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s060g11 Sunday 27  2/10/2011

‘they realised that he was speaking about them ..’  Matthew 21.45

This is a parable about the maltreatment of those God sends to those who believe that they are entitled, elected, and so much superior to others.   Those who believe that they are entitled, elected and so much superior to others - beat, kill and stone those whom God sends to them.   They even kill the son and heir.

And the chief priests and the Pharisees realise that Jesus is speaking about them, and what do they want to do in response? - they want to arrest Jesus.   They fulfil Jesus own words!

So for all the Old Testament (and of course the New as well) speaks to us about loving God and neighbour, the sense of entitlement, election and superiority over others that religion often brings (‘christianity’ as much as any other) actually means that the very people who consider themselves models of devotion and orthodoxy are actually the most vicious – towards those God sends and towards those around them!

This is what the parable means!

I am reminded of the old Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Sounds of Silence’: ‘and the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls’.   The words of the prophets are not to be found amongst the devout and the orthodox.

But I wonder if the perception that the chief priests and the Pharisees had, that Jesus was confronting them personally and individually, was and is correct.   I have reflected before that the perception that Cain had that God preferred his brother Abel’s offering rather than his own was correct.   I do know that the Bible tells us this, but, after that fateful bite of the apple, we cannot be sure that any of our own perceptions, about God or about others, are correct.   I often reflect, Jesus went to eat at the houses of both Simon the leper and Simon the Pharisee.

Jesus tells stories and invites those who heard him to think about their own responses.   They are stories where the appropriate response doesn’t require a theological degree to find, the hearers don’t need to be able to instantly quote chapter and verse of an appropriate scripture to give the correct answer, nor does it need any real special spiritual qualifications to discern.  So Jesus invites all people, not just the theologically elite, to think.  

And it is primarily an invitation to think - rather than to comply.   Those who were models of devotion and orthodoxy were experts in complying with past decrees.   Jesus invites us into the present, to not hide behind past utterances and authorities, and invites us into relationship with those around us, rather than relationship with the dead and buried to the exclusion of those around us.   And so he confronts religion which separates us from the present, and from those around us now.

In essence, I am saying that Jesus confronts, not the chief priests and the Pharisees, but the religion that they have faithfully been taught, learned and practiced, over many years.   In a sense they had learned their religion too well so that they couldn’t see beyond it.   It was their very religion that blinded them to the needs as well as the gifts of those God had put around them – and of course ‘christianity’ can do this as much as any other religion.  

Of course there were (and are) very good reasons for individuals to prefer a religion which separates them from others.   The rich and the powerful may well prefer a religion which enables them to not see the needs of those around them, but all too often the Church can say this of the monetary rich – i.e. others – and fail to see that they (the church) deny dignity to others who need it.   We parade our moral superiority.   As I have often commented, many parts of the church continue to deny appropriate contraception to millions and so condemn those millions to lives of continuing poverty, illness and premature death, all the while complaining about rich people and nations not being charitable to the starving.  

I confess I have always been uncomfortable with Synod motions directed at governments and how they ought to be running the state or the country.   There seems to be some wilful blindness to the deficiencies in the church here.   While we are criticising others we do not need to look at our own selves.   When I hear about dysfunctional secular parliaments and governments, I am not sure that the church committees I’ve been on are any better, even with their supposedly more homogenous constituency and skilful weeding out of dissenters.

Jesus came, not to confront the rich and the powerful, the movers and shakers and the politicians.   Indeed I don’t think he came to confront anyone.   But it was the religious who were scandalised that Jesus didn’t affirm their moral and religious authority over everyone who weren’t part of their holy huddle.  The last chapters of each of the gospels describes the conflict Jesus had with the devout and the orthodox because Jesus associated with people other than them, and how Jesus was killed for this.

In many ways it is the politicians as well as the poor who are living in the present and trying to exist as amicably as possible in often trying circumstances.   Neither need the churches constant disapprobation.   The politicians and the poor are not able to restrict their constituencies to a homogenous group like the church attempts to do.  It was quasi-religious figures like Hitler who attempted to do this, and we know how many were exterminated in the process.   Jews, gays, the disabled.

Indeed of course, the ideal of a homogenous church of like-minded worshippers is, when one actually thinks about it in these terms, a fantasy.   As I have often observed, it is the conceit of a minister or priest, if he or she thinks that their parishioners believe in precisely the same terms as him or her.   Even after a lifetime of preaching, people will always have their own ‘take’ on the faith.   Sometimes it seems as if the church spends so much energy proclaiming orthodoxy that they fail to appreciate the riches of spirituality, hidden away, unperceived, unexpressed, un-nurtured in folk who are just striving to live from day to day.   I think of the spirituality of the surfer and the motorcyclist.

This viciousness of the entitled, elected and the superior, seems unconscious, inadvertent, unwitting, yet others are indeed hurt.   As the psalmist says: ‘Who can discern unwitting sins?  O cleanse me from my secret faults.’ (Psalm 19.12)

And it is interesting, again we can so personalise this, yet if we take St Paul as an example, here he was on that road to Damascus, thoroughly convinced that what he was doing, persecuting people who were different, was what God wanted.   He had no idea that he was committing a sin or that he was evil, or indeed that he was doing something that reflected own his own will.   But he was stopped in his tracks because others were indeed being hurt, and hurt (supposedly) in the name of God.   With God, no one is hurt.

One of the less frequently recognized perceptions in the Bible is the need to make sure that the offerings we make to God are our own.   The prophet Nathan had to confront King David with his sin and he uses the story of the rich man who takes his poor neighbour’s lamb to fulfil his religious duty to feed his unexpected guest.

Some members of the Church spend their lives suggesting that the world would be a better place if others made the proper sacrifices rather than the ones they want to make.   Others have to sacrifice their spirituality in favour of an ‘orthodox’ one.   How many long standing parishioners think that this is their church and that others have to live up to their expectations if they want to stay?

Everyone has a right to live and to be a part of the world and a part of God’s church.   Jesus comes to say to those who want it all for themselves, because somehow they are special in the eyes of God, that God actually wants them to share it with others.

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