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.