Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
Rumble in the Vineyard
The Bible wasn’t written all at once and today’s readings give us a wonderful glimpse into a conversation that happened in scripture over hundreds of years and multiple generations.
There are some basic things to understand. In the Bible, wine is a symbol for joy, for celebration. So, a vineyard is where the joy grows, the place where joy is generated and shared with others. Keep that in mind as we peek into this ancient conversation.
Our oldest lesson is the Psalm, where the Psalmist is complaining that this vineyard, which represents Israel – God’s people – has been overrun by wild animals. The walls protecting the vineyard have been torn down and strangers are stealing the grapes.
There is a clear complaint that God has been negligent and a call to God to pay attention to what is going on. With this vineyard, this nation, God previously showed them favour and should rescue and defend them once again.
Historically, this was most likely written when Assyria invaded and basically destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and the people could not defend themselves, so their cry is: “Why have you forsaken us, O Lord?”.
Isaiah, 240 years later, gives an answer to this question. He says:
“Because you have been unjust, you deserved to have your walls torn down. You weren’t producing the grapes of joy and celebration; you were producing the rotten grapes of suffering and oppression. You’ve become a bad vineyard and I will restore you when you smarten up and you produce the grapes of righteousness again”
The history here is that after Isaiah wrote this the Babylonians took the southern kingdom of Judah into its 70 year captivity after which they were restored to their land and permitted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and the second temple. That would have felt like the restoration of the vineyard, Isaiah’s prophesy coming true, in the hopes that a righteous nation would prosper.
Eight centuries later we have these words in Mark’s gospel in which the vineyard itself is fine but the tenant farmers are greedy, murderous parasites who are prepared to kill the landowner’s son in hopes of stealing the vineyard. The judgement is that the landowner – God – will destroy the tenants and share the land with more worthy tenants.
In this parable, the tenants represent the leaders of God’s people. The various slaves who were beaten or killed represent the prophets who were rejected by the nation, and the son of the landowner represents Jesus himself.
Modern scholars believe that the original parable of Jesus was the stripped-down version found in the gospel of Thomas, with a single servant being beaten and the beloved son being murdered and without the details that match Isaiah and certainly without the judgement, punishment and replacement.
The original was a comment on the injustice of absentee landlords, common in Jesus’ day, and portrayed a violent rebellion of the tenant farmers. It left the hearer to wonder about the moral of the parable.
Scholars suggest that these parallels to Isaiah and the judgments were added by the early Christian church to claim a position as the legitimate successors of the faith tradition against the established Jewish leadership,
This identifies a serious issue in biblical interpretation: some bad things happened in biblical times that we need to consider critically, especially if we are tempted to claim them ourselves.
It is a fact that people were dispossessed by the Hebrews: Canaanites driven off the land in a kind of genocide. Today’s readings refer to the nations driven out so the vineyard could be planted, like it was the “good old days”. And then the Mark reading suggests that the existing tenants – the nation of Israel – would be driven out and replaced with new tenants. From the Christian perspective, that would include the many Gentiles who converted and joined the new faith, outnumbering the Jewish Christians by the time the gospels were written.
We, in Canada, ought to be particularly sensitive right now to any thinking that justifies driving people off their land and replacing them with new people. Historically we have done this with our indigenous people, declaring them to be morally unfit because they were not Christian, a clear nod to the taking of the Promised Land and this passage about clearing out the bad tenants.
More recently I’ve heard justifications from people in Canada who say the land wasn’t being used to its full potential, often from farmers critical of a native nomadic lifestyle, suggesting that they are much better stewards of the land. They are proud of the kinds of yields they produce and the number of people they feed. That kind of argument is still being used to justify the clearing of the Brazilian rainforest.
A superficial reading of this progression through the lessons could cause us to miss the core message. In the complaint in the Psalms, the people of God are unhappy because they are being invaded and they want God to fix it.
In the answer from Isaiah, we hear a typical prophetic spin on the situation: Something going wrong? Look at yourselves! Why should God rescue you if you are enjoying God’s land but not sharing the goodness with those who are weak?
At this point in our faith lives we don’t like the cause-and-effect approach that says that invasions happen because of a lack of faith. We know it’s a lot more complex than that and it would really stretch our own credulity to suggest that God sent Russia into Ukraine to teach the Ukrainians a faith lesson.
But we can’t just dismiss all of these Biblical lessons as old fashioned or irrelevant.
Isaiah’s message still resonates: with great privilege comes great responsibility.
If God has blessed us with a wonderful land, why should God help us keep that land when we hoard it and its resources selfishly, when we push others to the margins and treat them as if they are inferiors, unworthy of our care and attention?
Why should God help us keep our privileges if we start to think of them as rights, as things we deserve?
The life we have here, like the peaceful life of Judah before the Babylonian invasion is a blessing we enjoy and, like all God’s gifts, is to be shared as generously as God shares, not hoarded for the privileged few.
The prophets of the bible hammered this message home over and over.
What good is it, they would wonder, to escape slavery in Egypt just to be treated like slaves by your fellow citizens?
That vision of a just society, a place where no one is oppressed, is central to the vision of the Bible itself, not just with the exodus but all the way back to the beginning where God tells Cain that he is indeed his brother’s keeper, that he must care because the relationship of care is what God set into place right from the beginning. And the more blessings we enjoy, the more responsible we become for making sure this just society happens.
This should never be about who we can displace, whose position or resources we can exploit. This should always be about who we can help and about keeping ourselves honest as we face the challenges of life.
And more than that: we’re not just gloomy Gusses thinking about responsibilities. We are called to be the vineyard, the source of joy for everyone, even bringing joy to God. I can’t imagine a better way to do that than to share God’s generosity with those who need it most.