Trinity 16: Isaiah 5:1-7, Ps 80: 7-14, Phil 3: 4b-14, Matt 21:33-46
One small advantage of my recent period of convalescence has been having some time to listen to the radio. One of my favourite programmes is 'Gardener's Question Time', which I listen to with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I marvel at how anyone can remember all those funny latin names for everyday plants. Did you know, for example, that the humble carrot is know by fancy gardeners as Daucus Carota Sativus?
Another reason I listen to 'GQT' is frankly to make myself feel better. I enjoy gardening...its great stress-relief, and the obsessive-compulsive in me is never happier than when the lawn has been freshly cut, and there are nice neat lines running up and down! But the trouble is that although I can handle a lawn mower...I'm useless at pretty much anything else. Any other plant that I try to nurture - other than grass seed, just dies on me. I either over-water it, or under water it. I over-feed it, or under-feed it. So when I hear members of the public being roundly told off for similar errors on 'GQT' - I feel better. I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one whose green fingers have turned to autumn colours and dropped off!
As a constantly failing gardener, I find myself with a lot of sympathy for Isaiah, this morning. He sings a song of the planting of a vineyard, during which the owner goes to enormous lengths to get everything right to grow his grapes. He chooses a fertile hill, builds a wall around it, clears the ground of stones and even builds a watch-tower to keep off predators. (Watch-towers were the fore-runner of scarecrows). But all he gets for his trouble...just like me, so often...is wild grapes - or rather, weeds!
Isaiah's tale would have got sympathy from his listeners too...until they realised what his song really meant. The sting in the tail was that they, his listeners, God people were the vineyard that had not produced the fruit that was to be expected of them after all God's care. After building them up as a nation, rescuing them out of Eqypt, establishing them in a new land, giving them laws to live by and prosperity as a nation...the people constantly turned away from God. They worshipped other gods, they clutched at possessions with greed. They were inhospitable towards strangers, they ignored God's just laws. God was furious with them, and deeply disappointed.
What was he going to do about it? Essentially, he was going to punish it. He would break down the walls of the Vineyard, and trample down the land. He would make it a waste-land. Or at least - that's what Isaiah predicted. What Isaiah's listeners couldn't know (but we do) is that soon after this warning, the land of Israel was conquered by the Assyrian nation - and effectively wiped off the map of the day. For the Israelites, there were consequences for ignoring God's way of living. Not for the first time in the history of Israel and its ancestors, they would be thrown out of a garden. That's exactly what happened to Adam and Eve.
Jump forward a few centuries, into the time of Jesus, and we find the same story being expanded upon. Jesus focuses his version of the tale onto the Landlord (who of course is God). This time, the Landlord prepares his beautiful vineyard, but then leases it to others - called tenants - to look after.
This is a fascinating picture because it suggests to us the idea of free-will. The Landlord has prepared the ground, and given his tenants every chance to succeed... but then he leaves them to work out for themselves how they are going to live. The Landlord does not force his tenants to love him...but he does send them reminders, every now and again, of how much he loves them. The Landlord sends his servants - which we might think of as the Prophets. Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the rest. Time and time again God sends his prophets to remind the people - the tenants - of just whose Vineyard this is. But time and time again the tenants beat up and kill the prophets.
Finally, in exasperation, the Landlord sends his own son. Surely the tenants will listen to him?! But no, they seize him, kill him and thrown him out of the vineyard. They will not even listen to the Landlord's son!
And what are the consequences? Jesus spells it out starkly..."The Kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom". What Jesus' listeners couldn't know, but we do, is that only 30 or so years later, the city of Jerusalem would be completely destroyed by the Romans. The temple would be torn down...never to be rebuilt. The once mighty nation of Israel would be scattered to the four corners of the globe, for a period of nearly two thousand years - and even today its great Temple is only a pile of archaeological rubble.
And the task of bringing the Kingdom of God alive would be passed on to a new generation, a new nation. But this time, it wouldn't be nation with land to rule over...at least not for hundreds of years. This time, the new tenants of the Kingdom would be the Christ-ians...the followers of Jesus Christ. They would be a people who were bound together not by blood, nor by ownership of land - but bound together by an idea....the idea that by living out the commands of their Lord, the Kingdom of Heaven could truly be established on earth.
But this nation too would rise, and then fall. History teaches us that there was a time, a sort of Golden Age, when the Christian Church became, effectively, the greatest Empire that the world has ever seen. Based on the glories of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire, led by the Catholic Church expanded to hold sway over vast stretches of land...all over Europe, much of Africa, and even taking in the newly discovered lands of the Americas for a while, after their 'discovery'.
But even that great Empire fell. The walls of the vineyard were torn down, once the tenants stopped producing the right kind of fruit. Instead of justice, the church presided over huge injustice. The rich princes of the church and the state lived in their castles, while the poor lived in their hovels. Wars between nations demonstrated once again the fear of the stranger, and the dismantling of the ancient Kingdom notion of hospitality. Greed, consumerism, pleasure-seeking drunkeness, a falling away from worshipping God to worshipping other false idols...these were the same sort of characteristics that Isaiah and Jesus, and many other prophets, had warned Israel about.
Over and over again...the Empires of Man rise, and then fall. Epyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, the Church, the Mongol Empire, the Chinese Empire, the British Empire, the Third Reich, the Soviet Union, the USA, the European Union...to name but a few. The list is almost endless. Time and time again these Empires, these Vineyards - are established with the most noble of motives. Their initial leaders are often inspiring and charismatic people, with great hearts for their people - just think of the fine-sounding words of the Constitution of the United States. But time and time again they are brought down by the baseness of human nature. Over and over again we see the same characteristics emerge just before an Empire collapses.
Historians will argue over what those characteristics are - but I believe that there are common themes. Most Empires collapse when they become too large to manage, or when leaders become too overconfident in their status, or when resentment builds up towards the over-weaning power of the super-elite. It is greed that drives expansion...greed for more land, more resources, more money. Leaders seek more and more resources, and justice towards the original owners of such resources becomes the casualty. The people themselves seek more and more comfort and luxury, and justice towards neighbour becomes the casualty. People seek instinctively to protect what they already have, and so hospitality towards the stranger becomes a casualty. This is the way of the world. This is the pattern again and again. From Isaiah to Jesus to Us...this is the way the Vineyard of the Kingdom is built, and then destroyed...over and over and over again.
But WE do not need to be victims of this process. WE, like the tenants of Jesus' Vineyard story, are given free-will by the Landlord to decide how WE are going to live up to the challenge of the Kingdom. Are WE going to be those who ignore the prophets? Are WE going to be those who participate in the murder of the Landlord's Son? Are WE going to be those who let the base human instincts of greed and fear of the other dictate the kind of people that we are going to be?
Or are we going to be those whose witness to the World is of a God who overflows with love and generosity? Are we going to be those who, like Jesus, sit alongside the powerless and the weak - the prostitutes and junkies, the homeless and the starving, the refugee and the economic migrant? Or are we going to hold on to what we've got and protect it from anyone who might take it from us.
That's the choice we face. That's the free-will which the Landlord of the Vineyard has offered us.
I wonder which we will choose.