This sermon was preached at our Sunday morning worship within church and on Zoom on Sunday 4th October. The Gospel that morning was Matthew 21:33-46.
What is there to say about today's Gospel? It really does seem so obvious doesn't it? Centuries of Christian teaching has, it seems, cemented its clear meaning in our collective conscience. In the parable that Jesus tells us, often known as the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, we have come to know that the landowner is God, the vineyard is the kingdom of heaven, the wicked tenants are the Jewish people, and the new tenants are us Christians. Done, dusted and simple. A nice comfortable parable that helps us feel good about ourselves.
But I don't think Jesus was particularly into telling comfortable parables. I think there must be something other going on here.
We didn't have it this morning, but if we had heard the alternative Old Testament reading for today, we would have realised that Jesus was actually telling an old, old story. In Isaiah, we hear about a landowner who had planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, put a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. In Jesus' parable, the landowner has planted a vineyard, built a wall around it, put a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. So far so good; Jesus' listeners know this story. They know how it goes.
In Isaiah, the vineyard doesn't produce good fruit. Instead it produces something that we translate as 'wild grapes', probably something noxious, maybe vile-smelling and poisonous, and certainly inedible. In Christ's story, again, the landowner cannot harvest his crop, but, typically, there's a Jesus twist. This time, it's not that the vineyard is bad; this time, it's down to the tenant-farmers who are greedy and selfish and unwilling to share what they have grown.
In Isaiah's story, the landowner is called out as God, and the vineyard is the house of Israel; God's people. In Isaiah's version, the people were a perverted version of what they were called to be - not good grapes, but something else; instead of bringing forth sweet wine, they brought a bitter poison.
In Christ's version, that vineyard is good. God's people are still fruitful. The problem is that those in charge are preventing that fruit from being collected and being shared. The harvest is kept under lock and key, only for the in-crowd.
And so, given the twist, the consequences must change too. In Isaiah, the landowner threatens to destroy the vineyard completely; if it will not bear good fruit, it is worse than useless; not only producing nothing of worth, but also taking up valuable arable land.
|Image of a Napa Valley vineyard destroyed in fire in 2017|
With Jesus, though, the problem is the tenants. It is they who need to go, and instead be replaced with new leaders. Those tenants, who were ordained by the landowner to look after the vineyard have become the problem, and removing them allows the harvest to be shared.
I would suggest that the traditional interpretation of the wicked tenants being the Jewish people and the new tenants being us is wrong. I think this is about leadership, and not just the Jewish leaders of Christ's day. No, we see throughout the ages that church leadership falls time and time again into that same trap of mistaking leadership of God's people as ownership of them, and has tried many times to follow the example of those wicked tenants, trying to find ways to profit from the Kingdom of God and use the harvest for their own benefit, rather than offering it to the landowner. From the selling of indulgences to trying to prevent the Bible from being translated into common parlance, from televangelists scamming faithful viewers out of their life savings to those who try to commandeer the name of Christ in the name of pushing an ungodly political agenda. It is these people to whom Christ is speaking; to the religiously powerful.
But still, do not get too comfortable. For - despite what those previously mentioned televangelists and politicians might tell you - we, mainly white anglo-saxon Anglicans, are still some of the most religiously powerful people in the world. This is a warning to us too - don't hoard the blessings you have received from God; they need to be shared.
But, there is one more twist in this tale yet. Christ has added yet a new dimension. As we know, the landowner sends his own son to the tenants who reject and kill him, but here the metaphor changes. No longer are we talking about Isaiah's vineyard and the tenants, but now Christ refers to another part of the scriptures. The vineyard is gone and the tenants are now builders. The landowner's rejected son is now the builders' rejected stone. And that stone becomes the corner stone.
We've gone from farming to building. From agriculture to industry. Christ is signalling a change. A change in tone and a change in time. Perhaps Christ has not completely done away with Isaiah's thoughts about the destruction of the vineyard. It is being dismantled but in its place a temple is being built instead, with Christ, the rejected son as the very foundation.
Times change, and with them, so must God's people. I am extremely conscious that church today is incredibly different to anything it has been for many, many years. With social distancing and Zoom, and without wine or hymns or those members of our church family who are excluded in one way or another from our worship as it currently stands, we are a different people, and I think, if we are honest, we will be for quite some time.
Perhaps we feel dismantled like that vineyard. Perhaps we feel rejected like that stone. But we are still the kingdom of God, called to produce good fruit for the benefit of the whole world, and, I believe that we are being rebuilt by God, to be able to do just that as we navigate this new world, changing from a vineyard into a temple in whatever way that may look in the times to come; a new structure with Christ as our cornerstone.