The Revd Dr N.T. Wright, Canon Thelogian
For us, in northern Europe, the very word 'vineyard' has a romantic glow.
It breathes the air of mildly exotic holidays, of sunny evenings sampling
the local produce, of an apparently leisured and gracious way of life.
We bring back bottles not only to entertain our guests but tactfully to
show off our intimate knowledge of seculded corners of France or Italy.
It all seems a long way from the hard business of agriculture in our own
But of course in Israel, in the days of Isaiah and
of Jesus, and today, vineyards are simply working farms where people are
gaining a living from the soil. Everybody likes the result; but the farmers
are under no illusions about how much effort it takes to get it right, or
how easy it is to get it wrong. And, like every other aspect of land, vineyards
in the Bible quickly and easily got muddled up with power and prestige.
When Jesus came to Jerusalem, that first Palm Sunday, he stood power and
prestige on their heads. They gave him a hero's welcome, and he responded
with tears. They waved and shouted and sang songs, and he went into the
Temple and created havoc. They thought all the Bible stories were coming
true at last; Jesus agreed, but the stories he had particularly in mind
were the dark ones, the strange ones, the songs of lament.
So he told
them a story of his own, a clear echo of a well-known prophetic poem. We
had both read as our two lessons this evening, along with the psalm which
carries the same tragic theme. They are the songs and the stories of the
vineyard: the vineyard of the Lord, which is Israel and Jerusalem, the vineyard
that should have produced grapes, but instead produced wild grapes. Isaiah's
poem ends graphically: God came to the vineyard looking for justice, but
instead found bloodshed; for righteousness, but instead heard cries of distress.
In the Hebrew this is a vivid pun: God came looking for mishpat, and instead
found mispach; for tsedaqah, but instead heard tse'aqah. We can't quite
catch that in English, but you get the flavour of it if we say that God
looked for justice, but it was just a joke; for righteousness, and instead
got a load of rubbish. Isaiah's song was designed to explain why God could
no longer withhold judgment from his own people; they were greedy and proud,
experts in food and drink but ignorant of God and his ways. So the vineyard
would be left to go wild, to reap the results of its own chosen way.
And this is the song that Jesus picks up and develops on Palm Sunday, to
explain why it is that God can no longer withhold judgment from the Israel
of his day. This time, though, there is a new twist to the story. It isn't
just that God has come to the vineyard looking for grapes. He has sent messengers
to get them, and they've been ignored, ill-treated, stoned and even killed.
So finally he sends his own son, supposing that they will respect him. Jesus,
as so often, is telling the story of Israel and showing that it has come
to its head, its true climax, in him and his work: he is the last great
prophet, coming to the vineyard on the owner's behalf to persuade the tenant
farmers to give him his due, but he is also the owner's own son, the heir
to the estate. And they throw him out and kill him. Jesus on Palm Sunday
was under no illusions as to where the story would end, or what it all meant.
Nor were his hearers; whereas with some of the earlier parables Jesus leaves
them to puzzle things out, and sometimes needs to supply extra interpretations
to his own followers, this time everybody knows what he's saying. So the
parable becomes part of the means of its own fulfilment; the chief priests
and Pharisees want to do away with him all the more, because they have decoded
the story and realise that Jesus has cast them as the wicked tenant farmers,
and himself as the son. Like most of Jesus' parables, the story doesn't
just convey information; it does something, it creates a new situation,
it brings about the situation which, in code, it describes.
his story with a question: what then will the vineyard owner do? And his
audience know the answer: he will come and take the vineyard away from the
present tenants, and give it to others. Jesus' own comment on this summons
up other ancient Jewish stories of judgment and mercy: the stone the builders
refused has become the chief corner-stone. The story thus takes its place
as part of Matthew's Palm Sunday scenario, preparing us not only for Jesus'
death, but for God's cataclysmic action in the subsequent vindication of
Jesus on the one hand and the fall of Jerusalem on the other. Jerusalem,
represented by the priests and Pharisees, has not simply been arrogant and
exclusivist, as tonight's television programme will imply; Jerusalem has
refused the way of peace which Jesus was holding out, the way of being the
light of God's world, the kingdom-way. When judgment comes, in the form
of the wrath of the Roman Empire, it will be the direct result of what the
Jewish leaders and opinion-formers had chosen: those who will not have the
vineyard owner as their king will have the princes of this world, and they
exact a heavy price.
What stories must Jesus' followers tell to today's
world? How can we in turn be Palm Sunday people? To begin with, of course,
we must ourselves stand there in the Temple on that first Palm Sunday, and
walk once more the way of the cross through this Holy Week now beginning,
so that we are again attuned in heart and mind to the greatest drama ever
staged, the story where God and the human race reach the climax of their
stormy relationship in the person of the one who was both divine and human.
But we who live on the further side of Calvary and Easter have more to do
than simply to find our own place in that drama, vital though that is. We
too have a story to tell. We too have a message to bring.
As God gave
Israel the task of being the light of the world, so God gave the human race
as a whole the task of looking after the world. 'Be fruitful and multiply,'
said God to his first tenant farmers, 'fill the earth and be my stewards
over it.' The story of the vineyard, in Isaiah and the gospels, is simply
the focal point of that larger story, the story of humankind and the earth.
And in that story, too, rumour has it that the tenant farmers have not done
such a good job. God looked for stewardship, but instead found selfishness;
for responsibility, but instead found reprehensibility.
We know it's
true. The people charged with taking care of God's world have used it to
take care of themselves. The people who know in their bones that there is
such a thing as justice and fairness - that is, the human race, made in
God's image - have twisted it so it serves their own ends. Those who know
in their heart of hearts that there is such a thing as truth, and that it
matters, have spun it the way they want it and haven't cared who gets hurt.
And all this is true both in the major tyrannies of our time, tyrannies
of East and West, and North and South, and in the smaller but still significant
affairs of our national and personal lives. When the farmer sends his messengers
to get the fruit from the vineyard - whether we call them prophets or teachers,
preachers or moralists, doesn't much matter - they still get the same treatment.
And when, this week, the church tells the story of how the farmer sent his
own son, the world looks on with interest; Palm Sunday and Good Friday make
a fine tourist attraction, worth taking photographs of; but not worth doing
And yet we of all people know, this Lent, that our stewardship
of creation has been deeply flawed. The jury is still out on how precisely
our own vineyard - our farms, our livestock industry, our crops and fields
- have got into the state they are in. It's no good simply pointing the
finger at one insanitary farm or one dollop of infected pigswill. Farming
methods as a whole are called deeply into question. And if we ask why farmers
have cut corners, they themselves would quickly respond that they have been
so squeezed and harried by political changes, by regulations imposed from
elsewhere, by people in cities and suburbs who didn't understand how things
worked, that they have had no choice. We needn't, I think, worry about where
exactly the blame belongs; there's quite enough of it to go round everybody,
But in our contemporary world, and even in the churches,
the voice of prophecy has become silent, or merely silly. Some have suggested
that the foot-and-mouth epidemic is God's punishment for specific sins;
an ultra-Protestant sect declared it was because the Queen visited the Pope
not long ago; a sensitive soul wrote to me to say it was because of blasphemy
in a particular movie. The trouble is that caricatures like that make us
shy away from facing the fact that we humans are called to be stewards of
God's creation and that when we fail, as we obviously have been failing
for quite some time (with half the world hungry and the other half over-fed),
it isn't the case that God is sitting upstairs a long way away deciding
to zap us with some arbitrary punishment, but that, as with Israel in Isaiah's
and Jesus' day, we will reap the consequences of our own selfish and arrogant
choices, and that when we do this is not something other than the sorrowful
wrath of our loving God. If we are to do joined-up thinking in our political
life - and the present crisis has shown how far we still have to go on that
front - it is vital and urgent that part of the joining-up is the theological
dimension of all reality.
It isn't simply that as a society we have turned
away from God and are reaping the results; we have and we haven't, and we
must avoid simplistic analyses. But just because some may oversimplify the
issues that doesn't mean there's nothing to say; and today, when in the
Palm Sunday readings we find the farmer's son coming to face the tenants,
we cannot remain silent. The God who grieves at the fall of a sparrow certainly
grieves over the death of a sheep, a pig or a cow; and he grieves still
more over the failure of his image-bearing creatures to be what he has called
them, stewards of his wonderful world. So the Palm Sunday Jesus comes to
the farm where sanitatary corners have been cut for a quick profit; he comes
to the Farmers' Union which hasn't enforced standards; he comes to the Ministry
of Agriculture where they hadn't learnt from the last epidemic; he comes
to Parliament that was looking the other way; he comes to all of us who
like our food cheap in the shops and don't ask questions about how they
do it; and he turns over our tables, shocks us with sudden action, stuns
us into realising what's been going on.
And the question is, what will
we do? What is he asking of us? The former Bishop of Durham said, in a letter
to the Times, that we should declare a time of secular repentance. I know
what he meant, I think; this thing has got too big for a merely religious
approach, focussing on our personal sins. We've got to look wider. But frankly
the whole division between sacred and secular, between church and farm,
between prayer and work, is part of the problem. This Holy Week, we can
make a start. We who are here, who have heard Jesus' solemn story of the
vineyard, can use our coming days of meditation on the way of the Cross
not least to repent before God, on behalf of our wider society and world,
for all the ways in which we have twisted stewardship into selfishness,
justice into bloodshed, righteousness into cries of distress. And as we
meditate on the 'Sacred Head, surrounded with crown of piercing thorn,'
we might reflect on those thorns as symbols of a countryside itself in pain.
So as we live through Holy Week and arrive at Calvary, then to wait in silence
and darkness for the first light of Easter Day, we should pray that out
of our present sorrows and crises will come new hope and light; not that
we may go back to the old ways as though nothing had really happened, but
as people who have heard the prophetic word from the lips of the Son of
God, and, this time, have decided to pay attention to it.