Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Credit Crunch and Harvest Munch

Exodus 20:1-11
Matthew 21:33-46

Today's lectionary reading from the Old Testament is one of the foundation texts of the Jewish faith - the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, which sit at the heart of the Jewish Law. It's a fitting reading for a harvest festival because it reminds us, first, that - however wonderful the natural world might be - it is not in itself a fit enough object for contemplation or worship. A beautiful view or a glorious sunset might take our breath away. The image of the earth seen from outer space might be awe inspiring. The wonderful intricacies of sub-atomic physics might boggle our minds. Knowing what happened in the first split second after the Big Bang might give us a theory of everything. The birth of a baby might reduce us to tears of joy. But in the end the sum of all these things does not comprise everything that exists, so our contemplation cannot stop with what we can sense and measure.. It must reach beyond these things to something greater, to the all encompassing presence of God brooding over creation like a mother hen. To say that the universe - in however many dimensions - is all there is to existence, to celebrate the meaning in music or in any other aspect of nature without celebrating the source of all meaning, these are forms of idolatry where human beings elevate a part of creation to a level of significance greater than it deserves, for the Bible asserts that God made heaven and earth.

Of course, this short passage also contains within it the seeds of an even greater controversy, the continuing dispute between evolutionists and creationists. There need not really be a conflict between science and faith, but people with strong opinions on both sides of the debate are determined to be antagonistic. Only a couple of weeks ago Professor Michael Reiss, the Royal Society's director of education, was forced to resign because he dared to say that children should be taught about creationism in science lessons. He didn't mean that they should be taught that creationism is true, but even proposing that they should be told about it at all was too much for many of his colleagues.

So what exactly is the problem. Scientists say that the universe as we know it has evolved over the course of many billions of years. Christians and other people who believe in God also believe that the universe was created by God. The two positions are not mutually exclusive. There are many scientists who believe both in evolution and in a creator God, and there are many people of faith who accept scientific theories about the origin of the universe. The problem is that the Bible says, not only in Genesis but also here in Exodus, that the world was created in six days. For that statement to be compatible with the theory of evolution, the six days could not be twenty-four hour days. They would have to represent six much longer periods of time stretching over billions of years, a sort of cosmic week rather than a calendar week. But, of course, the most extreme proponents of the inerrancy of scripture, and the most extreme proponents of the idea that religion is superstitious nonsense, cannot accept that compromise. They insist on the complete incompatibility of the two systems of thought, and the media goes along with their claims because it makes for a much more interesting story than people getting along.

However, to claim that the God of the Bible is a God of subterfuge and magic, who created the world as we know it in six days of ordinary times, and then laid a trail of false clues - such as fossils, ancient rocks and distant galaxies - simply to confuse the unwary and mislead the arrogant, is just another form of idolatry for it is to posit a God who is totally unlike the Father revealed by our Lord Jesus Christ. To insist, therefore, on the truth of the doctrine of creationism is to make wrongful use of God's name, and today's passage from Exodus solemnly warns us that the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Today's Gospel reading draws on another long tradition in the Jewish scriptures, the picture of Israel as a vineyard, the king or its people as the often careless and negligent tenants of the vineyard, and God as the long-suffering owner. The vineyard is often depicted as gone to rack and ruin, overgrown with weeds or producing sour grapes that set the eater's teeth on edge. But in Jesus' version of the story the tenants are diligently tending the vines. Their moral failing is not laziness or ignorance of what to do for the best, it is greed. When the absentee landlord sends his representatives to collect his share of the crop, they refuse to pay.

Many of the people in Jesus' audience would have been tenant farmers themselves, or would have known tenant farmers, who were struggling to pay extortionate rents, so it would be understandable if the tenants in the story tried to negotiate a fairer price. But, instead, their behaviour is totally unreasonable. Some of the landlord's agents are beaten or stoned, another is killed. Eventually the landlord sends his son to collect the debt.

On the face of it, this is crazy. If the tenants are capable of such murderous violence, how can it be safe for the landlord to send someone so precious to try to argue his case? But we have to bear in mind that the earlier representatives of the landlord were mere slaves. The worst that could happen, even in the case where the tenants had killed the landlord's slave, was that he could add the cost of buying a new slave to their unpaid debt. Whereas the penalty for beating or murdering a free man, especially someone from the ruling class, was death, so the tenants could surely be expected to exercise some restraint when at last they encountered the landlord's son.

Not so, of course. Jesus' audience would have been amazed at their totally irrational behaviour. The tenants are so blinded by avarice, or so sure of their own strength, that they dare to kill the son in an outrageous attempt to seize ownership of the estate. Do they imagine that the landowner is so enfeebled that he will be incapable of avenging his son's death? Or do they think he will be so fatalistic that he will simply accept what has happened and resign himself to losing the vineyard to his son's murderers? Or do they believe that the landowner will forgive them, no matter what they have done to hurt him?

Of course, Jesus didn't answer these questions. He left that to his audience, but they were in no doubt. They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

We might expect Jesus to say something like, "You are right! Remember that Israel is often compared to a vineyard, and God is often compared to the owner. So how might we expect God to deal with the people of Israel given that they have rejected and killed his prophets? Be careful that you behave differently from our ancestors otherwise the Land will be taken away from you and given to more deserving people!"

However, Matthew tells us that instead Jesus reminded them about the text in the Psalms which says, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes." That's a bit odd really, because it's not an obvious response to the comments of the crowd. It is more likely that the early Christians added this ending because they recognised the obvious parallel between the fate of the son in the story and the death of Jesus.

So what does the story have to say to us in these volatile times? Is it a coincidence that Jesus focuses on the irrational greed of the tenants? Although the story came out of a totally different time and place, when tenant farmers were pitted against wealthy absentee landlords, and where their business was growing wheat and tending vines, the theme of runaway greed is surely something that we can readily identify with and understand.

We have already seen that the crowd might have expected Jesus to condemn the unscrupulousness of the owner of the vineyard, and to commend the tenants for standing up for their rights and demanding a fair deal. It's easy to condemn the rich for being greedy, isn't it? No one today has much sympathy with the wealthy bankers who took huge risks by borrowing imprudent amounts of money on the international wholesale finance markets in order to expand their businesses and make bigger profits. But, as Jesus pointed out, ordinary people can be greedy too. Millions of us were only too happy to cash in our shares when the banks and insurance companies were demutualised. And millions more benefited from easier mortgage terms and rising house prices. When we're blaming the bankers for the mess we find ourselves in today, let's not forget the many ordinary investors who bought a string of buy-to-let houses to rent or the home owners who borrowed far more money than they could afford to repay. The story seems to be reminding us that greed always leads to disaster in the end.

But I think the story reverberates down the centuries in another way, too. Like the tenants in the vineyard, and the people of Israel, the land we occupy does not belong to us. In the first instance, it has been handed down to us from our ancestors and we are holding it in trust for our descendants. If we allow irrational greed to spoil the land and its natural resources we will leave a poisoned legacy for our children and grandchildren. Is this what the Book of Exodus means when it talks about the iniquities of the parents being visited upon their children? And that lesson - about the iron law of cause and effect - applies not just to our own islands, but to the entire planet and its human occupants.

However, our responsibility extends far beyond the debt we owe to our forbears and the legacy we must leave to those who come after us, for Christians believe that everything we possess belongs ultimately to God. If we imagine, as people have done, that the earth is ours to do what we like with, we become like the tenants who arrogantly challenged the owner for control of his vineyard.

Harvest Festival is a chance to get things into their proper perspective. It's a chance to remember that, just as the markets self-evidently need careful and diligent regulation, so the entire human race needs to regulate its behaviour with reference to God's law, and to live according to the values of God's Kingdom. Above all, it's a chance to remind ourselves that the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. So be it! Amen.

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