Sermon for High Mass – Trinity 17 Sunday 8 October 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Trinity 17 HM
All imaginative writing, secular and sacred, uses symbols and imagery to describe the beauty and the pain of human experience. In biblical writing the portrayal of the chosen people as the vineyard of the Lord was a familiar prophetic image, and we have an example of that in today’s first reading, Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard”:
Let me sing to my beloved
the song of his love for his vineyard.
My beloved had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug the soil, cleared it of stones,
and planted choice vines in it.
The beloved of the prophet’s song (in an audaciously intimate image) is God. The vineyard, God’s ‘pleasant planting’, is his people. This familiar image (also elsewhere in Isaiah, and in Jeremiah) is pressed to far-fetched limits in our psalm: ‘you have brought a vine out of Egypt’, the choir sang to us a few minutes ago. According to the psalmist this vine is higher than the cedars, indeed it overshadows the mountains. In our OT reading the vineyard refers specifically to the eight-century BC kingdom of Judah. But we, who have heard someone else say ‘I am the vine; you are the branches’ (Jn 15.5), realise that Isaiah is singing to us as well.
God chose his people to be a beacon to humanity. The harvest he seeks is a reordering of the world reflecting his character. In a word – and there is no more important word in the Hebrew bible – he expects ‘justice’. Isaiah has earlier made crystal clear what this words means: ‘Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’ (1.17). He has made it equally clear that, without social justice, pious exercises are futile. That is the context of the favourite protestant taunt to us, ‘incense is an abomination to me’, says the Lord (1.13). I used, occasionally, to get protestors outside Christ Church S. Laurence helpfully shouting that verse at me after Mass. Feedback. Actually a salutary call to self-examination.
So the vintage God seeks is justice. But his vineyard yields a different fruit, its essence captured in two staccato words. There is a biting wordplay in the first of them. The Hebrew word for ‘a cry of agony’ (mishpah) sounds much the same as the word for ‘fairness of judgment’, justice (mishpat). The ‘cry’ the Lord hears is specifically the anguished cry of one who is wronged, The language of Isaiah’s love song makes plain just how bad those bad grapes are. They are not just sour but stinking grapes. The vineyard has rotted. And these oracles, uttered eight centuries before the time of Jesus, apply equally to the community meeting in his name this morning, twenty centuries after his resurrection. For us, as for those who first heard Isaiah’s strange love-song, there is no hiding from the God of justice in clouds of incense.
The parable of the wicked tenants, which nods to our passage from Isaiah, is in all the gospels except John. Matthew borrows some ideas from Isaiah’s song, but alters the central imagery: Israel is no longer the vineyard itself but tenant farmers working for their landlord. Features of the parable reflect conditions of life in rural Galilee: it was common for land to be owned by absentee landlords, who would collect their rent in kind from the tenant farmers at harvest time. The lengthy absence of the landlords, alongside the harsh economic climate of the country, often led to difficulties between landlord and tenant, sometimes leading to assaults on the agents sent to collect the rent.
The story is much more straightforwardly allegorical than most of Jesus’ teaching. It strays beyond the single point of comparison of most parables, and because of this it is both self-interpreting and more limited in application, crucial though that application is to our faith. The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is Israel’s God. The tenants are the religious hierarchy, the slaves are the maltreated prophets whom the hierarchy rejected. The slaughtered son is Jesus. The chief priests and elders react with hostility to the parable, but they cannot yet lay hands on Jesus without endangering their own position. In wanting to lay hands on Jesus, the leaders only underline the truth of the parable; it will be merely a matter of time before they create the opportunity to enact its conclusion.
Allegories lend themselves to embroidery and both Matthew and Luke add a significant stitch. According to Mark – who wrote this down first – the tenants first kill the landowner’s son and then throw him out of the vineyard (12.8). But Matthew and Luke, mindful that Jesus was crucified ‘outside the city gate’ (Heb. 13.12) reverse Mark’s order. The son of the landowner is first taken outside and then killed, making the correspondences of the allegory yet more precise.
Matthew also adds a disturbing coda: ‘the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.’ Some uses of this text have not improved Jewish-Christian relations. Those drawing such inferences, those who make simplistic pronouncements about us as the ‘new Israel’, fail to register where the weight of Matthew’s words lies, because they fail to remember Jesus’ constant refrain – look to yourself before you judge others. Those now entrusted with the vineyard are those, whether Jew or Gentile, who are to ensure that it yields its intended harvest, those who, in that same one word, will see that God’s justice is done.
This parable speaks to us about the loving patience of God: when his servants are killed he sends more and more in the hope that people will turn from their evil ways. Even when these are killed, he still hopes that his beloved Son will make his people change their ways. Jesus is God’s last appeal, his final challenge. Depending on our response to him, judgement is then made. If we are now the tenants, then we are subject to God’s expectation of us and subject to God’s judgement of us. God looks to us for the fruits of faith and love and obedience; God expects that we will deliver forgiveness, mercy and justice. Today’s parable addresses the question to each of us: are these the fruits we produce?