St. Matthew and the Parable of the Vineyard

Therefore 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.

 

Only S. Matthew – of all the evangelists – could have written that.

Both Mark and Luke’s have the same parable of the vineyard in their Gospels, but only Matthew drives the nail home with the Kingdom being taken away from one people and given to another.

Why would that be so?

 

Matthew was a convert – he was a Jew by birth, and yet an unhappy Jew –  who had fallen out with his Jewish community – He was a tax collector, – and even now – called, chosen and redeemed, he probably still had a lot of resentment deep inside him.  Perhaps he even hated his own people who had ostracised him, rejected him and called him a collaborator.

 

But Matthew had been a collaborator – he had worked against his own people on behalf of the Romans– he had oppressed his own family with taxes and injustice – in different years and in later times he would have been tried and shot, or tarred and feathered.

And even now – renewed and a new creation in Christ, he has still not quite let go of his own brand of Jewish anti-Semitism.  It is after all Matthew and Matthew’s Gospel which makes the Jewish crowd shout out: ‘His blood be on us and on our children’ – the text for Christian anti-semitism ever since.

 

And the way Matthew gives us this parable is anti-semitic too – that’s why the pharisees were so angry when they heard it – they knew all too well what it meant.   The Vineyard – as we know from the reading we had from the prophet Isaiah – is the Promised Land – it is Israel – It is the Covenant, the Torah, the commandments – in fact it is the entire Jewish religion with God.

 

Mark and Luke’s version of the parable are harsh, but they don’t actually say more than the Book of Deuteronomy, or the prophets Isaiah, Amos, Jeremiah.

Behold I set before you life and death – therefore choose life.

Jesus – like the prophets before him – condemns the authorities because they have not been faithful, they have not followed the commandments, they have not chosen life, – they have failed to bear good fruit

 

Like the prophets who foretold the division of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and like the prophets who foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile in Babylon – this parable warns the religious leaders that words and traditions are not enough – our actions – their actions have to be faithful and true.

 

But then Matthew goes further than anyone else has ever dared go:

 

Therefore 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.

 

The Chosen Race – he says – will no longer be the Chosen Race.

The Promised Land – he says – will no longer be their promised land.

The Covenant – the binding and precious relationship with God – will be brought to an end, the chapter closed, and another race, another people – Greeks, perhaps, Romans, perhaps – the Gentiles – will be God’s people instead of the Jews.

 

This is something that no-one else – not even St Paul in his wildest moments was able to bring himself to say.

And no one said it because it is impossible!   God cannot break promises – God cannot be un-faithful.  God’s mind cannot suddenly change – as if a new piece of information has suddenly come to light!  When God made those promises to Abraham and Sarah, to Moses and David, God knew how weak and sinful we humans are – God didn’t imagine that we are better than we are – God didn’t imagine that the Jewish race were better than they are – the Covenant is about grace and forgiveness, mercy and God’s faithfulness. If God got it wrong – then God is not God.  As St Paul quite rightly works out for himself in his letter to the Romans.

 

So I ask, have my own race – the Jewish people stumbled so as to fall? By no means!  – he writes:   Unlike Matthew – who takes the covenant away from the Jewish People, St Paul sees the call of the Gentiles as a glorious extension of God’s plan.  It is a theology of extension and inclusion, rather than Matthew’s harsh theology of rejection and exclusion – and it is much better for all that.

 

 

 

 

But what can we do with Matthew’s difficult verse:

 

Therefore 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.

 

Is this verse in our Bible now too horrible to use or can it still have a purpose?

Did Jesus actually say it ?  If the answer to that is yes- then what do we make of Jesus?  If the answer is no – then what do we make of any of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels?

 

And here – once again -we have the challenge of our more liberal generation.  Can the Bible still be trusted?  Well I believe it can.

But in order to find the pearl of the Gospel inside Matthew’s ugly shell, I want humbly to propose to you the somewhat eccentric Kennington first rule of Biblical Criticism. – which is this

 

The biblical author might not actually understand what he is writing on the page.

 

You see, like many a convert ever since, I think Matthew had totally rejected his Jewish home.

When Matthew wrote down the words of Jesus in this particular way and in this particular place – I think he was trying to exclude the Jewish people for ever – but according to the Kennington first rule of Biblical Criticism we don’t have to agree with his meaning – we just have to struggle with his text.

I think that Matthew probably thought the earth was flat and that epilepsy was demon possession – and if he did, then I think he was just plain wrong.

But – and here is the Kennington second rule of Biblical Criticism – God might still have something to say to us even through the most unlikely of texts. – and in fact, I think God does always have something to say to us, and surprisingly it is the most unlikely texts which often bear the most fruit.

 

So what can we learn ….

Well, let’s admit right from the beginning that this is a hard parable – this is not the Good Shepherd, the Forgiving Father, or the Widow’s lost mite – and it’s not the Good News- the message of Jesus is good news – good news for the poor, for the oppressed, for the weak and for lost – it is a great big and wonderful alleluia!  ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is marvellous in our eyes’

 

But, even in a wonderful Bible of Good News for all people – there is a time and a place for a warning parable – and this is it.

 

God says: I have tried to warn you so many times – because I love you and I want the very best for you – I have sent you the prophets, the teachers, signs and wonders, and yet you do not change….. you do not listen,  you ignore me and even kill my messengers.

 

And… says God – in an anthropomorphic kind of way – this makes me very sad for you – for I want your salvation, your well-being, your fulfilment more than anything else in the world.

 

I just love the way that God is not an angry God in this parable.  God does not say ‘I will take the Kingdom away from you’ – this is not a threat of punishment – the text simply says: ‘The Kingdom will be taken away from you’. I believe it is said with sadness.

 

 

Try this…

 

Let me sing – says God – for my beloved creation – my love-song for my vineyard – my garden – my treasure –  I made it fertile, so very fertile –  I dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines;   I wanted grapes – the fruits of love, joy, peace, justice …… ,

but instead it yielded other things :  – envy, hatred, violence, fear.

 

 

“Listen to another parable about the same thing.

 

I am your God – says God – your landowner – I know what is good and right and just – and I want to share it with you – I have given you this beautiful and amazing world and I have sent my servants to help you – to teach you so that you all can find love, joy, peace and justice – the fruits of my creation.

But you are so greedy!

I sent my son to teach you, to show you, to tell you – but you killed him.

 

What more can I do for you?  How can I make you listen – says God.

 

You are lost with your greed over oil, and land, and money – with war and ethnic hatred, with injustice, unfairness and inequality, and now you even destroy the very planet I gave you with your abuse and greed…

 

And so – comes the parable of warning:

 

If you do not change, if you do not find peace, if you do not find a way to live together without destroying yourself, if you do not change your greed and do not stop destroying your planet  – then you will destroy the precious gifts which I have placed in your hands;

 

the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

 

It is not a threat – it is not a punishment – it is the tragic and inevitable outcome of your actions If you cannot hear my Good News, then you will destroy yourselves…

The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

As Jesus will say in a couple of chapters –

 

you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

 

But this is not the end – it is certainly not the end of the Good News, nor even the end of Matthew’s Gospel…

 

 

Matthew will finish his Gospel with other words: words of hope, words of promise, words of life :  After the death and resurrection of Jesus, after his appearances and promises – Matthew closes his Gospel with this:

 

surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

 

Yes, the Kingdom of God may be taken from us – yes, climate change, war and greed might destroy everything that is good – and yet know this – even then, even if there is nothing else, know this :  I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

 

Always, for ever, to the very end of the age.

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