Posted by: owizblog | February 18, 2013

Double Indemnity – Sermon 5th October 2008

Matthew 21:33-46

One of my favourite film genres is film noir.  True, a sci-fi film, 2001 – a Space Odyssey, is the greatest film ever made, but somewhere way up in the top five is Double Indemnity. Strangely enough, I’m not very keen on private eye films, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade. They work in a different way; they offer us a different experience, a journey through a seamy world from which the hero emerges and shakes his head sadly and moves on. Film noir offers instead a ride to the end of the line, a journey into total disintegration, ruination and death; watch a good film noir and you start to find yourself taking the good old Calvinist doctrine of Double Predestination, of an inexorable Reprobation to Eternal Punishment, making a lot of sense. Scary!

There’s a cliche which crops up in some private eye films.  It’s at the end, where the detective has tracked down his quarry, and found to his horror that it’s someone he knew, but never suspected. Maybe an old friend from childhood, maybe the female lead. And he’s usually just mortally wounded them. And he says, in horror, as all the bits of the puzzle come together, and as life ebbs away

“Why’d ya do it?”

And usually, he doesn’t get an answer. Either the person he thought he knew shakes a head and is carted off by the police, or they die mute.

“Why’d ya do it?” They don’t know.

It’s different with film noir. Sometimes, the whole thing is a groping attempt to tell why the bad guy/gal did it. Fred Macmurray, as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, provides a voiceover to the whole film which tries and fails to explain why an insurance salesman with a good job and no ties should fall under the spell of a wicked woman and her plot to murder her husband and claim on a huge policy, and then wind up murdering her. His nemesis, of course, isn’t a detective, but the actuary at the insurance company he was trying to defraud – Barton Keyes, played by Edward G. Robinson, who had trusted Neff,  and actually suggested that be trained to succeed him as assessor of claims. It was only at the end that Keyes saw what had been going on. And as Neff  lies propped  in the door of his office, waiting for the police, badly injured by the woman he did all this for, then murdered, he tells Keyes that he couldn’t see what was happening because it was too close; “Right across the desk from ya!”

To which Keyes replies “Closer than that, Walter…”

He doesn’t actually say the words, but they hang over the scene, and the whole film.

“Why’d ya do it?”  He doesn’t know. He knows what he wanted. He knows he didn’t get it…

The parable of the workers in the vineyard. Something between detective fiction and film noir. They have a plot. They want the goodies from the vineyard. So they beat up and kill the owner’s representatives, and when he sends his son, they kill him too. A crazy plan. It was never going to work. And in the end the owner comes and wipes them all out.

“Why’d they do it?” Do they even know?

What’s the pattern of this parable?  That the father sends his son, that the people who work in the vineyard kill the son, and then a question is put: Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And the answer is offered immediately by Jesus’ hearers, as though it were quite obvious to them:

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Notice that that isn’t Jesus’ answer. It’s the answer of the crowd listening to him.

But the pattern is there in the narrative. The son is sent, in the hope that where the servants were maltreated, he will be respected. But he isn’t. He is killed. And his death is the basis for a death sentence which, to Jesus’ hearers, at any rate, seems obvious and fair.

That’s the pattern. It’s a religious logic, all right. It’s the logic of the Religious Right, and the Moral Majority. You do the crime, you do the time. Three strikes and you’re out. Just say no. (And if you’re in this mess, it’s because you said yes…) But it isn’t the pattern of the Gospel. The pattern of the gospel is that the death of the son is redemptive. That it brings about release from sin and failure, as measured by God’s law, and by the self-hating conscience.  A new beginning.

But it’s not the logic of Jesus Christ. Not the logic of the God who loves the world so much that he sends his only son.

It’s our logic; the logic that we use to condemn other people, to look down, from a great moral height on them. It’s the logic that comes back to haunt us when we fail, when we fall short. When we sit up all night with the sudden clear sense of how we’ve hurt others, squandered life, fallen short of what we should be, and pretend to be. It’s the logic that condemns us inescapably. You don’t measure up. You have failed. It’s a cold, unfeeling logic.

All we’re told about these people who worked in this vineyard is that they want the place to themselves, and so they abuse and kill the servants who come to remind them of their obligations to the owner. And when they get the chance to do the same to the owner’s son, they think “This is it! Kill him, and there’s nobody left to own the place after his dad! It’ll be ours…” 

Now if you approach this parable in terms of strict logic, there’s a huge hole in it, one that’s so easy to spot that the crowd have no trouble at all with it. It’s the idea that the master will just accept the loss of his son and leave it at that. How unrealistic is that? I doubt that there’s a child in any Sunday School,  hearing this story for the first time, who hasn’t thought “That would never happen!” That it’s obvious what will happen: He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

And even that way of putting it seems odd: it’s as though the father is more concerned with getting the produce of the harvest than he is with the killing of his son. In fact, the story is told in such a way that the father seems like an unfeeling calculating machine, intent only on claiming his rights. 

And he gets his produce in the end, but at the cost of the killing and maiming of his messengers, the destruction of his son, and the annihilation of the people who worked the vineyard. And we know this – why? Because that’s what God is like?

No – because that’s what people are like.

There’s something very odd about all of this. The logic of it is impeccable. The crowd who listen to Jesus have no trouble following it, and even manage to supply the ending without any problem.  But it doesn’t answer the question:

“Why’d they do it?”

Then the penny drops.

This whole parable is told from their point of view. Not God’s. Theirs. Ours. That’s what they would do, how they would behave. That’s why Jesus puts the parable to them in such a way that the crowd answer it.


So this parable is told from our point of view. The crowd’s point of view. If we follow it through, it lands us, not with an insight into God, but with an insight into us, and why we can make so little sense of God, or love, or grace.

Other parables are told from a point of view outside, beyond us. Put yourself in the position of a shepherd with a lost sheep, and you see how God sees you, and why he comes after you when you wander away from him. Put yourself in the position of a father whose son finally comes home from a life that’s nearly destroyed him, and you put yourself in God’s position looking at you, and you might just be able to understand why God loves you unreservedly when you hate yourself.

But this one is told from the point of view of the people who have gone wrong. That’s why it doesn’t make sense. But it’s also why it’s so compelling. So true to our human experience, even if it’s so foreign to our Christian experience of God. It’s told from the point of view of people who act on what they want, and ignore – no, more strongly, cancel, blot out – what they know they should do.

“Why’d they do it?”

We suddenly see what this question means. Yes, there’s an obvious answer. They did it because they wanted the goods, the produce, the riches and the good times. But that answer doesn’t answer the question “Why’d ya do it?” Not any more than Walter Neff saying at the end of Double Indemnity that he wanted the money and wanted the girl, and didn’t get either.

“Why’d ya do it?”

They did it because they wanted to kill the law. To kill the cop in their head. To kill an authority that came from outside themselves and beyond themselves. They wanted to enjoy what the law said they couldn’t, weren’t allowed to, enjoy.  Here it was, all around them as they worked, all the wealth of the vineyard, and they wanted it all. But what they really wanted was not to be restrained. They wanted it because they hadn’t got it. Desire is insatiable in itself. It’s never desire for anything, just desire for what I haven’t got. And it arises out of my incompleteness. If these people had killed the son and nothing else had happened, the vineyard wouldn’t have satisfied them. They would probably have started on each other.

What they want to do is to kill the father and have it all. Because the father is the law. The father is the restraint on them. And the father’s out of reach. But then the son shows up. And they kill the son, and in effect what they are doing is killing the father in the son. The poor maltreated and murdered servants didn’t give themthat satisfaction!  They murder the father in the son – and that’s where Jesus’ parable stops. There’s nowhere for it to go after that. It leads out into hopelessness.

At that point, the question “Why’d ya do it?” becomes one that the perpetrators themselves can’t answer.

When Walter Neff has murdered Mr. Dietrichson, for him and Phyllis, Dietrichson’s wife, to have the insurance money, he walks back home alone. And, he says into his dictaphone, recording his confession (which is the voiceover for the film) he can’t hear his footsteps. His walk, he says, was the walk of a dead man. And after he murders  Phyllis Dietrichson, he has nowhere to go but back to the office to record his confession. His attempt to run for it isn’t serious. He has nowhere to go.

And that’s where this always leads. So in Jesus’ parable. These people with their mad scheme – nothing like as good as Walter Neff’s. Where did they think it was going to lead? Where but here?

“Why’d ya do it?”

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

What do you think?

And we come to communion. And we hear this story. And we think “Quite right too!” People who don’t keep God’s law. People who live out of desire, not out of discipline. Bad, naughty people! They’ve got it coming! Not like me. I try to be good. I try to live respectably. I may not manage it all the time, but, you know…

And we miss the logic of this parable. This ferocious parable which is told from the standpoint of the people who don’t keep the law. Paul saw it. Clearly. Not to keep the law, to break the law, even in the smallest thing, is to stand where these people stand.

And that is where we stand.

We come here with lives full of things we’ve done, or thought, or said, that we don‘t understand. Why’d ya do it? We don’t know. Why did I say that? Why did I behave like that? Because I thought I wanted to, at the time. It felt like standing up for myself, it felt good – until I’d done it, until I’d said it. And now I feel awful. But what do I do?

And what we do, all too often, is this. We say “Well, it’s just what anyone would have done in my place!” “Well, she had it coming!” “Well, maybe I was a bit harsh with him – but he was asking for it.” “I’m not saying sorry…”

We justify ourselves. We reinforce our errors. We embrace what we’ve done.

And that’s exactly what the workers in the vineyard do.

Here’s some servant of the boss come to tell us what to do! Let’s see him off! Whoops – we were a bit harsh with him. Well, who did he think he was, anyway?  Here’s another one! Ha! That showed him. Maybe the violence was a bit unneccessary, but he was stroppy…  Ah, maybe actually killing that third one was a bit over the top. But he generated the situation. He left us no alternative… At each stage they embrace what they have just done. They cling to it. And it escalates, as the demand of the law refuses to go away. They can’t put themselves in the right by justifying themselves.

Now. looked at that way, you can suddenly see what is so special about the sending of the son. The others have all been emissaries, looking for obedience. The boss says that you’ve to do this… That’s all they can be, all they can do. But there’s a special twist to the coming of the son.

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

They will deal differently with my son. Things may have been bad, may have spiralled out of control, gone beyond the ability of the law to deal with, because the law can only condemn. So let’s look for a different basis. Let’s go for a relationship. 

And that’s the point of the whole parable. It offers an alternative.  The law is still there, but it’s only making the situation worse, piling up offences and walling everyone in. Let’s see if they can respond to something different. Let’s see if they can respect the son.

And they can’t. They aren’t capable of respect any more. They aren’t capable of love. They can’t step aside from the path they’re on, and deal with the Father through the son.

And because of that, we are not where they are.

We come here to communion, and we bring with us all our failures, all our pride and arrogance, all our unfulfillable desires, all the sense of hurt we bear, and all the responsibility for hurt, too.  And we have two choices. We can let them define us; or we can put them down and walk away.

We can treat this morning as same-old-same-old. We’ve come this far, and we can’t change now. Old dogs, new tricks… No way, Jose…

Or we can understand that today it is the Son who comes, and that to deal with him is to step away from a history, of wanting things that are no good for us, of sticking to old patterns that don’t lead us anywhere, of asserting ourselves in ways that are just self-destructive and stupid, of organizing our lives around a quest for things that don’t satisfy us when we get them, anyway.

To love the Son is to embrace a new relationship with the Father; and that’s what is on offer here and now.

Take, eat… 


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