The contested vineyard

This week’s blog explores a very difficult issue, but one dear to my own heart that I have wrestled with – probably in fact for all my adult life! The thoughts are prompted by the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday: Isaiah 5.1-7 ; Philippians 3.4b-14 ; Matthew 21.33-46. I am grateful to my husband, Canon Alan Amos, the most gracious (yet challenging!) of theological conversation partners, for being prompted to compose a poem/prayer which sums up what I have tried to express in prose.

Clare Amos, Director for Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

Ecclesia, ‘Church’ and blinded Synagoga, ‘Synagogue’ depicted at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris c. 1240

I suspect that quite a few churches may be choosing to keep the coming Sunday (4 October) as either the Feast of St Francis, or Harvest Festival. The two naturally work well together of course. In fact the ‘normal’ lectionary readings for this Sunday (described in the lectionary as the Sunday between 2 and 8 October) are sufficiently perplexing to address that they perhaps encourage a shift in the creation-tide direction! However having in fact explored a creationtide motif in last week’s blog (via a short exploration of the Epistle Philippians 2.4-9) I have decided to accept the challenge and engage with the ‘Sunday’ readings. For I think they do force us to address an issue that Christians in Europe simply cannot duck, namely the relationship, both theologically and practically, between Christianity and Judaism. In fact at the present time we are in the most significant part of the Jewish year, what are called the ‘High Holy Days’, in which our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrate first Rosh ha-shana (New Year), then Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and culminating in Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles).

The lectionary Gospel (Matthew 21.33-46) is Matthew’s version of what is generally called ‘the Parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard’. It also appears in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, but if anything the version in Matthew feels harsher, in particular because of the comment, ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom’ (Matthew 21.43) which does not appear in either of the other Gospels. The ‘you’, in that sentence appears to be the chief priests and Pharisees, in other words, key representatives of the institutional Judaism of Jesus’ day.

You cannot read the New Testament without realising that a key ‘puzzle’ in the minds of many Christian disciples in the half century following on the earthly life of Jesus was the question as to why many, indeed most, of Jesus’ fellow Jews had not also seen him as their Messiah and Saviour. The earliest disciples were themselves Jews of course, and for them that ‘puzzle’ was mixed up with their own loyalty and love for their Jewish heritage. Paul, in fact, seems to be wrestling with this issue, in the passage from Philippians selected for this week (Philippians 3.4b-14) – seeking to hold together his Jewish identity, of which he was clearly proud, alongside his knowledge of Jesus Christ. In Romans 9 – 11 he addresses the issue more extensively. Even though, fairly quickly, the majority of the Christian church became people of Gentile origin that fundamental question did not go away, though perhaps that earliest sense of acute personal wrestling and angst became less pronounced among Gentile Christians.

By the end of the first century AD what is often called ‘the parting of the ways’ between Christianity and Judaism was well in train. After the war between the Jews of Palestine and the Romans c 70 AD which led to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Judaism too was seeking a renewed sense of self-understanding. The dating of the various Gospels is a matter of (considered) conjecture, but at least some of them probably date from the period after 70 AD when the attitudes of both the Jewish and Christianity communities towards each other seemed to be hardening.

The parable of the tenants in the vineyard, at least as it is recounted in the Gospel of Matthew, seems to reflect this context.  It is easy to read it, and it may well be that the author of the Gospel intends us to, as suggesting that the role that ‘official’ Judaism had had in God’s purposes had been taken away from it, or ‘superseded’. Perhaps it was sometimes too easily forgotten that, as is implied in Isaiah 5.1-7, ‘the Song of the Vineyard’, one of the Old Testament selections for this Sunday, God most chastises those whom God most loves.   But the idea that Christianity had replaced Judaism, formally known as ‘supersessionism’ or sometimes ‘replacement theology’ became very wide-spread in Christian history, especially after the establishment of the Christian Empire under Constantine. For many – perhaps most – Christians until very recently, their affirmation that God had chosen the ‘Church’ for his purposes, became one side of a coin of which the other side was the assertion that the ‘Synagogue’ and the Jewish faith had no longer any part to play – it had been ‘superseded’.

In medieval Europe this was sometimes depicted in art by contrasting pictures or statues of a triumphant Ecclesia (Church) and a downcast Synagoga (Synagogue).  Such depictions hint at the dangerous practical consequence of this teaching of ‘supersessionism’, which proactively encouraged discrimination, mistreatment and all too often violence against individual Jews and particular Jewish communities. In many of our lands of Europe there are notorious examples of such attacks in the Middle Ages. But of course, as we know only too well, anti-Judaism and antisemitism in Europe did not die out several centuries ago. It deeply and horrifically scarred the twentieth century. In fact it still continues today. There have recently been examples of antisemitic lies on social media which suggest that Jews bear some responsibility for the spread of COVID-19.

Over the last 20 years the focus of my own professional work has been in the area of interreligious engagement. I have enjoyed engaging with Jewish friends and colleagues both professionally and personally. I have been privileged to be part of the working group that produced a recent Church of England report ‘God’s Unfailing Word’ on Christian relations with Jews and Judaism and I have been consulted about other reports, some still in the pipeline. I know that many Jews with whom I engage in dialogue believe that it is vital that the Christians disown ‘supersessionism’, and indeed some churches have formally done so, although I suspect the ‘official’ view at the top may not always filter down all throughout all the membership.

I have to say that I find myself torn. I am very aware that the question of Christian ‘supersessionism’ isn’t just an ‘academic’ one, either for Jews or for Christians. It does have practical consequences for how Christians behave towards their Jewish neighbours and fellow citizens.  But equally I think that Jews need to acknowledge that asking Christians to disown supersessionism is a ‘big ask’. It is not easy because it is written very deeply into the DNA of our Christian theological structure and it has been the default Christian position for nearly 2000 years. So I react against a glib assumption that ‘ordinary’ Christians can easily jettison such attitudes towards Judaism, partly because I doubt that many of them really have. I see it for example whenever a congregation unthinkingly chooses ‘Lord of the Dance’ as a regular Sunday hymn! (Think about some of its words…!)

Synagoga and Ecclesia in our time – as equal and loving sisters, modern sculpture at St Joseph’s University, PA, USA

I believe that there are ways forward, and Jewish dialogue partners can help Christians discover a changed theological attitude towards Judaism, but they are not easy and they cannot be facile. One way that I myself am still exploring is to ask the question whether ‘fulfil’ means the same as ‘supersede’: I don’t actually think that it does.  That has implications for the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. The motif of siblings wrestling is also one that I have often ‘wrestled’ with myself. Based on the story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 32-33 it encourages me to say that we can only discover our own identity, our truest self, when we are willing and able to see the face of God in the other.

The parable of the tenants in the vineyard is not an easy Gospel to read!


Lord,  you are our gracious landlord
we the tenants of your land-holding the earth
there is room for all of us as those
who care for your creation.
We like to think we own the plot,
as Christians we can dispense your salvation
to the world
and yet we cannot;
we can point in your direction
and then to our surprise
see many others,  from here and there
showing us their signs of faith;
The vineyard is yours, and ever shall be;
you have not turfed out others to bring us in;
for you are the generous host
and at the end of the day
the feast of plenty will provide for all
who wish to come. (Alan Amos)

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