Failure in the Vineyard

France writes on this Sunday’s readings :- When we think of vineyards it will often be of idyllic views of the South of France with perfect sunny days, glorious old chateaux, luxurious vines and the promise of really good booze. When Israel used the image of the vine/vineyard it was as the preeminent image of its fertility, productivity and blessedness, its role as the ‘chosen of God’. There was no image that better stood for the nation’s self-understanding as special, set-apart from the rest and cared for. When prophets therefore spoke in parables about vineyards, it cut immediately to the very heart of the nation’s self understanding.

Conversely, when Israel was seen to have thrown away its ancient birthright and privileged position, this imagery would be used to express their fall from grace. This was the case in the 8th century BC. First Isaiah, (5:1-7) expressed his utter horror and contempt at their apostasy precisely by turning the great national icon, the vineyard, against the people in a piece of the most devastating lyric poetry. Israel, God’s ‘Beloved’ had been planted as the choicest of vineyards, tenderly cared for and nourished, with no expense and concern spared by God the owner; only to have it all thrown in his face by their depravity and abuse; their rejection of the things given by God such as ‘justice and integrity’ in favour of their turning to ‘violence and bloodshed’. The upshot would be God’s savage and violent rejection of the vineyard/nation as their territory was overrun by the invading Assyrians, conquerors of staggering violence and ruthlessness. But this message of the prophet’s was unheeded and rejected, indeed, resulted in Isaiah’s being put to death by his own people.

Over the last weeks we have been reading the Parables of the Kingdom, from Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is by this time in Jerusalem and the shadow of the Passion looms large. Time after time, in miracles of healing and in these kingdom parables, Jesus has challenged the authorities in Judaism and ultra devout Pharisees. Matthew’s word for Jesus is ‘scandal’ – what he is to these men – and Jesus’ word for the situation that they cause by their continual refusal to see God in him. They reject God’s actions in Jesus as he opens himself/God to the poor and the sick, the needy and the thousands cut off from worship by situations which made ‘sinners’ of those who did not or could not conform to the rigid demands of the law. By touching and healing the sick and the dead; by associating with tax men and prostitutes; foreigners and outsiders; Jesus deliberately made himself ‘unclean’.

Matthew 21(33-43), the parable of the wicked tenants with its devastatingly vivid reminder of the parable in 1st Isaiah, is central to the climax of this story. It is uncompromising, bitter and total in its condemnation of his own nation as Jesus comes to face the fact that his clash with Judaism will be fatal to himself and ultimately to his nation. It can be no accident that Matthew, writing his gospel of Jesus in the aftermath of the Jewish Revolt and the savage civil war that ripped the nation to shreds, placed this story close to the Passion itself. It and the subsequent parables and events are pregnant with his bitter sadness, grief and loss; feelings Matthew closely identified with and made his own. The rejection and devastation all around is tangible and terrible to behold, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will deliver the produce to him when the season arrives.”  When Matthew wrote from Antioch his country was occupied; Jerusalem the cult centre for a Roman pagan god and what was left of his nation enslaved far from home. Some 3 million had been slaughtered. It is the fate which hangs over the Near and Middle East today.

The quote from Ps 118:22-23 is part of the great Hallel psalms sung as the people entered Jerusalem for Passover and should have been a reminder to the authorities that God and man did not always think and work in the same way. Even whilst this psalm was sung in greeting to the pilgrims arriving for Passover, it became clear that its powerful message and import was lost on those it should most have inspired and encouraged. “I tell you, then, that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

The palpable anger and sadness that hangs over our readings cannot really be lightened, or perhaps should not be so by the inclusion of the positive reading about ‘not worrying’ from Philippians 4:6-9. There are times, surely, when our bible is right to draw our minds unrestrainedly to the seriousness of things, to the imminence of the Kairos, that great moment of decision when we make our options for the things of God or those of the world. When we relate these readings to the significance of events in the Middle East today we can no longer afford the luxury of thinking it’s all a long way away or only affects foreigners. You and I are all involved, it may well be that the decisions made now by Western governments will affect our lives immeasurably, especially those of our children and grandchildren.

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