Reading: Isaiah 5.1-7, Matthew 21.33-end
Our opening hymn told of Jesus entering Jerusalem to palm-waving cheers, and tonight’s second reading tells of a dispute Jesus has there. But first, a dispute over a chocolate éclair. My neighbour at a do on Friday night had one on his plate. ‘You shouldn’t have that,’ said his wife (he had recently been diagnosed as diabetic). ‘I’m only having half,’ he replied, ‘and that won’t be a problem. If was eating two a day, then that would be a problem.’ It was an argument that reminded me of the reaction of the fast-food industry toSupersize Me, Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary about what happens to him and his body when he eats only à laMcDonald’s for a month. It is, of course, a put-up job; McDonald’s and Burger King quite reasonably countered, ‘We don’t recommended that anyone eat nothing but our foods.’ No; but as they watched Spurlock have his weekly medical checks, and saw his weight go up, his cholesterol rise and his liver deteriorate at frightening speed, they knew this film was aimed at them.
For all the exaggeration (no-one would seriously do what Spurlock did, would they?) the film was telling truths about fast food that were not lost on the public. Shortly afterwards, McDonald’s withdrew their ‘supersize’ option and introduced ‘healthy’ salads (though with a distinctly unhealthy dressing). They denied that these changes had any connection with Spurlock’s film. Supersize Me stands in a long tradition of telling the truth by distortion. Cartoonists have done it for centuries, making a small nose smaller, big ears bigger, picturing a king as a whale or the Chancellor as an Eton schoolboy. None of it is anatomically or chronologically strictly accurate, yet it claims to tell truth of a kind.
As far as we know, the world of the prophet Isaiah is not into drawing, so instead they paint pictures with words. God, says Isaiah, has a vineyard; God tends it and protects it, but it produces only wild grapes, so now it’s going to be abandoned. That vineyard, says the prophet, is the house of Israel. The story warns that they have disobeyed God and that invasion and foreign domination will follow. Centuries later, Matthew describes Jesus painting another word picture. Again, someone plants a vineyard, cares for it and protects it, but this time (as was happening more and more in Jesus’ day) he rents it out to tenants. All the staff he sends to collect the rent the tenants beat up or kill; they even murder his own son, hoping to get the inheritance. So he comes and gets rid of the tenants and gives the vineyard to others.
Now Matthew says that the leaders in Jerusalem – the chief priests, the Pharisees – realise that Jesus has told the story against them. But why? They aren’t tenant farmers; on the contrary, they are the landowning class, they are probably absentee landlords themselves, living in the city while living off the rents of their rural property. Yet they know that the story is aimed at them because they remember Isaiah’s story which pictures Israel, the people they rule on God’s behalf, as a vineyard. They, who can get away with anything, are pictured as people who are about to get their dues. No doubt the crowd is delighted to see their landlords cartooned as thuggish tenants.
The lectionary, our system of Bible readings, always offers us this story on the evening of Palm Sunday. That’s because today begins Holy Week and this parable looks forward to Good Friday and the death of God’s ‘beloved son’, the very words used in this story. After they hear the parable, Jesus’ opponents want to arrest Jesus there and then, but they fear the crowd, so they wait for another moment. It will come, not here in the temple among the crowds, but on Thursday, at night in a garden, when no-one else is around. Then they will get him. By dawn he will be up before the Roman authorities, and by sunset he will be dead. They want rid of a troublemaker who is undermining their power, and doing it here of all places, in the temple, the place the priests run. Jesus sees that they want him dead because they want to own what they only have on trust: the temple, the nation and its people. They are tenants making a grab at being owners.
As it stands, this is an interesting story but a distant one, unless – like the subject of a film or a cartoon – we can see that it is aimed at us. So who are the leaders today who are entrusted with things but treat them is if they are their own? The names of Gaddafi, Assad, Gbagbo, come to mind; perhaps Berlusconi too, or a potentate at News International. But that is still at arm’s length. So – is there anything that has been entrusted to me that I treat like I own it? At the start of Holy Week, these days in which we are called to be drawn deeper into the events surrounding Jesus’ death, it’s a good question to ask. Two thoughts.
First, the human body. My neighbour on Friday had actually adapted wisely to having diabetes: the big change, he said, was that he could no longer regard his body as something he could feed with whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. ‘Don’t you know,’ says St Paul (1 Corinthians 6.19), ‘that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?’ Paul is thinking here about sex, but it holds for all physical aspects of life: if this body – like the temple in Jerusalem – is not a thing I own but something I hold on trust, and if it’s not just part of me but – again like the temple – a place where I meet God, then I might need to treat it with more respect when I think about feeding it, or giving it exercise or rest. We often look after things better if they don’t completely belong to us.
A second way in which this parable might bear upon us is suggested by the picture of the vineyard itself. Writing on this story, Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, says, ‘the God who planted Israel as a vineyard is the creator God, by whom in fact the whole world was designed as a fruitful garden’. For us, the vineyard is God’s earth, and we are its tenants; we, the users of water, the burners of petrol and gas, the jumpers on planes, the buyers of potatoes brought so cheaply – but at such a cost – from the other side of the world. We are the earth’s tenants, holding it on trust from God, and for the sake of those who come after us. So how is our tenancy going?
The choices here are complex – balance the carbon footprint of Kenyan asparagus against its hothouse-induced counterpart from Europe, never mind the economic benefit to a less-developed country – and, anyway, when our economy is so fragile, it can feel as though spending money on anything is a kind of patriotic act. The end of a sermon, of course, is not the place to discuss the detail of consumer choice (though it’s a good conversation to have elsewhere), but the parable is about attitude, and it will not let us off the hook. So, in the vineyard of God’s earth, when it comes to flexing economic muscle – and Richmond has a formidable amount of that – how are we doing? Are we behaving as tenants, or as an would-be owners?
‘When they realised he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him.’
Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, SPCK, 1991, page 160. The parable appears in Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s gospels.