Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 5th October 2014
5 October 2014 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Chaplain
Over the years my response to door-knocking evangelism has mellowed. A few months ago, encountering one such couple on my doorstep, I thanked them for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. I explained that I was an Anglican priest, and suggested we might pray together, seeking God's blessing on their missionary endeavours. Sadly they declined my invitation because, as they put it, our two paths were different.
That episode brought to mind the experience of another couple whose encounter with one particular householder was more challenging. When asked if he possessed a bible, he assured them that he had several: would they want one in Hebrew, Greek, German, French or Spanish? Then again, he added, they might prefer an English translation. Unfazed, they asked whether he believed that the Bible was the Word of God. He assured them that any book may in some sense be the Word of God. Did he believe, then, that the Bible was inerrant? He had to admit that he had not come across any spelling mistakes or errors of punctuation. Finally, they asked whether he believed that the Bible was the infallible Word of God revealed for our salvation. His response was to ask whether they had in mind Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus or Bezae, texts from which translations of the Bible have been made. Later he recalled, 'one of the two assured me that he loved me despite my uncooperative attitude. I replied that I objected to being propositioned, and I shut the door'.
When it comes to the makeup or canon of the New Testament, we need to remember that it took five hundred years for the Church to agree its content, and even then disagreement continued for over another thousand years. There were epistles, gospel accounts, memoirs, prophecies, homilies, and collections of teachings which, for one reason or another, were not included. Our gospel story, that of the wicked tenants, finds a place not only in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but also in a gospel which falls outside the New Testament canon: the Gospel according to Thomas, a well-preserved early Christian document discovered in Egypt a mere seventy years ago. Written in Coptic Egyptian, it is not a narrative account of the life of Jesus but a record of well over one hundred sayings ascribed to Jesus, occasionally embedded in brief dialogue or in parables; sayings of which half have their counterparts in the canonical gospels.
When it comes to material which is both in the New Testament and in the Gospel of Thomas, the question about which is more authentic is important because sometimes there are intriguing differences between the two. Take the story of the wicked tenants. Thomas' version goes like this:
He [Jesus] said: A good man had a vineyard; he leased it to tenants, that they might work in it [and] he receive the fruits from them. He sent his servant, that the tenants might give him the fruits of the vineyard. They seized his servant, beat him, [and] all but killed him. The servant went away [and] told his master. His master said: Perhaps [they] did not know [him]. He sent another servant; the tenants beat the other also. Then the master sent his son. He said: Perhaps they will have respect for my son. Those tenants, since they knew that he was the heir of the vineyard, they seized him and killed him. He who has ears, let him hear.
Did you spot the differences? The son is not 'beloved', which in Mark and Luke is a clear reference to Jesus. The actions of the vineyard owner, destroying the tenants and giving the vineyard 'to others' is left out and, instead, the parable ends with the actions of the tenants in killing the owner's son and the statement: 'He who has ears, let him hear'. And that echo of chapter five in Isaiah: my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. There is no cross reference to Isaiah: it has been omitted, or perhaps it was never there!
The problem with the story of the wicked tenants, as the synoptic gospels would have it, is this. It is not a parable despite Matthew's words of introduction, 'listen to another parable'. It is nothing of the sort. It is an allegory that emphasises the murder of God's Son by Israel's leaders and the transfer of Israel's privileges to the Church.
Could it be, and I put it no stronger than that, that in Thomas' gospel we have a much more primitive version of the story? Thomas' straightforward narrative would naturally fit with that question so often at the root of parables: what is the kingdom of God like? Yes, it is a parable that lends itself to an allegorical interpretation: the landowner is God, the son is Jesus and the slaves are the prophets. Seizing the son and killing him outside the vineyard mirrors the execution of Jesus outside Jerusalem. So, in a sense, all that Matthew, Mark and Luke have done is dot the 'I's and cross the 'T's: what today would be called airbrushing!
However, if we accept that what Thomas writes is the unedited words of Jesus, its abrupt ending leaves us with a different question. Not the one asked by Matthew's Jesus, 'when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?' but more provocatively, 'when the owner of the vineyard comes to collect his produce, that harvest for which you and I are responsible, what will he find?'
Just as the tenants tried to rewrite the lease on the vineyard, and airbrush God out of the contract, to what extent have I tried to airbrush God out of my life? As the 1970s play, by Brian Clark, put it in its very title: Whose Life Is It Anyway?
Paul does not mince his words in providing a Christian answer to that question Whose Life Is It Anyway?: 'Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body' (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20). In other words, I am accountable before God for my life measured in units of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. What are called fruits of the Holy Spirit: good grapes, not wild ones.
The wicked tenants tested God's patience just as we do. Thomas' version of the parable, with its abrupt ending, provides us with a cliff-hanger. What will God do next? Undoubtedly the unexpected, possibly the absurd, for that is the way of God. Until then, what about us: what will we do next? Will our lives mirror those of the tenants, lives which are fearful, greedy and excluding or mirror Christ's with his abundant capacity to love and to include? How seriously do you and I consider that question of accountability before God? That is the real cliff-hanger!