Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 25 March 2018
PALM SUNDAY, 2018 EVENSONG
Readings: Isaiah 5.1-7; Mark 12
“Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard.”
The prophet and poet sings on behalf of his “Beloved” – the Lord – who is the owner of all the land of Israel, which is his vineyard. But what begins as a love song quickly turns into for unrequited love. In the space of a few verses, the poem moves from care to devastation.
The Lord has lavished attention and hard work on his vineyard. He has “dug, cleared, planted, built, hewn out” – all that is necessary to enable it to bear fruit. He expects a return for this investment of effort; fruit – the whole purpose of the vineyard is to produce fruit.
But something has gone badly wrong. When the owner speaks again, there is a new series of verbs – this time negative ones: “Remove, break down, make waste, command drought.” Care and protection are withdrawn. The vineyard is left vulnerable, damaged beyond repair.
This dramatic change of tone comes about because of the vineyard’s failure to bear fruit. It is the result of Israel’s failure to produce, meaning its refusal of obedience to the expectations of the Law.
The poem captures in brief Israel’s history, seeing it in the light of its calling to be God’s people. It assumes the Covenant God had made with the people at Sinai, the demands of the law of Moses. The good grapes expected are not the kind we can buy from a stall in Berwick Street Market or in the local supermarket; they are “justice and righteousness.” These reflect God’s command that Israel should be a community that practices caring and just social relationships, without abuse or exploitation. This command has been disobeyed; this hope has been disappointed by a nation which has produced not “justice” but “bloodshed.”
Something of the poetry here is lost in translation, – a play on words in Hebrew:
- Mispat – bloodshed;
- Mispah – justice.
“Bloodshed” means “outpouring,” the spilling of life blood, not just in out and out violence and intimidation; though doubtless there was a good deal of that – there usually is when peasant farmers are forced off their land by landlords who establish great estates by enclosing common land and reducing people to serfdom, or corporations destroying established human and natural habitats in pursuit of profit, or a totalitarian state like Soviet Russia deliberately starving millions to death in pursuit of an ideological dream which turned into a nightmare – but also through exploitative social and economic practices; economic transactions that abuse, injure or slowly bleed the poor to death.
Then there is a second wordplay:
- God expects “righteousness-sedaqa” – that is, equitable and creative social and economic relations.
- Instead, Judah has produced “seaqa- a cry” – the hopeless protests of victims of rapacious social and economic practices.
So, the poet has moved from the culture of vines to the growing of human and social relations – to economics and politics – always the prime agenda of the prophets.
The parable of the vineyard from Mark’s Gospel has echoes of Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard but is far more violent. The owner of the vineyard has rented it out to tenants and gone off to another country. When he sends slaves to collect the rent, the tenants kill them or beat them and drive them away, time after time. But,
‘He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally, he sent them to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.”’
The strangest part of the story is the father’s final action. After a whole series of servants have been killed, he sends his beloved son. Was he out of his mind? How could he send off his son to face likely death at the hands of these vicious tenants?
Centuries of familiarity have diluted what has been called the “absurd charity” of endangering a son in order to give murderers a final chance to turn around, to repent. But “absurd charity” is the heart of what the gospel and the passion are all about. Christians read this story in the light of the life and death of the one who tells it. The slaves are the prophets rejected and killed by Israel, he beloved Son is Christ. We read this at the beginning of this Holy Week as we celebrate that “absurd charity” which is embodied in him.
As Jesus reaches the climax of the story, he asks his hearers to say what the lord of the harvest will do. They reply without hesitation: “He will destroy them.”
Jesus goes on: ‘Have you not read this scripture: “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”’ The reference to the stone plays on the Hebrew words for “son” – (ben) and “stone” – (eben). The quotation comes from Psalm 118.22-3, a psalm of thanksgiving sung at Passover and especially during the Feast of Booths – when devout Jews lived outside in tents of booths in memory of their time in the wilderness after the exodus. It is a psalm we will sing a good deal at this season.
The Feast of Booths or Tabernacles had also come to be a memorial of the completion of Solomon’s Temple. Zechariah (14.16) spake of it as looking forward to the time when the nations will come to Jerusalem, “year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts.” In the midst of his critique of what the temple had become, Jesus celebrates what it was at its foundation and what it might have become.
The talk of cornerstones alludes to Isaiah 28.16:
Therefore thus says the Lord God,
“See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.”
The prophet is condemning the corrupt rulers and priests of his time who hope to save the nation through military alliances rather than trust in the Lord. They have made a covenant with death,
“for we have made lies our refuge,
and in falsehood we have taken shelter.”
But God will destroy their illusions:
“And I will make justice the line,
and righteousness the plummet;
hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and waters will overwhelm the shelter.
Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
and your agreement with Sheol will not stand. 28.17-18
Standing in a temple built by King Herod (corrupt and only half-Jewish, his power secured by his alliance with Rome), Jesus recalls how one of Israel’s greatest prophets saw that political and military alliances cannot in the end guarantee security – only trust in God can.
So there is little wonder then that Jesus’ hearers, representative of those in power in the Israel of his day, realize that he had told this parable against them.
Just as the Song of the Vineyard is a summary of the history of Israel in the light of its relationship with God, so, too, the first twelve verses of Mark 12 encapsulate the Bible in miniature.
- The reference to Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard speaks of the covenant between God and Israel.
- The allusion to one remaining beloved son recalls two patriarchal stories: Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac and Joseph’s sale by his brothers.
- The cornerstone passage, with its echoes or Psalm 118 and Isaiah, evokes both the greatness of the temple and the corruption that has long shamed it. The choice of the stone that the builders rejected touches on Jesus’ teaching favouring outsiders and now the place of Jesus himself, rejected by his hometown and family and soon by the leaders of the temple, as the cornerstone of a new covenant, with an amazing vindication in the resurrection.
We Christians have been too prone to reading this simply as a story about and against Israel, when it is just as much a story about us and against us. In the great arc of the biblical narrative, it is also a story about all humankind, beginning with the first sin in the garden. God has made us all stewards of a vineyard called earth and we have turned to violence and exploitation.
The parable is about the quality of leadership. After three weeks of testimony about the Church of England’s handling or mishandling of abuse cases in the Diocese of Chichester, we ought to be uncomfortably aware of how we collectively have failed in our stewardship, in the care of those entrusted to us.
However unfair some of the criticisms levelled at the Church in general may feel to those of us who have never been involved in abuse or covered it up or failed to act on information about it; who have spent our ministries and our Christian lives acting on the belief that it was our duty to protect the vulnerable of all ages, and know of countless others for whom the same is true, whose lives have been spent enriching the lives of children. We know that the institution to which we belong has failed.
Part of that is due to the sins of individuals; but part is also due to failings in institutional culture, deference and defensiveness, misguided notions of forgiveness and tolerance, which have allowed wickedness and the wicked to go on unchallenged. That these failings are marks of institutions in general – as revelations about abuse and bullying at the BBC or Parliament, in the cinema or schools and colleges, and others demonstrates, is true enough, but, as Archbishop Justin has said, when all that has been said, we are the Church and people should have been able to expect better from us.
The task of rebuilding the moral authority of the Church is going to be a long and hard one. It can only begin with the recognition of our common responsibility for both the past and the future. It can only begin at the foot of the cross.