Toorak Uniting Church

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Listening to the Messenger

Matthew 21: 33 – 46
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
Pentecost 17
5 October 2014

The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has suggested that we read the parables as subversive narratives. That is, they are giving an alternative view of the world and most often having a go at the rich, famous and powerful. I grew up with the view that parables were "earthly stories with a heavenly meaning". This was a convenient way of keeping the social status in place in both Biblical times and today.

Parables are perhaps the most powerful Christian teaching we have and yet also the most neglected. Maybe it is our love for clear, simple answers to complex questions, which the parables don’t provide. In fact a parable makes you do the hard work: making the interpretation and locating yourself in the story so that it challenges you and the community to which you belong.

During the recent Val Webb workshop, one of the participants spoke about the parable of the Good Samaritan and how it would have upset the listeners. He spoke about how the listener knows the formula of the story Jesus was to tell. It was clear that the first person would be a scribe who was forbidden to approach a man in this condition; the second was a priest whose religion demanded that he keep himself ceremonially clean and the third person would be a merchant, whose busy life called him to keep moving. But wait, in Jesus’ story the third man who showed compassion was the outsider, the foreigner, the stranger, the "good" Samaritan. Familiarity with this story has robbed us of the shock of the first listeners’ experience. It is a subversive story that was meant to undermine the social status of the day.

Tell the Truth but tell it Slant
Emily Dickinson, the 19th Century poet, has a poem, or perhaps more an aphorism, that goes like this:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies.
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise.
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

I think that is the purpose of a parable. It tells the truth, but tells it on the slant. That is, you have to do the interpretive work. And while the words, images and events may be found in a particular time and place, they are universal and have as much relevance today as they did two thousand years ago.

But there is an important warning here and that is: parables are metaphors; they have a mythic quality. So if there is mention of vineyards and the digging of a wine press, these are the "physical" elements pushed into service for a deeper and richer take on life.

So what is the truth that is told on the slant in this parable?

"Now listen to another parable. Once 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. When the harvest time had come, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his produce.

On the surface this is a simple story of good economics. Build a business and make your money and investment work for you by employing other people to manage and do the day-to-day work. Not very different from the capitalist system we have today. But remember that the listeners to this parable were not the landowners, but the workers in the vineyard. Absentee landlords have never been very popular throughout history.

"But the tenants seized his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

This is a rather brutal story. The tenants had little or no respect for the owner of the land. Perhaps they felt he had done so little to produce the grapes that he did not deserve the rewards. Yet there is another layer to this story. The narrator is telling the story some 50 years after the death of Jesus. He is using this story not as a simple example of economics, but as an analogy of an untold history of these people, those who are listening to the story.

The Untold History
I enjoy the writings of the Australian author Don Watson. Watson was the speech writer for Paul Keating… Now don’t write him off for that!! His most recent book is about his life growing up on a farm in Gippsland. But it is also a story about the historical relationship between European Australia and the land. A reviewer says:

The brutal reality of growing up on a farm invoked confusion in Don Watson. But he says there is a dignity to living on the land that city folk fail to appreciate.

I have only read a review of the book, nevertheless it seems to be a strong analysis of our brutality toward the land and the country; our inability to work with the land to produce the produce we need to survive and prosper. But the most important thing is the relationship we have with "Mother Earth"; but that is for another sermon.

What the author of this parable is doing is telling the untold story. He is writing the "hidden" history of the people: the messages of hope, love and justice came - Amos, Micah, the Psalmist and the great prophets; but the people did not listen. The former were trying to weave a new story, not one of power and vengeance, but of new life and gratitude. The people would not listen but destroyed the messengers. And then:

"Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him."

The story is very clear. The listeners know that the storyteller is referring to Jesus of Nazareth; the one who brought a new story; a new way of being in the world; a realignment of the power and authority. But they did not listen, as we do not listen today.

Listening to the Messengers
I wonder how many messengers have come to us in the last two thousand years. We only need to look at the last one hundred years; those who have given a very different message from the common view of violence:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Martin Luther King Jr
Mother Teresa
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Herbert Vere "H.V." Evatt (aka Doc Evatt)
And 1000s of others.

Why is it that the truth that the powerful reject could be the seed for the new humanity?

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'? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produce the fruits of the kingdom."

And his last words, that underline the subversive nature of the parable:

"The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls." When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, who regarded him as a prophet.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2014

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.