The vineyards of the Lord - St Bride's: Reflection

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The vineyards of the Lord

Isaiah 5:1-7 and Matthew 21:33-43

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Now will I sing to my wellbeloved a song of my beloved touching his vineyard. My wellbeloved hath a vineyard in a very fruitful hill:

And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein: and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem, and men of Judah, judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard.

What could have been done more to my vineyard, that I have not done in it? wherefore, when I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?

And now go to; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down:

And I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned, nor digged; but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.

33 Hear another parable: There was a certain householder, which planted a vineyard, and hedged it round about, and digged a winepress in it, and built a tower, and let it out to husbandmen, and went into a far country:

34 And when the time of the fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the husbandmen, that they might receive the fruits of it.

35 And the husbandmen took his servants, and beat one, and killed another, and stoned another.

36 Again, he sent other servants more than the first: and they did unto them likewise.

37 But last of all he sent unto them his son, saying, They will reverence my son.

38 But when the husbandmen saw the son, they said among themselves, This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and let us seize on his inheritance.

39 And they caught him, and cast him out of the vineyard, and slew him.

40 When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?

41 They say unto him, He will miserably destroy those wicked men, and will let out his vineyard unto other husbandmen, which shall render him the fruits in their seasons.

42 Jesus saith unto them, Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?

43 Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.

The vineyards of the Lord
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The vine and the vineyard have a profound significance in our religious tradition, and they are found in both the old and the new testaments. Today both the first reading and the Gospel reading have this theme.

In the passage from Isaiah, Israel is described as a vineyard, planted and tended by the Lord with devoted care. And yet in spite of this friendly environment the vines produce nothing but wild grapes. The vineyard will be uprooted as a punishment and returned to grazing land, for instead of fair judgement there was injustice, instead of righteousness, cries of distress.

Soon after the prophet had spoken these words the Assyrians attacked and defeated the Israelites. It's a compelling image.

So angry was God at the apathy of his people, and at their failure to produce the fruits for which he had prepared the ground, that he took away the potential. That in itself is an important warning for all who profess faith in the God of Israel.

He is a generous God, but expects much in response.

Failure to perceive, failure to respond, means that even the potential for growth and fruiting is removed, and the promised land soon becomes a wilderness. The gospel writer quite clearly sees Jesus as using this image.

The tenants are the people of Israel, God the landowner.
The servants who are sent to collect the produce are the prophets.
The landowner's son is Jesus, who is killed by the tenants.
The original occupiers are ejected from the vineyard, and the task of producing the wine of the kingdom is given to someone else, gentiles in this case.

The chief priests and the scribes would have liked to arrest him there and then, but they were afraid of the crowds, who were very much on his side. There are some serious lessons for us in this reading.

Christians who belong to the mainstream churches, with the inheritance of faith, worship and common life, have an awesome responsibility. We have to pass on the received truths of the faith to each succeeding generation, and it is through our common life that people are going to get a glimpse of the authentic face of christianity.

What do people see when they look at the Church? What do they see when they look at this christian community? Fair judgement? Righteousness?

We can't survive as the successors in any recognisable sense either of the jewish people or of the early christians unless we are a community of faith, hope and love. One into which we can confidently welcome these two children today. A community humbly grateful for the bounty and love of God. A community with a burning desire to share faith, hope and love with the people we meet, and with the people who live in our neighbourhood.

We are called here and now to communal life within the body of God's only Son, to be his body in the world, and in him to worship the Father. That life entails taking seriously the value and needs of every human creature, and the defence of others when their lives and wellbeing are threathened by injustice and oppression.

That God has approached a people in love and affirmed that love through the incarnation is the most important truth of the faith.
That God constantly reaffirms that love and pours it out through the sacraments is the reason for our continued existence as a community.

To respond to that is more important than any moral crusade, more necessary than any search for righteousness.

If we are going to be the Church in a way that makes sense, then we have to put first the things that mark us out distinctively as christians. Above all we have to place great value on the kingdom, for it is only when God rules in the hearts and lives of all that his kingdom of love and peace will finally be established. Though we can have glimpses of it now, especially through the life of the Church, its consummation hasn't yet arrived.

How do we value this kingdom?

There is another and more primitive interpretation of the parable in today's Gospel reading. Shorn of all the allegory placed on it later by the Church, the story is very similar to the parables of the pearl and the treasure hidden in the field, which are found in Matthew's Gospel.

In both those cases the people concerned recognised that what they had found was beyond all price and they sold all they had to buy the pearl or the field with the treasure in it.Here, life in the vineyard is good. There is a good crop of grapes. The tenants don't want to give any of it up. They will stop at nothing to keep the vineyard and its proceeds.

When the landowner sends his servants the tenants thrash one, kill another and stone a third. Even when the landlord sends his precious son they have no respect for him. They throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. Nothing is more important to these people than staying in the vineyard. They are even prepared to kill to stay there.

The pearl of great price, the treasure.

Here a surprising lesson comes out of a story of utterly discreditable human behaviour. How resolute can we be in laying hold of the kingdom?

If we are going to take this seriously, then our christian profession will have to be the heart and centre of our lives. It will have to determine how we spend our time and our money, and we shall have to put the needs and the life of the christian community even before our families.

Of course, it is the most difficult thing for us, for we are pulled in very many directions, and we can hardly ever be totally single-minded about anything, let alone our religion. But there is a vision for us of the total demands of the kingdom and it must illuminate all that we do. Otherwise our christianity could degenerate into concern for human wellbeing and very little else.

God created us, redeems us and sustains us. Nothing, not even death, can separate us from God's love. These are the most important facts of our existence.

God wants us to respond, and wants the whole of creation to be subject to his gentle rule of love. It can begin here, for the Church hints at the life of the kingdom - the kingdom so precious that Jesus shocks his detractors and his followers by the story he tells.
So in another real sense we are the tenants.

We easily accept that we have the task of proclaiming the kingdom in the world. Are we enthusiastic enough to live in the kingdom with the tenacity of those other tenants?

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