At the service in the Cathedral yesterday the Gospel passage contained the parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Despite realising that Jesus told this parable against them, the scribes and chief priests were not deflected from wanting to do away with Jesus. Had then not been afraid of public opinion, they would no doubt have had him arrested as soon as he told the parable, but they would have faced a riot as the ordinary people supported Jesus.
I had to consider if I am any better than the scribes and the chief priests. I know what God says, I know it’s directed at me, but there are plenty of times when I don’t want to hear what he is saying. I want to cover my ears and drown out his voice. Maybe you can recognise this tendency in yourself at times too.
The readings were Psalm 116 and Luke 20:9-19.
Finally they’d done it! I’m sure you know how it feels to strive to achieve something for a long time and then you finally succeed. There is usually that moment of elation but often after that things seem a bit flat. The striving tends to give purpose to life, a direction, a way to use our energies. Once it’s over things just settle into a predictable pattern.
So, what had ‘they’ done? I’m thinking of the Jews who finally managed to be free of God’s prophets. For years one prophet after another had sprung up to speak God’s word to the people. Their ministry starts with Ahijah who was active from 934 BC and continued to Malachi who wrote in 430 BC. After that there was silence for over 400 years, a sort of ‘flat’ period.
The prophets had not been at all popular. They tended to speak unwelcome truths, although they usually also brought a message of hope. It was certainly not all doom and gloom. It was their job to predict the future as God revealed it to them. We tend to think of this as their principle role. In reality the main purpose they had was to preach the word of God to their nations and to try to turn those nations back to God. They warned, instructed and encouraged as God gave them the words to speak.
Being called as a prophet was not a call to a comfortable life. Jeremiah for instance, was thrown into prison, thrown down a well, forcibly taken to Egypt, rejected by all around him – neighbours, friends, priests, false prophets and family. This was not something for a person who wanted an easy life.
After the centuries of silence, suddenly God began to speak again. First John the Baptist came as Isaiah had predicted. Matthew tells us: ‘For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
In John’s gospel, John the Baptist also identified himself as this voice in the wilderness.
Jesus confirmed that John was a prophet. He said he was even more than a prophet. Jesus quoted Malachi: ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ He indicated that John was Elijah who was to come before the Messiah, once more predicted by Malachi: ‘Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.’
Within a short time of John beginning his ministry, Jesus came on the scene out of obscurity. Just as Jesus confirmed John’s role, so John confirmed Jesus’ role: ‘This is he who baptizes with the Spirit.’ So many prophecies were spoken about Jesus throughout the Old Testament. Once again Malachi is part of this when he says: ‘For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings. And you will go free, leaping with joy like calves let out to pasture.’ Although Jesus is the Messiah, he called himself a prophet and the people thought of him as one. He was acting in the same way as the prophets of old, turning his nation back to God – warning, instructing, encouraging.
When I think about what happened when John and then Jesus began their ministry, it reminds me of birthdays in the past for our children. I remember when we first discovered the birthday candles which you can’t extinguish by blowing them out. You can blow and the flame goes out but then little sparks continue to spurt out of the wick and suddenly the flame bursts up to full height again. The flame of the prophets seemed to have been put out but eventually, in God’s time, the sparks lit the flame again. This has echoes of what John says in his gospel: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’
When Jesus told his parable about the vineyard, the scribes and chief priests immediately recognised that it was directed at them. They recognised what had gone on before when God had sent his messengers, the prophets. It didn’t seem to make them want to do differently though. They too wanted to silence the latest prophet, God’s own Son. Having their intentions highlighted in a parable seemed to do nothing to stop them.
I have to wonder how it is that they didn’t realise that nothing they did would silence God’s voice. They had persecuted or executed the prophets in the past and yet the words of the prophets survived and were coming true in the life of John and then Jesus. John and Jesus were both eventually executed but that did nothing to stop God’s message. If it had, we would not be here now I suppose.
Looking at my own life, I don’t think I do a great deal better than the scribes and the chief priests. There are times when I want to silence God’s voice even though I know that no action of mine will change what he’s saying. I can do like a child and cover my ears and loudly say ‘Lala lalala’ to drown out God’s voice but I can’t change anything. The truth God speaks is still the truth whether I want to hear it or not. The right way to live is the right way to live, whether I want to live that way or not. Right choices are right choices, even if I prefer to choose wrongly.
I imagine I’m not on my own in being like this. It’s simply part of the human condition. I suggest we have a time of silence to think about any of God’s words we are trying to drown out in our lives. Let’s give him time to speak again to us and let’s try to listen if we can.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor