THANKS to an enthusiastic member of the matins congregation,
some of us at Durham Cathedral have vines growing in our gardens.
Benefiting from his oversight, which included preventing our
cropping it in its first three years, mine produced a cluster of
grapes last summer, but the dreadful weather ensured that they did
not ripen. That was my vine's fourth year; so the parable rings a
Leviticus 19.23-25 gave a theological rationale for the
prohibition on eating fruit during the first three years of a
tree's life. In the fourth year, all the produce was to be
dedicated to rejoicing in the Lord, and not until the fifth year
could the landowner claim his crop.
In the parable, the gardener was right to tell the landowner to
wait another year before looking for any fruit for himself, because
he was demanding what was not his, and missing the God-given
opportunity to offer the fruit for rejoicing in the Lord. The
harvest should lead him closer to joy in God, but he wanted the
food without the relationship that, in terms of horticultural
collaboration, was expressed in Genesis 1.29, 2.5,8.
This, however, was no human landowner. In biblical thinking,
when vineyards are mentioned, God is the landowner and the vineyard
is his people (Isaiah 5); so this story is about God's relationship
with his unyielding people. By looking forward to the fourth year,
when fruit was for joyful celebration of their relationship with
God, God the vineyard-owner was looking forward to rejoicing with
When this proved unlikely, frustration and anger led him to plan
to destroy his planting, but - as at other times in the Old
Testament (for example, Exodus 32.7-14) - he was persuaded towards
restraint, and, by digging and adding manure, to permit one last
effort to produce a crop. Thus this becomes a parable of God's
mercy towards wayward people who neither bear fruit nor offer the
This parable follows a discussion about whether people who die
violently deserve that fate more than survivors. Jesus, not the
crowd, had launched out on that subject, after hearing about
violence at a time of sacrifice. At least that sacrifice was being
offered, but, still, Jesus's message was harsh: rather than debate
who figures where on the scale of sinfulness, everyone should take
stock of their need to repent, and thus avoid perishing. He wanted
the fruit of faith to be shown in everyone's lives, so that God
could celebrate with them.
Isaiah resounds with the shouts of market traders drawing
attention to their produce - among them, God, who calls out like a
hawker, and yearns for the people to share his good food and drink.
It is freely available to all, without money and without price.
Still some people refuse the free gift, preferring to waste time,
money, and effort on what does not satisfy.
Isaiah's challenge is to know and avoid what does not satisfy
us. This might be a significant subject to examine during Lent,
taking stock of how we live in an over-consumerised society, asking
whether we devote resources to non-essentials that leave a
disappointed taste in the mouth, and whether we need to learn
afresh the concept of "enough".
George Herbert began his poem "Lent" with the thoughtful words
"Welcome, dear feast of Lent", and concluded it:
Yet, Lord, instruct us to improve
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.
Isaiah's assertion that God had not forgotten his covenant was
the basis of his call to his hearers to seek the Lord, to return to
him, and to keep their side of the covenant, so that it could be
fulfilled. It is God's generous faithfulness that should prompt our
repentance. Lent may be a time to examine whether and why we have
found ourselves doubting God's goodness over the past year.
Perhaps we should be banqueting our soul alongside the poor. In
the middle of Lent, being confronted with God's mercy invites a
two-fold response: to receive and rejoice in God's good gifts; and
to examine our lives and repent of our sin. One without the other