St. Augustine of Hippo


Episcopal Church

 


“WE USED TO!”


October 8, 2017


The Reverend Nathanael Saint-Pierre 


Do you remember the taste of castor oil your mother used to give you once a year as a laxative to purge your digestive system from toxins that you had accumulated all year long? Do you remember the smell of it? That aftertaste that no matter how much water or juice you drink seems to stay in your throat all day? Have you been giving that to your children? Do you remember when you grew up, that you used to write letters to friends and family overseas or in other cities because there was no telephone? Then you started recording cassettes because you wanted them to hear your voice? I can remember my mother putting a cassette in a cassette player and pushing the play button; then, as soon as we started hearing the voice of her Aunt Antonine, we had a power failure. It was dramatic when the power came back and the tape was all smashed up by the cassette player. It took us forever to get the cassette off the player and try to get it working. I can tell you thousands of stories of what “we used to”, but it is important for us to realize that what used to be is gone. Jesus came so that we can be warned not to disregard God’s compassionate provision.

Situation: Nostalgia is a human emotion and I get it that for some of us the golden age is way behind. What we used to do, what we used to be, what we used to see is very present in who we are. I would even add, and please forgive me if you feel offended, that some of us deeply believe that our best is in our past. We don’t want to move past it; we keep bringing it up as if there is nothing better we can accomplish.


But no matter how hard we try, there are things of the past we cannot bring back. Today, if Aunt Antonine were still alive, she would need to use her smartphone to record a voice note. We could listen to it seconds after the message is recorded, and we can reply almost instantly to it. What used to take days to be accomplished can now be done in minutes. “What we used to” is the biggest impediment to what can be. We won’t change if we keep watching what used to be.


The Pharisees and the Scribes were so rivetted on “what used to” that they couldn’t see Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. When they felt threatened by his preaching and his teachings, they plotted against him and managed to have him killed. Human nature hasn’t changed, unfortunately. Every time someone tries to bring us outside of our comfort zone, change our routines, and/or question our certainties, we want him to disappear (we want him to take the door and go away, leave or we’ll kick him out).


Jesus was not too tired, (or suffering from teaching fatigue,) to educate the people of his time about God’s compassion. In the previous verses of Matthew 21, he told them a parable about two sons and a vineyard owner. But as if the people couldn’t, wouldn’t and did not desire to change their mindset, Jesus went on to tell them another parable.


Here is how Sharon H. Hinge, Professor Emerita of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington DC, comments on this parable:


“The parable begins with a situation that was business as usual in Roman-occupied Palestine. A landowner established a vineyard complete with a fence, a winepress, and even a watchtower. He then became an absentee landowner, returning to his own country as often happened in the far-flung territories of the Roman Empire. Tenants were in charge of overseeing the productivity of the vineyard and paying their rent to the owner at harvest time, in the form of a share of the produce. So far, so good: business was working as usual. Then everything came apart!


When the owner's slaves arrived to collect his share of the produce, the tenants attacked them, even beating one and killing another. The owner of the vineyard then simply sent another delegation of slaves to collect the rent. Hmm... this is not normal!


Those slaves were treated even worse than the first. Surely by now the owner would send in troops or some form of armed enforcement of his rights! But no, instead he sends his son, thinking by some logic that the thugs who have abused two delegations of slaves will respect the owner's son and heir. How foolish! In parallel folly the tenants reason that if they kill the son, they will get his inheritance. Apparently unaware of how ridiculous their notion is, they kill the son.


Are you still playing along with the parable? I hope so, because the punch line is almost here. Jesus asks his audience (the chief priests and elders), "Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" The answer is obvious, and the tenants offer it: "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" (verse 41).”


Those “know-it-all” people didn’t grasp God’s compassionate provision and neither do many of us, because we understand God often depending on where we see ourselves. If we see ourselves as the landowner, caught in his own merciful response to those in his charge, we would be able to actually own land (the church or heaven for G… sake), and to have others manage it for us while we were busy with our administrative tasks in Jerusalem. We would see the servants as our subordinates and ourselves as the real victims of the unscrupulous tenants, and we would be ready and even eager to pronounce judgment on them. After all they’ve killed our son and should pay for that crime.


We, who are Christians, on the other hand, have tended to read the parable seeing God as the landowner and the temple leaders as the thoroughly evil tenants who are defrauding God of the rightful fruits of God's covenant with Israel. In this allegory, the groups of servants are Israel's prophets and Jesus is the son.


This parable does not use the story to set forth the surprising nature and qualities of God's reign, as do so many others in the Gospels. Its focus is rather on the futility of debates about, and maintenance programs for, the institutions of this age. Even the terms of God's relationship to God's own people are new. This puzzling parable pulls us forward toward that unknown future in which we will be both blessed and judged, and about which we know only that it is anchored in Jesus Christ’s GRACE.


There are, as a matter of fact, reasons to celebrate redemption and not to pay attention to chastisement. There is a fundamental reason to drink castor oil that can purge the mind of obsolete beliefs and not just our tripe (intestine). Contrary to the understanding of the disciples, the Pharisees and the Scribes, the Son in the story has died for you and me. WE KILLED HIM, but HE DIED FOR OUR SINS. He ACCEPTED death so that we can get an inheritance that is not material (the land) but spiritual (Grace). It is not an earthly kingdom that we inherit. Jesus died to restore our heavenly citizenship. God did not let that happen; he initiated the process. God doesn’t try to get back at us. God won’t make us pay; God paid the price. Do you care to look at what used to? Oh well, every time I speak of grace, serve me the law. Bring me back to my sins and make me feel awfully bad. I am and will still be smiling and even laughing out loud because I have found grace. Or Grace has found me. This is all new and we can’t see through unless we start looking for that newness. Paul is right when he wrote: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). Time to have a last snap at “what used to”, to focus on what can be. Amen.