29th Sunday of Yr A

Our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is positive and hopeful. The people of Israel have been in captivity in Babylon for 70 years, but now there is the possibility of freedom . The Persian King, Cyrus will let the exiles return to Jerusalem, and rebuild the Temple. The passage is a testament to the sovereignty of God:

I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God’ (Isa 45:5)

God can use a secular ruler, such as Cyrus, to bring about the flourishing and freedom of His people. However, as much as we can respect authority, it is clear that our first duty is towards God, to love Him, and serve Him.

This is exactly what the original recipients of Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians have been doing. They have ‘turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come’ (1Thess 1:9-10). 

Our gospel this morning is all about a denarius, it is a small silver coin, about ¾ of an inch in diameter, the size of a modern 5p, or a penny. It was a day’s wage, the pay given to the labourers in the vineyard. A denarius was worth about £75 in today’s money and was the cost of the Roman Poll Tax. It’s amazing that such a small coin could have such a great value.

The conflict with religious authorities which has characterised our recent readings from the Gospel continues today with a wrangle over words. The Pharisees come to see Jesus with their students along with Herodians, supporters of Herod the Great, who were very much in favour of Roman rule. 

The Pharisees begin the conversation with flattery, trying to butter Jesus up:

“Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” (Mt 22:16) 

And at one level they are completely right, Jesus is not interested in opinions or appearances. What matters is reality: how you really are, in all truth and honesty. This is what matters to God, not how we appear, but how we really are. 

So the Pharisees ask their question:

“Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” (Mt 22:17)

If Jesus says, ‘no’ then He will be allying himself with the zealots, religious extremists, and making a provocative political statement for which Jesus can be denounced to the authorities. On the other hand, if Jesus says, ‘yes’ then the Pharisees can write Him off as a collaborator with the Romans, and show that He is not one of us, not a real prophet, or a true son of Israel. All the Pharisees are interested in is understanding what Jesus says in political terms. Their opening pleasantries ring hollow, they don’t mean what they say. The point of their question is not to discover the truth, but to discover a way to denounce Jesus as either a zealot or a collaborator.

Thankfully, Our Lord is aware of their scheme, and so asks them,

“Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. (Mt 22:18-19)

Silver denarius of Tiberius

Jesus can see through their scheme, and subverts it, to serve His purpose, to  announce the Kingdom of God. Jesus asks the Pharisees to show Him a coin. He does not have one Himself, either because of poverty or because of the image on the coins. On one side of the coin is the head , and an inscription which reads ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the god Augustus,’ On the other side the is an image of Jupiter seated on a throne and the end of the inscription, ‘High Priest.’ So the Pharisees bring Jesus the coin, and He asks,

“Whose likeness and inscription is this?” (Mt 22:20)

The Pharisees answer ‘Caesar’s’ leads to this reply from Jesus:

Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:21)

Whereas the Pharisees come filled with malice, and with a desire to catch Him out, Jesus instead uses this as an opportunity to show them the proper order of things. You should pay your taxes but also give to God what is owed to Him. That is a heart filled with love, love of God and love of each other. Living a life of offering which proclaims this love in the service of others and through the worship of Almighty God. This is where real power lies, and this is the truly subversive aspect of Jesus’ teaching. He proclaims in the Temple in Jerusalem, in the very heart of the religious establishment, in order to show people how to live, and live life to the full. Paying a Roman tax with a Roman coin is perfectly fine, but what matters much more is rendering to God the things that are God’s.

Jesus takes a trap and turns it into a teaching opportunity. The Pharisees wanted to dismiss Him as either a militant or a Roman stooge, but Jesus uses the situation to demonstrate the Kingdom of God in action. In His gentleness, His mockery of their pride and arrogance, Jesus shows the Pharisees how foolish they are. They claim to follow the Law, but have forgotten what its Spirit is. We may owe secular powers our taxes, but we owe God everything. He created us, and all that exists. 

Jesus is asking us all a difficult question. What do you and I, all of us, render to God in our personal lives? If we claim to be disciples, then what does that actually mean in the way that we speak and act?

We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mt 22:37-40). We are to be generous, forgiving and kind, to the point of extravagance, because that is how God has been to us. It is a radically different way of living which demonstrates that while we are in this world, we are not of it. Instead, we render to God the worship which is His by right, not just in church, but in all of our lives.

Thus as Christians we follow a different set of rules, which give us lives of freedom. In the power of the Holy Spirit the Truth can be proclaimed, the truth which sets us free from the ways of the world, free to love and serve God. This liberty can be seen in the lives of the Thessalonian Christians to whom St Paul writes. Rather than worshipping idols, they labour for the living and true God, they are an example to Christians of how to live. Their lives proclaim the truth which they serve. 

Jesus is opposed to either the collaboration of the Herodians or the rigourist harshness of the Pharisees, and instead proclaims the freedom and love of the Kingdom of God. It is a place of welcome: the image is that of the wedding feast to which all people are invited. People are too busy or preoccupied to come; others just don’t want to be invited: they mistreat the people who invite them. But this does not stop the invitation being offered to all, it still is. It is why we are here today. We join the Wedding Feast and are nourished by Word and Sacrament, so that we can be strengthened in love and in faith, to proclaim the reality of the Kingdom of God. We are called to be an example to others and to draw them in to the loving embrace of God: to be healed and restored by Him. Because of what God has done for us, we are able to render to God the things that are God’s: lives characterised by the love and generosity which are at the heart of the Gospel. This is what really matters: living the life of the Kingdom here and now. 

Let us therefore come to Him, to be healed and renewed, strengthened, and built up in love, so that we may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen. 

27th Sunday of year A

There have been a lot of vineyards in our readings recently. Jesus has just told a parable about labourers in a vineyard, which we heard two weeks ago, and now, this morning, two of our readings are all about vineyards. They are important things: they grow grapes which make juice and wine, which people drink. But more than that, at a symbolic level, the vineyard stands for Israel, the land of God’s chosen people. The metaphor of the vineyard allows both Isaiah and Jesus to talk about Israel and their relationship with God. They do not have much to say that is good. Our readings are sad, difficult, hard readings, which tell us the truth about falling short of what God expects of us, His people, who have been made in His image and likeness.

In our first reading today, the prophet Isaiah sings a love-song for his beloved, that is, God, who plants a vineyard on a hill, having prepared the soil and cleared away the stones. These actions are all signs of love and care. God defends the vineyard with a watchtower to give advanced notice of attack. There is also a vat in which to make wine out of the grapes. However, the grapes are wild, but wild grapes are weeds, which grow more vigorously, and their fruit is sour, not sweet. You cannot make good wine from sour grapes. This prophecy speaks of Israel being abandoned and destroyed. This is because God expects justice, but instead, is faced with bloodshed. God looks for righteousness, but instead, finds an outcry. The Hebrew for each pair of words is similar, so the prophet is using wordplay to make the point more strongly. Israel needs to repent, to turn back to God and follow His ways. 

The situation with the Phillipian Christians in our second reading is the complete opposite, and comes as a welcome relief. Here people are living how God wants them to and they are flourishing. They do not need to be anxious, or to worry about anything, as they can ask God in prayer for their needs. Their lives are characterised by peace which passeth all understanding. This is the same peace which I pray for all of us in the blessing at the end of this morning’s service. This peace is meant to characterise our life together as Christians: it how we are supposed to live together.

The apostle then finishes this section of his letter with some encouragement:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)

These are good words to live by. They show us how we can flourish, following the example set by St Paul. Indeed, that is how Christianity helps us to lead our lives: we are shown a good example, and we follow it. That is how the faith has been transmitted for two thousand years, and will continue in the future, through the sharing of good examples. We can do this, together, as a Christian community, and in so doing, bear much fruit.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus continues to teach in the Temple, after His Triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. He has told the parable about labourers in a vineyard, and the parable of the two sons, and now He recited a parable about a vineyard and a son. Jesus sets the scene in a way which clearly refers to the prophecy of Isaiah which we have just heard. The chief priests and elders would have known the prophecy which Jesus was referring to. This parable has a number of servants being sent to collect the fruit:

And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than at first. And they did the same to them. (Mt 21:35-36)

This is a description of how Israel acts towards prophets, such as Isaiah. Despite telling the truth and telling the people God’s word, they are mistreated and killed. Again and again the prophets call God’s people to repentance, to turn back to the Lord, and they are ignored and mistreated. As a result, God sends His Son. As the parable continues:

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 have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. (Mt 21 37-39)

Here Jesus is prophesying His own death. Soon, despite having just been welcomed into Jerusalem as the Messiah, Jesus will see the crowds turn against Him.Encouraged by the chief priests and elders (who are listening to this parable) the people will call for Jesus’ Death. 

At the conclusion of the parable, Jesus asks the religious authorities what God will do, and they answer Him:

When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” (Mt 21:40-41)

Their answer is telling. The chief priests understand what is going on,  and that their actions will have consequences. Finally Jesus quotes from the Psalms (Ps 118:22) to explain the situation:

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 marvellous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.” (Mt 21:42-3)

Just like the prophet Isaiah earlier, Jesus uses clever word-play to reinforce His theme. Isaiah makes the point that the words for justice and bloodshed, and righteousness and an outcry are similar. Likewise, the Hebrew words for stone (eben, as in Ebenezer) and son (ben, as in Benjamin) are very similar, there is only one letter difference.

Jesus uses the Psalms to reinforce His interpretation of Isaiah. He is letting His listeners know that He must be rejected, suffer, and die. Jesus also makes clear  that salvation is now not solely for Israel, but also for the Gentiles, and in fact for anyone who produces the fruit that God desires them to produce. This is the Christian proclamation in a nutshell.

Despite being aware of what is going on, the religious authorities do nothing to avert the possible calamity. They are unwilling, or unable to stop it. That is a definition of tragedy. And yet, something wonderful is about to happen:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (Jn 3:16-17)

Despite Jesus’ rejection and death, it is God’s love and forgiveness that are being proclaimed to the world. The Kingdom of God is a place of reconciliation, where wounds are healed, and lives are restored. Love is the core of our faith: God’s love for us, and our love for each other and for God. This is how God transforms the world: through LOVE. God so loved the world, a world which He created, and restored, and redeemed. We, here, are living proof of that love, and we are given the task of tending the Lord’s vineyard. How can we live out that same generous love in our own lives? We need to work together, nourished by Word and Sacrament, and live lives of love and forgiveness. We are called to proclaim God’s love to the world, and to invite others to enter the joy of the Lord so that we all may sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

Diego Velazquez, The Crucifixion, 19632, Museo del Prado, Madrid