Preached on 5th October 2008
by The Reverend Canon Dr Stephen Cherry
Isaiah 5. 1-7 Matthew 21. 33-end
Today's gospel reading is a great example of a ‘gotcha'.
The word ‘gotcha', if indeed it is a word, is not one that can be elegantly or precisely defined. It is a crude contraction of the phrase ‘I got you'. It is one of those words that pops into the public mind from time to time and it had its most recent airing earlier this week when John McCain spoke about ‘gotcha journalism' in order to help his running mate Sarah Palin out of a hole. A cynic could say that, unable stand by his colleague's utterance, he had to find an excuse for her making it in the first place. And the excuse was that she was duped by a journalist; she was given a ‘gotcha' question.
I wonder: is it reasonable to suggest that Jesus duped or trapped the chief priest and elders when he told them the parable of the tenants? He tells them a story which unbeknown to them is an allegory of their own behaviour. The vineyard owner is, naturally, God. The vineyard is Israel; the farmers are Israel's officials and the slaves are the prophets. The son is, of course, Jesus himself. The chief priests and elders get caught up in the story and are outraged by behaviour which though they do not realise it, is their own. And when Jesus asks them what should happen to the wicked tenants they reply with the vitriolic words, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death". To which Jesus might well have replied, had there been such a word in Aramaic, ‘gotcha'.
And if it is a ‘gotcha' it's not the first or only one in the Bible. There is a similar dynamic when the prophet Nathan confronts David over his adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Nathan tells David the parable of the rich man who stole the one little ewe that was the single and much loved and doted upon possession of a poor man. David is full of moral indignation when he heard the story and demands that the rich man not only make fourfold restitution but be put to death and Nathan, looking him straight in the eye, said ‘you are the man'. Gotcha.
As producers of low budget TV shows have long known people very much enjoy the feeling of moral superiority that we get when we see someone else caught in a gotcha. For if there is one thing we take comfort in more than other people's sins, it is other people's moral blindness. It has the capacity to enrage and delight us at one and the same time: and how we just love that combination. It is the cod and chips, the strawberries and cream, the brie and cranberry of self-righteousness.
That's what the gotcha delivers, but it is a shameful pleasure because the point about the gotcha trap is not that some fall into it but that we all fall into it. The sins that we ourselves commit are startlingly and outrageously obvious when we see them not in ourselves but in others.
I was recently able to see Mathew Bourne's ballet, Dorain Gray, which is based on Oscar Wilde's famous story about the man who remains youthful while his portrait in the attic ages in a way that reflects the selfish sinfulness of his life. The ballet is a devastating and moralising critique of aspects of contemporary culture: its obsession with appearance and pleasure, its superficiality and promiscuity, its infatuation with youth and its fear of maturation and responsibility. As befits an adaptation of Oscar Wilde it is witty and caustic, unblinking in its analysis of hypocrisy and thunderous in its affirmation that mortality, the human condition, cannot be tricked.
Watching it in the context of the international financial crisis was a strange experience. Were we witnessing, right here on the stage, an expose of all that is wrong and rotten in our world today? Is this not evidence that the postmodern doctrines of radical relativity, personal plasticity and atomised individuality will, in the end, stand up against us in judgement and shout ‘gotcha' at our shrivelled souls? And will we not, in the very next minute, hear in our mind's ear the voice of Jesus asking what it matters if you gain the whole world at the expense of your own soul and realise that what we thought would bring us endless youth has delivered us eternal death.
Jesus told the parable of the vineyard to shocking effect against the chief priests and elders. Wicked tenants indeed they were. But their being in the wrong does not put us in the right; their condemnation does not save us - despite the moral frisson, the shadenfreude, - that it delivers.
There is today, as there was in Jesus' day a lot that is wrong with the way in which people live. But today, just as in Jesus' day, people are not sufficiently aware of the extent to which they themselves are caught up in what was wrong. The human capacity to be in denial about moral responsibility knows no bounds; nor does the human capacity to spot the moral failings of others. And this is true just as much of people of faith who have been nurtured in the scriptures and nourished by public worship and private prayer as it is of those who give themselves to hedonistic materialism. Our religion certainly does us good but there really is no guaranteed programme for making people of integrity and virtue. Judas, that betraying rat, was just as much a disciple, just as much a friend at the table as anyone else until he succumbed. And while Jesus saw it coming, he could only guess at is. The question ‘Is it I' retains its power to chill our bones and puncture its complacency. You can inculcate more or less good habits and attitudes, certainly, but you cannot eradicate sin. And sin is a very subtle and slippery business.
We do not like to talk about it much, of course, and there are plenty of reasons for that - most of them bad. Sin has got a very negative reputation as a word. It can lead people into pathological guilt and despair, dwelling on it can feed our neuroses and our morbidity. It is not a jolly subject but a dark one, so dark that we fear that, if we engage with it, it might eclipse for ever the flickering light of faith and hope to which we cling in the watches of the night.
At one level this is right. Dwelling on sin and its consequences will not cure us of anything. On the contrary, sin and evil, especially other people's, can have a captivating fascination for us. That's part of the attraction of Dorian Gray. Do we not sometimes whisper in our hearts our own version of the prayer of the Pharisee in the Temple? ‘I thank you Lord that I am not like that dreadful young man with the portrait in the attic or those desperate celebrities with their throw-away personalities and remodelled bodies'. As we know, Jesus contrasted this with the worthy prayer of the publican: ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner.'
But if sin is real, really real, who can be saved?
And if pride and vanity get under our skin to corrupt our self-perception where should we direct our attention?
And if there is no solace or salvation in the disgrace of others, where is it to be found?
To get the answer to that we might go back to the parable that we heard in the gospel and the words that Jesus spoke when the chief priests and elders unwittingly condemned themselves. For Jesus did not at that moment say, ‘gotcha', rather he did something more spiritually profound. He quoted a verse from a Psalm: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.'
The answer to our soul's distress is to be found in the Christ who is, until we realise our need and his gift, as useless to us as an awkward piece of rubble on a building site. The chances are that we will have been tripping and stumbling over this stone and wondering what it is for, so ill suited is it to fit in with our worldly values and sinful attitudes. While we busily make our wilful way in the world we plaster over the Christ-shaped space in our hearts with a veneer that will not stand the test of time. We don't so much reject the offer of Christ as fail to even notice it, fail to recognise that this stone, this Son, this One is the only sure foundation for the construction of a life worth living.
And yet it is truer to say that we reject Christ than that Christ rejects us.
The word ‘gotcha' does not appear in the Bible because it is not part of the God's way of thinking. God does not seek to trap us in our sins but to liberate us from them. Jesus' more challenging teaching seeks rather to draw the folly and danger of human beings to the surface so that all can learn the new and graceful way of God's kingdom of love and joy and peace. The truth is that God in Christ is not interested in gotchas but in salvation, our salvation, our health, our healing, our forgiveness, our redemption. This is the truth and fullness of the gospel message. ‘It is [indeed] the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.'