Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on 2 October 2011
2 October 2011 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
Readings: Isaiah 5. 1-7; Philippians 3.4b-14; St Matthew 21.33-end
Jesus was a Jew, and his teaching and the debates he engaged in during his life time all took place in the context of his Jewish background. That background of course included the self-criticism that was always a characteristic of Judaism, as shown in the passage from Isaiah we heard this morning, where the Jewish prophet Isaiah is pretty scathing about the failures of his own people, but Jesus’ own teaching took place very firmly in that Jewish context, and certainly he behaved as though his ministry was primarily to his own people. ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel’ is how he put it according to St Matthew chapter 15. And the very earliest church was largely Jewish, so for some years even after the death of Jesus Jewish Christians would have been part of the synagogue worship as well as no doubt getting together in their own Christian groups. It was only some years later, with St Peter and St Paul both choosing to go to the Gentiles that the church broke out of its Jewish background and became the independent and separate religion that it is today.
And our two New Testament readings reflect part of that change. The letter to the Philippians was probably written some twenty or so years after Jesus’ death, by which time the engagement with the Gentile world was well underway, and Paul had some experience of engaging also with those fellow Christians of his who still saw the church as primarily a Jewish reform movement and who wanted, for example, to ask that Gentile male converts to Christianity should be circumcised. Elsewhere in his letter to the Philippians Paul refers to that conflict and he obviously took a very strong stand against them. Today we can probably be grateful that he won the battle, but we should be aware that it was a real source of debate in the early days of the church.
By the time we get to the Gospel passage from Matthew, written probably some thirty or so years after Paul’s letter, the conflict with Judaism and the synagogue had become even greater, with some Christians seeing the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem in A.D.70 by a Roman Army as evidence of God’s rejection of the Jews, with at one stage 500 Jews being crucified every day and where it was said finally some half million men, women and children died.
Now in the case of the Gospel passage we have just heard there is a debate amongst New Testament scholars about what was the original story that Jesus told. Jesus’ normal teaching method was to tell a parable that simply took an ordinary event and he brought out or left to his hearers to bring out some moral from it. Foreign landowners with tenanted enterprises were quite common in the Israel of Jesus’ time, and nationalistic feeling often led to resentment at foreign ownership, so some story like the one that Jesus told would not have been impossible. But Jesus did not normally produce stories to be interpreted as allegories, with each part of the story having some particular meaning. Many scholars think that the allegorical interpretation that some give of Matthew, where the vineyard stood for Israel, the owner for God, the tenants for the Jewish leadership, the slaves for the prophets, the son and heir for Jesus himself, and possibly even the putting to death of the tenants as referring to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, was not characteristic of Jesus’ use of parables. Matthew’s implied interpretation of the passage as describing the replacement of leaders of the Jews by the new Church in the Kingdom of God was far more a reflection of the polemical relationship between synagogue and church towards the end of the first century than of anything that the historical Jesus might have said in his lifetime. Well, who knows where the truth lies? But the debate is certainly there amongst New Testament scholars.
If the matter had been left there that would have been one thing, but of course it was not left there. The negative approach to Judaism implied in some interpretations of Matthew carried on with all sorts of later Christian inspired attacks on Jewish communities, with the expulsion of Jews from this country by Edward I in 1290, from France some 25 years later, and then from Spain in 1492. And in a way that hostility to Judaism culminated eventually in horrors of the Holocaust. Although the Nazi movement was quite definitely deeply pagan in its attitudes and origins, it was able to find some statements from earlier Christians, not least of all from the German Martin Luther, that they could use as justification for their outrageous treatment of the Jews. The embarrassing fact for the church is that for far too long elements in the Christian tradition gave at least tacit support as anti-Semitism festered.
The need to change the Christian approach to Jews was clearly seen in this country by the founding of the Council of Christians and Jews in some of the darkest days of the war in 1942, and then in one of the statements of the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, when it was recognised that Judaism is a vibrant and God-fearing movement in the world with which Christians still have much in common. A way of mutual engagement and respectful dialogue was recognised as a far better way to proceed than the polemical attitude implicit in some interpretations of St Matthew’s Gospel, including of our reading for this morning. And maybe the challenge our readings today give us is to find a way of affirming all that St Paul says about the centrality of Christ for the Christian experience without the negative implications for Judaism. And perhaps one way into that is to reflect on a quotation about what was certainly a central theme of Jesus’ teaching, namely forgiveness.
‘Forgiveness’ says the writer ‘is more than a technique of conflict resolution. It is a stunningly original strategy. In a world without forgiveness, evil begets evil, harm generates harm, and there is no way short of exhaustion or forgetfulness of breaking the sequence. Forgiveness breaks the chain. It introduces into the logic of interpersonal encounter the unpredictability of grace. It represents a decision not to do what instinct and passion urge us to do. It answers hate with a refusal to hate, animosity with generosity. Few more daring ideas have ever entered the human situation. Forgiveness means that we are not destined endlessly to replay the grievances of yesterday. It is the ability to live with the past without being held captive by the past. It would not be an exaggeration to say that forgiveness is the most compelling testimony to human freedom. It is about the action that is not reaction. It is the refusal to be defined by circumstance. It represents our ability to change course, reframe the narrative of the past and create an unexpected set of possibilities for the future.’
I wish I had written that, but it was not written by a Christian, but comes from a book called the Dignity of Difference, by Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi. In that we can surely find a way of moving beyond the polemics of the first century.