Westminster Abbey
The Vineyard and the Farms...
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16 April 2001

The Revd Dr N.T. Wright, Canon Thelogian

a sermon for Palm Sunday 2001

Dr N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian

Psalm 80; Isaiah 5.1-7; Matthew 21.33-46

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 country.

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.

Jesus ends 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 anything about.

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, ourselves included.

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.