08 October 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Harvest Festival (Trinity 17)
Canon Simon Cowling
Deuteronomy 8. 7-18; Matthew 21. 33 – end
One day Rabbi Akiva met a man who asked him, ‘who created the world?’ ‘Why, God created the world, answered the rabbi’. ‘What proof do you have?’ asked the man. ‘Come back tomorrow and I will give you some proof’, said Akiva.
When the man returned the next day, Akiva said to him, ‘That’s a nice coat you’re wearing. I wonder who made it’. ‘The tailor made it of course’, replied the man. ‘What proof have you got that a tailor made it?’ asked Akiva. ‘What sort of a question is that?’ asked the man scornfully. ‘Everyone knows that a tailor makes clothes!’
‘In the same way’, replied Akiva, ‘you can now understand that God created the world’.
Rabbi Akiva lived and worked in first century Palestine. It was a time when the influence of Greek thinking about the world and its origins was making itself felt throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Jewish teachers like Rabbi Akiva were having to find new ways of responding to questions from non-Jews like the man in our story. He did not look to the Bible for answers to big questions such as ‘who created the world’. The answer that Akiva gives to the question is what is sometimes called the argument from design: just as the nature of a coat is such that it could only have been made by a tailor, in the same much more fundamental way the nature of the created order is such that it could only have been made by one who has unlimited wisdom and power; the one we call God.
The argument from design, like all attempts to prove the existence of God, has deficiencies. One of these deficiencies is that it does not answer the question of what continuing role human beings might have to play in the creation that God has brought into being: the argument reads as though God simply wound up the created order like a clock and left it to run itself. But the bible does offer us an indication of how we might answer this question. In the second creation story in Genesis we read that the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. That sounds to me like a very important role for human beings in creation, a role that combines God-given freedom and responsibility to exercise good stewardship over God’s good creation in grateful response to the resources that God’s earth provides.
In our first reading, from Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the people of Israel as they are about to enter the Promised Land that this freedom and responsibility are exercised within an overall dependence on the God who has created all things: you shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Thankfulness, blessing God for God’s goodness, must be at the heart of our response to the freedom and responsibility that God has placed in our hands.
The parable of Jesus that we have heard in today’s Gospel reading can be understood on a number of levels, but underlying it is a sharp reminder that it is only God the creator who owns everything. The wicked tenants in the story demonstrate a complete lack of thankfulness for what has been entrusted to them. Instead they attempt to usurp ownership of the vineyard, as though they were attempting to wrest ownership of creation itself from God; they abuse the freedom that the owner of the vineyard has given them and take advantage of the owner’s supposed absence to mistreat his slaves and even his son and heir. The stern consequences of such abuse are spelt out at the end of the parable.
Notice that it is at harvest that the tenants’ abusive behaviour becomes apparent. In the same way, our own harvest festival is, or should be, a time when we become most acutely aware of the way in which human beings have abused their freedom and have failed to exercise their responsibility. Seemingly endemic poverty and injustice are just two of the consequences of such failure.
As we celebrate our harvest with signs of plenty around us, and with thankfulness for the bounty we enjoy, we do so knowing that countless communities around the world go hungry and thirsty. We are part of why that is so. Our plenty is too often bought at the expense of these communities; the price of our satisfying our markets is high and it is human. Attempting to chart a way forward through the challenges posed by global poverty and injustice is fraught with moral ambiguities and complexities. Buying fairly traded coffee sounds fine – but the expense of registering to use the Fair Trade mark makes it difficult for small producers to participate. Supporting employment and encouraging exports contribute to a healthy economy at home, but the consequences of such support are not always positive, as our Defence Secretary conceded when admitting that UK manufactured cluster bombs had been used by Saudi Arabia in their bombing of Yemen. As we continue our sometimes slow but always hopeful journey towards the fulfilment of God’s coming Kingdom of justice, mercy, and peace one of the ancient commentaries on Genesis might be a helpful vade mecum. The commentary imagines God, having shown Adam and Eve the garden, saying to them: ‘I have made the whole thing for you, so please take good care of it. If you wreck it, there will be no one to repair it other than you.’ God has placed in our hands an awesome freedom and responsibility. May God bless us as we seek to exercise that responsibility for the well-being of all creation this harvest and always.