Posted by: owizblog | September 20, 2012

“Or WHAT…?” Sermon, UCB, 2 October 2011

Matthew 21:33ff.

I

There’s something remarkable about the parable in this morning’s Gospel reading from Matthew. And it’s very easy to miss. It’s just this; Jesus doesn’t finish the story himself. He asks his hearers how it ends, and they finish it for him. But it’s also really important, once we’ve heard how the crowd finish the story to ask: is that the only way it could have finished? Is that the only way things could have gone?

Let me run over it again for you, very quickly. A man builds a vineyard, and fits it out, and then he has to go away, so he puts in tenants to run the place. They start treating as if they own it, and soon the absentee owner isn’t getting the returns that are his by right from it. He sends a succession of people to try to sort things out – just to secure his rights to what the vineyard is producing – and each one is treated worse than the last. Things quickly arrive at a crucial point, where two trains of thought have been evolving separately, and now crash into each other. The owner has been upping the diplomatic ante, trying to set things straight by sending more and more powerful representatives, and now, since he can’t be there himself, he sends his son as his proxy. It’s as good as going myself, he says; they have to respect him

But the tenants are embarked on a very different train of thought – if you can even call it “thought.” Successful defiance has led to anarchy, and now to a sort of madness. “The son,” they reckon, “is the heir. If we kill him, we’ll get the lot, and be left to enjoy it all.” And we ask “What are they thinking…?  We all know that the world doesn’t work like that. These people themselves can’t imagine that the world works like that…” And, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus turns to his hearers and says “So: what do you think happens next?”

The point, the crucial point, is that the parable ends with a question. What can happen now? How does this end?

II

But we turn Jesus’ question into a slightly different question, and so does Matthew.  “Can you seriously imagine an alternative ending to this story?” This isn’t Sicily or the Wild West, but Jewish Palestine in the first century – because there is law, and the law just doesn’t suffer this sort of thing, but marshals society against it, and bears down on it, and visits consequences on it. What were they thinking? How else can it end?

Do we need to be reminded that people think and behave like this? It isn’t that many weeks since the riots, the madness that persuaded some people that they could get away with all manner of things, to the point that they forgot how what we do registers, on CCTV, on mobile phone and social networks, and, ultimately, with the law. And the law is still catching up with them.

The law doesn’t go away. It can be distant, it can be unresponsive at the time, it can allow things to happen – but the law is all about consequences, and about visiting consequences on those who perpetrate criminal acts. The law is still catching up with people whose actions haven’t been forgotten from those nights, and won’t be ignored. Is that what this is about? The law?

III

But there’s something else we need to notice about this parable, and the answer of the people to Jesus’ question: “How do you think this ends?” “What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do?”

“He will put those tenants to a miserable death, and will let out the vineyard to others…”

That’s not law – or if it is, it’s the despotic law of violent, avenging power. It’s vengeance.

Notice, too, what the people answering Jesus’ question, responding to his parable, don’t notice. The parable speaks of the owner of a vineyard. It doesn’t speak about an avenging Judge, like Judge Jeffreys in his Bloody Assize. It doesn’t speak about the kind of “justice” you get after a military victory, the sort of barbarity that happened in the wake of Culloden. It certainly doesn’t speak, this parable of a judge, or a king, either applying the law harshly or simply “being” a law unto himself and everyone else. It speaks of a vineyard-owner, confronted with the defiance of his tenants, and the murder of his son. And there it stops.

break circle

It’s Jesus’ hearers who make the owner of the vineyard into a crazed avenger, judge, jury, law and executioner. And foist all that on God.

But the parable itself ‘just stops.’ Jesus asks – them and us – “What happens next?” “How do you think this ends?” “What are the options?”

And here’s what’s odd. The consensus – of Jesus’ hearers, and Matthew too, and us if we take this whole text at face value – is that there are no options. What looks like a position of immense power, the position of the wealthy, murderously angry returning owner of the vineyard, is actually a situation of powerlessness. He can do only one thing. He has no options…

If we turn this parable into an allegory, the way Matthew does, if we turn the owner of the vineyard into a judge, a king, into God – we produce an image of a God who is so consumed by his own anger and outrage that he has no choices left. All he can do is lose control and kill.

And what’s really terrifying is how much really bad theology there is around nowadays that depicts God in just that way. A God with no option, in his outraged anger, but to kill something to save his own dignity and honour

And here’s the worst thing of all. In Matthew’s Gospel, the owner of the vineyard, AKA God, is murderously angry, and locked into a cycle of vengeance, because they killed his son. In the contemporary portrayal of a God-like this, God is murderously angry because we have done bad things – and the only thing this murderous God can do, because he has to kill something, is himself to get his son killed… Because there is no choice. Somebody has to die… . If not us, then Jesus.

[Break]

IV

“A God with no option, in his outraged anger, but to kill something to save his own dignity and honour,” we said. “A God who is so consumed by his own anger and outrage that he has no choices left. All he can do is lose control and kill…”

An episode of the American TV series The West Wing is a strange parallel to the situation of the owner of the vineyard in Matthew’s Gospel. A parallel, if you like, between the situation in which the fictitious American President Josiah Bartlett finds himself placed, by the weight of public opinion and outrage, and of military and political logic, and the situation in which this parable seems to put the owner of the vineyard – or even God. And it involves the four words we’ve already suggested distil Jesus’ question to his hearers at the end of this parable: “How does this end…?”

bartlett leo 2

A high-level American diplomatic mission to the Palestinian Territories, to the Gaza strip, has been attacked; a roadside bomb has killed several high-ranking Americans, including two Congressmen and a retired Admiral, a personal friend of the President. There is enormous pressure on the President to respond by retaliating, by striking Palestinian targets; plans for air attacks have been drawn up. But the President is not convinced, either that these attacks will punish the right people, or that they will do anything other than draw the Americans into a hellish spiral of violence.

But President Bartlett isn’t a military man. His oldest friend in politics, his Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, a man with a distinguished military record, and who has been his closest adviser, is convinced that what he sees as the President’s hesitation to act is a huge mistake, a refusal to do the desperately unpalatable thing that has to be done, that can’t be avoided. And with McGarry and the President alone in the Oval Office, in a very powerful piece of dialogue, a huge argument suddenly develops into a complete rift between the two men.

But notice the question which divides them… The parable’s question. How does this end…?

McGarry begs  “Mr President, please; Congress, the Joint Chiefs, the American Public, your own staff, everyone disagrees with your assessment of the situation.”The President shoots back “Killing Palestinians isn’t going to make us feel safer. They’ll kill more of us and we’ll have to kill more of them. It’s Russian Roulette with a fully loaded gun.”

McGarry begins “We can’t allow terrorists to murder our citizens without… “ but the President interrupts him. “Why would Palestinians murder American government officials? They never have before. They’re deliberately provoking us, Leo. They know that we have to retaliate. They’ve studied us; they want us to overreact!”

“This isn’t overreacting,” says McGarry; “This is the appropriate, balanced…” but a furious President interrupts him again. “Tell me how this ends, Leo! You want me to start something that may have serious repercussions on American foreign policy for decades, but you don’t know how this ends!” Beside himself, McGarry bellows back “We don’t always know how it ends!”

In the awful, pregnant silence, McGarry pulls himself together. He becomes again the voice of military necessity, the voice of what-we-just-have-to-do, because there is no alternative. Referring to the aircraft carrier battle group off the Palestinian coast, he says “The Lincoln will be in position in a few hours, and then you’re going to have to give the go ahead for the bombings.” But that isn’t the last word.  A strange, icy change comes over the President. He looks up at Leo, and in what really is a tone of utter, chilling finality, says “Or what?”

And in the awful silence that follows that, it’s as though the practical, deeply knowledgeable, hard-headed, knows-how-the-world-works man of “This is the way it has to be” realizes that his influence with the President has been broken. Because the deeply Christian President is refusing to accept that things have to be this way…  In that instant, he’s morally bigger than his closest adviser, morally bigger than the expertise of his military, morally bigger than the pain, anger and vengefulness of the American public. Because he will not do “what has to be done.” He will do something better, whatever it costs him.

Bartlett Leo

V

Are we really going to say that a fictitious figure, a dramatic portrayal of an imaginary US President, is bigger, freer, more morally powerful than God?

I think we have to be honest and say that it’s bigger, freer, more morally powerful than lots of contemporary portrayals of God. A God who can’t come to terms with affronts to his honour and dignity, and so has to punish someone, something – someone has to die.

Is that really how we explain the cross?

But if we read the parable as it stands, if we take seriously what the parable Matthew inherited in the tradition has to say, there is another way of understanding all of this. It’s there, two verses before Jesus puts the question: “How does this end?” “What will the owner do?”

He sent his son to them, saying “They will respect my son…” In other words, “My son will open up possibilities that nothing else can.”

And that certainly happens – but in the most unexpected of ways. The son dies. Is all that is to come out of that just violence, destruction, hopelessness?

President Jed Bartlett has sent a Congressional Delegation into an intractable situation of hatred, injustice, violence and brutality, a situation which, in real life, has led to the abusing and death of so many who have offered themselves to the resolving of it. And this Congressional Delegation, part of the US Government, going with his personal sanction – “they will respect my son” – is violently attacked. There is murder. Why? Who would gain? They are simply inviting retaliation, and have only the satisfaction that they will be making “the Most Powerful Man In The World” powerless to do anything else.

But the President doesn’t do that. He uses his power – which is the moral power so few politicians ever have the courage to exercise, of standing in the face of public opinion and saying “I will do what I believe is right…” to try to change things.

VI

And it works. Unimaginably, better things begin to happen. A new situation, unexpected responses… I won’t go into the details – it’s worth watching if you haven’t seen it – but what levers events is the fact that sending part of the Government into the situation, having it killed, and then refusing to be forced to react as everybody thinks you must react in such circumstances, is what changes everything.

In the terms of this parable, the death of the Son changes everything. But at this point in the Gospel, we can’t know that. Because Jesus, in Matthew 22, is still on his way to the cross. The owner’s son is just arriving at the confrontation in the vineyard. Ask, before Easter, what must happen in a vineyard in which the tenants have just killed the heir, and there can only be one answer. The possibility of another hasn’t been created yet.

That the vulnerability of the Son is the vulnerability of the Father who sends him, that the risk of the Son in coming into this situation is fully also the risk of the Father, that the risk isn’t just real but inevitably realized, these are things that can’t be seen from here in the Gospel narrative. That the Son might die, and that this might change everything, that the death of the Son might reveal, not the Father’s vengeance but his infinite grace, forbearance and love, are things that make no sense before Good Friday, and can’t actually register until the third day after. And there are still theologies that profess to be Christian that can’t make any sense of this at all.

That the father might take horrible and unforgiving vengeance for the death of the son is entirely predictable. There seems no alternative. That the Father, through the death of the Son, created a new world of possibilities, is something we can only see looking back.

breaking-the-chain

There are things that are desperately hard to forgive. Some of you will know that, and live with it, and I have no right to simplify the reality of someone else’s life or experience, even from the pulpit.

Especially from the pulpit…

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t the Gospel of a God who, understandably, can’t forgive. It’s the Gospel of a God who, incredibly, can. It isn’t the Gospel of a God who is so boxed in by pain and wrong and violence and injustice that things can only end one way. It’s the Gospel of a God who pours himself into the pain and wrong and violence and injustice of our world – our pain, wrong, injustice and violence – in such a complete way that everything is different, and out of God’ suffering embrace of our condition come possibilities that we couldn’t have imagined, if someone had asked us “How does this end?”

The son’s death doesn’t change nothing. It changes everything.

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