‘Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard.”
The people who first heard the prophet Isaiah’s words probably thought they knew what they were in for. It was the classic way to begin a romantic folk song, and it sounded as if it was going to be a good one, a tale of romance, of passion, of good wine and sweet juicy grapes. The vineyard isn’t just a vineyard here. It is a symbol of a relationship.
It started off well. He had a ‘vineyard on a very fertile hill. 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.’ This was a vineyard that had everything going for it; a good position and a caring, hard-working owner who didn’t stint on the preparations. There was nothing hasty or slapdash about what he did. He planted the best vines. He protected his vineyard.
But despite all the careful preparation, all the love that had been poured into this vineyard, all the hope of its owner, everything went wrong.
‘I expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes’ It reminds me a bit of the English folk song ‘The water is wide’ - ‘I leaned my back up against a tree/ thinking it was a trusty oak/ but first it bent and then it broke/ and so did my false love to me.’ Different plant; same sense of bitter disappointment.
In Isaiah’s prophecy things go very rapidly downhill. There is nothing for it but to leave the vineyard to decay. The walls are broken down. It’s overrun by weeds. Even the rain won’t fall on it; it will soon become a desert.
By this stage, Isaiah’s hearers are probably starting to get the message. This isn’t some folk ballad about a human love story that’s gone wrong. It is a picture of God’s love affair with his people Israel. They are the vine. He’d planted them in a rich and productive land after their long slavery in Egypt. He’d given them everything they needed to thrive and bear good fruit, but they’d refused to live in the way he’d shown them. ‘He expected justice, but he saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’
Isaiah was writing just as calamity was falling on Jerusalem. The Babylonian armies were breaking down its walls. Like the vineyard in the prophecy it would soon be overrun, and left to rot and ruin. ‘Why is this happening?’ said the people. ‘Here’s your answer,’ says Isaiah. God had done his bit, but they’d never really lived as citizens of his kingdom, never really lived out the life he called them to, a life of justice and peace. The nation had brought this disaster on itself.
Six hundred years later, Jesus launched into a story about a vineyard. He was standing in the Temple talking to the chief priests and elders. They’d have been very familiar with the imagery. Israel was often pictured as a vine or a vineyard in the Hebrew Scriptures – we heard it in today’s Psalm too. They would have known Isaiah’s prophecy well – he was the most popular prophet at this time. They may have quoted the passage we heard to people themselves as a terrible warning. ‘Look what happens when people ignore God’s rules’ they might have said, wagging their fingers at the sinners around them, the tax collectors and prostitutes, those who were down on their luck, beyond the pale, condemned by respectable society.
So when they hear Jesus talking about vines and vineyards, they wouldn’t have been surprised, but they would have been suspicious. Where is he going with this story? They have good reason to worry. A few days earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, acclaimed by the crowds, in a demonstration that had put the wind up the settled elites. To make matters worse, he had just told this crowd of religious professionals that tax- collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of Heaven before they did. And as this story unfolds , it gradually dawns on them that they aren’t the heroes in it; they are the villains, the ones who withhold the vineyard’s produce from its rightful owner. Unlike Isaiah’s vineyard, this one is fruitful, but the refuse to give the landlord his property. He sends his messengers – the prophets – to try to set them straight, but they won’t listen, and even stone them. Finally, says the story, he sends his son, but him they kill.
Why do they kill him? How can they behave this way? Well, perhaps there is a clue in the way that landlord and tenants describe this final attempt to claim that grape harvest. Look at how the story describes this final man who is sent to them. ‘Finally’ it says, ‘he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.”’
To the vineyard owner, this man is a son, a person whose birth he greeted with joy, who he’d seen grow up, who he’d nurtured and loved, who he had hopes and dreams for. His heart is tied to him. He’s proud and happy when things go well for him, weeps when he is hurt. That is what it is like to have a son.
But the tenants don’t see him as the landlord’s son, even though they know he is. They see him solely as the heir – that’s the word they use for him. Heir. That’s a word that’s simply about inheritance, money, what is coming to you. He’s not a person to them, he’s just an obstacle between them and the land they want for themselves. Calling him the “heir” dehumanises him - treats him as no more than an economic unit. They have to dehumanise him in order to kill him. To them he is no one’s son, no one’s brother, no one’s husband or friend; they deny him his personhood, so that they can get rid of him as they might a piece of rubbish.
That’s the way these chief priests and elders will treat Jesus – he will be crucified within the week. He can see it’s going to happen because it’s also the way he has seen them treat others, making rules which exclude and demonise people without, as he says elsewhere, “lifting a finger to help them”. They have pushed away those who they judged to be unworthy, the poor, the disabled, widows, orphans, those whose lives have taken a wrong turning. They have behaved as if God’s kingdom is theirs to control, as if they’re the ones who can say who is in and who is out of God’s favour. They have put themselves at the centre, secure within the borders of their self-defined world. In the end, though, as Jesus starkly warns, this will backfire. Their greed and self-protectiveness will bring disaster not just on them, but on those around them too.
The world is not their oyster. It is God’s kingdom. It is not theirs to own and to rule, to declare who can come in and who must stay out. It is God’s. No wonder they start to feel so uncomfortable.
But perhaps it should make us uncomfortable too. We don’t have to be a first century chief priests to feel like we are – or ought to be – the centre of our universes, to behave as if we’re entitled to treat others as less than human, less worthy of attention and care. We all do it some of the time.
At its extreme, it produces the sense of entitlement which enables people to massacre others, to take away their lives, as we saw in Las Vegas earlier this week. But in smaller ways, at work, at home, in our communities and in our churches, we can all turn into little empire builders, jealously protecting our turf, clinging onto what we think is ours, elbowing aside anyone who is inconvenient to us. We don’t usually do it out of calculated wickedness, but because we feel insecure. If we don’t look out for number one, who will? But in doing so we reveal our underlying suspicion that we’re really on our own in the world. We may claim to believe that God loves us, that he’s there for us, but do we live like it? If we did, we wouldn’t need to scrabble for a place in the pecking order of the world, because we’d know we already have the safest place possible, a place in the heart of God. We wouldn’t need to dehumanise others or push them down in order to push ourselves up. We wouldn’t need to cling to possessions, because we’d know that we were securely possessed by God, held in his hands. We’d know, like St Paul that Christ Jesus had “made us his own”.
Jesus’ parable is, like most of his parables, is, at its heart, about the kingdom of God, about what it means to live as God’s people. God’s kingdom will be given, says Jesus, to those who produce its fruits, the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. That doesn’t mean it’s some sort of heavenly reward in the distant hereafter for good behaviour now. The point he is making is that the Kingdom of God comes into being as we live it, where we live it. Like the vine he likens it to, God’s kingdom grows organically, naturally. As we love others, a new bud of that Kingdom vine pushes out from the wood. As we act with integrity, a leaf unfurls. As we build community in the places we are the fruit of the kingdom ripens, bringing joy and refreshment to all around. But we can only enjoy that kingdom, only fully participate in it, when we realise whose kingdom it is, whose vineyard, whose vine. It’s not ours. We don’t make it with our anxious labour. We can’t possess it or control it. We don’t have to patrol its borders or protect it by our unremitting vigilance. It is God’s Kingdom, God’s vine, God’s vineyard. He lovingly grows it in our midst, if we will let him, generously gives it to us so that we can generously share its abundance with all who want its life.