October 13, 2008
( Isaiah 25, 1-9, Phil. 4,1-9, Matthew 22, 1-14)
There are few things more likely to cause a family row than organising a wedding. It should be a time when everyone is happy, but it’s amazing how het up people can get about where the wedding is held, whether you have button holes or orders of service, how much to spend on the reception – and, above all, who to invite. I am sure many of us can remember long discussions over wedding guest lists – and then, maybe, the irritation when the old friend of our parents, who they insisted had to be invited, doesn’t turn up – leaving a place that we could have easily filled with one of our own friends.
So perhaps we have a certain sympathy with the king in today’s parable – though not with his reaction.
As we hear from the details, a wedding feast in New Testament times was a major affair, involving the slaughter of animals fattened for the occasion – meat which wouldn’t keep in the hot climate. The celebrations and feasting probably went on for several days.
I went to a number of Jewish weddings when my husband was working, since several of his partners were Jewish. They didn’t go on for several days, but they were lavish affairs. I can remember one where we had a brief buffet after the wedding ceremony, then later in the afternoon sat down to a meal which had eight or nine courses – and we left after the dancing and before the supper, which was served at about 10 pm. But even if I couldn’t cope with the amount of food on offer, they were very enjoyable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to refuse an invitation to attend one.
What then, do we make of the parable which our gospel reading tells us about.
The Old Testament reading from Isaiah gives us a strong clue to interpreting this story. In scripture the great banquet stands for the End Times, the consummation of history when God will intervene and the good will be rewarded – invited to the feast – and the wicked will be punished by exclusion from the party. Isaiah is encouraging his people through a time of trouble with a picture of what that final banquet will be like, and an assurance that they will be among the guests at the banquet. He finishes by telling them that, at that time, God will do away with death, and tears and disgrace – an image that is repeated by St John the Divine is his picture of the new Jerusalem in Revelation chapter 21.
When Luke recounts the parable of the Great Banquet he doesn’t depart very far from the pattern in Isaiah. We are given no reason for the the banquet. The great man sends out his servants with invitations, and the people they invite refuse, making various excuses – I’ve got some new property to look at, I’ve got a new pair of oxen to train, I’ve just got married. The great man is annoyed, but he doesn’t punish them – he simply sends out his servants into the town to invite others in – the poor the crippled, the blind and the lame. And when the places still aren’t full, he sends his servants out again, into the countryside, to find still more strangers to enjoy his feast.
When Jesus told the story, it was probably intended as a warning to the leaders of the Jewish nation that, unless they returned to obedience to God, and listened to his servants, they would lose God’s favour, which would be transferred to those they despised, the outcasts in society. The original story told by Jesus probably ended with the invitation to other guests to come and enjoy the banquet of salvation. Luke adds the call to the countryside to indicate that Gentiles are also included in the invitation.
Matthew added more details, again drawing on the traditions of scripture, and has even included another parable, about the wedding garment, to make the point more strongly, and to turn it into a warning for his own community.
First of all, he turns the feast into a wedding banquet. The Old Testament writers often used marriage to stand for the covenant between God and his people the Jews. So Matthew is telling us about a King ( God) who prepares a feast for his son ( Jesus) and sends his servants ( the prophets) to invite his subjects (Israel) to attend. They don’t take his invitation seriously, as they should, and some of them even abuse and kill his servants ( as Matthew tells us some of the prophets were treated). So, Matthew’s story tells us, God will turn his back on the Jews, and allow them to be killed and their city destroyed, as happened to Jerusalem when the Romans punished the nation for their revolt in AD 70. For Matthew, this part of the story was an allegory of the history of salvation – how God’s favour was lost by the Jewish nation and transferred to the Jews and Gentiles who followed Jesus.
But Matthew was well aware that conversion and baptism was not the end of the story. Like ours, his Christian community contained both good and bad – people who lived the Christian life to the full – who were ‘clothed with Christ’ as Paul describes it in his letter to the Galatians ( 3.27). They were the people who had put on their wedding garments.
But there were others who had accepted the invitation to join the community, in full expectation that this would give them a guaranteed place at the salvation banquet – and yet were not living a Christlike life. Those, he warns, will be thrown out of the community of the saved and the final judgement – and there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth rather than joy and feasting for them.
The early Christian community had a very concrete experience of putting on their wedding garment when they were baptised. For the adult converts, the baptism ceremony involved going down naked into the baptismal pool, and coming out to be clothed in a new white robe , the symbol of their new life in Christ.
For many of us, the experience of baptism was many, many years ago, perhaps in our infancy, before we can really remember. We may have ‘put on our wedding garments’ again, figuratively, when we were confirmed or entered into membership. We put them on again each time we renew our commitment in the renewal of baptism vows or in the annual covenant service. But how many of us are really wearing the garments of faith all the time?
We may feel ourselves superior to those who reject God’s invitations, and never darken the doors of church, who excuse themselves because they’ve got a house to maintain, or a new car to try out, and their family takes up too much of their time. But churchgoing will not guarantee us a seat at the wedding feast of the Lamb, unless we clothe ourselves in Christ. We need to be sanctified, as well as converted.
St Paul, writing to the Philippians tells us how: stand firm in your life in the Lord, work to spread the Gospel; be joyful in your work for Christ; be at peace with your brothers and sisters in the Lord, and be gentle with everyone.
I want us to think a little more about just one of those things – the last one – be gentle with one another. It is easy to be gentle with those we know and love – our families and our friends. But, because of the media, we now make judgements about people we may never have met; and sometimes those judgements are not gentle, but harsh and condemnatory. One way in which this attitude is fed is through the newspapers we read. Newspapers tend to see everything in black or white; some of them tend to portray people as either wholly good or wholly bad, instead of the mixture of good and bad we all know ourselves to be. And once they have decided someone is bad, they seem not to accept any possibility of change, or redemption. So we get people labelled as monsters, and often a witch-hunt stirred up by the media which makes their lives impossible. When you read your newspapers, can I ask you to remember Paul’s words “be gentle with one another’ and if the paper you read is one that seems to go after people in this way, consider changing to another that doesn’t.
Paul tells us we must trust in God and thank him for all the good things we enjoy, and pray constantly for ourselves and others. Above all, he says to us, fill your minds with what is good and true and pure and honourable. If we do that, we will approach the final banquet with confidence.
October 13, 2008
(Notes for a children’s address based on Philippians 4, 1-9)
Children – have you read any of the Harry Potter books.
Remember bit in The Prisoner of Azkabahn where Professor Lupin teaches Harry to produce a Patronus to defend himself against the Dementors.
How do you produce a Patronus – apart from the words, you have to concentrate hard on one happy memory – took Harry three goes to get it right.
If you had to make a Patronus what would you think about – your happiest memory?
Song from “The Sound of Music”
Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woollen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favourite things
Cream coloured ponies and crisp apple strudels
Doorbells and sleigh bells and schnitzel with noodles
Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favourite things
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favourite things
When the dog bites
When the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don’t feel so bad
What are your favourite things? What makes you smile just thinking about it?
Both of these instances of power of positive thinking.
What St Paul was talking about in the letter to the people of Philippi.
If you fall out with somebody, and spend your time thinking how horrible they are – you will never make up with them again. You need to remember all the good things about them, and then you will be able to make peace.
If you are always worrying about all the bad things that might happen you are going to be tense and miserable all the time. But if you think about the good things that have happened to you, and which might come in the future, you will feel happy and content.
If you think about nasty things – or watch them on TV or on your computer screens – people hurting each other, people doing things that are wrong, there’s a chance that you may end up copying them – it somehow gets inside your head, and you fall under the power of evil.
St Paul says: fill your minds with what is true, noble, just and pure, loveable, gracious, excellent admirable – and above all pray to God and listen to Jesus – then your mind will be full of the right things.
Easy to get led into the sort of thoughts that suck the goodness and happiness out of you. Remember Paul’s words, especially at the end of the month on Halloween.
October 5, 2008
( Isaiah 5, 1-7; Matt. 21, 33-end )
I wonder what country comes into your mind when you think about vineyards? France? Germany? Italy? Australia? California?
Well to the writers of our Bible a vineyard meant only one county – The Promised Land of Israel.
In the readings today we have two parables – one from the Old Testament and one from the New – which make use of that association. From the writings of First Isaiah we have the Song of the Vineyard. At this time, in the second half of the 8th century BC the Promised Land was divided between two kingdoms – the Northern Kingdom of Israel with its capital in Samaria and the Southern Kingdom of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. It was a time of great prosperity for the two kingdoms, and in Isaiah’s opinion, this had led them to forget the covenant with God which should have been at the basis of their religious and social life. So, those who were rich got richer, those who were poor or in trouble got neglected and righteousness and justice were in short supply. Sounds familiar?
On top of this, the political situation was dangerous. The Promised Land lay between the two super-powers of the time, Egypt and Assyria. The Kings of Israel were into power politics, allying themselves with Egypt against Assyria – and this was the cause of their downfall. In 733 the Assyrians besieged Samaria and carried off the leading citizens into exile. Israel didn’t learn from this, so again, from about 724 to 721, the Assyrian king Shalmaneser attacked the city, and finally destroyed it and carried off a further group into exile – about 10 percent of the population all together. The Assyrian way of managing its vast empire was to destroy the cohesion of each conquered county by mixing up the population with foreigners. So after the deportation, people from other parts of the Empire were moved into Israel – and over time intermarried with the locals, so producing the Samaritan race which was so hated by the time of the New Testament.
This is the reality behind Isaiah’s parable. God gave the Hebrew tribes the land of Israel. God built a watchtower – perhaps the law – to help them keep it safe and planted choice vines – the chosen people – to live in it and bear fruit. But they didn’t bear the fruit that was expected. What came was rotten fruit, and eventually wild fruit – the unbelieving foreigners. The parable ends with a play on words in Hebrew: God expected justice ( mispat) but saw bloodshed ( mispah); God asked for righteousness ( sedakah) and heard s cry (se’akah).
Isaiah was prophesying in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which at this time managed to keep out of the power struggle between Assyria and Egypt. We don’t know when he spoke this oracle – before or after the fall of Samaria – but his message is for all the Chosen People. If they continued to forget the covenant and ignore their obligation to seek righteousness and justice; if they tried to guarantee their security by playing politics with the super-powers rather than trusting in God; then their land would be overrun, their city walls broken down and their crops and fields go to waste. And that, of course is what happened to Israel, and then just over a hundred years later, to Judah too, when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and the leaders of the two Southern tribes were taken into exile.
The parable of the Tenants in the Vineyard appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, and also in the Gospel of Thomas, which wasn’t included in our Bible. The vineyard is still the Promised Land, but this time the attention focuses on the tenants rather than the grapes themselves.
The story is based on a situation which would have been very familiar to the people of Galilee who heard Jesus preach. Much of the land had been bought up by foreign landlords, who put tenants in to work the land, and sent their representatives once a year to collect a proportion of the crop as rent. They were generally resented by the population – it was bad enough to have your land occupied by the Romans without having the wealth of the country going off abroad too. However, the law said that if the owner of a piece of land died without an heir, then the tenants could take possession of it for themselves.
Scholars think that when Jesus originally told this story, it was much shorter, more like the version in Thomas. There was no allusion to Isaiah. There was no repeated sending of slaves in this version – just two single slaves who were abused and sent back empty handed. No-one was killed until the son came – and the parable simply says that he was killed without specifying how or where. And the story ended with the crime – there was no description of the punishment meted out to the tenants. As was Jesus’ custom, he told a story, and left his hearers to make up their own minds about what he meant. But we can easily surmise that it is a story about the leaders of the Jews, who have been given the Promised Land by God, but have refused to produce the fruits that were the owner’s due when asked – but instead have abused and killed those who point out their shortcomings.
Each of the Gospel writers has elaborated the parable, and by the time Matthew was writing, for his mixed community of Jewish and Gentile Christians in the second half of the first century, probably after the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem in the year AD70, the parable had become a full-blown allegory.
Matthew adds details to the beginning of the story – the watchtower and the wine press – to make it exactly mirror Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. The vineyard is let out to tenants – the Patriarchs and Moses, the people with whom God made the Old Covenant. He tells of two groups of slaves who are sent to collect their master’s dues – to represent the two groups of prophets in the Hebrew Bible – the former and the latter prophets. Some of the servants are not just abused but killed, echoing Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem in chapter 23 verse 37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone the messengers God sent you”. When the son is killed, Matthew ( and Luke) add the detail that he is taken out of the vineyard before he is killed – to mirror the death of Jesus outside the city walls. The Synoptic writers all add a question to the original story “What will the owner of the vineyard do then?” and answer their own question by describing the death of the original tenants, and the transfer of the vineyard to others who will obey God and produce fruits for him. And just to emphasise the point, they use another metaphor from Psalm 118 (which is also found in Isaiah) applying it to Jesus, who this time is not the son but the cornerstone, rejected by the original builders, but which turned out to be the most important of all.
For the Gospel writers, the leaders of the Jews had turned away from the true teaching of the prophets – and they had killed Jesus, who was God’s only Son. Therefore God would take away the promise of salvation from the original tenants, the unbelieving Jews, and give it to those who were faithful to his new covenant, the Jewish and Gentile Christians who followed Christ.
Clearly, for the Gospel writers, the parable is no longer about the physical occupation of the Promised Land. As the story is taken out into the post-resurrection community, it becomes a story about a vineyard which represents God’s favour and the promise of salvation. By the time Matthew was writing, Jerusalem had probably been destroyed, and the Jewish community in exile was rejecting Christian Jews and ejecting them from the synagogue communities. So the parable tells us the promise of salvation, which once belonged to the Jews, has been taken away from them and given to the Christian Church.
When we read and interpret the Bible we always have to read it on several levels. We ask ourselves “What did this passage mean when it was originally spoken or written?” and I have tried to indicate what might have been the case when Isaiah and Jesus told their stories.
Then we need to ask, “ What did it mean to the people who wrote it down”. This was obviously a favourite story of the early Christian community, since it appears in all three Synoptic Gospels and I’ve tried to indicate how the Christian community elaborated the original story to express their belief that salvation comes through faith in Jesus, the Son who was killed.
But we also need to ask a third question, “What does it mean to us, now?”. The vineyard cannot represent for us the physical Land of Israel; but it can still represent for us the field in which we work for God and the fruits which we produce in God’s name.
We don’t stone the prophets and kill God’s messengers – well, not for the last couple of hundred years in this country. So in what ways are we denying to God the fruits he has the right to expect from us?
Probably each of us, in our different situations in life, will have a different answer to those questions, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. But let me just make a few suggestions to get you thinking.
In the first Creation story in the chapter 1 of Genesis we are told that God created human beings to be his representatives, his tenants, on this planet, to look after it and develop it on his behalf? Have we been, and are we being good tenants of this Earth? Are we working to preserve the diversity of species and to provide enough food and employment for all its inhabitants – or are we exploiting it for short term gain, using up its resources without thought, destroying the fertility of some parts through human actions which are accelerating climate change?
Are we producing good fruit or wild grapes, a productive vineyard or thorns and briars? Our Harvest service next week will concentrate on one example of how climate change is having an impact on one of the poorest parts of the world. What can we do about that to be better tenants?
Then again, we are stewards in the West of the Christian heritage of faith. But how central is it to our lives? Do most people in the rich nations pursue material prosperity at the expense of spiritual riches? Mother Theresa certainly thought so. Do we use the many talents and advantages God has given us to produce fruits for God – or fruits to keep to ourselves? We who belong to a country and a church with a long Christian history, who were baptised into the faith, sometimes seem to fail to appreciate its riches. We certainly don’t seem to treasure it as much as some of the newer converts to the faith in the Third World. Is then the vineyard going to be taken from us and given to new tenants?
And a last suggestion. We have inherited, in the Church of England a network of churches across the country, where people have come to know and worship God through the centuries. They can also be seen as the vineyard of which we are tenants. Are we using them to produce the good fruits that God wants of us? And if not, why? The use of church buildings is one of the focuses of the Vision for Action initiative in this Diocese. How can we use our church buildings to make them more accessible to the people of our neighbourhood, so that they will come to know and worship God as their ancestors did? Last Sunday, we had a modest success on Back to Church Sunday, in attracting more people to worship with us than on a normal Sunday. How can we build on that success to bring a greater harvest of souls to God? And alongside that, how do we deal with the situation highlighted by Bishop Alan of Buckingham in his blog this week – that many people seem to find our churches more spiritual when they are empty – not during our regular services, but when we’re not there?
The owner of the vineyard in these parables is a very different character from the kindly old gent in last week’s parable who paid everyone in the vineyard the full wage no matter how few hours they’d worked. That parable was about grace – this week’s is about judgement, and both are part of our faith. How terrible it would be to squander our lives and our talents and our riches, and then to know at the end that we have produced wild grapes rather than good fruit, and we will not inherit the promise of God’s vineyard after all.