Telling dangerous stories

This is the sermon I delivered today at Barnes Methodist Church. The set reading this Sunday was Matthew 21:33-46 (The Parable of the Wicked Tenants) and I chose 2 Samuel 11:27-12:7 (Nathan condemns King David) to complement it.

In 1945, George Orwell published one of his most famous works, ‘Animal Farm‘. His original sub-title – ‘Animal Farm: A Fairy Story’ – was lost for decades. In many respects, though, that is exactly what the book arguably is. It is a fairy story, a fable, a tale for children, where animals can speak and take on human characteristics. It is simply a story about a fictional farm; a farm that could never exist in real life.

animalfarmOf course, though, it is so much more than a fairy story. If it were, it would not have been so widely read and studied for decades after Orwell’s death. Many literary commentators describe it as the perfect example of an allegory, where all of the characters and actions actually represent something else. In this case, the novel is in fact a re-telling of the tragic history of the Russian Revolution. The drunken farmer, Mr Jones, is the Tsar and his corrupt regime; Napoleon is the wily and wicked Stalin, who ends up aping many of the farmer’s vices; and Boxer, the hard-working carthorse, probably stands for the soul of the Russian people, brutally crushed by the brutality of the regime. It is an incredibly powerful and moving story.

Interestingly, Orwell was almost unable to find a publisher for this work. At the time, in the last years of the Second World War, many publishers were very worried about being involved with a book that so obviously attacked one of Britain’s most important allies in the war against Hitler, Stalin’s Soviet Union. It was only after that war ended, and the Cold War began, that the work was taken up more eagerly. As the Iron Curtain descended across Europe and the realities of the Soviet regime emerged, the truth behind Orwell’s ‘fairy story’ suddenly became only too apparent. This story about sheep and cows was actually a powerful attack on the leadership of the USSR and their perversion of history and the truth. No wonder this fairy story was banned behind the Iron Curtain until 1989.

pfrothermel081This use of seemingly simple stories to reveal the truth and attack those who abuse their power is nothing new. In our readings today we have heard two ancient examples. The easier to understand, at least on first hearing, is the passage concerning the prophet Nathan and King David. The king had lusted after Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and they had slept together. She had become pregnant and then David had had Uriah deliberately killed on the field of battle, to gain possession of her. It is a cruel and tragic tale. Nathan was incredibly brave to confront the king in the way he did. David was a powerful ruler, who had already slaughtered most of Saul’s family, and anyone else who opposed him, in order to secure his grip on the throne. Yet Nathan was able to lure the king into condemning himself by telling this seemingly innocent story about a farmer and his lamb, only revealing its true target at the last minute: “You are the man!”.

With Jesus, it is slightly harder for us to understand what is going on – we need to tune into the language and the meaning behind the metaphors, just as with ‘Animal Farm’. Vineyards often appear in Jesus’ stories – they were a key part of the local economy. Here, however, they contain a double meaning. In part, the vineyard always stands for Israel, which had often been described as such in the scriptures:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land. (Psalm 80:7-8)

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; … For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! (Isaiah 5:1-7)

But it also, arguably, stands for the vineyards that stood around Jerusalem and which were owned by the rich and wealthy Sadducees. These were the kind of people who always ended up on top, whoever was in charge, and who had slowly expanded their control of the nation’s wealth and resources, happily collaborating with Greek or Roman alike. In the gospels, we find a number of allusions to the wealth and power of the Sadducees and, arguably, to the discontent of people who had lost their land and found themselves as day labourers, working on their vineyards (for example in the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard). Their complaint about the loss of land echoes through nearly every continent and century ever since.

jesus-is-asked-questions-in-the-templeWhat of the other characters, though? The unruly tenants of the vineyard stand for the Sadducees themselves, those who exercise power over the land. The slaves, initially sent by the landlord, seem to represent the prophets, who cried out for justice and were ignored or killed for their troubles. An excellent example of this was John the Baptist, whom Jesus talked about in our reading last week (Matthew 21:25-27). A man who, like Nathan before him, was not afraid to speak truth to power, but sadly faced a far less repentant monarch. The owner in this parable, like so many of the authority figures we find in these passages (kings, masters, fathers, etc.), is undoubtedly God. And his son? Jesus himself, the long-awaited Messiah.





Like Nathan before him, Jesus uses a story with multiple meanings to confront those who have abused their wealth and authority. And again, he allows them to condemn themselves by letting them pronounce the just sentence upon the wrongdoers:

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘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.’ (Matt. 21:40-41)

He does not say it, but Jesus could almost cry out – as Nathan had done so long before – “You are the men!”. Thinking they were speaking of what they knew – the world of land law, finance and property – they condemned themselves. They failed to realise what so many in the crowd had almost certainly already done, that he was speaking about them. About their failure to heed the prophets, their greed for power and wealth, and their refusal to heed the words of the greatest prophet sent by God: Jesus Christ.

Jesus would ultimately pay with his life for this affront. It has often been asked why Jesus died when he did. Who was responsible – Pilate, Caiaphas, the Romans? This parable, perhaps more than many others, helps us to recognise that he died for the same reason that so many other inspirational women and men have done, from John the Baptist to Oscar Romero. He died because he dared to speak the truth about those who held power. He dared to use parables and stories to tear the mask from their abuse of authority, and their neglect of the poor. He dared to stand before the rich and mighty, and cry out ‘You are the guilty ones!’. For this bravery, he paid with his life.

Returning to Animal Farm briefly, we must remember that it is not only kings, presidents and prime ministers whom Orwell targets. Moses the raven undoubtedly represents the church, particularly the Russian Orthodox Church, which was too interested in holding on to its power to risk confronting the failures of the Tsarist regime. Instead, he comforts the suffering and oppressed animals with tales of, “Sugarcandy Mountain, that happy country where we poor animals shall rest forever from our labours!”. Or to use another well-known expression: ‘pie in the sky, when you die’. Like the rest of the allegory, there is more than a grain of truth in this literary depiction of the church. Too often Christians have preferred to forget their prophetic vocation to confront injustice and have preferred to at best remain silent and at worst collaborate in the face of evil.

The example of Nathan and Jesus remind us that we cannot be like Moses the raven in Orwell’s great affront to evil. We cannot remain silent when we see injustice and cruelty, when power is abused and the poor are neglected. Be it through story, song, street protest, letter writing, campaigning or whatever, we have an absolute duty to stand up for those who have no voice. To cry out when some have more money than they know what to do with, while others queue up at the Foodbanks. When rulers lie about the poor, because it does not suit their political ends. When creation is despoiled and justice is perverted. Let us stand up and point the accusing finger at the guilty. Let us tell our subversive, dangerous stories. Let us follow in the footsteps of Christ and his prophets, and never be afraid to speak God’s truth into the heart of power. Amen.

True authority

This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. The Bible readings were Matthew 21:23-32 and Philippians 2:1-13.

It is very often hard for us, today, to step into the shoes of Jesus’ first audience. What was he like? What did he sound like? Why did people listen to him? Why did he make some people so angry?

Jesus teachingToday’s reading gives us some insight into those questions, and perhaps the key word is ‘authority’. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matt.21:23) Those who held power at the time of Jesus, be they Jew or Gentile, religious or Roman, clearly felt threatened by Jesus; by what he said and how he said it. There were many rabbis and holy men in Jesus’ time but, even 2,000 years later, we can catch some of the astonishment that they felt. Mark records that one of the first crowds to hear Jesus was amazed by his natural aura of command: ‘they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!’ (Mark 1:27). Jesus clearly taught in a very novel and striking way, and Matthew gives us a key clue earlier in his gospel as to what this meant: “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matt. 7:29).

The crowds were used to hearing teachers, who based their authority to interpret scripture and apply it to everyday life effectively on the basis of their learning and their knowledge of previous teachers. “Rabbi so-and-so said this. Rabbi so-and-so said that. … Therefore, we can conclude that …”. Good scholarship no doubt but rather poor delivery! Jesus, instead, simply stood up in the marketplace or Temple and said, “Truly, truly, I say to you…”. He was his own authority. Sometimes he would point to the miracles that he had performed to support his claim to speak authoritatively but most often he would simply stand, in the power of the Father, and speak the truth. No one had heard such talk since the days of the prophets, and Jesus claimed far greater authority even than them. The authority to forgive sins; the authority to re-interpret scripture; the authority, even to claim a direct relationship with God. And as we all know, whenever someone claims authority, those who already hold power inevitably feel threatened.

Nearly two thousand years have passed since the incident we have heard about in today’s lesson took place yet in some respects, little has changed. We read today about the current Prime Minister’s struggle to assert her own authority; of plots and conspiracies by those who deny her authority to govern. In the field of politics, sport, business and many others, individuals go to great lengths to cement and extend their authority. They will attend talks and seminars about power-dressing, public speaking and creating the right first impression. In practice, though, we all know that some people can enter a room and simply carry with them an air of authority, and others cannot.

2014-09-28-by-what-authority-imageIt is worth reflecting today on that key question of who has authority for you personally today? Who speaks, and you automatically listen? Many commentators today question whether there is anybody who possesses such authority, living as we do in a world where a person only has to open their mouth for a thousand other voices on social media to denounce and abuse them. I asked that question of myself. There are hundreds of Christian commentators and authors around today, and I could spend all day, everyday reading their views and opinions. To whom do I actually listen, though? Whose tweets or articles will I automatically read? Who carries authority for me?

Like those first hearers of Jesus’ words, I think I am looking for several things. First, I am looking for someone who can engage my attention and my interest. Jesus did not speak in long diatribes or write lengthy essays, with innumerable footnotes. He told stories that people could easily understand and remember, and which we are still re-telling today. He used everyday language and metaphors to which people could relate – stories about farmers, children, vineyards – and never spoke just to impress people with his vocabulary.

Second, he spoke with great knowledge. Great knowledge of the scriptures, often being able to confound the so-called experts. Great knowledge of the everyday world; of its joys and heartaches. But also great knowledge and understanding of God, and his will for his people.

Third, he spoke with compassion. He did not speak like an uncaring overlord or an ideological zealot. He spoke with concern for those to whom he was speaking, often tempering his answers according to their individual needs. Always and everywhere, he spoke out of love, never pride or vanity.

Most importantly, though, he spoke with true humility. This characteristic is summed up in those beautiful words from St Pauls’ letter to the Philippians we heard earlier:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself (Phil. 2:5-7)

I have never been fond of people who have sought authority or power, for the sake of authority and power – and, sadly, I am sure we have all met too many of those people in our lives. For me, it is always those people who possess something of Christ’s humility that speak with the greatest authority. Those who speak with a recognition that any power they possess is held not to serve themselves, but others.

Jesus’ authority did not come because he wore fine robes and had grandiloquent sounding titles. It did not come because of his birth, his eloquence or his physical beauty. It came through his one-ness with God and ultimately his willingness to lay down even his own life to serve others. In an age obsessed with spin and image, let us seek out those who truly follow in his footsteps and speak with the authority of Christ. Amen.