Knowing uncertainty

Pentecost 17
Matthew 21:23-32, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19, Gospel of Thomas 65-66
Marian Free

In the name of God who cannot be pinned down or contained by the limits of human understanding. Amen.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the issues that confront our world in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Climate change, people trafficking, the Ebola virus, poverty, natural disaster and the displacement of people due to war or civil strife are among the many crises that are facing the world at the present time. Of all these concerns the one that is most exercising our minds and the one that has focussed the attention of our politicians and our media is that of fundamentalism and the violence that ensues as a result of a narrow view of religion and of the attempt to impose that view on others. At the moment our attention is caught by those who call themselves Islamic State in Iraq and Syria but we should not forget that the Taliban are still active in Afghanistan and that Boko Haran is still wreaking terror in Northern Nigeria.

Fundamentalism is a fairly recent phenomenon. It arose in the nineteenth century among the millenarian movements in the United States. According to the Oxford Dictionary it is a form of religion especially Protestant Christianity or Islam, that upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture. Among Christians it is usually a reaction to social and political change and to the theory of evolution. Islamic fundamentalism arose in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as a reaction to the disintegration of Islamic economic and political power. I cannot speak for Islam, but for nineteen centuries Christians felt no need for a literal interpretation of scripture. Believers and scholars alike were happy to understand stories such as Genesis 1 as just that, stories. They saw no need to insist that the world was created in just seven days but were content to understand God’s creative energy behind the universe.

There are a number of problems with fundamentalism of which the most serious is a belief that the human mind is able to interpret the mind of God or that any human being can presume that they have the authority to impose the will of God on others. While I would in no way defend the violence and brutality of the militant Islamists, I would urge us to be cautious about feelings of moral outrage and moral superiority and remember of our own checkered history and the hurtful, harmful ways in which we have used our own scriptures – to engage in the Crusades, to defend slavery and domestic violence and to disempower women and children.

Today’s gospel is a good deterrent against fundamentalism if for no other reason than that there are four different versions of the story and, if Scott is to be believed, it is impossible to determine which of these is closest to what Jesus actually said or what he wanted us to learn. Those who have transmitted the parable have each added their own particular slant in the re-telling. Matthew, for example wants his readers to understand that the Jesus’ community are the true Israel, the ones to whom the owner of the vineyard will entrust it. Mark adapts the parable in such a way that it is very clear that it is a reference to the life of Jesus (the beheading of the second servant seems to point to John the Baptist and the language “beloved Son” is reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism). Both Mark and Matthew begin with a quote about vineyards from Isaiah. In the Old Testament, the image of a vineyard is often used of the nation of Israel. Luke omits this reference perhaps as verse 16 suggests, he wants to make it clear that it is not Israel as a whole that will be destroyed, but only the leaders of Israel. Luke also adds the detail that the son, having been killed, was thrown out of the vineyard – he wasn’t even afforded a burial.

The fourth version of this story is found, not in the Bible, but in the Gospel of Thomas – one of the documents uncovered by a farmer in northern Egypt in 1945. In the Gospel of Thomas the parable is only two verses long but it can be argued that whoever recorded it in this form also had an agenda. The focus here is on knowledge and on the failure of the tenants to recognise the messenger and therefore the one who sent him.

It is tempting to try tease out the differences between the four accounts to try to unearth the original. This approach is fraught with difficulty. Whichever way we look at the story, there are a lot of things that just don’t make sense. Why, when the first servant is killed, is another sent? And why, when the second servant is killed does the owner send his son and heir? If the owner has the capacity to destroy the tenants, why does he hold off until his son is killed? In a culture in which honour is paramount, the owner of the vineyard has been shamed not once, but three times and spectacularly so when his son and heir is killed and thrown out of the vineyard.

It may be impossible to discover the original parable or to determine exactly what message Jesus meant us to hear. What we can do is learn about the agenda of the various Gospel writers and the message that they wanted to promote and to understand the reason why a parable or a healing is told in a particular way. An acceptance that the Gospel writers have told the story in different ways to achieve their different ends, is a great deterrent against fundamentalism. It reminds us that we cannot be 100% sure about the meaning of any text and that we need to keep on exploring, seeking to know more about the God revealed by Jesus.

In today’s uncertain time, the very worst that can happen is that we react to fundamentalism with a fundamentalism of our own, that we respond the the present situation by ramping up our own claim to truth and to knowing the mind of God, that we resort to hurling cheap slogans or that we hide behind our own rhetoric and our own self-justification. Our answers should lead us not to certainty, but to new questions, which will lead to new answers and to new questions until at last we are drawn into the fulness of God when all will become clear and god will be all-in-all.

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