Sunday, October 8, 2017

No Winners, Only Losers.

Today’s lectionary reading is the parable which has often been termed the parable of the Wicked Tenants. It is a difficult parable to understand, full of violence and hatred.

Quite simply the story is of a person who bought land, fenced it, built a winepress and a watchtower. Thus, the owner created a safe environment for the workers. The vineyard was leased to tenants and the owner left, possibly to continue his business exploits elsewhere.

I would imagine that is quite a normal way of conducting business. It is a model that happens all the time in big business. Owners have multiple investments, they put managers in to run them and scoop up the profits as a return on their investments. Perhaps, one could critique this model of business and talk about enormous profits made while workers toil for a pittance. It is certainly worth considering when this parable is explored.

I have, in the past, enjoyed a book by Peter Mayle, it is autobiographical about a year spent in Provence, France. The style is a little bit too patriarchal for my taste nevertheless it is an interesting read. In one of the chapters Mayle talks about his venture into wine-making, although like the owner in the parable today he does little hands-on work. His property in Provence has six acres of vines. In the book, he describes the system used in the region which is known as metayage. The owner pays all the capital costs, of new stock, fertilizer, etc. While the farmer does the actual work, planting, spraying, pruning, harvesting. When the grapes are converted to wine the farmer takes two-thirds of the profits while the owner takes the remaining third. This system came to mind as I read this parable.

When reading parables, I resist the temptation to assign roles to the characters. I believe that is always always a mistake. I think one should read them simply as a story told to make a point. If one assigns roles then the characters often exhibit characteristics that are unfavourable. In this parable, the landowner has sometimes been equated to God. If that reasoning is followed then in this parable God is portrayed as vengeful and one who will cause suffering. (“. . . will put the wretches to a miserable death” 21:41).

Is that an image of God that is acceptable? It is certainly an Old Testament image, but the gospels and epistles have tended to change the interpretation of the image of God from a violent defender to a loving parent, a view which has increased in contemporary times. If God is put into the role of landowner then the violent image is affirmed.

In addition, roles would have to be assigned to the tenants, the servants and the son. The most common interpretation would see the tenants as the Jewish people (Sadducees, Pharisees), the servants as prophets and the son as Jesus. I would also want to reject this. I dislike the Anti-Semitic emphasis this would bring.

So, that leaves me with a story that has no winners, only losers. The landowner lost profits and a son. The servants and the son lost their lives. The tenants lost their vineyard (at, least that is hinted at, 21:41). No solution is given in the parable, there is no real ending.  

I don’t have any great interpretation or profound thoughts. Much of it just leaves me feeling it is an unpleasant and disturbing parable.

Perhaps from the tenants point of view I could explore themes of possible exploitation, injustice, unrest which results in anger and violence in their desire for change. From the landowner’s view-point there could also be feelings of injustice, of being used, taken for granted, dishonoured, great loss and ultimately wanting to turn to violence.

I suspect each of us have shared several of those feelings at some point in our lives. At those times, hopefully, most of the time ,violence is not the result. Other ways of dealing with those feelings have been pursued.

Perhaps, this is simply a story to illustrate that a time of change is coming, reflecting the unrest in society. And change always comes from those who see injustice and are bold enough to stand against it. It has happened with every generation. Hopefully, as this story is read it will show the futility of trying to bring change through violence. With violence there are no winners, only losers.

Photo: Cornell Plantations, October 2016,  (J.F-G)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Generosity or Jealousy?

Generosity is one of the values of the community. The lectionary passage today is all about generosity. In the story (Matthew 20:1-16) a landowner went out to hire workers to work in the vineyard.

 The process, at that time, was that people who wanted work gathered in the marketplace. Those requiring workers came and hired them.

I remember as a teenager doing the same thing. At school, we always got “potato-picking” week off. Many of the teens worked the week on the farms. Either a job was secured in advance or one went and stood at a certain place in the village where the farmers came to pick up teens. I was fortunate, a school friend lived on a farm so I had work with her. It was hard work, a tractor turned the soil and the group of teens followed on foot picking up the potatoes. At the end of the day we received our daily pay. I remember picking potatoes as fun but my sister got beetroots! Even today, almost 50 years later, she still hates beetroot.

Of, course, it isn’t really the same at all. We worked to get a bit of extra spending money. The people in today’s story were sustenance workers. They needed the wages to survive. It was to put food into the mouths of their children. These were amongst the lowest class in their culture. Being hired daily was the only thing that prevented them being beggars.

The landowner in today’s tale visited the market place several times, each time hiring additional workers. The last time was only an hour before the end of the work day.

As I think about the workers I wonder who was left at the end of the day? I can only surmise that it would be the weaker, older, possibly infirm people. I assume that when one is choosing workers one would look a little at physical appearance. Strong people who could do a good day’s work in far from ideal conditions would probably be chosen first. I can imagine those who were left were considered the dregs of society. Yet, they obviously had determination. They wanted to work. They had waited all day hoping to earn even a little bit.

Here the story twists and subverts. Many stories in the gospels are designed to do just that. Although we read through them without any surprise, I suspect they would send a ripple of shock through the listeners of the time. A gasp of horror as something outside the norm was advocated.

At the end of the day all the workers went to receive their pay. Those who had only worked for the last hour went first and received a full day’s pay. Not the one-twelfth which was probably expected. Imagine their delight, they could feed their families. No one would go hungry that day. What a generous landowner.

Each worker in turn received their pay. They all got the same amount. All could eat and survive another day. However, those who had worked a full day grumbled. They thought they should have more. Yet, they had been paid exactly what had been agreed. They hadn't been cheated at all. They would have been happy with their pay if they hadn't seen those who were more unfortunate getting the same.

They were jealous. Being jealous is not a pleasant trait. It leaves one feeling all discontent, unsettled and sometimes angry.

It made me wonder about jealousy and generosity.  I leave these as open questions to ponder this week.

Why was it so hard to rejoice in another’s good fortune?
Why could these workers not rejoice that everyone had enough that day?
What does it say about human nature?
What does it teach about generosity?
What does it say about equality of all people?

I know many people who are amazingly generous. They are wonderful company. Their lives reflect their attitude of sharing and caring for others. I, also, have from time to time met those who are not so generous. Much harder to be around.

Generosity is included in the community’s understandings. The understandings are things to be aspired to, not those which have already attained. The introduction to the understandings describes them as “shining, precious gems, winsome, lovely, drawing us out of ourselves . . .” Number twelve reads,

“We are called to a generous, self-giving life. In order for that to happen, we try not to hoard our time, talents, money or gifts; developing the habit of giving things away. In the Lindisfarne Community we encourage members not to be limited by the tithe, but to be expansive in our thinking about generosity; listening to the gentle promptings of the Spirit. We are often surprised how giving God wants us to be.” (Way of Living, 20)

(Photo: Blue Tit, Culcheth, August 2017)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Loving the Dreamers

As I read through the two New Testament passages it was an interesting experience. Usually a theme from the gospel jumps out at me but not today. The text that caught my attention was one in the Epistle to the Romans.  So, as one does, I went into the hot tub to think about it.

The text that caught my attention was in part a quote from one of the gospels, yet the second phrase elaborates on the original.  The verses read, “Love your neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbour.” (Romans 13: 9b-10a)

Neighbour has been defined in the scripture as a person who cares and helps a person in need. As I perused this sentence I thought about those in need. This week the news has abounded with tales of those in need, with the insight of the gospel these are our neighbours.

I have seen examples of those who have loved their neighbours and, sadly, those who have wronged their neighbours.

My mind went first to the terrible hurricanes in Texas, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Florida and   other areas which are leaving thousands homeless and in desperate need. Through social media I have watched many video clips of those loving their neighbours . . . even non-human neighbours. Organisations have poured people and resources into the area. Ordinary people have rescued others and helped each other in whatever way they can. Those out of the immediate area have responded with money and goods to send to those in need. People have opened their homes to receive those evacuated from the unsafe areas. There are pages on social media dedicated for residents in safer areas to offer space in their homes to welcome those in need.  It is always good to see such an outpouring of love.

Sadly, there has been some who have wronged their neighbour, taking advantage of the storm. One photograph showed a store in Houston selling packs of twelve bottles of one brand of water for $29:98 and a twenty-four pack of a different brand for $42:96. The store later apologized but it is sad that it happened in the first place. And, of course, there has been some looting although the authorities have worked hard to minimize it.

The other current story that came to mind as I thought through these verses was the move to repeal DACA. This story has weighed heavy on me all week. In the light of the lectionary passage I can only ask, “How can that be loving one’s neighbour?” Our daughter was twelve when we moved here. I doubt she could imagine living anywhere else now. This is where her home, her career and her friends are. I’m sure all those others who came to the USA as children feel the same regardless of immigration status.

Yet even in this situation, loving one’s neighbour has prevailed. There is strong and vocal opposition to the repeal of DACA. A poll yesterday showed that 76% of voters thought those known as Dreamers — undocumented immigrants who came as children — should be allowed to either become citizens or permanent residents. The result was across party lines. (

Facebook profiles pictures were change to include the words “We stand with the Dreamers” or “We support DACA”. These people are our neighbours. They need our love and support.

The words of John Lennon’s famous, maybe even prophetic, song plays in my head —

“You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one.”

So in spite of the awful things I have seen in the media this week I feel hope, a lot of hope. Those who love neighbours outnumber those who would wrong neighbours and not just by a small margin.

I’ll conclude with a little more Imagine

“Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do . . .
Imagine all the people living life in peace

Maybe the world isn’t such a bad place!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Rocky foundations?

The lectionary text today is Matthew 16: 13-20. Just seven short verses, yet this tiny passage has been taken as foundational for Christianity over the centuries. The author of the gospel records a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus wanted to know what people thought of him. The disciples give a variety of answers that they have heard, but that does not suffice. The question is subtly changed. No longer is it who do people say I am?  But the more direct, who do you say I am?

Even before taking a closer look at the passage I think that change of question is worthy of note. It is not about hearsay, it is not about others’ opinions. It is about an individual’s thought and belief. That can be quite a challenge in all aspects of life. It is always much easier to say or think what the crowd is saying. It is much harder to take the direct challenge of “what do I think?”.

Sometimes the answer to that question can set one apart. It can be a difficult road to walk, especially if one is the first person to voice that opinion. Peter certainly stepped out. He moved from hiding behind the “everyone says” to the “I say”. In this story, that bold step worked out, Peter’s words were received and acclaimed.

The next part of the story is the response to Peter’s answer. The words the gospel records in the version I am reading are, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (ecclesia).” This phrase has caused much discussion over the centuries.  Various interpretations of this passage have been offered.

I enjoy interpretation. I like looking at how Biblical passages have been understood in history. Perhaps the only thing I am sure of, is that I would never want to say that one interpretation of a passage is right and another is wrong. So, the interpretation of this passage that I offer is one that grips me. Do I think it is the only interpretation? Absolutely no. That would be really arrogant. Each person must think and study for themselves.

When I look at this passage I want to view it in the context of the previous chapters. I do not think the gospels are written as chronological documents. Of course, two of the gospels start with a birth and end with a death — the beginning and end of human life. Other than that, I think the authors of the gospels carefully placed the stories to give the nuances they wanted to bring. They are telling a story that would impact and bring hope to their audience.

I think to understand this story, the parable at the beginning of chapter 13 should be considered. It is the familiar story of the sower. It was a tale to say what happens to seed sown in various locations. Some fell on rocky ground where it was not deeply rooted so in time of trial it could fall away. This is a wordplay. The word here translated as rocky/stony is the same word used for Peter when his name was changed from Simon.

This  description of the rocky ground so fits Peter. After the parable, is the story of Peter walking on water (14). Peter boldly steps out but then starts to sink. Then there is the story of the denial. Peter who has acclaimed Jesus as the Christ in time of trial denies him.

(For a full discussion of this interpretation see Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective. Fortress Press, 1996)

The reason I like this interpretation is that it gives me hope. Peter was portrayed as very human. Peter wasn’t perfect. Peter made mistakes . . . lots of them. Peter was stony ground. Yet, he found a purpose and made a difference.

(Photo: Holy Island, 2015)