Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 14 April 2019
PALM SUNDAY, 2019 EVENSONG
Preacher: Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Isaiah 5.1-7; Luke 20.9-19
“What does this text mean?”
This morning, with millions of Christians around the world, we held our Procession of Palms, the commemoration of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem; beginning in Market Place and ending here in church.; the Commemoration of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem.
Yesterday in Budapest, there was another procession, the city’s annual “March of Light.” It commemorates the destruction of Hungarian Jewry in the Holocaust. This year it was in honour of a Scottish Presbyterian missionary, a country lass from Dumfriesshire called Jane Haining. She had remained in the city throughout the war – against all advice and pleas to leave – insisting that she must stay with the children – mostly Jewish – with whom she worked. “If these children need me in days of sunshine, how much more do they need me in days of darkness?” When the Nazis took over direct rule of Hungary in 1944 and began the transportation of the Jewish community to Auschwitz, she was swept up with them and executed there. She is the only Scot commemorated at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as one of the “Righteous among the Gentiles.”
Today, after we had reached church, we leapt forward a few days to hear the singing of the Passion Gospel according to Luke. Now we have stepped back a few days. We are in the Temple with Jesus; the Temple from which he has evicted the money changers and the dealers in sacrificial animals and birds.
At one level, these traders were simply part of the infrastructure, the support system needed for the sacrificial worship of the Temple. Most pilgrims could not bring these sacrificial animals with them; they would need to buy them after they arrived. If they came with Roman coinage, unclean because bearing the emperor’s image and so unacceptable as an offering – their money needed to be laundered by exchanging it for Temple coinage.
But where money is involved there is always the possibility of corruption and the high priestly aristocracy which controlled the Temple had grown rich from their share of this lucrative trade. That and their collaboration with the Roman overlords had done nothing for their reputation.
After these dramatic, attention-grabbing acts in city and Temple, Jesus remains in the Temple precincts teaching the people. He has been challenged by the religious leaders: “By what authority do you do these things?” He outwits them in a theological sparring match over their response to the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist. Thinking probably that some untrained country preacher will be no match for their sophisticated theological training in the Torah, the law of the Covenant, they find themselves outwitted and reduced to an embarrassed silence: unable to say one thing or another, lest they offend the crowd who did believe the Baptist was a prophet and the innocent victim of the Roman’s puppet ruler Herod; despised for his immorality and his collaboration.
Now, in the next phase of this theological running battle, Jesus takes the offensive with the parable we have heard this evening. Its roots in the song of the vineyard in the prophecy of Isaiah, which we heard in the First Lesson, are as obvious to us, as they would have been to the original hearers. The vineyard is a symbol of God’s people Israel. Isaiah denounces the people’s faithlessness – not to the worship of the Temple in which they were punctilious – but in their flouting of the moral demands of the Torah – and most especially of the social injustices perpetrated in a society increasingly divided between rich and poor. This may have been the norm in the pagan world, but it should not have been so among God’s people.
“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;
but heard a cry.
The prophet foretells the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its elite to Babylon. As a reading of the scriptures of the Old Covenant – and the experience of Jesus when he preaches in his home town of Nazareth at the beginning of his ministry – and now in the Temple at its end – prophets are rarely welcome figures. Most of us don’t mind them when they denounce the failings of others – but when it comes to our own – well that’s a different matter. The servants that the owner of the vineyard sends in the parable are clearly recognizable as the prophets, the beloved son as Christ, and the reception they meet, likewise.
Equally, the tenants, those expected to produce the fruit of the vineyard for the owner, are the spiritual hierarchy of Israel – the Temple priesthood and the scribes – the experts in the interpretation and application of the Law. They don’t miss the connection either: “When the scribes and the chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.”
Now, we can treat all this as a history lesson – interesting if we like that kind of thing. Or we can think of prophecy and parable as directed at other people. Christians have too often fallen into this trap – blaming the Jewish people as a whole – not just then but down the ages – for the death of Jesus. Our scriptural texts have to be handled with care because, understood simplistically and out of context, they have been used to encourage this poisonous fruit. Words which have their origins in what was an internal dispute among people who were all Jews, wrenched out of that context become a license for discrimination and murder. In Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and Russia, Good Friday was a day to dread, as the occasion for people to spill out of churches thirsting for vengeance on those they had heard denounced by preachers as “Christ-killers.” On Good Friday, when we hear the Passion according to John, it is hard to avoid the problem because he uses the term “the Jews” for the religious leaders who conspire against Jesus, rather than the people as a whole – but that’s not what people might hear.
When Christian communities and their leaders read and hear both parable and prophecy, we should do so thinking of them as addressed not to other people – past or present – but to ourselves. We are the ones to whom the Lord looks for the fruits of justice and righteousness.
In the darkness of the Nazi era, we have to admit with shame that for the most part the churches and their leaders failed to meet the moral challenge. There were far too few “righteous Gentiles” like Jane Haining. Now we find ourselves in a time when anti-semitism and other forms of ethnic and religious hatred are on the rise. Only yesterday, a gang of West Ham supporters were recorded chanting anti-semitic slogans. This kind of thing is to be found at both political extremes; including among some who describe themselves as defenders of Christian civilization. We live in an era when strident populist voices seek to blame others for all society’s ills. Will the Church, will we, fail the moral challenge again?
We may say, with Jesus’ audience: “Heaven forbid!” But what we should be asking is, “What does this text mean?” What does it mean for us now? Does it not mean that the Temple which Christ comes to cleanse now is the Church? Does it not mean that prophecy and parable are addressed to us – even if our sins may not be “as scarlet” – but merely the shoddy grey of moral compromise, the refusal to take a stand, the unwillingness to get involved, the temptation to pass by on the other side, the desire for a quiet life?