Evensong 9th April 2017
Killing the Son, Claiming the Vineyard
Jesus has form with the prophet Isaiah. In Luke’s Gospel it is Isaiah he reads in his home synagogue and tells them plainly that the prophecy is about him. Here in Matthew the description of the making of the vineyard are almost word for word the same as the Greek version of Isaiah 5 which Matthew would have known. Mark and Luke have versions of this too: it would have been impossible for someone schooled in the Hebrew Scriptures not to hear the resonances and echoes. Jesus knew his scriptures. In Isaiah the story doesn’t end well, though it is the whole vineyard which is destroyed because of unfaithfulness, prefiguring the destruction of the two kingdoms of Israel by foreign powers six centuries before, the resultant exile, and the return seventy years later. I can imagine the Pharisees hearing Jesus and wondering where his story was going. Surely, they will have thought, all right, but we learned our lesson. Are you saying we are going to be destroyed again? What for?
Jesus also has form about using a story to challenge the vested interests of his listeners. At the end of this story the Pharisees and the chief priests – rarely the good guys in the Gospels – know that ‘he was speaking about them’. Jesus takes the vineyard allegory away from the unfaithfulness of the whole nation, and focusses on the inability of the nation’s guardians to recognise the work of God. Just as in Isaiah’s day the prophets were listened to but not heard, so now the people of Israel, and specifically the scribes, elders, Pharisees and priests could not acknowledge what was right in front of their eyes. Salvation and rescue was not now to be found in a restored geographical kingdom but in the presence among them of God with skin on. And that they could not receive.
The parable, as it is now recorded, makes this refusal the result of the self-interest of the tenants of the vineyard – in the allegory the scribes and Pharisees. Rather than just not getting it, they are pictured in the parable as actually recognising the son and acting because they know exactly that. They think: if we get him, neutralise him, obliterate him, we won’t have to bother with what the owner of the vineyard – Matthew uses ‘landowner’ of God in other contexts too – will want from us. We can have it for ourselves. Jesus tells the parable to let his hearers know beyond doubt who he claims to be, and who he wants them to know he is. If they hadn’t quite acknowledged this to themselves before, there was no choice now. This was not a challenge to what they believed, because they were looking for the Messiah. It was a challenge to how they believed. What kind of Messiah were they looking for, and how much were they prepared to change?
We, of course, are hearing the narrative of the unjust killing of an only son and heir as the prelude to the week in which we make remembrance of the torture and execution of the only Son of God. Much of the scholarly speculation about how this parable was first told and heard relates to its reinterpretation and retelling by the early church after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Matthew, for instance, emphasises the detail that the son is killed outside the vineyard, just as Jesus was killed outside the city. It is in the way of stories, and certainly in the way of Jesus, to do more than one thing at a time, speak to more than one group at a time about more than the ostensible subject of the story. This is therefore about everyone else who hears the story: the twelve and the disciples, the Gospel writers, the early church, and the people of Hampstead in April 2017.
It is not as if the twelve and the wider body of disciples could be guaranteed to get it the first time. Again and again Jesus tells them plainly that he will suffer, die, and be raised, yet it is only well after the resurrection that it makes any sense to them at all, and even then its full significance would take a whole lifetime to sink in. The Gospels are wonderfully honest about this. The disciples depict themselves as hearing but not listening, observing but not seeing, participating but not engaging, challenged but not responding. In doing so they offer that challenge to us – to hear and listen, observe and see, participate and engage, be challenged and respond.
The challenge to the Pharisees was that they had all the evidence they needed but, for whatever reason, would not act upon it. Matthew says that they, at this stage, only wanted Jesus arrested. This set in train for what was prophesied in the parable. An initial wrong choice led to unintended consequences. Be careful, says Jesus, how you listen. Here is depicted a rigidity of practice which not only disapproves of the new but so fears it that it must destroy it.
The challenge to the disciples was to recognise how they too failed to recognise Jesus, even when he spoke plainly to them. They were humble enough to relate their unbelief and inability to learn by telling of it in the Gospels. The temptation would surely have been to sanitise their role and claim authority as a result. Far from it: they are at pains to point out how even they failed to listen, see, engage and respond. They tell us that faithful discipleship is about making a lot of mistakes, but learning from them. They encourage us to open our eyes, ears, hands and hearts to recognise what is right in front of us.
What then is the challenge to us, as hearers of the story two thousand years on, in a church full of its own history and stories? How might we reflect on what has been learnt here, and what we might learn? How does the telling of the story of the death of the beloved Son of God change us, even though it might be familiar territory? The Pharisees could not receive the message because they feared for their way of believing. The disciples only received the message after it was proved to them at the resurrection. How will we receive the death of the Son? May we be those who say ‘this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes’. Amen.