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A Song for the Beloved Vineyard

This week we have a love song for a vineyard and another parable about a vineyard (Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 22 [27] Matthew 21:33-46 and Isaiah 5:1-7)) and how wrong the chosen people, especially the leadership, can get it; how the beloved inhabitants of the vineyard have not produced good grapes and now their beloved home is in ruins; and of Jesus as the son of the vineyard owner. There is much to challenge and comfort us.

Firstly to context. The telling of this parable is one of the parables told in response to the question “By what authority do you do and teach these things?” and the timing of this parable is in what we may think of as Holy Week, the week when the tension mounts between the religious and secular authorities and Jesus and his message and person in the final show down. So the answer is that the authority and role of Jesus is that of the son of the vineyard owner, the one sent to the inhabitants and workers of the vineyard and who comes not with a royal army but unarmed and vulnerable and who becomes a victim not a ruler, the rock on which some will smash themselves and a community will be built.

You may also want to consider what I wrote three years ago.

Parables tend to work on many levels and have both a universal teaching and the symbolism and space that enables the teaching to work in our very own situation. Firstly we cannot get away from the criticism of the religious leaders of the chosen people who it is implied have grown wild grapes in the beloved vineyard of the Lord, and who are about to kill the son of the vineyard owner. We do need to be careful not to see this narrowly in anti-semetic ways. While the story is clearly critical of the behaviour of the tenants of the vineyard it does not suggest a withdrawal of love or relationship. This is a critique of established religion and power and we who are leaders in the church need to hear the criticism of how we have cared for, or failed to, the vineyard.

Secondly, we who gather in churches and faith communities where numbers dwindle and the average age of members grows older each year, may well feel like the vineyard in Isaiah left open to the elements and now in a state of disrepair. Is this state a judgement by God or simply that we now live with the consequences of our increasing irrelevance and lack of fruitfulness? Personally I both lament the empty pews where my neighbours could be sitting but I also look around and sadly sometimes agree with the judgement of my age that the church is reaping the harvest of wild grapes because given a word of love we have so often preached judgement and taken ghoulish glee in possible wrath; called to serve we have tried to lord it over one another and the very ones we were charged to take care of; invited to rejoice in being included as some of the lost and the least we have tried to build ourselves up as the moral majority and the status quo. Maybe a season of being left open to the elements will help us become aware of our need for change and renewal. I do not think God has abandoned us but that we are reaping the bitter harvest of our self importance and fascination with judgement rather than love.

And thirdly I think this parable can speak to the process of growth and disintegration, disrepair and renewal, a re-wilding that restores an appreciation of our belovedness despite everything! So often in the Christian spiritual life we are led to believe that the path is a clear cut onwards and upwards – a sort of misreading of Paul’s words. But Paul speaks of counting all his achievements as nothing and that he is focused on the process of growing which includes letting much die away in Christ. And this parable that echoes the imagery of the beloved vineyard in Isaiah is both a caution of consequences but also is an image of lying fallow until the time comes for regeneration. The spiritual journey requires seasons of disintegration, of dying in-situ, as part of the growing and groaning in birth. And worst case scenario – those times we do not recognise that we are working against the true son who confusingly comes as not-mighty but vulnerable, not a conqueror but a victim – then may we stumble and smash ourselves on the stone (may we die to all that is false and misplaced and mistaken) that becomes the corner stone!

While no one wants to be injured to be wounded by throwing ourselves against Christ can become a sacred wound that leads to our true healing and becoming whole. Many of us now believe things almost the opposite of what we were taught (or thought we were being taught) in the early stages of our faith. I remember as a teenager believing what I thought I was meant to believe and only as I grew in faith having the trust in my relationship with the divine to explore more courageously what I believed and learning to live with questions. Now, after fifty plus years on the faith journey, I have had many seasons of feeling like a vineyard left open to the elements as well as seasons of feeling purposeful and beloved. All of these seasons belong.

Let us take heart and be of good courage, searching and serving, hoping and healing, rejoicing and repenting, growing towards the perfection of love.

Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come meet us in the beloved vineyard.


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