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THE PARABLE OF THE VINYARD

 

'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.'

 

It is easy to see how this story has been seen as foreshadowing Jesus' own death, but we need to forget that when looking at it; clearly, his hearers at the time would have had no idea of his impending death.

 

Jesus is speaking in the temple area. He has just been challenged to state by whose authority he speaks. He confounds his challengers and then goes on to attack them again. Once more his target is the scribes, Pharisees and priests, the guardians of the Jewish faith, those with the duty of bringing all people into it, into the Kingdom of God. Through this parable of the evil tenants of the vineyard he is saying that these guardians of the faith have appropriated that faith for their own ends, have denied God his proper dues. They will lose their power and position and be replaced by those who truly follow God's will i.e. those who follow Jesus.

Unsurprisingly, this does not go down well with the chief priests and Pharisees who plot to get rid of him though his popularity is such that they are too scared to do so openly. Despite the apparent success of their plot, we know now that they lost everything and even now Judaism is a miniscule faith when compared to that established in the name of Christ Jesus.

 

 

Fast forward 1500 years. The monolithic Christian church is run by the priests, subject to the High Priest, the Pope in Rome. The truth of the gospel is hidden from the mass of the people in an arcane language, Latin, which only those taught by the clergy understand doled out in small amounts by the local priest, himself often barely literate. The people, in an age of limited life expectancy, ever-present dangers from disease, famine, war and injustice, live in fear of dying and going to hell. They know nothing of the saving grace of Jesus, but are told they can avoid damnation by good works and doing what the priest tells them to do and especially by paying money, eventually to the Pope, by buying an indulgence, by which their sins, for a time at any rate, are forgiven.

 

In this milieu, so ripe for embezzlement, to say nothing of its distortion of Christ's message, dissent arises but is generally stamped out, often by the harshest of actions, including burning to death. Nevertheless, when Martin Luther makes the case against the church authorities and then makes the truth known by translating the scriptures in the vernacular language, reformation is under way. Eventually, even the church of Rome has, at least in part, to reform itself, though I would argue that it still has a long way to go.

 

All, of course, has not been sweetness and light, far from it. The abuses by and the use by the secular authorities of the Church of England have been a serious blot on its record, though by and large it has been a beneficent influence on the life of this nation. Christian principles underlay many of the desperately needed  reforms of society, such as the abolition of slavery, improved working conditions, better housing and so on, often fighting vested interests whose blatant hypocrisy seems to us now almost unbelievable.. Unfortunately the CofE remained, during the 18th and 19th centuries, true to its rural roots and its parish system at a time when people were leaving the villages and going to work in towns where, at least until the 1830s, there was little concern for their spiritual welfare. Town and city churches catered for and were largely controlled by the good and great and the great unwashed proletariat were not always welcomed. Into this void stepped the non-conformists -Wesleyan, Congregational, Baptist and later, the Salvation Army, while the middle classes continued their occupation of the CofE. Even the rise of the Oxford Movement, with its mission especially to the poor and working classes did little to break this; look at our own history. Holy Trinity was established little more than 150 years ago so that the working classes of Yeovil did not have to go to St Johns which was the home of the masters and bosses

 

When you add to this the rise of scientism which slips so easily into outright atheism, of socialism which generally saw the Church as an ally of the state it sought to reform or even destroy, of an individualism that puts self at the centre of everything and demands what can you do for me rather than what can I do for you, and you have an environment in which the Church, stuck in its past and appearing ever more irrelevant, becomes ever more marginalised. This, I believe, is where we are today: for the majority of people we are irrelevant and marginalised.

 

I do not apologise for this extended, albeit very personal understanding of how we come to be where we are. I think, if we are to get anywhere in the future, we need to know why we are where we are and how we got here. What I fear is that we are, on the whole, unwilling to confront the facts, the realities of our situation. The response, it seems to me is: more clergy, more plans, more money, more organisation, in fact the same general ideas that have got us where we are today. All revivals set out by being radical: Jesus himself, the Luther-inspired Reformation, the Wesleys, the Salvation Army, the Oxford Movement. We will not have revival by following the old patterns, the old paths that will lead us to oblivion and unless we dare to be radical then Jesus' words will come true to us: 

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.'

 

Howard Gorringe


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