To which people?

Week of October 5 - Pentecost 17
Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ 41They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

42 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:
“The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
   and it is amazing in our eyes”? 
43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

•••

The hotel was too cheap to buy decent computer gear, so I was trying to fix an ancient Point of Sale system immovably bolted into the bar. This involved kneeling and feeling blind through tap lines, and goodness knows what else, to plug cables into com ports at the rear of the computers, as beer trickled down my neck. Then I would stand and stretch, and wait an age as the system rebooted, and we tried again to track down the errors that were crashing it.

During one half hour period of standing and kneeling I saw a bloke put $500 through a poker machine. I know this because I was right next to the coin machine; he supplied ten fifty dollar notes.

Upstairs next to their excuse for a server, live ammunition was spilled on the boss's desk, and a pistol magazine had been tossed next to the keyboard.

Brueggemann's

proposal [is that the] totalism in which US Christians live is market ideology that is connected to US exceptionalism that is supported by the military that wants to control world markets under the guise of globalism and that all totalisms end in violence. Karoline Lewis

The average Australian antipathy toward Americans is not based in our inherent xenophobia and racism. Neither does it come chiefly from our allergy to brash American "experts" telling us what to do, although we could do with less of them. Our basic anger is that the Americans have done a better job of harvesting and controlling the markets than we have. We are envious. They have bigger vineyards.

Brueggemann's analysis is where we want to be! Like all the petty dictators, the Australian elite have decided that since they can't rule the world, they'll at least be top of the heap in their vineyard. And bluntly put, they offer us a share of the spoils if we will sell our souls and join the consumer society. It is so endemic that many of us have not noticed.

But as James Adonis says "Work is making you numb." There is not much return for our souls.

You’re passive; robotically going through the motions. You might not hate your job enough to leave, but neither do you like it enough to exert much effort. This, according to a Gallup poll last year, afflicts 60 per cent of Australians.

And yet most of us persevere with jobs we don’t enjoy. In many cases, we’ve allowed the pursuit of money to distract us from the pursuit of work we love. We’ve become desensitised to the negative effect such work has on our wellbeing – effects we carry into our personal lives and relationships. 

I left computing because I began to feel that my life was being given to supporting petty enterprises with little more redeeming value than that hotel.

•••

I begin my response to the parable of the vineyard in this way because sometimes the text is not difficult. The text is obvious.  The vexing, mind-snarling question is how to respond. We don't need to be told we are not living in the kingdom. What we do about that is far less easy to see.

Jesus has taken the old image of Israel as the vineyard under condemnation because it grew "wild grapes," (Isaiah 5:1-7) and changed it. The condemnation in Jesus' retelling of the story now rests not on the nation, but on the leadership, the chief priests and the Pharisees. They are the ones who have not borne fruit. They have pretended to own the vineyard.

The story of the killing of the son is a barely veiled reference to the rejection and murder of Jesus. And the killing of a son, who holds the authority of his father is, theologically and psychologically, a desire to supplant God, to kill God. The tenants want total control. But  as Brueggeman says, all "totalisms" end in violence.

This violence is not simply the murders. It filters down into the mind numbing grind identified by Adonis. It ends in what others have called "the rise of the bullshit job."   

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment.... The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger...

It's why unemployed people are to be forced to apply for 40 jobs a month... even when there are often no jobs to be had.

And the violence is in the flouted pay rates, the unsafe working conditions, and the proliferation of contract and part time positions to maximise profits at the workers' expense.

Jesus said the vineyard would be taken away from the leadership. Significantly it is not given to another elite group, but to a people that produces "the fruits en tois kairois auton." This translates to the fruits "in his decisive time," and "the fruits of the kingdom," as NRSV puts it, is a fair expression of that.

What, today, are the fruits of God's decisive time, the fruits which will count when the kingdom is brought to reckoning? The broad brush strokes are clear. The people who, in Matthew,  

"inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world"

are those who have met Christ and when

"I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me....

Who has met him?

...just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:31-46)

That is, all of us.

How do we do this if we have a mind-numbing job that takes 9 hours of our day— or more— and two hours commuting? And both of us have to work. How do you we that when the mind numbing job is about making a rich owner richer, and often at the expense of the already poor and hungry? Do we just be nice to the bloke in the next cubicle? It can feel very much like the system is a "totalism," and that we cannot break out.

One answer, in the words of Oscar Romero is this:

 It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word, a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world because it belongs to no part of the world.  A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts...  (Quoted by Nancy Rockwell)

and is itself mind numbing. Or, perhaps more correctly, finding satisfaction in such a spirituality is a sign that the mind is truly numbed and has given up.

The text says Jesus is the stone which breaks to pieces those who fall on it. He shatters our understanding of what life and the kingdom— and who owns it—  is about. The kingdom is taken away from those who do not bear fruit. They are crushed by the corner stone.

This is an absolute claim about who owns the world. It is welcome news for the poor woman who mops floors, or for trolley collectors who are being illegally paid only a third of the minimum wage. They have nothing to lose and much to gain, for God is on their side.

The rest of us should wonder deeply about the gospel of the corner stone which shatters those who fall over it. To whose world do we belong? Are we slaves who have sold our souls to tenants who will have the kingdom of God taken away from them? Or do we welcome the son and pay our due? We cannot lead a double life. We cannot serve God and mammon.

This is a real question for me, as the little second job that makes our stipends into a living will soon finish. Will I get a bullshit job by doing a course in real estate, or by selling used cars? Like most of us, I might not get much choice about what job I can find!

But it appears I will have little problem getting a job wiping bottoms, and helping old folk get dressed and feed their cat. The pay is not much, but it is work closely aligned to the loving and serving of Matthew 25. It would also be a mind numbing job if I were only to seek to make what money I could until I could do better for myself and get back on the consumption train.

The kingdom will be given to a people who bear fruit; that is, a church—  which might be an ecclesia-gathering that is not a Christian church—  a church who use the vineyard of creation to bear fruit; who live to serve the whole creation. By that they will have due produce ready for the landowner when his son and servants come. (21:34)

The church itself, our congregation, is called to be a people who bear fruit. If we do not, even though we are "a church," we are on the side of the chief priests and the Pharisees.

To which people will we belong?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




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