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18th Sunday after Trinity

29 September 2023

8 October, Proper 22: Isaiah 1-7; Psalm 80.9-17; Philippians 3.4b-14; Matthew 21.33-end

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BACK when I was learning Hebrew, it took me weeks to read Isaiah 5.1-7. I had no time to compare versions in other languages; if I had, I might have learned that one version records a hilarious anti-climax: “Let me sing for my beloved a song about my uncle’s vineyard.”

Thankfully, that version has not found favour with Hebrew scholars; so, we can keep reading the passage as a love lyric. It begins as the song of a besotted lover. It ends as a condemnation issuing from a betrayed lover. The vineyard is not personified, but the “beloved”, who creates and tends it, reacts as if it owed him something in return for that nurture. At first, he treats it lovingly. But, when it fails to reciprocate, in his anger he destroys it. In verse 5, the Prophet makes it clear that the vineyard is more than a vineyard: it stands for Israel — or, to be more precise, faithless Israel.

The Gospel likewise focuses on a vineyard, but this time the betrayal is laid at the door of human characters in the story. Modern readers find this parable of the wicked tenants difficult to make sense of: we cannot see how the tenants’ killing of their landlord’s son would give them title to his property.

The explanation is, sadly, simple. No one knows the true origin of the saying “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” but we can see how difficult it would be to claim back ownership of something that had been misappropriated. The Romans might have identified this as a case of “property which ought to be given back” (res repetundae). Restitution was the father’s right, but he was in no position to enforce it.

Those wicked tenants are not just plotting the kind of theft or fraud which ought to demand restitution: they are conspiring to commit murder, and the pecuniary motivation increases their culpability. If the parable is to speak both to Jesus’s listeners and to us, we need to know more about those wicked tenants. Who do they stand for? It cannot be us, surely, because most of us (I would say none, except that even reading the Church Times is not an absolute guarantee of moral probity) are not plotting murder for gain.

Or can the parable, after all, stand for us? Another prophet, Jeremiah, declares bluntly that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (17.9AV). Murder is the grim pinnacle of the upward slope of sin, but, in one way, it is not essentially different from all the petty wrongs that go on in our society: the tax-evader; the expenses-fiddler; the grubby greed of a dishonest care assistant pilfering from a client’s purse; or the shoplifter who justifies their thieving as a victimless offence; or the speeding motorist; or the cyclist ignoring traffic lights because rules are for drivers.

Every sin, from the smallest to the greatest, is some kind of failure to give other people their due. There is an interesting parallel for this in the world of social etiquette. Etiquette can be codes and norms indicating what to wear, how to eat, whom to defer to. This is not restricted to the rich and posh: there is as much etiquette at work among spectators at a football match or shoppers in a queue as at the ballet or the opera. The conventions are different, but the authority that they exude is not.

A simple rule cuts through the complexities of etiquette. It is a form of the “Golden Rule” (behaving towards others as you would have them behave towards you). Use your imagination and intuition to behave towards the people you encounter with commensurate politeness, consideration, and kindness. I would add one further factor. Do not assume, if someone has offended you, that they did so with malice aforethought. It could just as easily be from ignorance, shyness, or misunderstanding.

In the parable, the owner of the vineyard is expected to assert his rights and punish the murderous fraudsters. When Jesus first told this parable, they stood for the entitled priests and Pharisees, with their counterfeit ownership of valuable property. As we hear Jesus now, verse 41 invites us to become those “other tenants”, who will act honestly by giving the landlord his due. That we can act without thought for other people, or for justice, does not mean that we should.

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