The Owner of the Estate Returns
Sermon preached by Fr Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 2, 2012
Matthew 21:33-42 (13th Sunday of Matthew)
I have to confess that for years I seriously misread this scripture.
At the end of the passage Jesus asks the question, "When the owner of the vineyard returns, what will he do to the tenants?" The point Jesus wants to make is found in the dialogue that ensues.
The disciples answer him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death…?"
I had always read this as if the disciples were asking the question and Jesus was giving the answer. My perspective rose out of my religious upbringing that saw God as a god of justice and vengeance. In my church down South, Preachers would often remind us of the Old Testament verse in which God says, "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." For some reason they dearly loved that verse. So, I always thought Jesus was telling his disciples that the tenants should be put to a miserable death, but obviously I was mistaken.
It is absolutely true that vengeance belongs to God and to God alone. We human beings need to leave such things to Him. The wonderful message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that God has the right and the power, but he is not interested in exercising it, at least not the way we think. The Psalmist says, "If thou, O Lord, wouldst mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand, but with thee there is forgiveness?" In other words, if God was a god of unlimited, unconditional, unrestrained justice, then every one of us would be toast.
The Old Testament writers believed this, because the world they lived in was fearful and brutal. They were primarily concerned about surviving in a world where the gods of the nations were competing against each other, a world of war, and plagues, and insecurity like nothing we can even imagine, even though our world is not really very unlike theirs. They needed the security of a god who could be predicted, who gave laws, who accepted sacrifices, who could be appeased when he was angry and motivated to strike down enemies when there was a threat, in other words, manipulated. What place could a god of love have in the midst of a world populated with gods of violence and vengeance? So the images of God they write about are projections of their own fears and hopes and those of their Bronze Age culture.
The revelation of God in the Bible is gradual. We do not jump all the way to the God of Love in one fell swoop. It would have been too much to digest all at once.
As an aside: I suspect that every culture knows a gradual revelation of God in term, idioms, and metaphors familiar to each - a series of formations, deformations, and reformations. It certainly is so in the history of the Bible. Can we really say with a straight face that God has not been at work in the entire world and that He has spoken and speaks only to the Hebrews and to us. I cannot fathom such a view.
Jesus came to lift the veil of fear, thus removing our need to project, and reveal to us what the Old Testament writers could not see or understand. Jesus shows us God as He is. In Christ we learn that "God is love," not anger, not vengeance. He is God, the Landowner in our parable, who forgives even those who kill his son.
Since the Incarnation we interpret Old Testament visions of God in view of one primary fact: God has come in the flesh and the truth stands before us in our midst, and we can come to know Him and, if we are willing to be still long enough to stop projecting our own fears on Him, then we, too, can come to see Him as He truly is. We really, really, really believe that Jesus is the perfect image of the invisible God. That’s the meaning of the Incarnation.
The last obstacles to knowing who God truly is, are our ideas about who He is. That is why meditation and silence are so essential to the spiritual life. Until we are able to stop the incessant jabbering of our fearful minds, we cannot possibly hope to see God, or hear Him. We will continue to project our unconscious on to Him and we will not see Him, but only our projections. We cannot see Him everywhere because we think we know what He looks like. We cannot hear Him because we are so sure of what He sounds like and what He must be saying.
That is why the Desert Fathers tell us that if we cannot control our thoughts, we cannot pray and St. John Chrysostom tells us that prayer "is the setting aside of thoughts." In the privacy of our interior life, we must learn to be still. "Be still and know that I am God," the Psalmist writes. One of the big fears people have of meditation is the very thing we must embrace, our ideas about God must be put aside so that we can meet him face-to-face – not God as we believe Him to be, but as He is. Not as we want Him to be, or as we have been told that He is.
The Orthodox Christian understanding of God comes from its understanding of Jesus. He gives himself up to die to save the evil tenants, and the good tenants, the sinners and the righteous, from death. This is counter-intuitive to our way of seeing things. That is why the disciples came up with the wrong answer.
The disciples were sure that the right answer was that the tenants should meet a terrible death. They were wrong. What the tenants will get from the Landowner when he returns is mercy. The vengeance of God is not retribution, but forgiveness. There is even some ambiguity in the Lord’s answer to them about the stone that is rejected. To whom is he referring? To himself, certainly, but since Jesus clearly identifies himself with the "least of the brethren", we can also say that he identifies with the evil tenants, who in this Gospel passage clearly are the "least of the brethren," the despised ones. It is a radical vision worthy of the Gospel. Remember his words about the adulteress, "Those who are forgiven much, love much." Who, then, are the evil tenants? Those with the greatest potential for love.
The vengeance of God is forgiveness. He will not put the tenants to a miserable death. He puts himself to a miserable death for them! This is different. "Have you not read the scriptures?" Jesus asks them. "The stone which the builders rejected is become the chief of the corner? This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes."
Remember Jesus when he forgave those who tortured and crucified him at the end of his earthly life? "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do?" It is the same thing he said at the beginning when he mentions the vengeance of God and tells us what it truly is.
"The Spirit of the Lord God is upon Me because the Lord has anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance to our God" (Isaiah 61:1-2).
God’s vengeance is to heal and save and set free. The vengeance of God is to pour out his love upon all the world.