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.
Of 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.
This 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.
What 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.