Preacher Canon Robert Titley
The Noah film – gosh it’s serious. The official Vatican newspaper, L’Avennire, has called it a ‘missed opportunity’ which ignores God, which I think misses the mark for what is not a great film but a genuinely interesting one.
Darren Aronofsky’s production departs from the biblical story, sometimes in a Tolkien-ish or JK Rowling-ish direction, but also in a rather biblical direction too. The flood story in Genesis is not psychologically complex – Noah carries out God’s instructions and is mute until the very end of the tale – so it is rather thin cinematic material. So what I think Aronofsky does is overlay the Noah story with elements of the Abraham story, which has much more promising stuff in it, especially when Abraham thinks God wants him to sacrifice his own son. Psychologically souped up, Noah on film comes across sometimes as the obedient servant of the Creator – who looms over the whole film but whom we never hear – sometimes as a tortured soul trying to discern the Creator’s will, at one point apparently rejecting that will and at another an apparent mouthpiece for God himself. As I say, interesting.
One part of the biblical story that the film does use is the bit where, as the waters recede, Noah wastes no time in planting a vineyard (that’s the link to tonight’s readings) and getting drunk. It’s significant that the vine – bringer of wine that gladdens the human heart – is one of the first symbols of the return of fertility to the land and of the goodwill of God, an early sign of the fresh start that the post-flood world is offered, after humanity had so wrecked it before. But why did they wreck it?
The film is partly an eco-parable. It poses a debate about the place of humanity in the natural world. Russell Crowe’s Noah puts the ‘green’ case: humans are there to care for, look after, be stewards of the world and its life. The alternative, red-in-tooth-and-claw case comes from Ray Winstone who plays the rapacious local king. His theological starting point is the same as Noah’s, that humans are made in God’s image, but he says that they – we – are meant to be like God not in caring for the world and its creatures, but in dominating them: ‘They are for us,’ he says, as he bites the head off some hapless small animal.
To care for or to dominate? Isaiah uses the vine as an image of Israel, and portrays God as the perfect carer for the vine. Matthew’s Jesus picks up the vineyard theme, again as symbol of the nation: a man plants a vineyard, cares for it and protects it, but this time (as happens a lot in Jesus’ day) he rents it out to tenants. They, however, beat up or kill all the staff he sends to collect the rent; they even murder his own son. So he will get rid of the tenants and give the vineyard to others. This is another Noah echo: in his story the act of getting rid comes with the pitiless floodwaters. The first-century audience of Matthew’s gospel would have said that the act of riddance the parable predicts came when the ruthless Romans put down the Jewish revolt in AD70.
The tenants in Jesus’ story are the leaders in Jerusalem, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. They know the story is aimed at them, and the irony won’t be lost on them, because in real life they are not tenant farmers but the landowning class. They are probably absentee landlords themselves, living in the city but owning property out in the country which they let out – and no doubt expect their rent in full and on time. But they surely remember Isaiah’s story which pictures Israel, the people they rule, as God’s vineyard. They, who (thanks to Roman backing) seem to be above challenge, are pictured as crooks and gangsters who are about to get their comeuppance from the true landlord. No doubt the crowd is pleased to see these powerful men, the property-owning elite, cartooned as thuggish tenants, and it’s the crowd that inhibit them from making a grab at Jesus there and then.
We always have this story on the evening of Palm Sunday, because it looks forward to Good Friday and the death of God’s own son. This evening they can’t arrest Jesus, but they will manage that on a quiet night later this week, as we shall see on Maundy Thursday. By dawn the next day he will be up before the Roman governor, and by sunset he will be dead. In terms of the parable, they want him dead because they want to own what they only have on trust. They are tenants who want make a grab at being owners. That is what will bring him to his death, as we shall hear in the Reproaches on Good Friday:
I planted you as my fairest vine, but you yielded only bitterness: when I was thirsty you gave me vinegar to drink, and you pierced your Saviour’s side with a lance.
Here we reach the point of challenge. The same challenge confronts the film-maker faced with an ancient tale which is an interesting story but a distant one, unless – as Aronofsky does (a little heavy-handedly) with Noah – we can be made to see that it is aimed at us. If it is, who are the leaders now who are entrusted with things but treat them is if they were their own? The name of Putin comes to mind, but he too is fairly remote (I am relieved to note). What of leaders closer to home? What of you and me? Is there anything that has been entrusted to us that I treat like that? One thought, prompted by the publication last week of the third report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, a report which, according to US Secretary of State John Kerry, makes clear that the limiting of temperature rises is a matter of ‘global willpower, not capacity’.
In Noah the movie, there is much talk of Eden. God who will in time plant Israel as a fruitful vineyard is the Creator who intended the whole world as a fruitful garden. Our vineyard is God’s earth, and we are its tenants; we, the boilers of water, the heaters of homes, the burners of petrol, the travellers on planes. We are the earth’s tenants, holding it on trust from God, and for the sake of those who come after us. We can respond to the parable by taking responsibility, by repenting, changing direction, by acting justly – these are all resolutions from the Ash Wednesday Declaration of the faith-based climate change group Operation Noah. Or not. Jesus’ hearers, of course, don’t do that.
‘When they realised he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him.’
IPCC report Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/
Operation Noah http://www.operationnoah.org/ash-wednesday-declaration
Noah is a universal and iconic figure – instantly recognised by many. At a time when the earth was threatened by a destructive flood, he was chosen by God because he was an “upright man”. He was brave. He exercised leadership and took action when others were sceptical. Above all he was concerned to protect all of creation – not just homo sapiens. His story is a positive one – the appearance of the rainbow and the dove signifying hope after the flood. He inspires our campaign.