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17th Sunday after Trinity

24 September 2020

Proper 22: Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.9-17; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-end

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FOR the third time, Jesus draws on the metaphor of the vineyard, after the parables of the labourers (Matthew 20.1-16) and the two sons asked to work in the vineyard by their father (Matthew 21.28-32). This story leaves the chief priests and the Pharisees in no doubt that he is speaking about them.

In all three parables, the vineyard is a symbol of Israel, as it is in our Old Testament reading and Psalm. In Isaiah’s “love-song”, Israel is the “vineyard of the Lord of hosts”, while the Psalmist speaks of Israel as the “vine” which God “brought out of Israel” — and of the disrepair into which he has allowed the vineyard to descend.

Our reading from the prophet Isaiah emphasises the gap between God’s hope for his beloved vineyard and the reality of Israel’s actions. In a piece of Hebrew wordplay, he declares that in place of “justice” (mishpat), the Lord has found “bloodshed” (mispach).

In the wider context of Isaiah 5, we see that this refers to “the outpouring of lifeblood through exploitative social practice; that is, the kinds of economic transactions that abuse, injure, and slowly bleed the poor to death” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39).

As we will see in Matthew 23, this is central to Jesus’s critique of the chief priests and Pharisees, whose focus on the minutiae of the Law has, in fact, been a ruse to ignore its “weightier matters”, namely “justice and mercy and faith”.

Isaiah’s wordplay continues when he declares that “righteousness” (tsedaqah) has been displaced by “outcry” (tseaqah): that is, the cry for justice of those who suffer most from its absence.

Verse 1 places this denunciation of Israel’s faithlessness and betrayal in the wider context of a “love song”. It is to the Lord’s love that the Psalmist appeals, and where he locates Israel’s hope, even in the midst of judgment and desolation.

Although God has “broken down [the] wall” of his vine, so that passers-by can “pluck its grapes”, the Psalmist cries out in hope for God to “turn again” and “cherish” the vine which he first planted.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus locates himself as the last in a line of messengers whom God has sent to call his vineyard back to justice. Whereas the earlier prophets were “slaves” sent by the landowner, Jesus is the landowner’s own son. Although one might expect the son to be received as a vindication of the earlier messengers, and hence be treated differently, in fact he, too, is seized and killed.

Anna Case-Winters warns us against allowing this “sharp-edged” text to “rest” only as condemnation of a particular set of ancient religious leaders (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew). As it is God’s living Word, we must also receive its challenge in our own context: warning us against the temptation to faithlessness in our own life as disciples.

Christian history shows the capacity of those who confess the name of Christ to substitute “bloodshed” for “justice”, and to fail to discern the body of their Saviour in the lives of those who are “slowly bled to death” by oppression.

In the American context, James Cone argued that white Christians could see the reality of Christ’s cross only when they recognised it in the lynching tree on which so many African Americans were brutally killed (The Cross and the Lynching Tree).

Without making the connection between the death of Jesus and the abused and tortured bodies of our own time and place, we imprison the events of Holy Week —and our Saviour himself — in the past.

It is, as Jesus observes, the “stone which the builders rejected” — the figure with no worldly status or treasure — who turns out to be the “cornerstone” in the Kingdom of God. This forms the pattern of God’s activity throughout history, a pattern that the leaders of both Israel and the Church repeatedly forget.

This is the pattern that Paul seeks to impress upon his readers. The place that he had in the hierarchies of “the flesh” (that is, of worldly status and power) he now comes to regard as “rubbish”; for, as he first saw on the Damascene road, the dazzling power of the resurrected Christ is to be found in the Body that this world’s powers continue to reject, maim, and indeed kill. This truly is “the Lord’s doing”, and it is “marvellous in our eyes”.

Forthcoming Events

18 November 2020
Books for Advent
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28 November 2020
An Advent Retreat with Poetry and Music
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