Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Faith and Thought Symposium on Homosexuality



On Saturday, I was one of the speakers at the Faith and Thought symposium on homosexuality, a forum that brings together both scientific and pastoral/theological insights. The talks are now online. I'd like to highlight three of these as of particular interest to those wanting to explore a more inclusive position.
Firstly, Eleanor Whiteway (Cambridge University) offered a clear scientific analysis:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7IpoT9upzc
Then, Stephen Keyworth (Baptist Union of Great Britain) gave a presentation on social developments:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qSZqmEfq60
And then Luke Dowding and I spoke to the topic of pastoral care:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayDCKOapTDY

Sunday, 12 October 2014

A Case of Mistaken Identity

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
12th October 2014

Matthew 22.1-14  Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying:  2 "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come.  4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, 'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.'  5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business,  6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.  7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.  8 Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy.  9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.'  10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.  11 ¶ "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,  12 and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless.  13 Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'  14 For many are called, but few are chosen."

Isaiah 25.1-9   O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.  2 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.  3 Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.  4 For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,  5 the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.  6 ¶ On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.  7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations;  8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.  9 ¶ It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

I don’t know what sermon you were expecting to hear on this passage this morning,
            but possibly it might have gone something like this:
God’s kingdom is like a wedding banquet
            which is he throwing for his son, Jesus.
Those whom he first invited, the oh-so-religious and pious Jews,
            have declined to attend,
            and have even killed the messengers that God has sent to invite them.

So God has send his messengers to the highways and byways of the world
            to invite everyone else to the party instead,
                        from tax collectors to prostitutes,
                        from riff-raff to nobodies,
                        from the blind to the lame;
            God drags into his party the people who thought they’d been forgotten.

However, whilst God may have invited everybody,
            this isn’t a no-strings-attached invitation.
Because whilst God loves everybody,
            he doesn’t want them to stay as they are:
                        after all, who would want the serial killer to get in
                        without him changing his behavior?
The invitation might be for all, but people must still accept it,
            and must behave appropriately if they are to stay in the party.

So a person who comes, metaphorically speaking, in the wrong clothes,
            who doesn’t clothe themselves with garments
                        of love, justice, truth, mercy and holiness,
            is in effect saying that they don’t want to stay at the party,
            and so they are thrown out into the outer darkness.

That’s the sermon I’ve heard preached on this passage before;
            it’s the sermon with the established weight of interpretation behind it;
            and I think, frankly, that it’s a terrible sermon.
Let’s think for a moment about where this sermon takes us,
            if we follow it through to its logical conclusion.

Let’s start with the king,
            the one who is focussed on throwing a wedding banquet for his son.

What do we know about him from the parable?
            Well, to start with, he’s pathologically obsessed
                        with giving his son a magnificent party.
            It doesn’t seem to matter who the guests are,
                        just so long as the party is good.

He also keeps some very dubious company:
            let’s not forget that his preferred guests for the party
            are themselves hardly the nicest people:
                        they are, we are told, arrogant, landowning businessmen,
                        with a tendency towards murderous violence.

The king is also a military man of means;
            we know that he has slaves, and that he has troops,
            and that he is ready to use this power to its full capacity.
So he thinks nothing of putting to death anyone who slights him,
            and he’s happy to send in the troops to burn an entire city to the ground
            if they don’t give him the respect to which he believes himself entitled.

He is, in short a military, self-aggrandizing,
            capricious, despotic, dictator.
He looks very much like the Herods of the early first century,
            or possibly the more psychotic of the Roman emperors.
What he doesn’t look like, if we’re honest about, is God.

Or perhaps he does look like God,
            if you’ve got an image of God as a military, self-aggrandizing,
                        capricious, despotic, dictator;
            which is exactly how some people do picture God.

There are many who believe that God is just waiting to catch them out,
            to throw them out, to cast them into the place of darkness,
            where there is weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
There are many who believe that God’s gracious inclusion only goes so far,
            and that if we don’t respond properly,
            we’ll find ourselves on the receiving end of his sacred violence,
                        levied in judgment on us and the rest of the sinners.

But I want to suggest something
            which by now may seem obvious: this is not God.
What this is, is a huge case of mistaken identity.

So I’m going to suggest that we try to set aside
            the sermon we thought we might get on this passage,
and we try to put out of our minds
            the sermons we’ve heard before on this parable before,
and that we try reading it afresh,
            to see what might emerge from it if we read it a bit differently.

What if the king in Jesus’ parable isn’t God?
            What if his son isn’t Jesus?
What if the first-invited guests aren’t the Jews?
            What if the forced-in guests aren’t grateful to be there?
What if the man with the wrong clothes on isn’t a sinner?

What if people have been reading this parable wrong all these years,
            because they have been reading it through the lens of a wrong view of God?
What if God isn’t a violent dictator after all?[1]

Let’s try and her the parable as those listening to Jesus might have heard it…

‘There was a king who had a son,’ Jesus begins…
            And his hearers would already have been nodding along,
                        ‘wasn’t there just!’ we can almost hear them thinking….

Herod the Great had been appointed ruler of Judea
            by the Romans some seventy years previously,
and after a reign of nearly half that
            had died and handed over the kingdom to his descendants,
                        the Herodian dynasty, as they became known.
Through a careful series of strategic marriages,
            he and his descendants had ensured that they were able
            to continue their despotic rule of Israel for generations.

And there’s nothing like a royal wedding to reunite the population
            behind the fading appeal of an aging monarch, is there?
And royal weddings, as we all know, lead to royal babies,
            and so fresh life is breathed into the tired old family firm,
            and everyone is won over for another generation.
Or at least, that’s the theory.
            Some of us are not so easily seduced.
            But that’s another story…

The Herodians had been ruling Judea for generations,
            their power-base carefully propped up by strategic alliances and marriages,
            supported by the world class Roman military,
                        and legitimated by a string of propaganda exercises
                        designed to keep the people happy.

What’s interesting, in Jesus’ story,
            is that the invited guests to the latest Royal Wedding choose not to attend.
We know what kind of people they are:
            they’re exactly the kind of people you’d expect to find at a Herodian wedding
                         – one of them owns a farm, another one is a businessman.
            They’re the elite, and they’re turning against the king.

Perhaps his popularity is running out, perhaps it’s time for a change,
            there’s always a pretender to the throne waiting in the wings
            if the current incumbent oversteps the mark.
The king pushes them a bit harder, and they push back,
            seizing the king’s slaves and killing them.
It’s insurrection time, civil war is only moments away now…

So the king sends in the crack troops,
            to utterly destroy those who have defied him, burning their city.
A response worthy of any dictator in any age.

But there’s still a party to have.
            There’s a succession to secure.
            There’s a population to be wowed with wedding cake and bunting in the streets,
                        and God help anyone else who doesn’t want to play monarchist.
Come in, come in, come to feast…
            And don’t you dare say that you’ve got somewhere else to be…
This is political royalist propaganda at its most blatant.

And, of course, the people play ball.
            I mean, who wouldn’t?
Everyone loves a royal wedding,
            if they know what’s good for them.

Except for one, who doesn’t play ball at all…
            He’s there, along with everyone else who’s been forced to the party.
                        But he’s not joining in.
He’s wearing the wrong clothes,
            he’s silent when he should be singing,
            he’s still when he should be shouting.
He’s the party-pooper,
            he’s the one who makes everyone else feel uncomfortable,
            because he’s showing their forced jollity for what it is:
                        a lie inspired by fear.

‘The kingdom of heaven is like this…’
            said Jesus, introducing this parable.
And we may well now ask,
            ‘in what way is this story like the kingdom of Heaven?’

After all, we’ve just established that the Kingdom is not the banquet,
            and the king is not God;
this is a very earthly story,
            one familiar not just to those hearing it from Jesus,
            but to those in any generation who have looked at their ruling elite
                        and seen self interest and violent corruption.

So where in this parable is the Kingdom to be found?

The Kingdom of Heaven, as we know from some of Jesus’ other parables,
            is not always to be found in the places one might expect.
Sometimes it’s a mustard seed, small, almost invisible,
            fragile, and waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected of places.
I think it’s there in this parable,
            we just need to look for it…

When faced with a murderous regime or a despicable dictator,
            this parable points us to three possible responses.

The first is the path taken by the initial guests;
            it is the response that plays the political game,
            which seeks to effect regime change and resorts to violence if necessary.
The problem with this, of course, is that not only is it a high risk strategy,
                        as the landowning businessmen in Jesus’ story discovered,
            but even if it is effective, you only end up replacing one Herod with another,
                        and so nothing really changes.
This is the path that will most readily appeal
            to those with a vested interest in the status quo,
            to those who have previously been cozying up to the dictator
                        and diligently attending all his parties
            right up until the moment when the wind changed against him.

The second response is that taken by those
            who actually ended up at the feast thrown by the king,
                        and this is the path of least resistance.
It is the path that says,
            ‘I know he’s a dictator, but what are you gonna do?’
It is the path taken by those who feel disempowered,
            by those who live in fear or apathy or both,
            who just want to be left alone and allowed to live their quiet lives.
If others take a stand and die for the trouble,
            that’s very sad, but at least we still survive for another night.
And really, is there anything so wrong with a bit of partying on demand,
            even if it does represent capitulation to state propaganda?

The third response is that taken by the man in the corner
                        who is wearing the wrong clothes.
            In a world of violence and enforced capitulation, he stands apart.
This, surely, is the kingdom of heaven personified.
            This is the kingdom of heaven as the suffering servant (Isa 52.13-53.12),
                        the one who remains silent before his accusers
                        and who goes to his death in defiance of the forces
                                    that seek continued and unfettered reign
                                    to diminish, distort, and demean humanity.

In the world of the prophetic book of Isaiah,
            written some six hundred or so years before the time of Jesus,
            and speaking to a time of military occupation and enforced exile
                        at the hands of the Babylonian empire,
we find the origins of this suffering-servant counter-testimony
            to the ideology of empire.

The Babylonians had declared that the world must bow down before them
            or else face terrible consequences.
Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Babylonians,
            had declared that all must worship him, and him alone.
And it was in the midst of this world
            that Isaiah started to articulate the dream of a new world.
In the midst of oppression, Isaiah wrote of a hopeful future,
            of a time and place where tears would be wiped away,
            and people would be free to feast with their God
            in joyful celebration of their liberty from subjugation.

The kingdom banquet dreamed of by Isaiah
            is a world away from the wedding banquet of the king in Jesus’ parable.
But there is a common thread…
            and it is the figure of the suffering servant.
The insight of the prophet Isaiah was that the new world of justice and equality
            could only come into being through the suffering of the innocent
            who take their stand
                        in defiance of the inequalities and violence
                        that otherwise dominate the world.
So Isaiah personifies the nation of Israel as the servant of the Lord,
            and speaks of the people of God as the faithful servant
            who is wounded and marred and killed
                        for the sake of the new world that is coming into being.

In Isaiah’s time, this was clearly referring
            to the sufferings of the nation of Israel
            at the hands of their Babylonian oppressors.
And of course the New Testament writers
            used this same ancient image of a ‘suffering servant’
                        to describe what they saw in Jesus,
            who went to his cross to take upon himself the violence of humanity,
                        opening the way through death to resurrection and new life for all.
And it is this figure of the suffering servant
            that we meet in Jesus’ own story of the wedding banquet.

The silent man, who has refused to put on
            the appropriate garments of celebration for the royal wedding,
is seized by the king’s attendants, bound like a sacrificial victim,
            and thrown into the outer darkness.

This is the crucial moment in the parable,
            and it is here that the Kingdom of Heaven finally comes into view.

The guests at the banquet in the parable are in all sorts of trouble.
            They live in world of violence and fear,
                        they are asked to accept propaganda
                        that legitimates their own oppression and coercion,
            and they are in no position to challenge the king,
                        because those who have already tried that are now dead
                                    with their city burned to the ground.

The guests at the king’s banquet are a people with no hope.
            And it is to those who live in the land of darkness
                        that the unrobed man comes.
            Standing there in their midst, one of them, yet not one of them.
                        With them, but not the same as them.
            He takes onto himself the wrath of the king,
                        and becomes the sacrificial victim.
He interrupts their victimhood
            by making himself the victim for all.

So what about us… ?

We, like the prisoner-guests of the tyrannical king,
            live in a world of violence.
There is horror being played out before our eyes in Syria and Iraq.
            And our leaders don’t know how to respond
                        except by trying to bring peace by violence,
            which just perpetuates the suffering to another generation,
                        at best deferring it to another year.

And we might well ask, in the midst of the complexities of war and suffering:
            Where is the kingdom of heaven to be found?
Where is the counter-testimony to the dominant ideologies
            of retaliation or compliance?
Where is the Kingdom when those who were once our friends are now our enemies?
            Where is the Kingdom when those who were once our enemies are now our friends?
Where is truth and justice
            and righteousness and forgiveness and peace
            in a world of terrorism and bloody murder?

Where are those who are taking a stand?
            Where are those who will not bow to the king?
            Where are those who will not comply?

Where, in the midst of the spirals of violence that define our world,
            is the kingdom of Heaven to be found?
Where in a world of dictators and despots,
            of ideology and propaganda,
            is the kingdom of heaven to be seen?

Tomorrow I’m representing the Baptist Union of Great Britain
            at an event in Westminster
            called the National Caucus for the Persecuted Church.
This meeting will draw together various senior political figures,
            members of the house of Lords,
                        political analysts, clergy,
            the Foreign and Commonwealth office,
                        the Refugee Council,
                        and the Canadian High Commission for Religious Freedom.

We will be talking about how best to help those Christians in Northern Iraq
            who have been displaced from their homes
because of their refusal to capitulate
            to the demands of those who hold power over them.
Should they stay put, be granted asylum,
            or should we try to create ‘safe havens’ for them?

Many Christians in Northern Iraq,
            as in so many other places around the world,
have chosen to stand with the suffering servant,
            to stand with the quiet man in the wrong clothes
            at the wedding banquet of Jesus’ parable.
And they are bearing the marks of suffering in their own bodies,
            for their refusal to join the party of capitulation to the dominant ideology.

And by so doing they are bearing faithful testimony, even unto death,
            of their refusal to be conformed to the demands of this world.
They are refusing to be intimidated by the violence of the king,
            refusing to bow down to the system of domination that seems to control all.
They are holding fast to the cross of Christ.

And, Jesus might ask of us:
            Where will we be found standing at the king’s banquet?
Or, to put it another way,
            where are we going to take our stand?





[1] See Marty Aiken "The Kingdom of Heaven Suffers Violence: Discerning the Suffering Servant in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet.” http://girardianlectionary.net/res/innsbruck2003_Aiken_Paper.doc

Sunday, 5 October 2014

What God, and So What?

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
5th October 2014 11.00am

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 watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.  34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.  35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.  37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.'  39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.  40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?"  41 They 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'?  43 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.  44 The 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.  46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Isaiah 5.1-7  Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  4 What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?  5 And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  6 I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.  7 For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

I'll put this as plainly as I can:
            the answer we give, to the problem of human sinfulness,
            reveals the nature of the God in which we ultimately believe.

But I'll come back to that.

A friend of mine, who used to be a lecturer at Spurgeon's college [John Colwell],
            often says that there are two key questions that we must bear in mind
            when we come to try and understand a biblical passage.

The first question is: what God?
            And the second question is: so what?

What God, and So what?

Firstly, what God do we encounter through this text?
            And secondly, what difference does that make? 

These are not trivial questions.
And there is no straightforward way out of them,
            for example by asserting that there is only one God,
            or that we all believe in the same God.
To give you an example, the God that Richard Dawkins claims not to believe in,
            is very definitely not the same God
                        as the one that I do believe in.
If I thought that God was what Richard Dawkins thinks God is,
            then I'm fairly sure that I wouldn't believe in him either.
However, Dawkins' God is not the God
            in which I do very firmly believe,
as those of you who have read my poem in this month's Church magazine
            will know by now.
                        http://baptistbookworm.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/i-do-believe.html

This question of "What God?" is never an easy one to answer,
            because there is none so deceived in this life as thee and me.
The level of self awareness that is required
                        to be honest about our view of God
            is something which most of us, most of the time,
                        find hard to achieve.

And so sometimes we need some help.
Sometimes that help can take the form of a friend,
            someone who comes alongside us and asks us gently
                        why it is that we are finding it so difficult to be tolerant
                        of those who differ from our own perspectives.
In this way they might gently help us towards the insight
            that our own intolerance of others
            has its roots deep in our fear that God will judge us harshly.

An insight such as this, once it has been reached,
            opens the door to the possibility of transformation and change,
            and the friend who helps us gain it is a friend indeed.

But sometimes we need more than a kindly hand on the shoulder
            to release us from our self-deception.
Sometimes we need to be actively shocked from our delusions,
            if we are to have our eyes opened
            to an alternative and more healthy reality.

Think of King David,
            at the depths of his murderous adultery with Bathsheba.
Had the prophet Nathan simply confronted him
                        with a challenge about his behaviour,
            it would, surely, have been,
                        "off with Nathan's head too!"
So Nathan wisely chose a less direct approach,
            and instead of a direct confrontation,
            he simply told David a story, a parable, about two men,
                        one who had everything,
                        and one who had nothing except a tiny little pet lamb
                                    which he loved and kept as part of his household.
When, in Nathan's story, the rich man took the tiny lamb
            from the poor man to cook it for a guest,
                        rather than taking one of his own flocks,
            David was hooked into the story.
Little did he realise, of course that the rich man was him,
            the poor man was Uriah,
            and the little lamb was the beautiful Bathsheba
                        whom he had stolen for himself.
So when David, caught up in the story,
            pronounced that the man who had taken this little lamb deserved to die,
            he was of course condemning himself out of his own mouth.
When Nathan turns to David and says "you are that man",
            the way is open for David's repentance and transformation.

This kind of parable has a name, it is known as a 'juridical' parable.
            These are stories where the reader is forced into the circumstances of the parable,
                        and only once they have become complicit
                                    in passing judgement on characters in the story
                        does the lens drop, and they realise
                                    that they have actually pronounced judgement upon themselves.
Kierkegaard describes these parables as,
            "thoughts which wound from behind".
And this is exactly what we find going on
            in Matthew's version of the parable of the unfaithful servants in the vineyard. 

We know this story so well, don't we?
            A man, a landowner, plants a vineyard,
                        puts a fence around it and leases it to tenants
                        whilst he is away in another country.
            When the time has come for the harvest, he sends his slaves,
                        but they are beaten and killed and stoned.
            So he sends further slaves who are treated in the same way.
            And then finally he sends his son,
                        who is also killed by the tenants. 

This is a story which those listening to Jesus
            would, like us, have found intensely familiar.
Not only did they live in a world of vineyards, tenant farmers, and absentee landlords.
            But also the chief priests and the Pharisees to whom Jesus addressed this parable
                        would have known well the story of the vineyard from Isaiah chapter 5,
            and they would have known that Isaiah's parable
                        draws a clear parallel between the vineyard in the story,
                                    and the nation of Israel.
If you were a first century Jew,
            you heard ‘vineyard’, and you knew that what was meant
            was the nation of Israel, the people of God.
However, the other aspects of the parable that Jesus told
            would have taken rather more thought and creativity to decode.
You see, Jesus' parable is different enough from Isaiah's
            for them to clearly not be the same story,
but it is similar enough for those listening to Jesus
            to think that they might be able to guess
            where he might be going to go with his vineyard story.

Let's hear it as the Chief priests and the Pharisees might have heard it.
            The vineyard is Israel, that much seems clear.

They would probably also have assumed that the landowner was God,
            a reasonable assumption on the basis of Isaiah's parable
                        where the planter of the vineyard is clearly identified as the Lord.
They would probably also have identified the servants of the landowner
            as prophets and messengers sent by God to Israel,
            to call it to fruitfulness.
They may even have seen themselves in this role;
            as the religious custodians of the nation,
                        they and their predecessors had, for generations,
                        been calling for Israel to recover its zeal for the Lord
                                    in the face of the constant pressures and temptations
                                    to compromise and collaborate with whichever imperial power
                                                held sway in the region.
            From the Assyrians to the Babylonians,
                        from the Hasmoneans to the Seleucids to the Romans,
            those who had tended the vineyard of God's people down the centuries
                        had done so by oppressing its people
                        and demanding compromise and tribute at every turn
                                    from those who had been called to be faithful to the Lord
                                                and to the Lord alone.
You can see why the Pharisees and Chief priests liked Jesus’ parable, at least at first.
            The way they heard it, they were the tragic heroes,
                        the ones who suffered for their prophetic task
                                    of calling the nation to faithfulness,
                        in the face of the unfaithful tenants
                                    who repeatedly kept trying to steal
                                    the vineyard of God for themselves. 

So it is no surprise that when Jesus springs his trap, they walk right into it

You see, using this story,
            Jesus has drawn the Pharisees into inadvertently revealing
                        what God it is that they actually believe in,
            because his parable poses the key question
                        of what the appropriate response should be to the problem of human sin.

The question, as Jesus poses it, is this:
            if God looks like the landowner,
                        what will his response be to the avaricious and unfaithful tenants
                        of his vineyard.
And it is at this point that he hears from the Pharisees' own lips
            that they believe in a God of violence and vengeance,
            a God of wrath and retaliation.
The chief priests and the Pharisees believe in a God
            who will kill the unfaithful tenants
            and hand the vineyard over to someone else.

Of course, what they were hoping for here
            was an ending to this story where God takes out his wrath on the Romans,
                        handing the care of God's nation over to the faithful,
                        and previously persecuted, Pharisees.

What they encounter instead
            is a turning of the tables against them,
            as they are revealed to be the unfaithful tenants of the story.

Like David before Nathan
            they have condemned themselves out of their own mouths.
Is it any wonder they start to want to rid themselves of this troublesome man?

These people who have just revealed themselves
            to believe in a God of violence
then do that which comes most naturally to them;
            they opt for a violent solution to their presenting problem.

The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf,
            whose theology was forged in the crucible of the Croatian civil wars,
                        says that if you believe in a god of violence,
                        you will tend to prefer a violent solution.
And so the Pharisees, having revealed just such a view of God,
            then immediately take the steps required
            to bring the tragic conclusion of Jesus' story into reality,
                        and they start to plot to kill the Son.
In doing so,
            they reveal themselves unambiguously to be the unfaithful tenants,
                        condemned by their own theology
                        to the wrathful judgment of the God they have created. 

Meanwhile, of course,
            the reality inhabited by the Pharisees is not the reality of God.
Because God revealed in Christ Jesus
            is not a God of violence and retribution,
            but a God of peace and forgiveness.

The Pharisees had got God wrong.
            God is not the landowner of Jesus's parable,
                        he does not kill the Jews and take away from them the kingdom of God,
            and any attempt to read this parable in that direction
                        runs a profound risk of capitulating with anti-Semitism.
If the Jewish leaders are condemned,
            it is on the basis of their own theology of condemnation.

God is not the landowner of the Pharisees’ imagining.
            Rather, he is the one who offers forgiveness to those who betray him,
                        the one who reverses the horrific effects
                                    of the worst violence the human heart can conceive
                        by raising his son from death to life.
            And in so doing, opening the door for new life
                        for all those trapped in the psychotic spirals
                        of violence and counter-violence unto death.

This is the God revealed in Jesus,
            and it is a very different God to that feared by the Pharisees.

So, "what God?"

Do we worship a God of violence, or a God of peace,
            do we worship a God of vengeance, or a God of forgiveness?
Do we worship a God of justice, or a God of bloodshed,
            a God of righteousness, or a God of weeping and crying,
as Isaiah posed it?

Well, as Jesus said to his disciples earlier in Matthew's gospel,
            "You will know them by their fruits" (7.16).
Our answer to the "so what" question
            may well offer us our insight into "what God" we actually worship.
It certainly did for the Pharisees,
            who discovered “what God” they believed in
            when they were confronted with their default answer
                        to the question of what the appropriate response should be
                        to the question of human sinfulness,
            encapsulated for them in the horrific actions
                        of the unfaithful and violent tenants. 

But what about us?
We don't live in an agrarian society,
            and analogies based on vineyards don't carry such rhetorical force
                        in our technologized world.

But consider this... 

A man went to a foreign country
            to bring help to those who were suffering there,
            because this country had been torn apart by war for many years.
He was taken prisoner by some of those who lived there,
            people who wanted to take control of the country for themselves.
They brutally murdered the innocent aid worker
            and posted a video of his beheading on the Internet.
Now, what should the leader of that man's country
            do to those who had killed the man?

I suspect that the answer we give to that question
            may tell us more about our view of God than we want to know.

Those who imagine a violent God
            have a predisposition to seeing violence
            as the divinely legitimated solution to human sin,
and those who see violence as the answer
            may well discover that this reveals
            “what God” it is that they worship.

Jesus invites us all to imagine God differently,
            he invites us to step into a world where God is the God of peace and justice,
                        and not the God of vengeance and bloodshed.

So, what answer should we give to the problem of human sinfulness,
            especially when the latest personification of that problem
            is committing terrible atrocities before our very eyes?

Well, our response will be shaped by our view of God.

Is our God a God of war,
            fighting for the right,
            baring his holy arm before the nations in a show of divine defiance,
                        and demanding obedience and compliance to his holy path?
If so, then send in the drones!

But if our God is a god of peace,
            whose response to human violence is to absorb it into his own body,
            and to go to the cross of broken flesh and spilled blood
            to enter into and redeem the worst excesses of human sinfulness,
then we too are called to be people of peace and not war.

This coming week is the Week of Action on Drones,[1]
            and the Times has reported recently that British armed unmanned drones
            may well be in the skies above Iraq before the end of the year.[2]

If we are the people of God,
            then we are the vineyard of the Lord of hosts.
And the words of the prophet Isaiah echo down the millennia to us:

‘He expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
            righteousness, but heard a cry!’.

So what fruit will be found among us?
            “What God” do we worship,
            and “So What?”



[1] http://dronecampaignnetwork.wordpress.com/drones-week-of-action-2014/
[2] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/middleeast/article4216166.ece