Isa 5, 1-7: Ps 80, 9-17: Phil 3 4b-14: Matt 21 33-end
These OT and Gospel readings are a bit grim, aren’t they, almost epitomising the bible as the book of violence: even the Epistle, though lacking actual blood, has bitter strife between various groups of Jewish interpreters of the Word. But none of the readings actually mean what we at first sight expect.
Take the Epistle, Paul isn’t doing an anti-Jewish bit, despite in the lines just before this readings calling the teachers he doesn’t agree with ‘dogs,’ We might cringe: but Paul was a Jew getting at other Jews, and using whatever pithy epithet was to hand. All reform movements, all periods of change, produce nutty self-seekers, promising ‘all women would be held in common by and for men’, or ‘follow me and you can rule Pluto’, or whatever. We don’t know if Paul’s opponents in Philippi were of this ilk, but given his total commitment to Christ, rather than having a ‘righteousness of his own’ which would order his daily life and decisions, it seems reasonable to assume so. Circumcision or not wasn’t the issue. Rather, he opposes the idea that marks on the body, which might glory the bearer, had any relevance. His stance was fortunate for the faith, which is for all, male and female, marked or unmarked.
And that’s what Matthew and Isaiah are also discussing: who is counted among the faithful, and who is faithful in terms of each person’s response to and relationship with God, their neighbour, and their self. Take Matthew. On the face of it, it’s the parable of the over-trusting landlord, in whom listeners would have imaged the absentee owner of one of the vast estates into which that northern area was divided. He sends one lot of servants to collect his cut after the harvest- the Song of Solomon, which precedes the Isaiah reading, ends with the owner getting 1000 coins and the workers 2000. They reject that message, just as early Prophets rejected God or slid-back to Baal, so he tried again, this patient absent but very present God. Again, the workers, or later prophets, reject and kill the messenger. He sends his son, who in Matthew is taken out of the vineyard, the holy place, and killed, in imitation of Christ. Clearly here Matthew made the Jews into Christ-killers, for he was writing around 80 or 90 CE when Jews and Christians were beginning to separate into two distinct groups. The division wasn’t complete by any means: when Christians left Syria and Arabia for SW India around AD 60, they went to the Jewish settlements. Listeners at the time in which the parable was set, AD 30-33, would have been unlikely to grasp that God’s Son-Christ image, as that was not then commonly part of the Messiah vision. But they would know that the farm workers would have assumed the father was dead, and therefore the son was the only person standing between them and ownership of the vineyard, possession being, then too, nine parts of the law. And so the listeners would know this was about rejection of the message, about greed, and destruction of those who refuse to hear.
For they would be tuned into Isaiah 5 as they listened to Jesus’ parable which picks up on it, and to the preceding chapters which had outlined Israel and Judah’s rejection of God, their refusal to live under the law of justice and mercy for all. Their earlier commitment to God had given way to conspicuous consumption by the rich, bedecked with jewels, and the following of any available undemanding godlet, behaviour which God had punished but which in the preceding chapter seemed to be sorted out. So when Isaiah begins with this love song about God, who had a vineyard, beautifully prepared and cared for, the listeners would be consoled: God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world! However, when the poem switches to the bitter harvest of shrivelled sour grapes, and they hear God’s question, ‘what more was I supposed to do for you,’ they’d know what might follow, just as Jesus’ hearers would. God wants God’s people to live in justice, which is kindness and fairness, and mercy for all. If, as both Isaiah and Matthew say, there is harshness, violence, lack of care for those who most need it, then people are not followers of God, but of their own benefit, their own often selfish desires. Dressing that up with trappings of faith is pointless: rotten fruit is rotten, and all the polishing and carful presentation will not change that. Both texts make clear that if God’s chosen people fail to heed, there are plenty of other peoples!
We think more in terms of individuals. So, are we hearing and trying our best with prayer and imperfect faithfulness to follow and live out God’s expectations that we live in justice and mercy? Or rejecting the message, even the messenger, when living according to the message would be inconvenient?
It’s Harvest Festival next week. What sort of grapes, what fruits, will we be offering? The Psalm made clear that just as God hopes for transformation in us, we can ask, even implore, God to be there for us even: as verse 14 says, ‘Turn again oh Lord of hosts, Look down from heaven and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.’ That implies a relationship between us and God. And just as God in Trinity expresses an internal and eternal relationship between Parent, Child and Comforter, so too living in relationship between us and God is mirrored by living in relationship between each of us here, each and our neighbours, our friends and families and our own selves. That demands consistent work, just as those grape growers had to be consistently aware of the relationship between land, weather and worker. If our harvest represents our individual self-seeking desires, placing ourselves above others or indeed way below, it may well include enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, dissention, which are not part of transforming relationship. But if we aim rather, or as well, for the fruits of the spirit, then might our harvest include love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control?
We’ve only a week to think about it, so why not start today?
Heidelberg, October 5th