Thursday, 26 March 2015

Losing the plot

In Matthew 21:33-46, Jesus tells a parable of a landowner who plants a vineyard, doing all the right things (he puts a fence around it, and a wine press and watchtower in it).  He then leases it to tenants and leaves the country.  At harvest, he sends his slaves to collect the produce. The tenants mistreat and kill the slaves.  He sends more slaves, and the same happens.  Finally, he sends his son, thinking, they'll respect him because he comes in my name, as my representative... That's not how it turns out.  The tenants see the heir, and kill him, thinking they'll get his inheritance.
Jesus asks his audience, 'What do you think the landowner will do to them when he comes?'  They reply, 'Put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.'
Jesus goes on to warn that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them (his hearers) and given to a people that produces the fruits of it.
This passage is not anti-Semitic.  I once sat in a New Testament class when this passage was being looked at.  Almost everyone in the room thought that this passage was about God 'dumping' the Jews for his new squeeze, the Christians.  However, if we look at the dramatis personae of the piece, we find that this is not at all the case.  It is true that God is the landowner. But if we read verse 45, it clearly tells us that the chief priests and Pharisees got the message: they were the tenants.  Further proof that the tenants are not to be understood as Israel, or the Jews, is given by following the reference upon which Jesus builds this parable: Isaiah 5.
In Isiah 5, God builds a vineyard, the right way: he puts a fence around it, and a winepress and watchtower in it.  He loves the vineyard, he does everything necessary for it, but instead of grapes, it produces wild grapes.  That vineyard, Isaiah tells us, is Israel.  And again, in Jesus' parable, the vineyard is God's kingdom, the ideal, or fulfilment of, Israel.  (It's also worth remembering here that when Jesus told this story, there were no Christians as distinct from Jews.)  The problem, for Jesus, isn't Israel.  It's the powers that be.  The establishment.  They're taking liberties with what God has entrusted to them.  Oppression and structural violence are their modus operandi.  And even when Jesus comes along, they abuse him.
Jesus speaks truth to power.  That's what this parable is about.  Power.  Jesus challenges those who hold it about their relationship with it.  Ultimately, Jesus will remove these people from power and entrust his kingdom to those whose lives reflect it.  The kind of people Jesu wants in power, I suggest, are those who exercise power under people, not power over people.  People who lift others up.  Who encourage, who empower, who release.  Not people who bring or keep others down.  Who discourage, who disempower, who burden.  These latter will lose the plot - the vineyard of God's  kingdom.  After all, didn't Jesus say that the rulers of the Gentiles "lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you" he told his disciples; "but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).  And in a great enacted parable, he got down from the table, took a towl and a bowl of water, and washe his disciples' feet (John 13).
So how are our relationships with power?
It's not enough to claim we are acting in Jesus' name if we are acting contrary to his will and ways.  The tenants thought they would get the son's inheritance by killing him.  How stupid.  Yet many believe that by acting counter to Jesus' kingdom - crucifying him over again - they are getting a share in his inheritance.  No.  They are losing the plot.