Sermon – the evil tenant farmers

Do you know why we stand for the Gospel reading? Or why some more traditional churches always have the Gospel read by a priest, or a licenced minister? In one of my study Bibles, the words Jesus ‘spoke’ are all printed in red ink.
All of these are done to highlight one thing: that the Gospels are God speaking to us. They are the blueprint of the New Covenant, the new relationship God forges with his people. And how bitterly did the Jewish authorities, those guardians of the Old Covenant, resent it.
If we look at today’s reading, they condemn themselves in verse 41, where they react to Jesus question, saying: ‘He will put the wicked men to a horrible death and lease the vineyard to others.’ Jesus explains his parable, that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from the Jews; they who have seen themselves for ever as THE people of God. It is small wonder that these Jews intensely resented all that Jesus said of them.
You know, it is easy to condemn them, to point a finger, to be horrified at their reaction. But what do you believe that you would argue for? Would you stand up for democracy, or justice, or peace? If you had expected a great leader, what sort of qualities would you look for? In this day and age, we are more aware than ever about the world around us: so just take a look at many of the leaders of powerful nations – at the sort of men who desire to take control. They are not meek, quiet or backwards in coming forwards, as my Dad used to say.
Think about it; the Jews were expecting a Messiah. They wanted someone who would talk big, show power, stand up to the hated Romans, impress the people and speak with authority in the Temple.
Jesus was born of David’s line, but his mother’s reputation was tainted. He was from Nazareth, a notorious town. His ministry was in Galilee, not in Jerusalem, and not in the Temple. His closest associate was John, who wore weird clothing, baptised people and castigated the political leaders.
He was evasive in his dialogue, such as when he tells his disciples, ‘you are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven, others are not’ (Matt 13:11), and he refused to provide signs proving his messianic claims ‘Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah’ (Matt 12: 39).
They mocked and derided Jesus because he chose to be accompanied by outcasts of society, as when the Pharisees asked the disciples ‘why does your teacher eat with such scum? (Matt 9:11).
Jesus disregarded Jewish traditions, like healing the sick on the Sabbath. But he also said ‘Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until all is fulfilled’ and then concluded, ‘For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.’ ( Matt 5:17,20) Talk about baiting the bear!
The Jewish nation professed allegiance to God, but they made hard work of it. 651 detailed laws of what you could and couldn’t do. Jesus was impatient of those that hedged people about, where they could easily fall foul of the law. God is a God of love, not of rules and regulations. Christians, as Paul said, will be known by their love, but from the outset they got it wrong too. The newly minted Church exploded into arguements when gentiles joined up, uncircumcised and eating pork. The history of the Church is also a long story of the mistakes that have been made along the way.
Not so long ago in apartheid South Africa, whites and blacks could not worship in the same church – that’s shocking. Then again, if you read accounts of the Windrush community, black people who attended some churches in London were asked, by the priest, mind you, not to return. My friend’s father was asked not to attend church in his airforce uniform; he never went to church again.
But now, good people of Basildon, if God is speaking to us through this Gospel story, what should we take from this today? As sure as I stand here, as much as we want to do the right thing, we will mess up again. The good news is, you know, that God understands us. He wants us to try and live penitent and Godly lives, but he understands us so well. He factors in our failure to do the right thing, our willingness to try and our repentance when we don’t. And he bridges that gap; there’s mercy there, and grace.
To conclude, a few words from Pope Francis
“With His preaching on the Kingdom of God, Jesus opposes a religiosity that does not involve human life, that does not question the conscience and its responsibility in the face of good and evil… Obedience does not consist of saying “yes” or “no”, but always of acting, of cultivating the vineyard, of bringing about the Kingdom of God, in doing good.”

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