As we progress further into this new year is it not a good idea to make the words of the opening stanza of TODAY’S PSALM [27 or 26] an anchor...
At this stage of the year’, in Matthew’s record of the Gospel, we need to be aware of the fact that Jesus has now returned to Jerusalem for the last time. The Lord is putting the pressure on the Jewish ‘establishment’ in general but the chief priests and elders in particular. The time is shortly coming when their ongoing juggling act
(recall last week’s reflection) will see the prickly pear change into a veritable hot potato! Jesus is also, and importantly so, emphasising the need for all of us to be prepared for all eventualities because disciples need to accept that they are there for the long haul.
We will appreciate all of this a little more if we note that this Sunday’s
GOSPEL READING [MATTHEW 21: 33 – 43] is the second of a trilogy. Last Sunday we heard the parable of the two sons, and next Sunday we will read about those invited to the wedding feast. It is also interesting to note that both last Sunday and this one Jesus uses the image of the vineyard which was a frequent Old Testament image of God’s People chosen and set aside for a purpose. I see this as a much neglected, if not unknown, Christian truth which fails to truly and deeply resonate within today’s disciples. We are chosen and called for a purpose. A purpose other than slipping into heaven by the skin of our teeth!
OUR OLD TESTAMENT READING [ISAIAH 5: 1 – 7]
provides us with a compelling picture of what has just been said. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!“
All this is taken up by
TODAY’S PSALM [80 or 79]. “You brought a vine out of Egypt … planted it. It stretched out its branches to the sea; to the River it stretched out its shoots.” Then how on earth did it come about that this wonderful vineyard “is plucked by all who pass by the way … ravaged by the boar of the forest, devoured by the beasts of the field?” The answer of course is obvious. The history of both Israel and Judah show clearly that their habitual juggling with prickly pears always ended with them holding a hot potato – and when you play with fire, you will always end up being burnt. Jesus’ trilogy of parables indicates clearly that history is about to repeat itself. We ourselves should learn a lesson from all of this. It may be profitable for each one of us to confront ourselves with a question. What prickly pear am I, at this time of my life attempting to juggle?
As we honestly strive to answer this question, it would be profitable to recall other words from today’s Psalm. “God of hosts, turn again … look down from heaven and see. Visit this vine and protect it … the man you have claimed for yourself. … God of hosts bring us back; let your face shine forth, and we shall be saved.” However, never forget that if we use these words as a prayer then the expressed sentiments must challenge us to personal action. I must stop juggling, make my choice and persevere in it. Jesus in today’s Gospel was challenging the chief priests and elders to make a choice and then persevere in that commitment.
Today’s parable is a masterpiece summary of Jewish history. It is a pity that our extract does not include the closing words of chapter 21 – “when
(they) heard his parables, they saw that he was referring to them; they wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the people, who looked on him as a prophet.” Jesus, for them, had himself become a veritable prickly pear. We must be on guard to avoid Jesus becoming one of our prickly pears – and never allow ourselves to arrest him by limiting, through clear boundaries, his activity in our faith and living.
Once again, as in last Sunday’s parable, the Lord ends by asking a direct question – “what will he do to those tenants?” His listeners are forced into a corner and they have to answer by confirming the only possibility. They give the correct answer but fail entirely to make the necessary choice and commitment. The translation we use in our official Lectionary is unfortunate in one word when it says that “afterwards he sent his son.” The word afterwards is much more powerfully rendered by “last of all.” Jesus is Israel’s last chance. He should have been recognised as the only choice possible.
In his book Mere Christianity C S Lewis presents us with a powerful summary of this reflection –
“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you … into something different from what it was before … you are slowly turning this central thing … either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures … or else into one that is in a state of war with God … and with itself.“
It follows, then, as Paul’s
NEW TESTAMENT READING [PHILIPPIANS 4: 6 – 9] tells us today, that “the peace of God … will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.“