A sermon by Kim Fabricius
Isaiah 5:1-7. It’s known as “The Song of the Vineyard”. The prophet Isaiah, who lived and ministered in Jerusalem during the latter half of the 8th century B.C., stands at the city gates, playing the part of a minstrel who sings a ballad to the joyful crowds who are dancing their way to the Temple to celebrate the autumn vintage, that is, their Harvest Festival. He sings of a “friend” who had a vineyard. With tender loving care he did all he could to ensure a bountiful crop and an excellent wine – digging, clearing, planting the finest vines; putting a hedge around it and watching from a tower for crows and thieves; and, finally, digging a pit, a vat, all ready to tread the grapes. Alas, the grapes are withered and puny, the Beaujolais will be sour. “What’s gone wrong?” Isaiah’s friend plaintively cries. “What more could I have done?” So he vents his frustration on the vineyard itself: “I’ll turn it back into a wasteland – no hedge, no wall, no tower for protection; no hoeing, no pruning, and” – who is this guy? – “I shall make sure that next year the rains don’t come.” Now the pilgrims are edgy: has Isaiah’s mate gone mad? Like he can command the clouds! And then Isaiah delivers the punch line: his friend turns out to be God, and the vineyard is Israel itself. The song is a love song – but the love is unrequited. The Lord expected his people to yield a harvest of justice; instead, while the rich revel in conspicuous consumption – “bank robbers”, if you like, idolising the free, deregulated market, stripping assets, short-selling, whatever makes a profit – the streets are full of people begging, scrounging for food, searching for shelter – and ultimately carrying the can for the irresponsibility of the greedy. Harvest: a time of divine judgement on the affluent and powerful.
Matthew 21:33-46. We’re still in Jerusalem, but fast-forward eight centuries. Another prophet – and more than a prophet – is in the precincts of the new, re-built Temple, not singing a song, but telling a story. “There was once a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, built a tower, dug a pit …” And the people listening are thinking, “We’ve heard this one before!” Well, yes and no. For like all good storytellers, bringing a traditional tale up to date, Jesus re-imagines the plot and the characters. This landowner lets his vineyard to tenant farmers and heads off to the Costa del Sol. The crowd boo and hiss: absentee landlords, often outsiders, buying up the countryside, turfing out small farmers – they were not popular in first-century Palestine. But hang on – in the original story, doesn’t the landowner represent God? So are the tenants the good guys? And hang on again – when the landowner sends his rent-collectors, the tenants murder them; when he sends more, the tenants murder them too; and when he finally sends his own son – surely they won’t kill him too! – but they do. Who are these tenants? Well, whom is Jesus specifically addressing? Not the common folk but the chief priests and Pharisees – they are the tenants, the leaders the Lord has put in charge of his vineyard, his people Israel. It turns out that this landlord wasn’t trying to exploit the tenants, he was entrusting them with land that might produce fruit for all those whom Roman economic policy had made homeless and broke. And those rent-collectors – they are code for prophets. And the son – he, it turns out, is the storyteller himself. And chief priests and Pharisees – they get the message all right, that they will pay for their faithlessness and wickedness with their lives. They would have Jesus arrested but for fear of the crowds, the peasant-poor whose champion Jesus is. Harvest: a time of judgement on the affluent and powerful.
I don’t like Harvest Services. But it’s not because – as I know it is with some colleagues – because the worship can be nostalgic, sentimental, or simply, for city slickers, quite out of touch. I mean, what do most of us know about a contemporary harvest? How much of what we eat is local? And where do we get most of it? From Sainsbury’s or Tesco, now often bought on-line and delivered to our door. But, no, the reason I don’t like Harvest Services is because of the biblical image of the harvest – it’s an image of judgement, and judgement makes me nervous. Because – note well – in Isaiah and Matthew judgement falls on Israel, not pagans but believers, and for “Israel” read “Church”; and indeed not just on believers but on the leaders of believers, on their “chief priests”, that is, their ministers – and that means me! That’s why I don’t like Harvest Services: they tell me that God is not happy with my life and my leadership – and with good reason:
- My eyes light up at a new pair of £100 trainers – “outsourced” is the word, they’re made in southeast Asia by child slave labour, kids working in sweathouses twelve hours a day. Of course it is difficult to buy any textile that doesn’t have a sordid history behind its production, but that doesn’t let me off the hook, it rather emphasises just how inextricably trapped I am in an unjust system that benefits me while condemning millions to abject poverty.
- My church has a Commitment for Life project in partnership with Jamaica – yet when I holidayed in nearby Antigua I stayed in a posh hotel that amounted to a gated community, passing shantytown after shantytown to get there. Who knows in what conditions the staff lived or how much they earned? We left a big tip. Big deal.
- And my country – and your country – western governments – have once again reneged on promises and betrayed the south: in August trade talks collapsed in Geneva, with developing countries still being offered nothing that would correct the unjust rules of international trade. On the one hand, we subsidise our farmers and over-tax food imports. On the other hand, we insist that indebted nations grow food for export for my well-fed face, and even when the prices are good, it’s the transnational corporations that reap most of the profits. Thank God for Fairtrade, and for more and more people buying Fairtrade goods – last year the volume was more than double the year before. But then the question becomes: Why can’t all trade be fair trade? For isn’t the opposite of fair trade unfair trade? And isn’t unfair trade a sin?
But for one thing. Though it’s probably down to Matthew rather than Jesus, the first evangelist incorporates into the parable one of the early church’s favourite Old Testament proof-texts for the resurrection, from Psalm 118 (vv. 22-23):
The stone which the builders rejected as worthless
turned out to be the most important of all.
This was done by the Lord;
what a wonderful sight it is!
So the word of warning, the message of judgement, it contains at its heart a promise: the vineyard owner’s slain son, death cannot hold him and he returns, not reaping revenge, but heaping forgiveness on his deniers and betrayers, who in turn are called (in the words of the hymn) to “Take seeds of his Spirit, [and] let the fruit grow.”
I still don’t like Harvest Services. I feel like mugwort reacting to weed killer. But then when the gospel strikes, the first reaction of a sinner is always recoil. But deep down I know that the project of our gracious gardener is not just a weeding but a feeding, that we may all bear a rich harvest and good fruit. So why be a sour grape? He who is the Living Bread and the True Vine – even now he invites us to his table.