The problem with privilege

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone [the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone] 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 [the chief priests and Pharisees] wanted to arrest him [Jesus], but they[the chief priests and Pharisees] feared the crowds, because they [the crowds] regarded him as a prophet.”1

This is quite a problem. Jesus has directly accused the shepherds of Israel – the keepers of religious truth – of failing in their duty and abandoning their sacred call to serve. The parable accuses them of trying to ‘take over the farm’, and the judgement on them is expected to be harsh. These are God’s chosen, after all – they stand in the legacy of heroes who have been appointed by God to guide a chosen people on right paths. And Jesus stands to tell them that their failure will not be tolerated – that their places in the kingdom to come are no longer secure; others will have the pleasure and privilege of that particular promise. Not good news.

This is when we assure ourselves that the bible was written a long time ago, and that this particular parable of Jesus has already been played out in real life – a new movement sprung up from the wreckage of the old, and that the promise has been given to us anew, in Jesus…except that is not true. This is not an ‘us against them’ parable with Jesus followers as the “good guys’ and the religious authority of the day as the villains. This parable accuses all of God’s beloved – anyone who has, at any time, considered themselves a child of God, is warned by Jesus’ story here. Not good news.

Jesus has called on the memory of our text from Isaiah2 and made it real for the crowd of his day, but the metaphor of the vineyard – God’s pleasant planting – remains dear to us, and we also need to take notice. Jesus is speaking to people who believe that the system favours them, but he is also surrounded by (and is an encouragement to) people whom the religious system has utterly rejected. Over generations the religious system has come to resemble the world powers which it was intended to oppose. Leaders become comfortable; followers believe that they are privilaged. If you know the rites and observe them, you are somehow exempt from the ordinary courtesies that are at the foundation of the Mosaic commandments – summed up in the love of God and neighbour. Jesus recognizes a problem in his time, but the problem of privilege is a constant trap for those whom God has called.

Both Isaiah and Jesus would remind God’s people that the biggest danger to the fellowship of faith comes from within. Our complacency, our belief that we have done all that is necessary to please God – these are the things that bring the walls tumbling down. And every generation, someone sees the danger, and calls the church to take notice. The language changes, of course, but From Isaiah to Jesus to this very moment, we need to be reminded that the work we do is (first of all) at God’s request and for God’s glory, and (second) not the thing that will save us.

Our rituals and traditions feel eternal – they are supposed to remind us of the constancy of God’s promise and presence – but nothing we do is forever, and no particular tradition or ritual can protect us from our mortality or save us from our sin. The mystery of faith is this; what we cannot do, God has already done in Jesus Christ – not so we could stop working or praying or offering worship or seeking justice, rather, we are invited to use our efforts to help reveal the glory of what God has done. The point of the parable is that when our efforts fail to reflect God’s mighty acts of grace to the world, then our efforts will fail, and our labour will be in vain – we will find frustration and hopelessness, rather than freedom and joy.

The good news – the truly spectacular news – is that even when we find frustration; even when our efforts fail to reveal the goodness of God – when churches struggle and congregations despair – even when God seems to be tearing down walls and opening the vineyard to strangers – even then, in love God offers us the chance to start from scratch. The wild grapes are uprooted, the old vines pruned and burned so that new growth might come. That is the mystery and majesty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

As we come together in this most ancient and mysterious sacrament of the church – gathered around this table, may we remember that the planting continues – the vineyard is constantly being renewed in love, by faith. And thanks be to God, we have Good News to share.

Amen.

1Matthew 21: 43-46 (NRSV)

2Isaiah 5: 1-7

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