Christ claims you
A sermon by Katherine Hedderly
Readings for this service: Philippians 3. 4b-14; Matthew 21. 33-end
The parable that Jesus tells that we hear today from Matthew’s Gospel is a hard-hitting allegory, much more so than any of his other parables. Jesus’ hearers, particularly the Pharisees and Chief Priests who are questioning Jesus’ authority, will immediately have recognised that Jesus is not just telling a simple agricultural story. He is telling them about God and Israel and inviting them to find their own place in this story.
It is one of three parables that appear in all of the Synoptic Gospels – the others are the parable of the sower and the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus’ hearers will know the shorthand. Isaiah chapter 5, the song of the vineyard, which would have been the OT reading today, gives us the blueprint for that relationship of the landowner carefully tending the vineyard. The vineyard is Israel and God is the landowner, the fence that protects the vineyard is the Torah, or law. In Isaiah it is the vineyard, Israel, who fails to live up to God’s promises and the consequences are great. In this parable the focus is on the tenants. It’s often referred to as the parable of the ‘wicked tenants’.
The ‘tenants’ are the religious hierarchy, and the ‘slaves’, who are violently punished and mistreated when they are sent to collect the produce at harvest time, are the prophets that God has been sending to bring his people back into fruitful and just relationship with him. The Son, who we hear is violently thrown out of the vineyard and killed, is Jesus, the last in the line of prophets, but greater than a prophet.
It is a story of the long-suffering love of God and the evil that humankind is capable of. In it we see the gap between God’s hope and trust, for a loving and fruitful relationship with his people, and the devastating way in which that hope is shattered and that trust is abused. Human beings don’t respond with loyalty and love as he has invited them to, producing the good fruits of justice and mercy, but with hatred, injustice and indifference.
Can we imagine the crushing disappointment of God? Remember the times when you have held out that someone would honour a relationship that you had, and then they let you down. Let you down so badly that not only the relationship itself was destroyed, but your whole world seemed to be shattered. You wonder why you put your trust in them. You wonder if you will ever be able to trust anyone ever again. Imagine the one who trusted is God and the one who shattered God’s world is us.
A week ago we saw the kind of indescribable inhuman violence of this parable played out in the atrocity in Las Vegas, where so many people were brutally killed at the hands of one man. God’s trust in human kind is broken in acts like these and we feel the crushing devastation that God feels. Again and again we see that gap between God’s trust and human failure. But God goes on trusting again and again.
Jesus, the beloved son, is the bridge that fills that gap and restores that life and hope and fruitful abundance between God and the people of God. We may find it is difficult story but it is one that we are also invited to find our place in too as we learn what it means to live in abundant and fruitful relationship with God.
Set at the heart of the story is the sending of the landowner’s son. In this last week of his life, Jesus brings his impending passion and crucifixion to centre stage. He is the Son that God entrusts to the world, who is thrown out and killed outside Jerusalem. The Chief Priests and the Pharisees are invited to respond. What would they do to the tenants who kill the son? Imagining themselves to be the landowner they recommend the most brutal treatment as the just consequence for these inhuman and evil actions.
But Jesus shows them that they are laying the charge at their own door. They are the tenants of the story. As religious leaders, loyal to the Torah, instead of leading Israel in righteousness, holding fast to the covenant with God, they have rebelled against God and failed to recognise the fruitfulness of God’s activity in Jesus and his ministry. Instead they are intent on doing away with him. But Jesus tells them that they are the ones who will be replaced, ‘The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.’
For Matthew this means that the new church of Jews and Gentiles will be the new faithful tenants. Those who are entrusted with the vineyard are those who will see God’s justice done, live lives of faithfulness, doing God’s work, joyfully and fruitfully. It marks the transition from Israel to the church. The tenants should be the ones who honour the trust and responsibility placed in their hands for living the life of God’s kingdom. God’s people are the ones who live with his character, a sign of his presence in the world, caring for the marginalised and vulnerable, offering a way of life that is about justice, and a beacon of hope for humankind.
That’s what we’re called to be – fruitful tenants, who live with trust, joy and faithfulness. Trust, because we know the great trust that has been placed into our hands to be involved in the work and life of God, and the complete trust we can have in God who commits to relationship with us. Joy, because we caught up in the harvest of the life of the kingdom and that’s about seeing people set free, growing in the goodness and love of God, bringing values of the kingdom into their workplace and daily lives. Faithfulness, to bringing in the harvest and knowing its preciousness and value. We can only be fruitful tenants that if we know the trust, joy and faithfulness of that harvest in our own lives.
Paul shows us in his letter to the church in Philippi what living this fruitful life means by describing what has been sown in his life. He has come to realise that it is in Christ that the harvest comes home, that his life makes sense and is fruitful. Being a Christian, he has come to understand, is not about keeping the letter of the law of religion, but about being in relationship with the one who is the life-giver: Jesus Christ. He wants to know Christ, be found in him, to trust him, to share his life and respond with love and follow his call.
This is the life that Ramesh has been baptised into today and the commitment he has made. In baptism we are claimed by Christ – we hear the words – “Christ claims you as his own, receive the sign of the cross.”
These are Paul’s words, ‘Christ Jesus has made me his own” These words could be translated as “Christ overwhelms me”. It is not us who make the harvest possible in our lives but Jesus Christ who takes the initiative and comes to us and brings to live the goodness and love of God. Today Christ has made Ramesh his own and Christ will be faithful to him throughout his life.
Christ makes us his own. And our response is to be fruitful tenants of God’s kingdom in our own lives, being attentive to his call and guidance, with the help of others, committing to being fruitful, loving, life-giving, forgiving, just, faithful, kind. We also live as those who receive the sign of the cross. The way to life is the self-giving way; that commits to going outside the vineyard to the place of abandonment and exile and meeting Christ there and ‘knowing the power of his resurrection’ that Paul describes. That is how we bring hope to our world, that is how we too are part of bridging the gap when humanity does its worst, how shattered trust and crushed hope is restored.
In Thought For the Day on Radio 4 this week in response to the atrocity in Las Vegas Sam Wells, our vicar said the only response was “to live lives that make a difference, the kind of difference that Jesus made – who made a difference by losing his life, not gaining it…by forgiving others and pointing the way to everlasting life, by talking and listening and enacting and inaugurating a way of life in which people could flourish, trust could be restored, deepest hungers could be met and glory be revealed. He made a difference by inspiring others to live like him.”
In Baptism Christ commits to making that kind of difference through us. Today we renew our own commitment to making that difference with Christ