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Readings: 16th Sunday after Trinity

26 September 2014

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Proper 22: Isaiah 5.1-7; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-end

O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Isaiah - the faithful and, at times, beleaguered prophet, speaking to the nation shortly before Israel was to be wiped off the map by the conquering Assyrians - sang a song of a vineyard. Gardeners will recognise the scenario: the landowner has lavished his best care on the vineyard, clearing it of stones, digging it, building a watchtower so that he could watch to keep predators off (a scarecrow of its day), and constructing a vat to hold the produce.

After all this, however, it yields wild grapes - essentially, weeds. What wasted effort and care! The landowner laments, like someone on on Gardeners' Question Time: "What did I do wrong?"

Isaiah's lament would have evoked sympathy among his hearers. The sting in the tail was that they, God's people, were the vineyard that had not produced the good fruit that was expected after all this care. God was furious and disappointed with them.

God had come with a love song and loving action that did everything possible to help them to flourish, and now his patience ran out, and his intense disappointment at their rejection of his love led him to enraged destructive action. In a frenzied attack by a rejected lover on the object of his love, God tore down what he had built up so carefully over the years, turning it into a wasteland.

Centuries later, Jesus's parable about a vineyard ratcheted up the tension that was building in last week's readings. Now he accused the Pharisees not just of failing to do the will of God, but of instigating murder and direct rebellion.

His parable pushed the boundaries of reality in order to make the point. The farmer was extraordinarily (some would say stupidly) patient. The tenants' reaction was so far over the top as to be ridiculous: even if the son did die, they would never inherit, because contractually they remained tenants, accountable to the owner.

The verbs used to describe the careful hard work of the owner are interesting. In Matthew, he planted, fenced, dug, built, leased, and left, before sending to collect the harvest. In Isaiah, similarly, he dug, cleared, planted, built, hewed, and expected. But then things changed.

In Isaiah, the owner then removed, broke, allowed it to be trampled, made it a waste, no longer pruned or hoed, but abandoned it to become overgrown and parched. In Matthew, however, Jesus let his hearers decide what happened, and did not disagree that the tenants who wreaked the havoc should face their fate, while the vineyard was spared and leased to other tenants.

Lest there be any doubt, he spelled it out to the chief priests and elders: "The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom." Given what he had previously said about prostitutes and tax-collectors, the meaning was clear and offensive.

George Herbert's poem "Redemption" addresses these themes of tenancy, God as landowner, and Jesus as the son, in a slightly different way, coming at it with an attitude of humility which the tenants in the parable so notably lacked.

Having been tenant long to a rich Lord,
Not thriving, I resolved to be bold,
And make a suit unto him, to afford
A new small-rented lease, and cancel th'old.
In heaven at his manor I him sought:
They told me there, that he was lately gone
About some land, which he had dearly bought
Long since on earth, to take possession.
I straight return'd, and knowing his great birth,
Sought him accordingly in great resorts;
In cities, theatres, gardens, parks, and courts:
At length I heard a ragged noise and mirth
Of thieves and murderers: there I him espied,
Who straight, Your suit is granted, said, and died.

As Herbert knew, with God, there is always redemption for those who turn to him through Jesus Christ. Paul's reflection on his life as a zealous Pharisee, who persecuted Christians to death before he was converted, provides a steadying reminder that, despite the waywardness of God's people, thanks to the mercy of God, we may surprise ourselves when we end up doing "the things [we] ought to do", even when this is antithesis of what we once did. Only by God's mercy is that possible.

 

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