At the request of several church members this is a summary of the rapidly prepared sermon The Right Reverend Peter Hill preached at St Mary’s Newark on 8 October 2023, less than 24 hours after the Hamas terrorist attacks in southern Israel.
This is not the sermon I intended to preach today, but after yesterday’s heinous terrorist attack in Israel I felt I had no alternative. Of course, the complex politics of the land I prefer to call the Land of the Holy One are a minefield. And it is so easy to be misheard and misinterpreted. So, at the outset let me underline this: the terrorist violence and murder that Hamas has brought about from Gaza is rightly condemned as utterly and horrendously immoral and unjustifiable whatever the wider circumstances. I stand with that condemnation. Above all my hope is that what follows is in essence a call to prayer and action for justice, and justice all round.
It is ironic or perhaps providential that on this day when terrible things are happening once again in that part of the world, we should have this particular Gospel reading from Matthew 21:33-46 set for this Sunday. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is the most hard hitting of any of Jesus’ parables. He in effect speaks plainly about injustice in the land and relates it to his own identity as the Son of God and the history of the Hebrew prophets. He tells it as it is.
The context is outlined in the Gospels. Jesus has come to Jerusalem for the last time and is teaching in the temple. He is once again in conflict with the religious leaders: the scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees. They have tried to catch him out with a series of trick questions to make him look a fool and heretic in front of the crowds. But the common people appreciate him and prefer his teaching to theirs. As previously, he has stunned all with his wise spiritual responses. The religious hierarchy of the temple can find nothing against him.
But now the conflict is coming to a climax. And in telling the story Jesus does not back off. It is a story rooted in the social context of Israel in Jesus’ day and the centuries of spiritual denial of the stewardship of the land that God has given them according to the Hebrew scriptures. A landowner has planted a vineyard with great care. He has then gone away and rented it out to tenants. At harvest time he sends his servants to in effect collect the rent. The tenants beat up the servants and kill some of them. The same happens a second time. Then at great risk the owner sends his son and heir to collect. The wicked tenants do him in as well.
In the Hebrew scriptures the people of God are described as a vineyard of God’s planting. God has expected them to produce good fruit, particularly in terms of universal justice for all, but they have repeatedly failed to do so (see Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:8-end). In this parable Jesus was being forthright about the way God’s people had ignored the Hebrew prophets’ call for practical justice and a return to God’s standards.
Jesus was also being prophetic about his own future. He is the son in the story. The temple leaders instantly know he is speaking about them as in effect the wicked tenants. We read: 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. By the end of the week, he would be crucified. Jesus was a loyal radical who came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God: a call for loyalty to God and a new radical way to live. Loyal to the tradition of the promised land in the Hebrew Scriptures but radical over the need for justice and good stewardship within it.
What is happening in Israel and Palestine – The Land of the Holy One – at the moment is truly horrendous, but as we know this is a repeat of many other horrors down the years. My wife Ellen and I have led many pilgrimages to the Land of the Holy One. There is nothing like reading the scripture or sharing Holy Communion on the sites in Galilee and Jerusalem where Jesus walked and talked. As well as preparing our pilgrims beforehand for the spiritual pilgrimage we’ve also always sought to prepare them to understand the current political issues and divisions that exist. In doing so we have always sought to give a neutral account of the reasons for the conflict. I have also been there on my own to represent this diocese at Anglican events and nine years ago, with a colleague, took ten curates out on placement in parishes in the West Bank and Galilee, the first time it had been done. In addition, I have been to Gaza on a UN organised visit. As many in the media have stated Gaza is in effect a massive open air prison camp. The conditions there are dreadful. I have talked to young people in a Gaza school about their life ambitions, which were much the same as many young people in this church. But they are trapped and cannot fulfil their dreams.
I could talk a long time both about the fantastic things I have seen on pilgrimage in the Land of the Holy One, but also sadly the many injustices I have observed on both sides of the ‘Green Line’. I have been falsely arrested by corrupt Palestinian police in Jericho and had to pay a bribe to be released. I have argued with Israeli border guards who mistreated Palestinian workers for no apparent reason at the security wall crossing in Bethlehem. I have witnessed Palestinian youths taunting nervy young Israeli soldiers. I have been harassed in the Christian Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem by religious Israeli extremists demanding the expulsion of all Muslims and Christians. But yet there is hope. For there are loyal radicals I have met who are working for peace and reconciliation. I want to tell you briefly about two of them, and they are not Christians. Bassam is a Palestinian Muslim and ex terrorist who lost his 10-year-old daughter when she was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier’s bullet while leaving school. Rami is an Israeli ex-soldier who still sorely grieves for his 14-year-old daughter, who was killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber while shopping. Bassam and Rami were brought together as grieving parents by The Parents Circle – www.theparentscircle.org. This is an organisation for peace created by grieving Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict. At first, in their understandable grief and anger they hated each other, but now are firm friends who tour Israel/Palestine and other countries telling their stories to other grieving parents from across the divide and encouraging reconciliation and peace.
Ellen and I have several times got them to speak to our pilgrim groups in Jerusalem where they have shown us photos of their daughters and spoken of their work. Many tears are shed. It is heartbreaking, yet so hope giving. These things don’t get publicised, especially at times like this. Bassam and Rami are true loyal radicals, faithful to their own community traditions but radical in their call for reconciliation.
The Parents’ Circle logo is: IT WONT STOP UNTIL WE TALK.
Yesterday I received an e mail that brings things home further. It is from two British friends recently returned to Ramallah on the West Bank to help with educational and community projects. This is an extract: So, Ramallah, like the rest of the West Bank, has gone into what is effectively lockdown. Along with everyone else in this part of the city, we made a dash to the shop, so we have food for a couple of days and now we sit… and wait. All checkpoints in and out of the West Bank are currently closed and things are strangely quiet, but we are beginning to hear planes overhead, in a beautiful clear blue sky. We give thanks for the internet, mostly working, and that the electricity and water are still on.
If you are a praying person, I guess renewed prayers for peace and that there would be no more loss of life. And dare to pray that God would bring to an end the injustice and terrible mutual hatred that exists in this land. And for our safety…
Our Lord Jesus was a loyal radical and calls his disciples to be the same, but not through violence and grasping for power, yet neither does he want cautious goodness. Amidst observing the agonising horrors of this conflict, he calls for us to be loyal to him and radical in reckless kindness and generosity. Making peace in our own personal relationships and working for reconciliation in the wider politics of our terribly broken world.
May God have mercy on The Land of the Holy One and on us.