Trinity 18, 8 October 2023
Readings: Is. 5. 1-7; Phil. 3. 4b-14; Mt. 21. 33-end.
Theme: The Vineyard of the Kingdom
It is a well-known saying that the garden is a place to feel close to God. There is something about the calmness of nature, its various colours and smells that fills us with awe at its beauty. Throughout the Bible the image of the garden is used as a metaphor to speak of the plans of God for God’s people.
In today’s reading it is the image of the vineyard, another natural image also often used which is presented to us in the allegory of the Parable of the wicked tenants.
The image of the vineyard in the prophet Isaiah is used to represent the people of Israel. God had planted it on a fertile hill and had used only the best vines, but the grapes that it produced were of poor quality, ‘wild grapes’ as the text puts it. Disappointed by the outcome of the vineyard, the owner of the vineyard decides to lay it waste. This destruction of the vineyard by the Lord is a consequence of both the idolatry of Judah and Israel and their violence and injustice. It was a story used by Isaiah as a warning to God’s chosen people that unless the land is treated well, the beauty of the garden, the fertility of the vineyard will be taken away from it.
It is this theme of being taken away from the chosen people and given to others which is central to our Gospel passage for today. Echoing the passage from Isaiah this Gospel reading speaks of the history of salvation through Israel’s story of election, promise and redemption. The coming of the Christ is the return of God to the vineyard in order to inspect how fruitful the land bequeathed to them has become. So, following the rejection of the message of the prophets, God himself chooses to return from his sojourn in another country.
This evocative imagery of return to a land once cultivated is one which would not have been lost on the hearers of this story at the time of Jesus. It would have reminded them of the passage from Isaiah and of the consequences that lay ahead if they were not faithful to God. In this allegory, Matthew is using a range of symbols which would have echoed with his listeners as they would associate it with the text from Isaiah. Each of the characters and features of this Gospel passage is rich in symbolism that was meant to evoke the story of the history of the salvation of Israel in the minds of its listeners.
The owner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is meant to represent the chosen people of Israel. The servants, or the slaves, who are sent to collect the produce of the land stand for the prophets like Isaiah, whom God had sent to speak on God’s behalf. The wicked tenants, the violent farmers, represent the unfaithful Jews who had been criticized by Isaiah and were now being rebuked by Jesus. Finally, the son in the story is Jesus himself. The Son of God who has been sent after the voices of the prophets had not been listened to and who will be put to death by the violent farmers outside the walls of Jerusalem.
Matthew uses this allegory of the vineyard and the wicked tenants as a parable of what will become of the promise of the Kingdom of God, which is the New Testament version of the gift of the promised land to the people of Israel. It will be taken away from the faithless Jews and given to those Jews who believed in Jesus and also to the gentiles who, even though not part of the original promise, will become tenants in the new House of Israel, the nation who will become the new heirs of the Kingdom of God, the new promised land.
This new land is how we are to understand our belonging to the church. The vineyard which we have been given is the property of God. God’s kingdom is to be cultivated by those who belong to the church as the new House of Israel made up of faithful Jews and gentiles who listen to the voice of the owner of the vineyard. It is no longer a physical land in the sense of a particular piece of territory. This new land and the new nation which is to populate it will be constituted by those who hear the voice of the Lord and do God’s will, wherever they may live. It is, so to speak, the breaking out of a tribal understanding of belonging to God and the emergence of a universal understanding of what it means to be a follower of God.
All cultures and lands of the earth are now called by God to share in the promise originally made only to the House of Israel. The question that this raises for us as members of this new house is, how is our tenancy of this new land? Are we cultivating it well? Is the Kingdom of God fruitful in us as a church?
It is good for each church to ask itself these questions because, like the Jews at the time of the prophet Isaiah and like the chief priests and the Pharisees, it is possible for us to allow the vineyard to become barren. This barrenness occurs when we fall into the same traps as those in the biblical stories did, namely, various forms of idolatry and injustice. Idolatry in the sense that we slide into the worship of other gods than the one true Lord, and injustice in that we treat others as mere instruments for our purposes and so do not treat them with the dignity that they deserve.
So, as we listen to these words of Isaiah and Matthew today, let us examine ourselves and review how our own stewardship of the vineyard of the Kingdom of God is unfolding. We might do this in two particular ways. First, we can ask ourselves, how faithful am I in worshipping God alone? In the light of this answer, we should explore how this worship of God makes us a brother or a sister to others. I am sure that each of us has elements of both the wicked and the new tenants within us. That is why we should always see ourselves as redeemed sinners, unworthy tenants of a land that we have been given as the new stewards of the Kingdom of God.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.