Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday 5 October 2014 - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): The Lord's vineyard; Jesus God's own son; the benefits of Christ.

Sentence: I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3:8)


Merciful God,
you make all things new;
transform the poverty of our nature
by the riches of your grace,
and in the renewal of our lives
make known your heavenly glory;
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. Amen.

Readings - related:

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:9-17
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46


Isaiah 5:1-7

Here is the direct OT background to today's gospel parable of the tenants. God speaking through Isaiah says that Israel is his vineyard. However the focus of concern is not on tenants running the vineyard but on the quality of the grapes:

'When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?' (4)

Psalm 80:9-17

More vineyardism! Here the psalmist sees Israel not as a vineyard but as 'a vine out of Egypt' (8a). The vine has been planted in the land now called Israel but which needed 'the nations' driven out of it in order for the vine to be 'planted' there (8b).But the vine is in a sorry state. Walls that should have protected it have broken down so 'the boar from the forest ravages it' (13). The psalm then becomes a prayer (14-19) that the Lord might have 'regard for this vine' (14) and restore it.

Philippians 3:4b-14

(Once again, note that the lectionary omits robust passages from the Bible, here Paul talking about 'dogs ... evil workers ... those who mutilate the flesh', 3:2)

Paul has spent two chapters urging the Philippians onwards and upwards in pursuit of proclaiming the gospel from a common fellowship together in Christ. Now he turns to some practical matters of dispute and division. In this passage - which only makes sense with the missing verses at the beginning of the chapter - Paul waxes autobiographical in response to a 'circumcision' group preying upon the Philippians.

Look, he says, if you want confidence in the 'flesh' (i.e. literally, via the mark of circumcised flesh) then I have it all (circumcised, Israelite, Benjaminite, Hebrew of Hebrews, Pharisee, zealous, 5-6). BUT! All that, Paul goes on to say, is nothing. It is loss (x3, verses 7-8). Indeed it is 'rubbish' (8). Actually, to be faithful to Paul we need a much earthier word than 'rubbish'. A study Bible before me has the well mannered 'excrement'. Might we say 'shit' to convey joltingly the reality of Paul's disparagement of all the benefits of circumcision in the light of the blessings of Christ?

Paul's great point, brought out with joy through verses 7-14, is that in Christ true righteousness comes (circumcision just doesn't do that), with the bonus of the power of the resurrection and the 'prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus' (14).

It is not said in the reading itself but the Philippians are invited to recognise that to give in to the demands of the circumcision party is to settle for a very distant second best.

Matthew 21:33-46

This is a devastating parable which even the critics of Jesus get, at least to some degree (45). In the space of a few verses, via a narrative constructed around familiar social and economic facts of contemporary life (absentee ownership, tenants, collecting the owner's dues), Jesus sets out the theological history of Israel with a predictive presumption that he is the son and is about to be killed by the 'tenants.'

In that theological history, God (the owner) has a vineyard (Israel, commonly associated with this image in the prophets) and attempts to communicate with the Israelites (tenants) via his prophets (servants, a familiar term for divine prophets in Israel). The servants attempting to receive the harvest rightfully due the owner are the prophets calling Israel back to her Lord and master. His harvest is to receive the trusting love of his people. They resist prophet after prophet, mistreating them. Finally, a final attempt at communication is made: 'he sent his son to them' (37). To no avail.

Of great christological interest here is the obvious equation Jesus draws between himself and the son in the parable. Some critics of the gospels suggest that the theme of Jesus' divine sonship is largely a Johannine interest, even an invention after the facts of Jesus' peasant-and-prophet routine according to the other gospels. But here Matthew (also Mark, Luke) brings testimony of Jesus himself teaching that he was God's son.

The picture painted in the story of Israel rejecting the prophets and then, finally, Jesus needs some care and attention lest we fall into the error of supersessionism (that God rejects Israel and has replaced her with the church in his affections, 'the other tenants' of v. 41).

Remembering that Jesus himself as a Jew, that his first disciples were Jewish and many of the converts they won to Jesus were Jewish, we should read the parable as a theological history of establishment Israel - the Israel dominated by religious leaders who (when we read the prophets) got many things wrong in their understanding of God and God's will for Israel. The establishment within the people of God rejected the prophets and will reject Jesus. Through all the history of Israel, including through to the days of Jesus himself, faithful people of God believed in God and obeyed his laws: these people neither rejected the prophets nor Jesus. Their place in the vineyard is not be usurped.

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