17th Sunday after Trinity, 8 October, 2017

Trinity 17, 2017. YrA Proper 22

 

The biblical scholar Tom Wright tells a story about how he was once taking a service in a local church when the passage that we’ve just heard from Matthew’s gospel, with Jesus’s parable of the vineyard and the tenants, was the gospel reading for the day. Over in the crèche was a family with a three year old boy who appeared to be playing with the toys, taking no notice of the service. But when the reader finished this parable about the wicked tenants who beat up the owner’s servants and finally kill his son, there was a momentary pause; and in the silence, this little boy said in a loud and clear voice: ‘That’s not a very nice story!’ 

And of course, as Tom Wright goes on to say, the little chap got it spot on. It’s not a very nice story – it’s not very nice at all. It’s not nice because of what happens, first to the servants who try to gather the harvest that is due to the vineyard owner, then to the owner’s son, whom the tenants kill, and lastly of course to the tenants themselves who are killed by the owner and who through their misguided greed, lose everything, even their own lives as a result of their actions. It is in fact, a pretty nasty tale.

When we think about Jesus - about what he came to do; in particular, when we think how he came to embody the total, overflowing, self-emptying love of God, we have a mental image of someone whose message was one of affirmation, of reconciliation, of forgiveness and acceptance. We think of Jesus as a man who came to spread a message of peace and love and, when we come to the gospels, we are looking for confirmation of that nice, safe, comfortable and comforting image – Jesus as a man of gentleness, even meekness; Jesus as a man who went around healing and blessing and so on. So it comes as something of a shock to the system to encounter as we have today, Jesus as someone promising not forgiveness and acceptance, but justice and rejection. Or if we know about Jesus as someone who could get angry for God, we prefer not to be reminded about it so forcefully.

 

The trouble is not that the things that we believe about Jesus as a man of peace and gentleness, Jesus the incarnate Word and Love of God, are wrong or in some way misjudged. After all, as St John writes in his first letter ‘God is love’; that is incontrovertible – it’s the reason we exist. The trouble is that the Love of God manifests itself as passion and flames of fire, as the energy of rushing wind, as well as gentleness. God’s love is not a love that tolerates injustice – God’s love is purging, cleansing, a love that can explode. Jesus didn’t come saying ‘It’s OK; everything is fine; it will be alright in the end, so don’t worry.’ Jesus came saying things are not OK, things are not alright, you need to make things right – in your own lives and in the world. The love of God is so total and complete, that nothing less will do. If God did not get cross at the injustices and inequalities and the lovelessness of our world, that would mean that God didn’t care. And God cares. Otherwise God would not be God.

The idea of the vineyard was central to the culture in which Jesus lived. A well planted, well nurtured vineyard was one of the good things of life. A vineyard was the source of wine for celebration – Jesus’s own first miracle provided wine in abundance for a wedding feast, itself a powerful emblem of the closeness of the kingdom of God. It was a source of prosperity – of peace and good living. The vision of the prophet Micah for the coming of the kingdom was of a land where every family would sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees. And we encounter the vineyard in today’s reading from Isaiah, here a metaphor for the whole people of Israel, God’s chosen, for whom God has provided lavishly and lovingly. But Isaiah was prophesying into a situation where the people had turned away from God, as people so often do. They had followed their own ways, and where justice was expected, there was bloodshed and violence. Isaiah is prophesying Israel’s downfall.

It’s this that Jesus picks up as he addresses the chief priests and elders of the people as he tells this parable against them.  Note by the way that he’s not talking about the Jewish nation as a whole. It’s those who are particularly responsible for focusing the life and worship of God’s people on the service and love of God, the very people who should have seen the signs of the coming of the kingdom in Jesus, who are identified with the tenants, those who forget that the vineyard belongs to God and want it all for themselves – those who mistreat the messengers, as their ancestors reviled the prophets. And the son whom they kill is of course a prophecy of Jesus’s own death – that final rejection of God’s love that is turned into the triumph of God’s love in Jesus on the cross. The tenants think that if they kill the son and heir, they will have the vineyard for themselves. But it is not so - Jesus tells them that the kingdom will be taken away and given to others who will produce the fruits of the kingdom. Again, not a condemnation of the whole people of Israel, but an indictment of its spiritual leaders, and an opening up of God’s promise to those outside its borders. As we remember that Matthew’s gospel was not written down until after the fall of Jerusalem, and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in AD70, this prophecy would have been seen to have been fulfilled in the most devastating way.

How do we square this uncompromising passage, with our image of the God of love? Surely this parable presents us with a straight black and white moral choice – toe the line and we might be OK; step out of line and that’s it. It’s up to us.

But the truth of God’s love, revealed in his incarnate Son, is caricatured by such a dualistic simplification. God’s love is absolute – it is unending, it’s universal. God’s Love is not measured out in strictly controlled quantities. God’s Love is not something that is given or withheld according to how we behave. God is Love. Love is all of who and what God is. It is always poured out, and it is never withdrawn. Loving is God’s total and absolute nature. But we can choose how we respond, and when we respond fully to the love that God pours out for us - when we don’t just receive it (everyone receives it), but when we fully and totally participate in it, when we are of the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, and respond in harmony with the image of God in which we are created –we truly see everyone and everything with and through the eyes of God - then we will be the stewards of God’s vineyard that we are created to be.

For God’s vineyard, God’s treasure, God’s endlessly renewed and expended love that sustains creation is of course to be found within us; in us individually and collectively. It is that image of God in which we are made, which when we inhabit it fully as God intends, will yield the fruits of love and joy and peace that are at the core of the gospel. Our problem – our tragedy even – and this is a theme I seem to be coming back to again and again, is that we don’t see ourselves as united with God at the core of our being and united with each other in sharing that image, that presence of God. We want to be separate, we want to be autonomous, and we have convinced ourselves that we are. We want complete control of God’s vineyard for ourselves and we don’t want to give what we owe to God of its fruit. That was true in the time of Isaiah; it was true in the time of Jesus; and it is true to a frightening degree now.

So how do we square the sticky end that the tenants come to in what the little boy called a ‘not very nice’ story, with the God of love whom we seek to find in the gospels? Well, as with the slave whose enormous debt was cancelled, but who couldn’t bring himself to forget the pittance he was owed himself, that we heard about a few weeks ago, the tenants’ downfall is not so much a consequence of the vengeful anger of the landowner, but of their own deliberate self-isolation and alienation from the fruitful relationship that he desires so much, that he has planted within them, and is prepared to sacrifice himself in the person of his son to bring about. Far from being a ‘not very nice’ story, this parable too, is a parable of God’s love, a parable of the kingdom. It’s a reminder that God never abandons us – for God’s love is never withdrawn – but it is all too easy for us to abandon him. The pain of separation, our pain, is the pain of a self-inflicted wound.

Let us pray

Loving and generous God

You have made us, and all people, in your image

Help us to find that image in the ground of our being

Help us to find that image in every person

Help us to know that we are forgiven and accepted from all eternity,

through the sacrifice of love in Jesus on the cross

Help us to be good stewards of your vineyard

In Christ our Lord

Amen.


Selected sermons
Webpage icon 14th Sunday after Trinity, 2017
Webpage icon Palm Sunday 2017
Webpage icon Give to God the things that are God's