3rd April 2023

Vineyard Woes 

Vineyard Woes 

Canon, Edward Probert, Chancellor’s sermon read at the Choral Evensong on Palm Sunday 2nd April 2023.

(Isaiah 5.1-7; Matthew 21.33-end)

To cultivate is to engage in a long-term and laborious activity. It usually involves a range of sometimes hard physical tasks, the application of a body of knowledge, the commitment of time, and often of money, and always a measure of faith and hope. Faith, when you plant seeds in spring, that they will come up, and also that they won’t be hoovered up by passing slugs or pigeons before the plants properly get going; hope that adverse weather (frosts or drought) won’t then damage the plants or their produce, that the attractions of flowers and forms can be enjoyed, that produce can be harvested and, when wanted, actually consumed. A lot of this work and care, even in the best cultivated plots, is ultimately wasted and fruitless. Therefore anyone who has grown things is familiar with disappointment. 

For many farmers and gardeners, cultivation isn’t just born out of faith and hope, but also – to complete St Paul’s triplet – it’s an act of love. These processes can come from, and speak to, places deep within. Hence the failures and losses in any season can be heartbreaking. 

Isaiah’s ‘love-song concerning his vineyard’ is no far-fetched analogy for the relationship between God and his covenant people of Israel and Judah. All that love and effort and care, and what did he get in return? Bitter fruits; it was all wasted; and the vine grower snaps, feels like destroying it all. 

This story about a fruitless relationship between a loving God and his negligent people refers to a period 600 years before Jesus, but it’s obvious that this scripture was in mind whenever was told this second parable about the landlord, his vineyard, and his tenants. The two stories aren’t identical – what would be the point of that? – and in this later story it’s not the lack of fruit which is the problem, but the disrespect and viciousness of the tenants. The targets here are the tenants, not the vines, and these were evidently viewed in Matthew as the Jewish religious authorities, who connive at the death of God’s own son.  

The parable points us forward both to the death of Jesus, and then to the embrace of all peoples into the community of the risen Christ. In this little story come both the excruciating costs and the extraordinary reward of this strange week – Holy Week.  

But I come back to where I began. Each story begins with the loving and costly efforts of cultivation; in each, though in different ways, the investment of faith, hope, and love, is fruitless. But the God, without whom neither story would have any meaning, is so invested in what he has made, that his love cannot be balked. We have only to respond.