Preached on 9th April 2006
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
Mark 12:1-12, Isaiah 5:1-7
Living abroad means you sometimes see yourself as others see you. In the States, I once read an article by a visitor to Britain who had experienced one of our great cultural institutions but was so flummoxed by it that they took up their pen and wrote. Where else, the bewildered author asked, would prime time on national radio be given over to a programme in which a panel of experts holds forth on such tedious subjects as pests on vegetable crops, the ingredients of compost, and aspidistras with leaf wilt? You may have guessed: they had encountered Gardeners' Question Time.
But it is not just a quirky British institution: we have just heard Isaiah's version of it. He has a ‘what went wrong?' question: ‘what more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes why did it yield wild grapes?' The questioner is revealed to be God and the panel of experts is the people of God, and this is not the first time the question has been asked. Go back to Genesis, and there, in another garden which Adam has been charged with tending and caring but goes absent, God is left to call out ‘where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?' It is a question that is heard time and again in the bible: ‘I planted you as a choice vine from the purest stock, how then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?' and it is echoed in the anthem we have just heard.
Biblically the vineyard describes the people of God: God's planting, God's beloved people, planted to produce good fruit. Vineyards were inalienable and the law made no provision for their sale. Hence Naboth's refusal to sell his vineyard when King Ahab wanted it to grow vegetables - a luxury crop whereas vines were a staple. But the shock is that now God's patience is exhausted and he is set on the destruction of his beloved vineyard. Does this mean God has given up and, unlike Naboth, is selling up? No. If you look in the chapters either side of this reading in Isaiah there is an assurance that God will save and cleanse the remnant of the people of Zion, and a vision of God in his temple where the angels cry holy and, unlike these people, Isaiah responds to God's call. The way Isaiah's prophecies are assembled sets up a tension between the threat to abandon the vineyard and the hope of its restoration.
Behind the question of why a vineyard failed to produce grapes is why a faithless people refused to love their God who has done everything for their well being. Constantly the cry of God to the beloved people is ‘why do you turn your back on me? Why do you go after other gods? Why do you act unjustly?' We have been reading Jeremiah at Evensong in Lent and it is gruesome reading of the judgement of God on the people, but we misunderstand the whole Old Testament story if we think that this is born of despotic vindictiveness: it is born of the passionate love of God for his wayward people whose very concrete crimes are listed in the rest of Isaiah 5: annexing neighbour's land to the exclusion of the poor, drunkenness, perversion of justice, taking bribes.
And so although God does not get an answer to his question, we are given an answer to our questions about why God acts as he does. ‘The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel ... his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!' There is a lot of wordplay going on here which is lost to us in English - justice and bloodshed sound similar, as do righteousness and a cry. These wordplays connect us with other parts of the biblical narratives: bloodshed and a cry appear together in the Cain and Abel story, and in Enoch's account of the coming judgement. The vineyard can also be the temple, built by David whose name means beloved: hence ‘my beloved had a vineyard'. And Jesus told his vineyard parable in the temple: an allusion that would not be lost on his hearers. Jesus' parable also reminds us of the binding of Isaac where the beloved son is taken and bound, and of Joseph's fate at the hand of his brothers, and his hearers would know other rabbinic stories of vineyards as well as the allusions in Song of Solomon to the lovers meeting in the beloved's vineyard. Then there is Jesus' claim to be the true vine and the father the vinedresser, and his turning water into wine at a wedding - anticipating the banquet of heaven - and his words and actions just a few days after this parable when, surrounded by his friends, he took the cup of wine and said, ‘this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of heaven.' The people of God may have failed to bear fruit, but in Jesus the fruit of the vine becomes the banquet of heaven I which we may share.
In other words, our two biblical passages are multivalent, they thrust us deep into the whole biblical story of salvation expressed in gardening terms, starting in the Garden of Eden and ending with the tree of life for the healing of the nations. We are part of that story and the question that God the gardener asks of each one of us is ‘what more could I do for you?' How appropriate for us this Palm Sunday as we stand on the cusp of Holy Week when we will hear again what God has done in Jesus Christ, the beloved Son who secured, by his death and resurrection, the restoration of the infinitely precious vineyard, to the loving vineyard owner.
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?
What more can God do for us?