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.
This week’s Epistle includes what is arguably the most beautiful passage in all of Paul’s letters – his theologically deep and poetically compelling affirmation to the Philippians of the incarnation of God in Jesus. For a long time, biblical scholars thought that this was probably an early Christian hymn, but opinion on this point has changed in recent decades. Still, whether it is or not, the passage brilliantly captures the indissoluble unity of the human and the divine that was made possible by Christ's perfect obedience. The climax looks to a time when ‘every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’.
There follows, however, an instruction to the Philippians that seems to conflict both with the Lordship of Christ, and with Paul’s well known insistence on faith before works. 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’, Paul writes. Yet surely the Good News of the Gospel renders this instruction redundant? Since Christ has saved us by being 'obedient to the point of death-- even death on a cross', are we not relieved of the burden of working out our salvation for ourselves? Paul, of course, does not mean to deny this, and so he immediately adds to his instruction this essential qualification – ‘it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. But doesn’t this just compound the problem? Is it God at work, or is it us at work?
The Gospel throws some light on this issue. It falls into two parts whose connection is not altogether obvious. The first part recounts another of Jesus’ encounters with the chief priests and elders, while the second part is another vineyard parable. In the parable, two sons react differently to their father's instruction to work in the vineyard. The one who explicitly refuses, appears to be rebellious yet ultimately does as his father asks. The other appears to be dutiful by saying the right thing, but in fact goes his own way. Jesus asks his hearers to decide which of the two sons is the obedient one. It’s a rhetorical question. The answer is obvious. The ‘rebel’ is the obedient son because, in the end, he decides to act as his father instructs. The two parts of the passage are connected because the parable is directed at the chief priests and elders. They it is who appear to obey the ways of God, yet they rejected John the Baptist, just as they are rejecting Jesus. It is ordinary people, and especially apparently unrighteous tax collectors and prostitutes, who got it right. They welcomed John the Baptist, and they can see God at work in Christ.
The message is this. Salvation is a combination of knowledge and will. We need to know how we ought to live. This means having open and inquiring minds, praying with the words of this week’s Psalm, 'Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation'. But we also need to acknowledge our frailty. Though the life of faith for us is a communion with God, this necessarily falls short of Christ's perfect union. That is why, like the tax collectors, but unlike the chief priests, we need to look to Jesus. In our attempts to do so, it would be difficult to improve on Paul’s opening advice. ‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus’. True discipleship means being of one mind with Jesus. But a crucial part of the sentence is the very first word -- ‘Let . .’.
The whole of this week's Gospel comprises a single parable – the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Unlike many other Gospel parables, this one has a beginning, a middle, an end, and a punch line. This means that we can follow it very easily.
An employer pays his workers according to the agreement he made with them. They are greatly surprised, and annoyed, to find that he has paid them all the same amount, even though they have done significantly different amounts of work. The problem, though, is not simply to understand the story. We also have to ask what lesson are we supposed to draw from it.
Occasionally people have thought that this parable has direct application to the workplace. They take the message to be that Christian employers ought to pay their workers equally rather than on a meritocratic basis. Sometimes, they have found warrant in it for an even wider principle of Christian social ethics, one that supports something like the Marxist dictum ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’. Yet, Jesus makes it plain that he is not talking about ordinary life, but about ‘the Kingdom of Heaven’. That is to say, his parable concerns the way God deals with us, not the way we deal with each other.
Even if this is what the parable aims to illuminate, however, there still seems be a problem of interpretation. The vineyard owner says to the labourer who complains that he has worked all day, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong’. At one level that is plainly true, but is it a good enough response to the complaint? How can it be just to give the same reward to radically different amounts of work? Don’t the labourers who worked longer deserve more?
These questions have familiar religious parallels. If the redemption of the world is universal and includes everyone who repents, this means that repentance wipes out past sins. However wicked anyone has been, it seems it doesn't matter in the end. Could such a doctrine be squared with our sense of justice? Can it be just for God to treat fraudsters, child abusers, serial killers and terrorists in the same way as those who have been decent Christians -- or simply decent citizens -- all their lives, provided they express repentance, should it only be on their death beds? What is the point of lifelong faithfulness, if it makes no difference in the end?
To this recurrent, and heartfelt question, the Epistle from Philippians suggests an answer. If, as Paul affirms ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’, then the benefit to us of God’s redeeming work in Christ is ‘inestimable’ (as the BCP General Thanksgiving expressly declares). That is to say, unlike payment, the value of knowing the love of God in Christ can't be measured in any meaningful way. Duration does not determine the value of love between people. Love is not lessened in or for those who die young. Similarly, living in awareness of God's love is supremely valuable regardless of how early or late in life we have come to it. Nothing can improve upon it because there simply is no greater benefit that lifelong laborers could hope for, or deserve. And this remains true, quite irrespective of how God treats other sinners.
Knowledge of our own salvation, then, should dispel any envious glances we might be tempted to cast at those who, from a materialistic point of view, ‘got away with it’. Are the years they lived in self-indulgence, dishonesty or cruelty a way of life we would have chosen, if only we had known that we could be forgiven just before death? What kind of life could we want more than to live ‘in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ’, and to do so for as much of our lives as possible? Of course, we know that we will always fall short. That is why repentance and forgiveness have such an important role.
In one way or another, the readings for this Sunday are about tolerance, forgiveness and judgment. In the contemporary liberal democratic world, tolerance is lauded, officially at any rate, while being 'judgmental' is among the worst of sins. That explains why most mainline Christian denominations have been so anxious to cast off the Church’s historical reputation as ‘judgmental’, and keen embrace a non-judgmental inclusiveness instead. This reflects, they think, what they see to be God's unconditional love in Christ. God loves you whoever, and whatever, you are.
More conservative Christians sometimes condemn this as a willingness to abandon a Gospel that preaches sin and salvation, in the interests of appeasing the secular world. Yet, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Romans that serves as this week's epistle, does provide biblical support for non-judgmentalism. The disagreement Paul writes about – whether or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols -- is of no concern to us today. But the advice he bases upon it has much wider application. Though we ought to be firm in our own convictions, he tells us, we ought not to pass judgment on, still less despise, those who disagree with us. The Gospel passage puts the same thought in the wider context of those who harm us. Forgiveness is ‘seventy times seven’ more important than retribution, however natural the desire for this may be. Here we have a truth that everyone has reason to welcome, if we are not to fall into the rank hypocrisy of the indebted slave in the parable that Jesus goes on to tell.
To this extent then, biblical teaching coincides with contemporary liberal opinion. At the same time, the wholesale rejection of ‘judgmentalism’ conflicts with another key element in these readings. Human beings, they all tell us, are indeed under judgment, both for what they believe and for what they do.
This comes out very clearly in the Old Testament lesson. When Jacob dies, his sons are understandably afraid that Joseph will now feel free to avenge himself for the cruelty they showed him all those years before when they sold him into slavery. They know full well that what they did was wrong. That is why they lied to their father about it at the time. When they approach Joseph, possibly with another lie about Jacob’s dying words, his response is so gracious that it brings them to tears. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”. Joseph forgives them, but he does not in any way discount what they did. Rather, he turns from away from his own feelings and towards the ultimate judgment that must fall upon them, at the hands of God.
No one really thinks non-judgmentally. Even the most liberal person holds that racist beliefs, for example, are invariably rooted in falsehoods, and that their fruits, especially when sincerely held, are inevitably evil. Paul's point, though, is that Christians – even in this kind of case -- ought to be very careful that they are not trying to pre-empt God’s judgment. ‘Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?” he cautions his readers. So while he takes his stand against human judgmentalism, he immediately places it in a larger theological context: “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God”.
The Gospel story of the hypocritical slave, let it be noted, ends with his being “tortured” as an act of justice. In the past, Christians have been very ready to usurp God’s justice and do the torturing themselves. Nowadays, perhaps, they are more likely to make the opposite mistake -- presuming upon God’s mercy and doing the forgiving themselves. The difficult thing is to witness to the solemn truth that “each of us will be accountable to God”, and at the same time do so in a spirit of love rather than loathing.
The Gospel for this Sunday contains a phrase that has powerfully consoled Christians in difficult circumstances of many sorts – ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them’. Faced with social isolation, political oppression, cultural indifference or simply declining membership, it is both critically important and deeply reassuring to hold fast to the truth that neither popular success nor numerical strength is relevant to the promise of divine presence. Indeed, perhaps we have less reason to be confident of the presence of Christ when two or three thousand are gathered together, since mass movements have often proved the enemy of true religion.
At the same time, there is always this risk -- that ‘where two or three are gathered together’ is reduced to a self-justifying mantra. This happens when it is invoked by opinionated minorities in defense of their splits and schisms. It also happens when it is used to exempt complacent churches from their evangelical obligations. It is true when churches are animated by clubbishness, rather than the expansiveness that comes from faith in God. In all these cases, divine assurance is displaced by human failing – self-righteousness, complacency, fearfulness – often masquerading as ‘concern’ or ‘community’. It is salutary to remember, therefore, that the wonderful assurance Jesus offers in this much repeated sentence is not unconditional.
The extract from Paul’s Letter to the Romans prescribed for this Sunday, addresses just this issue. Though relatively brief, it is also remarkably dense. Its central message is that Christ is truly present only in those who have ‘put on Christ’. What does this mean? It means adopting a cast of mind or way of looking at things -- the mind of Christ-- whose key elements are these. First, Christians need the conviction that ‘now is the time to wake from sleep’. The things we often struggle for, such as wealth, power, or personal career, are in an important sense unreal. Second, we need to abandon ‘the works of darkness’ i.e. the devious and destructive ways in which we can so easily pursue our goals, and be willing to have the brightest light shine on the way we conduct our lives. Third, we have to affirm that love best fulfils ‘the law’, which is to say, that living truly in accordance with the laws of God means being motivated chiefly by a love for the world and the people around us.
Christian conduct down the centuries has shown just how hard it is to follow these prescriptions. Often the difficulty arises from self-centredness, but social and political conformity, an unwillingness to stand out (or in older language ‘witness’) is no less likely to deflect us from the mind of Christ. Yet, if we pause to dwell on it, we can come to see that both personal selfishness and social conformity are obstacles to a truly extraordinary prospect. Through Christ, mere mortals can participate in the divine life of the one true God.
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