Isaiah 5:1-7; MArk 12:1-1a
Our New Testament reading is one of those readings which we find troubling to hear.
Focusing on the selfish and self-regarding acts of the workers in the vineyard, Jesus speaks with righteous fury of those workers who, despite the continual entreaty of the master, refuse his call and instead murder all of his emissaries, culminating in the murder of his son, which brings upon them the wrath and judgement of the master.
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
To understand the ferocity of this passage we need to recognise what Jesus is doing when he refers to the image of the vineyard.
This is not an idle image or allusion that Jesus is making. The Vineyard carried with it power and meaning within the history of Israel. In Jewish writing and poetry the Vineyard was used first to denote the ‘beloved’.
In the Song of Solomon, that great poem of love in the Old Testament:
let us go out early to the vineyards,
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
As the image of God’s beloved, the Vineyard became synonymous with Israel. As we hear in the next chapter of the Song of Solomon:
Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon;
he entrusted the vineyard to keepers;
each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
My vineyard, my very own, is for myself;
you, O Solomon, may have the thousand,
and the keepers of the fruit two hundred!
So when we hear in Isaiah of the destruction of the Vineyard, as we do in our Old Testament reading, it is clear what we are being told. As the people of Israel have turned away from God, so God has turned from them.
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
In our New Testament lesson Jesus is tapping into this great tradition, and his hearers, the religious leaders of his day, knew what we was talking about.
The key difference between Jesus’ use of the Vineyard image and those we heard from the Old Testament is that the failure for Jesus was not in the Vineyard itself – as in Isaiah – but those called to care and tend it.
In Jesus’ teaching the Vineyard remains the beloved one, the deep gift of God which should be cherished, cultivated, and brought to the harvest of the kingdom. The failure was not with the Vineyard, but those called to care for it.
So we understand, with a little biblical archeology, this passage a little more fully we can see what Jesus was saying and why.
The problem though with a little biblical archaeology is that there is always a danger that we dig a hole and find ourselves at the bottom of it, not able to get out.
There is a danger with this today. By understanding the deep biblical resonance of the image of the vineyard we are able to understand what Jesus was saying then – two thousand years ago – with reference to an image and tradition which even then was hundreds of years old.
But this would fail to recognise why we are called to read this passage today and at the beginning of this week?
As we begin this journey of Holy Week we are called into that journey as a contemporary one. Just as Jesus was using an old image to speak in contemporary terms to his hearers in first century Judea, so we must hear this passage as speaking to us here and now.
When I was writing this reflection my mind was taken to T S Eliot’s great poem Little Gidding. Written in the teeth of the second world war Eliot poem reflects on the chapel at Little Gidding near Cambridge. A place of history and memory. A place intimately linked to the painful history of the English Civil War. And standing there, again in a time of war, Eliot mused that the history of that place was not something past, but something that drew us all to the immediacy of now.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
So as we gather in this secluded chapel and hear again a story older and richer than that which Eliot found at Little Gidding we might reflect on the now-ness the contemporary call we hearing in our reading today.
As we begin the journey of Holy Week we need to have the courage to become part of the story. To recognise that Jesus is speaking to us, that we are those workers.
And as we follow Jesus as he walks the way of the cross we need to reflect on our own life of faith, our own relationship to God, and ask do we misuse that gift, abuse it, reject it. Or do we see in the glory of the vineyard, in the abundance of God’s provision for us, a sign of his coming reign which we might glimpse again the next time we gather in this secluded chapel.