DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


The Villains of the Story

Since Old Testament times, Jewish teachers had used the landowner and the vineyard, like the shepherd and his sheep, as a picture of God and his people. So the moment the people heard Jesus start a parable about a vineyard they will have thought, "Hello, this one�s about us" (Matthew 21.33-46).

They did not need to have it explained - and neither did the chief priests and the Pharisees. The householder was God, his servants were the prophets, and the tenants were the faithless kings and religious leaders who down the ages had led Israel from one catastrophe to the next.

This was a direct attack by the itinerant Galilean carpenter against the established order.

And this time he wasn�t sounding off in some northern peasant village. It was in the capital city itself. It was in Jerusalem. And that spelled trouble.

This passage in Matthew�s Gospel is the biblical equivalent of dynamite. It opens with the arrival of Jesus at Jerusalem on what we know as Palm Sunday. In a carefully prepared publicity stunt, he rides in on a donkey and is greeted by the crowd with wild excitement as if he were the king.

This was hardly likely to endear him to the authorities.

Then, as Matthew recounts, the first thing he does is to march into the Temple and cast out the money changers and the sellers of sacrificial pigeons. And he justifies his actions by quoting the words of Jeremiah. This was the Old Testament prophet who more than any of the others earned the hatred of the religious and civic authorities of his day. He ended up slung into a dungeon for his outright denunciation - in God�s name - of their faithless policies and behaviour.

Again, quoting this source was not the way for Jesus to make friends and influence people in high places.

Then the very next day Jesus has an open argument with the chief priests and elders about the preaching of John the Baptist and about his own authority to teach. The argument that ends in stony silence on the part of the religious leaders.

And it is into that silence that Jesus lobs the bombshell of the parable we have just read this morning. Small wonder that "they perceived that he was speaking about them", and tried to arrest him.

But what lesson might we learn from all this?

In the traditional Christian interpretation of the parable, the faithless tenants who kill the Son are the Jewish leaders who are then destroyed themselves. Christians are the beneficiaries to whom the kingdom of God is given in their place.

But that interpretation runs the danger of making us smug and complacent. And whatever the intention of Jesus� parables it was never that. They might be meant to encourage us, and fortify us, or sometimes to scold us and warn us, but never ever to make us complacent.

So how are we to interpret it?

Well, the villains of the story were the tenants. They were people who held the vineyard as trustees, on behalf of the owner and on behalf of his heir. And their great sin lay in trying to take it into their own possession.

So let us think of the vineyard not as the House of Israel, but as the Christian Church. And let us see in the tenants, not the far off historical characters like Caiaphas and his fellow priests and elders, but ourselves, who are the trustees and stewards of the Church in our own day.

The questions posed by the parable then become, "How do we exercise our own trusteeship, our own stewardship? Do we try to posses the Church for ourselves, and work in it just for our own benefit? Or do we truly play our part in it for God�s glory and for the sake of those whose future inheritance it will be?"

That is a question each of us has to answer for ourselves. And I am not suggesting that we should get no pleasure and or spiritual benefit out of our Church membership, and the exercise of our various roles within the Christian community.

But the parable does contain a solemn warning that we should always remember that we are tenants, not owners, of our Church - the Church being understood both as the building and the spiritual heritage - and that we hold it in trust for God and for future generations of Christians.

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