My sermon at St John’s for this week – the 17th Sunday after Trinity and Proper 22.
One of the most popular programmes on British television has just returned this week for its thirteenth series. Yes – The Apprentice is back.
And, I’m sorry, I know some people love it but I just don’t get it. For me it sums up so much of what is wrong with society. It celebrates attitudes that I find deeply distasteful. It’s a programme where individuals spend their time promoting themselves over others in their bid to get Lord Sugar’s approval and money – to the point where as is well known Lord Sugar points his finger at each person in turn to say “You’re fired”. It’s a programme that is about self-promotion and rejection of other people. I find it profoundly uncomfortable. It may be hugely popular – but it’s essentially about people looking out for themselves and it’s about aggressive rejection of other people because they don’t fit.
Today we hear a parable from Jesus – a parable about people looking out for themselves and a parable about rejection of other people. Jesus tells a parable about a vineyard. A landowner has built his vineyard, planted it, and then leased it to some tenants and gone away. This was actually a common occurrence at the time all across the Roman Empire outside Italy – and the expectation was that the tenants who looked after the vineyard would, at harvest-time, take a fixed percentage before passing on all the rest to the landowner.
So – what does the parable mean? Well – while on the surface it seems reasonably clear it is, in fact, and always has been, a parable that deals with the difficult issues of people who are looking out for themselves and people who reject others.
But this is one of those parables that can be seen at two levels. What do I mean by that? Well, all Scripture, of course, must be dealt with at two levels. There is the original context, the original setting, for any particular passage – what it meant originally to those who first heard it. But we also have to consider the contemporary meaning, what is God saying to us through it now?
Take the parable we have heard this morning. It seems straightforward enough. There is the original context in which Jesus told this parable, during his last week before his arrest and trial and crucifixion. But we also need to think about how this parable took on another meaning later on, for the Church during its history has always seen in this particular parable an important and very contemporary message. And it seems very clear to me that it poses two important questions for us:
One, who is in charge? Whose vineyard is it? And two, how do we welcome them or – more specifically – those whom they send to us as their representatives?
Let’s begin with how it was first understood by those to whom Jesus was speaking. Jesus is telling the parable within a particular context – and its message was not lost upon those to whom it is directed. Jesus is speaking, as Matthew has told us, to the chief priests and the elders of the people – and he has told them, just before today’s gospel reading, that the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of them.. And then he tells them this parable.
The setting of the parable is quite deliberate. Jesus is referring back to the prophet Isaiah, to the passage we heard in our Old Testament reading this morning, where the prophet identifies Israel as “the vineyard of the Lord of hosts” and predicts judgement for Israel’s failure to yield good grapes. The Jewish leaders cannot fail to get the allusion – they know exactly what Jesus means by the vineyard, they know Jesus is getting at them – but in any case Jesus, to make sure they get the point, goes on to tell the story of three delegations from the landowner, each of which are rejected by the tenants. The landowner – God – sends two delegations to collect what he is due. And the tenants beat them, kill them or stone them. And then he sends his son whom they put to death. Note that Jesus doesn’t identify himself with the son – that is something that has been read into this passage by Christians subsequently. But the result is – as the chief priests and elders realise when Jesus asks them – that the wicked tenants are put to death and the vineyard is given to other tenants who will hand over the produce at harvest time.
The chief priests and elders also realise that the parable is directed at them, and as we see by the end of our gospel reading, they want to arrest Jesus.
But I said earlier that this parable can be seen at two levels. While it was clearly originally told by Jesus as part of his teaching against the religious leaders of his day, as with all Scripture it is also something through which God speaks to his people the Church.
And in this context it takes on new meaning – as I said earlier it has long been seen as a parable that has a contemporary significance for the Church. For in this new interpretation the vineyard is no longer seen as God’s people Israel but as God’s people the Church. And the son sent by the landowner is now clearly identified as Jesus. It becomes a warning not to the chief priests and the elders of Israel, but a warning to Christians and Christian leaders to continually recognise that the Church is not theirs but God’s, and a warning to people not to reject those whom God sends including God himself in the person of his Son.
And this brings us to the first of the two questions that I mentioned earlier – who is in charge? Well – clearly it’s God, identified as the landowner. At the heart of this parable, as we have seen, is the issue of the people of Israel, but especially the chief priests and elders, rejecting God. But it continues to speak to us of the issue of rejection, for the same problem of rejecting God takes many forms today. Membership in all Christian denominations in the West is in decline as more and more people reject God because he simply does not seem to be relevant to them. People do not seem to want Jesus or the Church, the Bible, regular worship, or any form of Christian discipleship or service. And so God is rejected as people turn their backs on him. For most people, the reality is that they do not see God as being in charge – and whether they don’t believe in him at all or whether they think he might exist, he is irrelevant.
But if we accept that God is in charge then there is the second question to deal with as well – how do we welcome his representatives? And who are they, anyway?
For another way in which people can reject God is by rejecting God’s people – just as the wicked tenants in the vineyard rejected the people that God, the landowner, sent to them. They knew who the vineyard belonged to. But they rejected those whom the landowner sent to them. They rejected his representatives violently.
Human beings are capable of doing terrible things to other people who are classed as being different. We have seen in history the evils of slavery, of the Holocaust, of apartheid, of ethnic cleansing. And we still see today appalling treatment of those who are seen to be different – most recently in the dreadful treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, but also in other places around the world. And even those who accept that God is in charge can then reject others for all kinds of reasons.
Too often people forget that everyone is made in God’s image, and that we must learn to see God in everyone we meet. Even in our own country, there can be an illusion of tolerance and acceptance, for too many people are rejected or discriminated against in some way because they are different from others – because of their wealth or their lack of wealth, their gender, their physical ability, their race, their sexuality, or even simply their age. That rejection, that discrimination, may be conscious. It may be subconscious, but it is still wrong. Discrimination against other people may be the way of the world, but it is not the way of the kingdom where we welcome everyone as someone created in God’s image.
So what do we, as God’s people today, here and now, take away from this parable?
Well, we need to take note of the words of Jesus to the chief priests and elders after he has told the parable. He quotes scripture to them about the stone that the builders have rejected becoming the cornerstone. And then he gives his warning: the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. We are called to be a part of a building that has Jesus Christ as its foundation. And just as the vineyard in the parable was planted in order to produce fruit for the landowner, so we are there to produce fruit for Jesus, the fruits of the kingdom. The kingdom of God has been given to us for this purpose.
I’ve said that the Church has always seen in this parable a contemporary significance. Just as Jesus warned the chief priests and the elders that because of their lack of fruit the vineyard would be taken away from them and given to others, so he is seen as warning the Church that it too must always bear the fruits of the kingdom.
The wicked tenants refused to recognise the sovereignty of the landowner, and rejected those who were sent to them. So the vineyard was taken from them. We bear the fruits of the kingdom by always remembering that the Church is God’s Church, not our Church. We recognise his sovereignty. And we never reject people, but reach out and welcome all, for we recognise that every person is created in God’s image, every person who walks in through our door – ourselves included – is someone that God has brought here.
Let us be God’s good tenants, giving him the fruit of the harvest, and welcoming all whom he sends.