St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver, B.C.

Phone: 604-877-1788

E-mail: office@stmarymags.ca


The Anglican Parish of St. Mary Magdalene

2950 Laurel Street at West 14th Avenue

Vancouver, BC, V5Z  3T3

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Diocese of New Westminster Anglican Church of Canada

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Sermon

October 4th Pentecost 18, 2020                      Neil Seedhouse


Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46


I was wrestling with how to start my homily today and have decided to name that John Marsh has been trying for a very long time to get me up here and to open my mouth. Well here I am and with only a few weeks left before he retires.


Remembering the question from last weeks homily, ‘With whose authority do you speak?’ I am speaking with John’s authority.


This Sunday we get the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, the next in a series of judgement parables.


We know that Jesus was often at odds with the religious authorities.


We also know that the community of Matthew’s Gospel were also often at odds with the religious authorities.


So, it is not a surprise that today’s parable of the Tenants is often looked on as an allegory – a story in which each of the elements (people, things, and happenings) has a hidden or symbolic meaning.


Once we understand the code, the meaning becomes clear.


One common interpretation for today’s reading is:


God is the landowner.


The religious authorities of the temple are the evil tenants who are defrauding God of the rightful fruits of

God’s covenant with Israel.


The landowner’s servants, who are abused and killed are Israel’s prophets, sent by God time and again to call the people back to the covenant, and Jesus is the son who will meet death at the hands of the temple authorities.


The Church is the “other tenants” to whom the vineyard will be given after it is taken from the Jerusalem leaders who have broken their covenant.


But this is not the only possible interpretation. Parables have multiple layers of meaning and speak to different people in different circumstances.


What if we hear the parable anew, focussing not on the allegory of the reign of God but instead critiquing the reigning systems of oppression that dominated Palestine in the time of Jesus?


What if the scene as presented was not a story about how God works in the world but a codification about how exploitation worked in Palestine?


What if this parable was exposing exploitation rather than revealing justification?


What would all this mean for a reading of this parable?


I think this parable is about the building of a vineyard. A real vineyard. To grow grapes for wine. Wine is a luxury product and grape growing, even today, is labour and capital intensive.


Only the elite, the very wealthy, could afford this investment because the vines would produce no crop at all for the four seasons required for the vines to mature and an unsure harvest in the fifth year. So you get no return on investment for five years, but the expenses continue.


Because land in Galilee was largely accounted for and intensely cultivated, “a man” could acquire the land required to build a vineyard only by taking it from someone else. The most likely way would have been through foreclosure on loans to farmers who were unable to pay off the loans because of poor harvests.


The parable opens with what would have been a familiar process to the listeners. The take over of peasant land and its subsequent conversion into a vineyard. Then it is leased to tenants, small holders now displaced from their land. A practice that created an increasingly dependent relationship between landless clients (tenants) to wealthy patrons as sharecroppers, as debt slaves, and as day labourers.


This exploitive economic situation would not have created good relations between the tenants and the landowners whose continual encroachment on peasant lands would have escalated the tensions already present in the endless struggle for subsistence that governed most peasant villages.


When harvest time came, according to the parable, the tension boils over. The bailiffs came to collect the rent. There was violence. Beating, stoning, murder. What purpose does the portrayal of violence serve?


If peasants resorted to violence only when their subsistence itself was threatened, then the conversion of land from farmland to a vineyard would be an event that could trigger such a response. This behaviour has been described as the ‘spiral of violence’.


Phase one / daily oppression

Phase two / revolt

Phase three / repressive force


In other words, this parable codifies the spiral of violence by describing a local peasant revolt on a great estate.


The thrill of the revolt may be satisfying and cathartic but is usually short-lived. Revolts are uprisings that are inevitably crushed by the elite. The answer to the parable’s closing question, the ‘punch line’ in some versions, ‘Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ shows the futility of violence under these circumstances.


Remember Phase three in the spiral of violence - “Repressive Force”?


Jesus responds to this with musings about rejected cornerstones.


Now cornerstones were the first stones placed to ensure that the walls would be straight. The alignment of the whole structure was determined by the cornerstone. The choice and orientation of a cornerstone influenced the integrity of the entire building.


I think that the cornerstone was introduced to refocus the discussion. The issue is no longer the old vineyard, but rather a totally new structure of which Jesus himself is the cornerstone.


The structure is God’s reign which Jesus has been proclaiming from the beginning of his ministry. What Jesus was offering as his cornerstone was counterintuitive to a system wielding repressive force to crush the violence of those who were so desperate that they had nothing left to lose.


 A break in the spiral of violence, perhaps peace, not through more violence, but through dignity and justice for the desperate ones. An impossible cornerstone, too risky, rejected. Peace through Justice, demanding the discipline of non-violent action in the face of the threat of overwhelming violence.

 

It is not surprising that the religious authorities would reject Jesus’s cornerstone as it did not conform to their own preconceived notions and prejudices. Might makes right.


What does this parable mean to us now, in the 21st century? Perhaps if we view this story as being about the struggle for integrity and authority, especially against the attempted normalization of dishonesty, ruthlessness, and selfishness as the means and markers of “success”.


How many of you experienced bullying at school? I did. I’ve witnessed principals bullying teachers, teachers bullying students and students bullying other students. Is not this a process of normalization?


Workplace bullying.


Institutionalized racism.


I’m sure you have your own examples.


Now it is spreading through the internet as verbal abuse and shaming.


We are beginning to see shaming as a normal response to Covid-19. If you don’t wear a mask you are publicly shamed. What I find interesting is that I just heard from a friend that in small town BC you are shamed if you do wear a mask.


I think that we as his disciples we are being called to line ourselves up according to God’s values of justice, mercy, and integrity. To resist the spiral of violence – neither collapsing into passivity nor hitting back harder – and yes, that’s as difficult as it sounds. To align ourselves with Jesus as our cornerstone is risking Shalom – wholeness, peace, harmony, completeness, delighting in the welfare of others as the foundation of justice.


We, at least for now, have the freedom to choose the cornerstone for our life and the life of our loved ones and hopefully, if we are willing to open the circle wider, to include the lives of all living things around us.


Shalom.