesus tells about tenants in a vineyard (Matthew 21.33-46) was aimed fairly and squarely at the Jewish leaders of his day who had not learnt lessons from the past. It is based on a much older story from the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 5.1-7) which we had as our Old Testament reading this morning. Both stories suggest that God has blessed his people with a vineyard. For the Old Testament people of Israel, this vineyard is the promised land, the land of Canaan, rich and fertile, flowing with milk and honey. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of ‘My beloved’ having a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He cultivated it, planted it with ‘choice’ vines, provided a watch tower and a wine vat. He expected it to yield grapes…but it yielded wild grapes. (Isaiah 5.1-2)
By the 8th century before Jesus when Isaiah began his prophecies, much had gone wrong with the promised land. God’s provision remained, but by quarrelling with one another and listening to the voices of other nations rather than to the prophets of God, Israel had become divided and the northern kingdoms were about to be swallowed up in a powerful Assyrian assault. Isaiah addresses the southern kingdom of Judah and Ahaz, its king pleading with him not to go the same way, to make the same mistake. His words are in vain. The beautiful vineyard which God had made possible was yielding only wild fruit. Through his prophet, God declares that he could have done no more for his vineyard. (Isaiah 5.4) As a result, God will remove its hedge, its wall allowing it to be trampled down. (Isaiah 5.5) This is an allusion to, a prophecy of the eventual exile in Babylon a century and a half later.
According to the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus tells his story after he has made his entry into Jerusalem on the donkey. As he begins to teach in the temple courts, he finds the Jewish leaders increasingly hostile. They demand to know by what authority Jesus is speaking and acting. Jesus turned the tables on them by asking them whether they thought John the Baptist acted on God’s authority or human authority. (Matthew 21.25) They fail to answer Jesus knowing it would not go well for them which ever option they picked. Therefore, Jesus refuses to state his authority, but it is clear from this and many other encounters that for those who had the ears to hear it, Jesus’ authority was God.
It is against this background that Jesus tells his story about a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it and built a watch tower. (Matthew 21.33ff) The Jewish leaders would have known the Isaiah story and thought Jesus was repeating it, but he then begins to rework it. The landowner leases the vineyard to tenants and then leaves for another country. When harvest time comes, he begins to send slaves to collect the proceeds but one is beaten and another killed. So, the landowner decides to send his son thinking not unreasonably given the culture of the day, that his son would be respected. The reverse happens. His son is killed, the tenants even having the gall to think they might then stand to inherit the property if he is dead. Finally, the landowner himself visits the vineyard and Jesus asks the Jewish leaders ‘What will he do with those tenants?’ They answer predictably: ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him produce at the harvest time.’ (Matthew 21. 41)
Again, Jesus is boxing clever with this story. He is using it like a mirror, drawing the Jewish leaders into it and getting them to condemn themselves. He only needs then to quote Psalm 118. 22&23 for them to realise that Jesus has been speaking about them all along. ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes. Suddenly they could see that they were the wicked tenants. Their forebears had been the prophets and leaders who had abused the prophets and other godly messengers. Jeremiah for instance, was beaten and placed in the stocks. (Jeremiah 20.2) But history was about to repeat itself. This same Jewish leadership was about to do away with God’s son, plotting and conspiring how this might be done without inciting the crowd who regarded him as a prophet.
Having spoken to them through parables, Jesus turns to address the Jewish leaders plainly: ‘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.’ (Matthew 21.43) Or as Jesus put it even more bluntly earlier: ‘…tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.’ (Matthew 21.31) The Jewish leaders had proved time and time again to be poor tenants of God’s vineyard; of the kingdom of God. They did not read the scriptures, the history of their faith in such a way which might have enabled them to learn from the past. They constantly failed to be open to the spirit of God, to heed the voice of his messengers and ultimately to recognise God in their midst in Jesus. Forgiven sinners were more worthy of the kingdom than they were.
As we read these stories about the God’s vineyard today, we could just say rather smugly: ‘well that was Jesus’ message for those self-satisfied scribes and Pharisees back in his day. It does not apply to us. But before we brush it aside lightly, could we not reflect on what we began with: the inability of nations, leaders and individuals to learn meaningfully from the past.
The history of the church is littered with generations of leaders who have been prepared to marginalise, malign and even kill those who with a clear conscience spoke God’s word. In Oxford, protestant reformers, Latimer and Ridley were burned. In Wrexham, catholic bishop Richard Gwyn was hung drawn and quartered. How open are we to the voice of God’s Spirit today especially if it comes in ways we don’t expect?
It isn’t just about leaders. We can all usefully reflect on how we learn and grow as Christians. We are not meant to be bigoted or stubborn but open to all that God will teach us from the past through the scriptures and continue to reveal to us through his Spirit. It is in humility that we continue to walk with him to produce the fruit of eternal life, ready for when the owner of the vineyard calls.
Trinity 17 08.10.2017

Rev Jonathan Smith

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