The wicked tenants

Sermon at St James church

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Philippians 3: 4b-14; Matthew 21: 33-46

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

The owner of the vineyard in the Old Testament reading is the Lord God, and his beloved vineyard is the house of Israel. The owner did everything he possibly could to establish his vineyard and make it flourish. He expected it to yield a fine harvest of grapes, but it only produced rubbish grapes. So what will the owner do? He will abandon his vineyard and leave it to wrack and ruin.

Time and again in the Old Testament the Lord, through his prophets, expresses his deep dissatisfaction and disappointment with his chosen people. In spite of all he had done for them, they had in all sorts of ways, and particularly in matters of faith and obedience to his laws, let him down. And so he threatens to leave them to stew in their own juice - rubbish grape juice.

Jesus’ parable of the vineyard clearly harks back to Isaiah’s. But in Isaiah it’s the whole people of Israel who are the culprits, whereas in Jesus’ story it’s just the leaders of the people who are to blame. They are the tenants who are meant to care for the vineyard, and the way they beat up and kill the slaves sent by the owner to collect the harvest represents the way the leaders dealt with God’s prophets through the ages. Then, in the climax of Jesus’ tale, the owner sends his own son for the harvest. But they seized him, threw him out and murdered him.

What more could God do? He sent his own Son, and the very people who should have welcomed him rejected him and killed him. So, says the parable, God will leave the vineyard to new tenants to bring him in a harvest – a reference no doubt to the new Israel, the Church. No wonder the chief priests and Pharisees were furious with Jesus; it was as plain as could be that Jesus was speaking about them, and what they had done and failed to do.

Suppose Jesus came back to earth now – not as ancient and modern apocalyptic pictures envisage it, descending as he ascended in a cloud, with fanfares and pyrotechnics , coming as unexpected as a thief in the night to judge both the quick and the dead. No, suppose Jesus returned to earth as indemonstrably as he came before, growing up to be a prophetic teacher and storyteller, a modern commentator. I wonder if he’d tell us a new vineyard story based on the fact that we too have failed to produce a harvest commensurate with all that God has provided for us, all his preparation for our benefit.

If so, which aspect would he concentrate on? Our failure to properly look after the environment – his own earth? Our failure to manage international relations successfully – ie to live at peace with each other? Our failure to care adequately for those for whom Jesus had had especial concern and compassion – the poor, the disabled, those in prison? The way the accumulation of wealth and the acquisition of luxury have been such a driving force in so many people’s lives, often at a cost to others? Or perhaps the churches’ dismal failure to be one family of God?

When a couple of weeks ago it was announced that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was now available on Amazon’s Echo and Alexa-enabled devices the papers picked on one or two phrases to illustrate its language. Among them were words from the general confession in Morning and Evening Prayer: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

That really sums it up, doesn’t it? Corporately we have let God down. But it ain’t all bad. There does seem to be today a generally gloomy, some would even say a despairing view of humankind and the way the world is heading, environmentally, economically, politically and morally, all exacerbated of course by the Covid pandemic. But I don’t believe that God can be totally dissatisfied and disappointed with us. Using his God-given resources and God-given intellectual ability and inventiveness has led to some brilliant achievements in science and medicine and technology, also some stunning music and literature and art. Even features which now seem to be questionable, for example, cars - dispensing pollution, plastic - invading the ocean, have also been enormously beneficial. Machines have eliminated much back-breaking drudgery; growth in wealth, though of course not universal, has saved many from stultifying poverty. No, it ain’t all bad. So, while acknowledging that Jesus would need to tell us an up-to-date vineyard story, let’s maintain a not entirely gloomy view of things.

And there’s something else to help us in that. God, despite necessary prophetic forewarnings, does not abandon us and leave us to stew in our own juice. He loves us; he cares for us; we are his children.

Well, at the moment it’s harvest time in our vineyards - the actual ones, not the metaphorical ones. Let’s hope it’s a great vintage. Three or so years ago Sharon Maiden asked me to bless the grapes at Coddington Vineyard. I said, “Sharon, you’ve got more faith than I have.” Nevertheless, I had a go, and it turned out to be the best harvest they’d ever had. O me of little faith!

St Paul was writing about faith in this Letter to the Philippians. He said it was the most important thing and that in faith we should leave what lies behind and strive forward to what lies ahead. Let us pledge ourselves to do what we can, even if it’s only a little, to bring in the harvest that God wants – a harvest of goodness for his world and all his people.