"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory".
So begins Mark’s Gospel for this first Sunday in Advent. The words are undeniably apocalyptic, and this is what makes them problematic, not only for those who have great difficulty believing in an apocalypse, but for many main-stream Christians, who are understandably anxious to distance themselves from lurid conceptions of ‘the Rapture’, or some such religious extreme. Warnings that 'the end of the world is nigh' are widely regarded as characteristic of Christianity's lunatic fringe, not least because, while believers have often been firmly convinced about the date of our impending end, they have invariably been wrong.
Yet, this Gospel passage can hardly be set aside. It is not the wild prediction of some eccentric Nostradamus. These are words of Jesus as recorded in the Christian Bible, and expressly appointed, in a Lectionary that the larger part of the Christian world now acknowledges and uses, to be read in public on this Sunday. So how are we to understand them?
It is perhaps best to start with this thought. Any attempt to think about time and eternity cannot avoid invoking imaginative rather than literal language. That is because it is impossible to place it within the long list of historical events. The end of all history, whatever we might mean by that expression, cannot itself be in history. So too for time’s origins. That is why long ago the realization dawned that the Genesis stories are not historical, but graphic and compelling representations of non-historical truth: time and space are the framework of God’s creation, a calling into existence of everything, whose mysterious nature science has still only penetrated to a very small degree. If we bear creation in mind, then, it is not so strange to think that God’s purpose will also bring this great cosmic experiment to a close. If so, however, we must think about the end of all things in pictures that are no less powerful.
Contrary to the opinion of its detractors, but also some of its admirers, the Bible is not a scientific text. It is a little library, a collection of books of different kinds -- history, prophecy, ethics, poetry, and story. Over a few centuries the Church forged them into a single ‘canon’, so that taken together they offer us something that even the most impressive scientific investigation cannot do, namely a religious and theological insight into the human condition – what it means to live and die as a human being comprosed of body, mind and soul.
We are clay, and God is the potter, Isaiah reminds us in this week’s Old Testament lesson. This means that both the number of our own days, and of the whole cosmos is determined in God’s good time, not in ours. Prediction is pointless, since no one – not even God the Son, today's Gospel tells us -- can put a date to its end. What is called for, therefore, is perpetual watchfulness. This is one half of the message of Advent. The other half tells us that even the end of history can be regarded with hope rather than fear. Isaiah’s compelling image of the clay and the potter is preceded by this affirmation “O LORD, you are our Father”. The implication is clear. The world, from Creation to Apocalypse, is founded not on a physical or a biological, but a personal relationship. That is the faith underlying the message of St Paul in the Epistle. Since the grace of God has already been given to us in Christ Jesus, Paul declares, we need not lack any of the spiritual gifts that will enable us to contemplate the drama of Christ’s final return.
The last Sunday of the Christian year is now quite widely celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King, more recently referred to The Reign of Christ. This is a relatively new practice, instituted by the Roman Catholic church in 1925, and one that has been followed by other churches for only the last few decades. Although it rounds off the year appropriately with a culminating affirmation of the supremacy and majesty of the risen Jesus, there are at least two reasons to hesitate.
First, the language employs a very antiquated conception – kingship -- which is why, presumably, ‘The Reign of Christ’ is thought preferable to ‘Christ the King’. The alteration does not accomplish much however. It still invites us to summon up a vanished world of kings, queens, and emperors surrounded by immense wealth and splendour, and exercising absolute power. Apart from a few isolated cases, all of them tyrannical dictatorships, no one nowadays attributes such an elevated status to another human being, or makes the mistake of treating them like gods. So how can applying ancient royal images to Jesus Christ enrich our understanding or increase our devotion? Second, invoking the image of Christ the King runs the risk of being unattractively triumphalist. Is this not an expression of Christian superiority in a world that rightly emphasizes the ever present need for inter-faith dialogue?
In this week's Epistle, Paul, even though he is writing for a world in which supreme imperial power was indeed the norm, offers us a way of responding to the first point. He tells the Ephesians that God -- the creator of all that is -- has used his power to raise a criminalized Jew in an obscure part of the empire “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion”. That is to say, to think of Jesus as king sets the political power of earthly kings in its proper perspective. For all their majesty, such rulers are powerless when it comes to redemption and saving us from sin and death. Their worldly power may be real enough, but also importantly hollow. This is an assessment that applies to modern democratic states with Parliaments and Presidents no less than to ancient ones. The wealth, scientific knowledge and technological sophistication of today’s world has strengthened, not weakened, the erroneous idea that human beings can create a brave new world, or at least save themselves from ultimate disaster. Indeed, given the many spectacular catastrophes that have unfolded in the last 120 years, we have less reason than ever to put our ultimate faith in ourselves and our political leaders.
To hail Christ as king, therefore, does not mean claiming supreme power for an alternative political candidate. Rather it means reversing our whole way of thinking about power. It is on the Cross, after all, that Jesus receives his Crown of Thorns. It is of course true, as this Sunday’s Gospel parable of the sheep and the goats affirms, that Jesus has been given the final word of judgment over all creation. Yet, this does not license any pride-filled Christian triumphalism. On the contrary, it leaves believing Christians with a new and far more demanding responsibility, also reflected in the Gospel parable. Their special task is to make sure that they honour and witness to the supreme reign of Christ even in the poorest places and among the humblest people.
The Gospel parable for this Sunday has entered our thinking so deeply that it has changed the meaning of a word. In Biblical times ‘talent’ was a unit of currency, distantly connected linguistically with the modern ‘dollar’. It has now come to mean a special aptitude, largely because Matthew’s story has consistently been interpreted to refer to talents in this modern sense. The word ‘talents’ has lost all its monetary associations, and is often interchanged with the word ‘gifts’. Yet this term too has changed, and for the most part lost the theological overtones that it had in former times. Gifts imply a giver, and who is the giver of these 'gifts', if not God? Nowadays, however, people happily refer to special aptitudes such as a talent for music or mathematics, as ‘gifts’, and they even speak of people being ‘blessed’ with such gifts. Yet they do so without thinking of any giver. A gift is a matter of chance, just something we happen to be born with.
In the parable Jesus tells, though, there is a giver -- the man who goes on a journey – and the ‘talents’ he gives his slaves are sums of money. The principal focus of the story is not on the talents, but on those who have been given them. How effectively have they used the resources with which they have been entrusted? On his return, the master is pleased with the first two slaves, but exceedingly angry with the third. But why? He has not squandered or wasted the money. He has simply kept it safe, lest he get into trouble. In modern parlance, the third slave is ‘risk averse’. This would not have cut much ice with Jesus’ hearers. They would have found it much easier to sympathize with the master’s anger than we can. That is because human beings in the 21st century are more ‘risk averse’ than at any other time in history. This is odd, really, because especially in developed countries, we are also wealthier, healthier, more secure and longer-lived than ever before.
So, the most obvious lesson to draw from this parable is a very hard one. Relative to human beings throughout history, in the last seventy years or so we have been given great prosperity and immense resources. And yet we have constructed for ourselves an emphasis on ‘health and safety’, and absorbed it so deeply, that we are far too ‘risk averse’ to venture forth as the great saints and heroes did in times past. The current pandemic illustrates this. It has generated far more widespread fear and anxiety, far greater caution, and far more reliance on political measures, than far worse plagues ever did in the past. What should we make of this?
Since the season of Advent is approaching, the Lectionary has paired the Gospel parable of the talents with an Old Testament lesson from the prophet Zephaniah in which he issues a very stern warning. “The day of the LORD is at hand . . . At that time, says the Lord, I will search Jerusalem with lamps, and I will punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs . . . Their wealth shall be plundered, and neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them”. Could this apply to us any more directly or more pertinently? Can silver and gold in the form of vast amounts of public spending lead us out of the fear and social fragmentation into which we have sunk?
The Christian Church, if one is honest, has not borne much witness in this time of consternation. Yet if we do look to Jesus, we ought not to be stumbling in the dark. On the contrary, Paul tells the Thessalonians in this week’s Epistle, “You are not in darkness; you are all children of light”. This is not because the Thessalonians have any special knowledge of what the future holds. Rather, it is because by following Christ they have, Paul says, “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation”. It does not require predictive foresight to act in faith, love and hope. But if we are not inspired by these, then, as Zephaniah warns us, we will cut ourselves off from the God who chose a Cross to be the perfect sign of love and hope.
In modern liturgical practice, this time of year is known as the Season of Remembrance. It begins with All Saints Day on November 1st, includes All Souls and Remembrance Sunday and takes us up to Advent. On first appearance, then, there is a sharp contrast between this season and the one that follows it. Remembrance is about looking back and recalling times past, while Advent looks forward to the future and the Second Coming of Christ that will usher in the fulfillment of God’s ultimate purpose for creation.
It may come as a surprise, therefore, to discover that the readings set for Remembrance Sunday are not backward looking at all. On the contrary, they all look forward. In the Old Testament lesson, Job looks with longing to the time when, despite all his sufferings and the doubts and questions of his friends, he will finally be vindicated by God. St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, describes in vivid terms the moment when the “last trumpet” shall sound and we shall all be changed, from mortal to immortal, thanks to the victory God has given us in Christ. In the very short Gospel passage, Jesus himself refers, twice, to “the last day”, and the final consummation of all that the Father has willed for the world and for humanity. But if all these readings point to the future, what makes them appropriate for Remembrance?
One answer is this. The Season of Remembrance does invite us to look back -- at the lives of the saints whose exceptional work and witness is our inheritance, at the existence of innumerable, ordinary, undistinguished souls who followed Christ as faithfully as they could, and on this Sunday in particular, all the people caught up in wars and conflicts who were called to endure great hardships and make great sacrifices. But the Season of Remembrance also invites us to see all that is past within the cosmic sweep of God’s unfolding purpose, uniquely revealed in Christ. In this way it prepares us for the coming Season of Advent when we focus on the completion of that purpose.
To look far back into human history while simultaneously looking forward to a future grounded, not in our own powers of prediction, but in God’s promise, should bring the present into proper perspective. Every generation has a tendency to think that what matters most now, is what matters most. We are no exception. Social division, racial tension, political election and a public health crisis, have all greatly dominated our lives lately. It is easy to think, as many have said, that these are ‘unprecedented times’. Remembrance and Advent, however, invite us to reject this description and affirm afresh that all such things fall within the long trajectory of God’s creative purpose.
Our times are no more ‘unprecedented’ than were those of Job or Paul. God says to Adam in the Garden, ‘You are dust, and unto dust you will return’, and at the start of Lent we take the opportunity to remind ourselves that this salutary truth applies to us also. As the Psalm appointed for this Sunday affirms, in God’s sight “a thousand years are as the passing of a single day”. Elevating the present over the past, or the future, inevitably leads to misguided destruction. Examples are not far to seek. The world-wide conflict heralded as ‘the war to end all wars’ proved, alas, to be the breeding ground for another conflict with still more terrible consequences.
The Season of Remembrance, then, gives us space in which to renew the belief captured in one of J S Bach’s cantatas -- ‘God’s time is the very best time’.
In this year, the modern lectionary we use reverts to the traditional Gospel reading for All Saints -- ‘The Beatitudes’. The Beatitudes are so called because they comprise a list of Jesus’ sayings, each one of which begins with the word ‘Blessed’. Yet when we say “count your blessings”, we are never thinking of beatitudes like these.
Jesus tells his disciples that they will be ‘blessed’ when they are persecuted, reviled and slandered. This is deeply counter-intuitive. Left to our own devices, we would naturally and understandably regard these as afflictions, not blessings. Jesus is of course aware of this, and also aware that his ‘beatitudes’ run contrary to traditional Jewish teaching. In the Old Testament passages where the same concept is used, it is normally translated ‘happy’. “Happy are they who have not lingered in the way of sinners; everything they do shall prosper”, Psalm One tells us. For the Psalmist, happiness is the emotional and material reward that is promised to those who faithfully follow God’s law. Here, it seems, Jesus is not promising his followers anything. He is warning them that, in ordinary human terms at least, discipleship is likely to be bad for them. So why would anyone become a disciple? Who in their right mind would sign up for persecution, contempt and slander?
The concluding verse of the Gospel offers an answer “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven”. Often this answer has been taken to re-direct our attention to exclusively post-mortem rewards – benefits that we can expect to enjoy, but only after we die. Yet, to follow Jesus solely for the sake of post-mortem benefits has the unwelcome implication that there is nothing to be gained from faithful discipleship in this life. If we believe in the saving work of Christ on the Cross we have reason to be glad now. A traditional hymn begins ‘My God I love thee not because I hope for heaven thereby’, and that seems right.
The short but beautiful Epistle from the first letter of John contains a crucial insight. The greatest possible blessing in life is "that we should be called children of God" and, the writer of the letter tells us, "we are God’s children now". Speculation about heaven and the hereafter, however intriguing or alluring is essentially idle, because "what we will be has not yet been revealed". To know that we are God’s children now, is a blessing great enough to outweigh all the negative things that the world can hurl at us.
None of us wants to be persecuted or reviled, and being ‘meek’ or ‘poor in spirit’ is not a goal we are inclined to set our children. Yet on All Saints Day we are invited to acknowledge two great truths. First, the people rightly regarded and celebrated as saints, are all those Christians, known and unknown, who set aside personal concerns in order not only persist with, but witness to the truth about Christ, and did this even when the hostility and contempt of the world in which they found themselves was almost unbearable. Second, we more wayfaring Christians are wise to pray ‘Do not bring us to the time of trial', as the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer has it, because most Christians most of the time are not likely to withstand the trial that the saints have endured. Probably this is truer for us now than it ever has been. With all the advances that have been made in medical science and all the modern conveniences that have been invented, we have come ‘risk averse’, valuing safety, security and comfort above everything else. “Jesus calls us o’er the tumult”, the hymn for St Andrew’s Day begins. Oddly, perhaps, it can be easier to hear his call over the noise of the tumult than through the layers of protection with which the modern world surrounds us.
"Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform . . . and for mighty deeds and terrifying displays of power in the sight of all Israel". So this week's alternative Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy declares. Yet the very same passage records the fact that, while God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land, he did not allow enter it. It is a very moving moment. Moses dies in sight of the land to which, for so long and in the face of so many difficulties, he has faithfully led God's chosen people.
A comparable fact is echoed in the Gospel exchange that Jesus has with the Pharisees. Asked to identify the most important rule of life, Jesus does not hesitate to recall and repeat ancient Jewish teaching about God and neighbour. But he then puts a great distance between himself and the Pharisees who are questioning him, by rejecting the special status of David, another Jewish figure scarcely less iconic than Moses. Neither David nor his descendants can be the true Messiah, Jesus says, because they are subservient to God's will and purpose no less than Moses. The message seems clear. Traditional Jewish teaching is right about love, God and neighbour, but wrong in supposing that the fullest realization of God's presence is to be found either in unrivalled prophetic power such as to be found in Moses, or in exemplary kingship such as David was believed to embody.
The Gospel implication -- that true messiahship is found in Jesus -- could be interpreted as simply a change of loyalties, a preference for a different prophet -- until we remember the Crucifixion. The charisma of Moses and the valour of David cannot be denied, and they are relatively easy to believe in as exemplars of the sovereign power of the one true God. To hail Jesus sincerely as Messiah, though, is to endorse a much harder alternative. It is to believe that, contrary to what we naturally suppose, the way in which divine love exhibits its power and secures its victory is revealed in the vulnerability of the Cross. That is both the culmination of the truth revealed to Moses, and the mystery at the heart of the Christian faith.
‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’. The punch line from this week’s Gospel (in its more traditional version) has become a familiar saying. But how should we interpret it? Is this simply a retort by which Jesus cleverly avoids a trap the Pharisees have set for him when they try to show him to be out of step with popular anti-Roman feeling? Or should we read into it a much more serious warning against confusing spiritual aspiration with political protest? To address this question, we need to see the exchange in a wider context.
In the eighth chapter of the first Book of Samuel, the Israelites ask Samuel to appoint a king. At first he takes this to be a painful rejection of his own authority, but then he learns that its true significance lies in what it says about their faith in God. Thus begins a long history in which royal power and the sovereignty of God come into regular conflict. Notwithstanding the short-lived triumphs of David and Solomon, the ultimate outcome for Israel is endless political division, and frequent conquest. Moreover, in one of the Old Testament lessons for this week, Isaiah actually voices God’s explicit commission to one of these conquerors, namely Cyrus King of the Persians. “I arm you, though you do not know me, so that [the people of Israel] may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me”. God, astonishingly, teaches lessons to his Chosen People by assisting their enemies.
The Roman conquest in New Testament times was just one more episode in the long history of Israel's subjugation. In John’s account of the trial of Jesus before the Roman governor, the subject of kingship figures prominently. When the leaders of the Jews shout ‘We have no King but Caesar!’, they reveal a radical division in their own minds between the hopes they place in God and their recourse to political power. In response, Caesar (in the person of Pilate) orders a sign to be put above the dying Jesus. It reads ‘King of the Jews’. Even if prompted by a desire to provoke the Jews, it is nonetheless insightful, because the 'Kingship' of Jesus is indeed, mysteriously, revealed in the Cross. The imperial power of Caesar ruled the ancient world. It counts for nothing now. At the time of his execution Jesus was virtually unknown. Yet the Resurrection revealed him to be the Incarnation of God. As the real Christ, long awaited by Israel, he counts for everything now.
Against this background, the instruction, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’ warns us about getting our ultimate priorities wrong. In the Epistle Paul praises the Thessalonians who “turned to God from idols”. Political power is one such idol, and it has proved endlessly alluring -- as in the failed 'war’ on terror, and now the vain ‘battle’ against the coronavirus. Even sincere Christians, with the best of intentions, it seems, can be drawn to the false allure of political power as an ultimate ‘solution’ to the God-given challenges of the human condition. That faith is not well placed in "the things of Caesar" has proven very hard to believe.
The image of a 'banquet’ or 'feast' is one that recurs with great regularity in Christian thought and art, not least in the Bible itself. The reason is easy to see. Religion is about life, and food is essential to life. An instinctive desire for food is the new born baby’s first orientation to the world, and by tradition, an offer of food is the last humane act extended to those condemned to death. Nor is food simply a necessity. Specially prepared food and drink provided in abundance is the universal mark of human celebration – at births, weddings, religious holidays and communal festivals. It was at a wedding feast that Jesus gave his first 'sign', according to John’s Gospel, and at a meal – the Passover – that the rite at the heart of Christian worship was instituted. These familiar facts remind us that it is completely natural for human beings to think analogically about spiritual gifts and blessings, and describe them as ‘heavenly food’. By extension, we can imagine God’s promise of salvation as a ‘heavenly banquet’.
Some of the most famous feasts and banquets that the Bible depicts, however, have a dark side. They are occasions on which sin subverts celebration and turns it spectacularly in the wrong direction. Belshazzer's feast in the Book of Daniel is one famous example, the story to which we owe the expression ‘the writing is on the wall’. An extravagant celebration intended to glorify Belshazzer’s reign signals instead the collapse of his Kingdom. Herod's feast at which Salome dances so well is another example. Her reward, in the gruesome form of the head of John the Baptist on a platter, suddenly makes the partying grotesque. Feasting, then, while it ought to mark a joyful celebration, can go badly wrong.
Jesus' use of the image in the parable that forms this Sunday’s Gospel has something of this ambiguity about it. Once more he relies on his audience's familiarity with Scripture, and in particular the passage that provides this week's Old Testament lesson, where Isaiah envisages salvation in these terms -- "the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear”. With Isaiah in mind, Jesus’ use of a banquet to teach about the Kingdom of Heaven could not fail to resonate with his listeners. However, it is given a special twist. To begin with, the people who ought to come to the celebration can't be bothered to come, despite the status of the host and the quality of the food. In response, the king tells his slaves to go out into the streets and gather “all whom they found, both good and bad”.
On the surface, the message seems to be this; social elitism has been rejected in favour of a wonderfully inclusive love. But, on reflection, things are not quite so simple. For a start, the guests on the original list, who treated the invitation lightly, are not included; they are punished instead. And, it turns out, even the people gathered up from the streets and brought in without asking are not assured of a permanent place at the banquet. The hapless man who did not trouble to dress properly for the occasion, is promptly thrown out.
The deeper message is this. The heart of the Gospel, and key to the promise of salvation, is not to be identified with an easy, open, no questions asked, divine welcome. God does indeed long for everyone to share with him "joys that pass our understanding", and is actively at work in the world to make this happen. That is the good news. Yet human beings have been given freedom, and this means that they can choose evil and spurn the good. In every time and place, history shows, people have done this. But more importantly for most of us, as this parable teaches, indifference, wilfulness and carelessness also have the power to make us lose those joys. That is why Paul has this important advice for the new Christians at Philippi. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Deuteronomy 8.7-18 Psalm 65. 8-13, 2 Corinthians 9.6-15. Luke 17.11-19
Harvest services are a distinctive feature of Anglican churches in the British Isles. From ancient times villages in England marked the completion of the harvest with a festive 'Harvest Home', while farmers and their families celebrated the newly harvested crops with ‘Harvest suppers’ in each others homes. In the mid-nineteenth century the rural Church of England added a special Harvest Festival Sunday, when church buildings were decorated with vegetables, fruit and sheaves of corn, and specially written hymns were sung. This quickly became one of the most enthusiastically observed Sundays in the year, and was soon copied in Ireland and Wales, and less speedily in Scotland .
The Harvest Festival took its main cue from ancient ceremonies recounted in the Old Testament, and the religious injunctions that underlay them. As the reading from Deuteronomy set for this Sunday says "When you have plenty to eat, bless the Lord our God for the good land he has given you". This year, for the first time ever since harvest festivals began, churches across the UK are prevented from celebrating Harvest in the usual way. A limited number of people can attend church, but there will be no flowers, no fruits, not sheaves, no harvest hymns. Of course, few of us nowadays have much direct contact with the land, and thanks to modern technology, in developed countries we are no longer critically dependent on good harvests, so while it will undoubtedly be a loss, perhaps it does not matter quite as much as it once would have.
In any case, the message at the heart of harvest festival, even in the Old Testament, extends well beyond the in-gathering of food at a particular time of year. The passage from Deuteronomy continues "When you have plenty to eat and live in fine houses of your own building, when your herds and flocks, your silver and gold, and all your possessions increase, do not become proud and forget the Lord your God. . . . Nor must you say to yourselves, 'My own strength and energy have gained me this wealth. Remember the Lord your God; it is he who gives you strength". If we take this injunction seriously, however, we can hardly see a great spiritual danger at the present time.
Faced with the risk of disease, the world around us has placed all its faith in humanly devised strategies, informed it is believed, by human expertise in science. On the basis of this secular faith, the community's coming together to sing thankful praise to God has been declared not only 'inessential', but unlawful. This appears to fly right in the face of Scripture. Yet to organize a proper Harvest Thanksgiving would be breaking the law of the land. Even joining with another family or two for a harvest supper at home is forbidden. In these extraordinary circumstances, what are faithful Christians to do?
Two thoughts. First, if we cannot celebrate the goodness of God together, we can at least make a special effort as individuals. We can deliberately set aside a portion of time in which to praise our Creator, acknowledge our reliance on nature, give thanks for the bounty of our food, and wonder at the glorious colours of autumn. In this way we will remind ourselves not "to become proud and forget the Lord our God" or fool ourselves into thinking that the world can be bent to our collective will by our "own strength and energy".
Second, the reading from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians draws out a further implication of harvest "He who provides seed for sowing and bread for food, will provide the seed for you to sow and swell the harvest of your benevolence." "You will always" Paul tells the Christians at Corinth, "be rich enough to be generous". If this was true of Christians in the ancient world, how much more is it true of us?
So here is a twofold test in these strange and difficult times. How much time have I given over to thanking God and contemplating the good and beautiful world that is God's gift to me? And what is the harvest of my benevolence?
The Gospel for this week is yet another parable set in a vineyard. Strictly, it is an allegory since it is not simply a story with a message, but one in which the participants can be directly correlated with the people to whom, and about whom, the story is told
On the surface, the parallels are not hard to see. God is the owner of the vineyard. The tenants are those entrusted with witnessing to his lordship. The slaves are the Old Testament prophets sent by God, time and again, to recall his people to faithful obedience. In the face of their repeated rejection the landlord’s own son – Jesus – is sent to the vineyard. His murder at the hands of the tenants brings God’s wrath upon them, and custody of the vineyard is placed in other hands.
Who exactly are these first tenants? It is easy to misidentify them as the Jews, and hence suppose that the new tenants are the Christians. This is an inference that has often been drawn in the past. But it is mistaken, and the lesson from Isaiah puts us right on this score: “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not the tenants, but the vineyard itself, strange to say, that is to be identified with the Chosen People. The fertile ground that God has provided, however, loses its fruitfulness when plants cease to grow as God has intended.
When Jesus uses the same parable, he switches attention from the vineyard to those who work it, from the people of Israel to their leaders. Forgetting, or disregarding, their obligation to God, they claim the headship of Israel for their own nationalistic purposes. It is in order to rescue his Chosen People, not to abandon them, that God sends his Son. This means that the new tenants do not mark a radical break with the past. Rather, they are called to be more faithful stewards of the same God.
Paul’s Epistle for this Sunday can be seen to reflect this interpretation of the allegory. He is, he tells the Philippians, "a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee", thereby emphatically underlining his own Jewishness, something he never discounts or disowns. But, he says, “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss . . . because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”.
The continuity between Jew and Christian is essential to the Gospel message Paul preaches. It carries this implication, however. If the ancient Pharisees forfeited their spiritual inheritance because of arrogance and complacency, a similar attitude can rob modern Christians of theirs. The Church so easily becomes concerned chiefly with its own security, popularity and prosperity, it is constantly at risk of repeating the error of the tenant farmers in the vineyard.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.
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