Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 29]
Sunday, October 8th, 2023
EXODUS 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; PSALM 19; PHILIPPIANS 3:4B-14; MATT. 21:33-46
they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him
Mrs. Turpin was a heard-hearted woman. She’s the main character in Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” a story that takes place where all O’Connor’s stories take place, in the Southern US, and in Southern culture and sensibility.
Mrs. Turpin, in the story, thinks of herself as a good Christian woman, she thinks of herself as one of the kind white people, she thinks of herself as a person who does her Christian duty with a superior sort of kindness. On the inside, though, Mrs. Turpin is a hard-hearted woman, silently judging others as she elevates herself, looking down on all those others who don’t display the same kind of Christian virtue as she does.
Mrs. Turpin’s transformation begins when she has a book thrown at her, and when she’s publicly called an old warthog destined for hell. The story ends with a vision, Mrs. Turpin’s own vision of a bridge reaching into heaven; and on this bridge is a “vast horde” of people, a procession led by all those Mrs. Turpin looked down on, as the genteel Southerner she was—the procession into the Kingdom of God was not led by her own people, but by, as O’Connor tells it, “batallions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping hands and leaping like frogs.” “And bringing up the end of the procession,”writes O’Connor, “was a tribe of people whom Mrs. Turpin recognized at once, those who, like herself and [her husband], had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. … They were marching behind with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were [singing] on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
The place of the heard-hearted in the story of God and God’s people is a mysterious one. This is, in part, what the parable is about today—the hard-hearted. In our parable, the vineyard owner goes away; but whenever he sends people back to check on the vineyard and gather the produce, the vineyard’s hard-hearted tenants beat, and kill, and stone the vineyard owner’s envoys. Even when the vineyard owner sends his son, even his own son is seized and killed by the hard-hearted tenants of the vineyard.
It’s tempting to turn this parable into an allegory for difficult people. To say that just as some hard-hearted people resisted God’s prophets, and that hard-hearted people resisted Jesus too, just like them, we have hard-hearted people in our lives, don’t we, because you know: change is difficult!
But we have to say at least two things first. First: that this parable was part of a fight over the future of Judaism. Jesus is telling a parable about how the Chief Priests and the Pharisees have got it so wrong that they are even willing to kill God’s son. And so in a way, it is a fight between different groups that were vying for supremacy and dominance in Jesus’s own time and in the time of the early church after the destruction of the second temple. So this is a story about a fight over who will hold the future of Jewish practice in a time of turbulence and change.
But we have to be careful here for another reason. The Pharisees were the foundation of Rabbinic Judaism. So the forbears of the Rabbis in the present are the Pharisees of the Bible. But the 20th Century especially showed us just where talk about condemning the Pharisees leads us—and that’s to the Holocaust. And it’s also why, after a whole lot of reflection on the Holocaust, and the part that Christian theology had taken in the Holocaust, it’s why the current teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that God keeps God’s own promises, and if that’s true, then the Jews of today are still part of God’s saving covenant.
And so even as we look back at this parable, we should be seeing God at work even in Jesus’s hard-hearted opponents, even in that small number of the members of God’s covenant that took part in putting Jesus to death. This parable is, then, about the mystery of the hard-hearted: that even the hard-hearted have a place in God’s salvation of the world in Christ, and his saving death on the cross.
The mystery of the hard-hearted finds its full expression in the person of Judas. Judas, above all others, is the one that betrays Jesus into the hands of those who would crucify Jesus. But Judas is also, most clearly in John’s Gospel, doing the will of God: God’s son is destined, as we read in this parable, God’s son is destined for the cross, and it is the hard-hearted who make it happen.
Karl Barth has a wonderful passage on Judas where he wonders about the salvation of Judas. Can the rejected one who betrays God be saved by God? Barth’s answer is yes—yes because Jesus is himself the Rejected One, and in that Jesus represents even Judas on the cross, saving Judas the rejected one by being Jesus the Rejected One. Jesus bears even Judas the hard-hearted on the tree of salvation. What a mystery this is! That the hard-hearted rejection of Jesus is a necessary part of the drama of our own salvation, and the salvation too of the hard-hearted.
We began though with Mrs. Turpin, Flannery O’Connor’s judgmental and hard-hearted woman. A woman who, by the end, not only sees the truth about others—that all the ones that Mrs. Turpin judged for not having what she thought of as Christian values, or Christian behaviour, all the “batallions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping hands and leaping like frogs,” going first into the Kingdom of God— Mrs Turpin sees the truth of others, and also she sees the truth of herself. What she thought of as proper Christian values, proper Christian behaviour, her own values and behaviour: even these things were being burned away before her entry into the Kingdom of Heaven. Hard-hearted Mrs. Turpin was being prepared by fire for her Lord.
Flannery O’Connor wrote this story in the hospital as she came close to the end of her own life, hiding the manuscript under her hospital bed pillow so the doctors wouldn’t see that she was working when she had been told to rest. What was happening was that O’Connor herself was taking account of her own life as a genteel Southern woman, not too different from Mrs. Turpin. In fact, O’Connor signed one of her last letters, not with her own name, but as Mrs. Turpin.
So this story is not Flannery O’Connor’s judgment of other genteel Southern women. This is a story about herself, coming to terms with her own hidden hard-heartedness, coming to her own understanding of her place among the “batallions of freaks and lunatics” that she looked down on, and that were to go ahead of her into the Kingdom of God.
And perhaps this is the greatest mystery of the hard-hearted—not the place of other hard-hearted people in the drama of the salvation of the world, but the place of ourselves, in our own hard-heartedness, in the salvation of the world in Jesus. And what a strange mystery: that even in our own hard-heartedness, we too are no obstacle to God’s work in Christ, we too, in our own hard-heartedness, are no obstacle to the Holy Spirit—the Holy Spirit that is working in us, too, working in us to prepare us for God’s Kingdom through our own purification, working in us by the grace of God, a grace given to the “batallions of freaks and lunatics” who will ascend “clapping hands and leaping like frogs,” this same grace is given to us. A grace given even to us, the hard-hearted.
And so what a wonderful and strange mystery this is: that through the fire of God’s purgation, that by God’s grace, even the virtues that produce our own hard-heartedness are being burned away; and that we too, the kindly hard-hearted, will come up at the back of the heavenly procession, orderly and singing in key, led by grace into God’s heavenly Kingdom.