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On Missing the Point

Saturday, February 27, 2016

From a sermon at Blackfriars, Oxford for Friday of the Second Week of Lent.

We are fairly used to encountering the various groups of interlocutors that meet and oppose Jesus: the pharisees, scribes, chief priests and sadducees, even the Zealots. It’s particularly useful for a preacher when they make an appearance, because we’re trained by comfortable familiarity to see them as a sort of foil against which to counterpoise authentic Christianity, an easy straw-man to knock down with the gospel. Indeed, it’s tempting to see them as the stock villains of the story, whose adherence to a dodgy theology locks them into oppressive misunderstandings that appear really rather silly in the perspective of Christ’s message of mercy and love. Clearly, however, things are much more complicated. Jesus often seems to be infuriated with his interlocutors not because they are obviously and absurdly wrong, but because they are so close to the truth and yet they miss its true significance. They are the custodians of God’s gift of the law and covenant, and yet they are unable to see the wonder of the great gift that they have received.

Today’s gospel is a good illustration. The chief priests and the scribes aren’t simply missing the point of Jesus’s parable, they’re only getting half of the point. And, predictably, it’s the least important part. They recognise that Jesus’s parable applies to them—that Jesus is casting them as the “wicked wretches” who tyrannise God’s Son and messengers—but they don’t see how Jesus fits into the story, that Jesus is the Son sent from God, that Jesus is the appointed cornerstone, that Jesus is the one to whom the vineyard belongs by right. They, who really are the tenants, those to whom the Lord has turned over the care of his vineyard and yet the fail—perhaps even refuse—to recognise the authority of his servants. They fail to recognise even the full manifestation of the Father’s authority in the person of the Son.

We, of course, have the benefit of hindsight. We know that Christ really is the cornerstone that will be rejected by the builders, that he will be crucified and rise so as to become the cornerstone of God’s new creation. And so the parable says something about the way God choses to relate to us, the way in which God unveils himself and his power in the world by veiling himself in the weakness of Christ’s humanity. It is part of God’s economy that he choses what appear to us to be weak instruments to shame those who seem to be strong, lifting up the lowly and casting down the mighty, so as, in grace, to make manifest his divine power in human weakness. But, lest we be too smug, the parable also says something about human sinfulness, about our capacity to miss the point, to prioritise the unimportant at the expense of God. The parable confronts us—we who have been made custodians of the vineyard by baptism—with the little ‘chief priest’ inside each of us. For in sin we too miss the point. We love the good things that God gives us more than we love God. By squinting out eyes we see part of the picture, but we miss the bigger picture, and with it the whole point. God invites us to think big—eternal life, freedom, beatitude—and so often we are short sighted, just wanting a particular itch to be scratched.

But the Season of Lent helps us to recalibrate. Lent clears a space in our lives, stripping back some of the creaturely noise that anaesthetises our spiritual senses, so that we can see more clearly what really matters. To see afresh the messengers of the Lord that we neglect—perhaps the poor and needy, perhaps some aspect of Christian living that it is easy to ignore—in order to confront more acutely the ways in which we push Christ out of our lives. The Lenten season with its disciplines and penances and all its liturgical practices underlines lots of things, so we don’t miss the point. It invites us to build our lives more and more completely on Christ, to make him the sole cornerstone of our lives, so as not only to avoid missing the point but also to be better custodians of the vineyard that he entrusts to us.



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