Rev’d Jonathan Gale
Isaiah 5: 1 – 7
The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard
5Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5 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.
6 I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
Luke 20: 9 – 19
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
9 He began to tell the people this parable: ‘A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. 10When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 11Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. 12And he sent yet a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. 13Then the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.” 14But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, “This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.” 15So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? 16He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.’ When they heard this, they said, ‘Heaven forbid!’ 17But he looked at them and said, ‘What then does this text mean:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone”?*
18Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’ 19When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.
There is a reason we Anglicans read the Scriptures. God’s Word has so much to teach us. You might notice that the readings are frequently challenging. That’s because we need challenging. This evening’s readings are certainly challenging.
Our reading from Isaiah contains a parable: The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard. God expects grapes from the vineyard, but it produces wild grapes, because those who tend the vineyard have neglected it. He says in Verse 7 7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel.
This is neglect, not so much for the nation (the Israelites were always keen on self-preservation), but for its mission.
God chose Israel that they might be a light to the nations. Their faithfulness would create such a ripple of blessing that (like the Queen of Sheba) people would flock to Jerusalem to see the glory of God and be influenced towards and for God.
The mission of Israel was centripetal – which simply means a force that attracts to the centre. The shechinah – the visible and tangible glory of God that appeared as a cloud and led the Israelites through the Wilderness – would rest upon the temple and people would come to marvel, long for inclusion and become part of God’s family. Israel failed in that task and she lost her lustre. The Hebrew name, Ichabod – the glory has departed – well describes the position of the nation that ignores God, especially one that has been selected by God for a specific role on history, and that it neglects to fulfil.
The task then fell to Jesus who, in his own words, came to fulfil the Law of Moses (Matthew 5: 17), came to embody all that the Law of Moses should have achieved through the people of Israel, but which they neglected – and neglected spectacularly.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants is told by Jesus to illustrate just this failure of Israel to carry out the mission of God.
But he goes further. The tenants actively oppose those whom the owner of the vineyard sends to call them to account.
He goes further still. The owner sends his son whom the tenants kill.
The reference to himself here is plain and Jesus reinforces his claim to be the new dispensation of God when he quotes Psalm 118: 22. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Now David in the Psalm set for today psalm is complaining about enemies but they are not the people one would traditionally think of as enemies. He cries out 20 Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
You don’t look for pity or comfort from your obvious enemies. You look for them from those who are close to you. It is Israel’s failure that cuts him to the quick. Not the opposition of the surrounding nations.
David’s attempt to turn the people into focussing on their mission to be a light to the Gentiles – that is the other nations of the earth – comes up against opposition from his own people. Israel is happy to enjoy the benefits of being God’s chosen people but it is uncomfortable carrying out its side of the bargain – being a credible ambassador for God.
In short, Israel has lost its purpose.
This year my wife and I decided to produce monarch butterflies by the dozen. A noble and enjoyable venture, my wife did most of the work last year but I took the lead this year and planted well over 60 swan plants and a number of others to attract the ladybirds that would keep the aphids at bay.
But in my gardening focus on swan plants I missed the objective – breeding butterflies. I made the assumption that all I had to do was produce healthy swan plants and the butterflies would come. I did and they did and we did not produce a single monarch butterfly.
There are any number of things the members of our family might have done to ensure that we actually produced butterflies, but it didn’t happen.
The problem was a plague of wasps. Nothing got past them and we couldn’t find their nests. I think my problem was I focussed on fighting the wasps. Wasp traps didn’t work; neither did trying to hunt them down one by one with a can of insecticide. At times it was a lonely, it was certainly a toxic, job.
Certainly David felt his attempts to carry out God’s mission were, not merely lonely, but thoroughly opposed. 9 It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me. 10 When I humbled my soul with fasting,* they insulted me for doing so. (Psalm 69)
Perhaps had we used our butterfly castle and brought into the vicarage branches of swan plants, we might have foiled the wasps. We did that the year before but it was laborious and messy.
Instead I stuck with a romantic notion of almost 70 swan plants, carefully planted out and nurtured, abuzz with bees, bumblebees and monarch butterflies happily laying their eggs which would grow into healthy caterpillars, in turn transform into beautiful chrysalises and finally into amazing butterflies.
But the times have changed. We have a wasp problem in New Zealand and they are voracious and insistent. My butterfly project merely attracted a host of butterflies that laid eggs which the wasps devoured. I was feeding wasps and yet I thought because there were an average of 4 or 5 butterflies flying around the house at any point in time during the day, that I was doing good.
I put up pictures of my swan plants in bloom on Facebook and everyone commented on how lovely they were. But here’s the point: I was not breeding butterflies. Furthermore, had I actually changed my approach and succeeded, the satisfaction of actually producing butterflies would have been far greater than the satisfaction of having a garden of swan plants.
I think the message is clear. We need to be very careful that in the activities of our faith we are not fighting against God. It’s possible to do so. In Acts 5 we read that Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, warned the Jewish Sanhedrin that in opposing the Apostles they may find they are fighting against God.
As the church we need to ask ourselves what our mission is. Our readings highlight Israel’s shortcomings. Well, I don’t believe that our mission is much different.
Unlike Israel’s centripetal mission, ours is centrifugal – the Great Commission is to go outwards – to be missional – God’s Spirit has promised to be with us as we go.
As beautiful as services like Evensong may be (and as the son of a priest who spent the majority of his 13 school years at mostly private boarding schools, I love Evensong) – as beautiful as Evensong may be, it is an acceptable form of worship if we view it as charging our spiritual batteries so that we might fulfil the mission of the church – and that is to go out with the Good News, to be intentional is our interactions with un-churched people, to be motivated to share Christ with them.
Having flowering swan plants in a bee-loud and butterfly-filled glade might be a lovely experience but it doesn’t produce monarch butterflies.
Attending Evensong or engaging in all sorts of good works in the community might be a lovely thing, but unless we intentionally introduce people to the living Christ, we do not produce Christians.
Let us be found to be co-operating with God’s mission. There’s a sober challenge from the Scriptures.