Monday of Holy Week – Address before Compline

Read the Address before Compline from the Dean of Durham on Monday of Holy Week

This is no ordinary week, and this is no ordinary parable.

Previous parables in Mark’s gospel have been delivered by Jesus in Galilee, and their content matter – of sowers and seeds and mustard trees – have reflected the pastoral context of that verdant region. Like any parables they have been searching in their application, but also focussed on the way in which the kingdom of God will grow through the lives of the followers of Jesus.

This parable feels very different. First, because of where and when it is being delivered. We are in Jerusalem, the city on a hill, 700m above sea level and not as lush and pastoral as Galilee. It is the festival of Passover, that time in the year when the population of Jerusalem would swell with thousands of pilgrims camping out to celebrate this most central of festivals. With the streets fuller than ever and religious fervour in the air, there is a sense of political tension that called Pilate in from his seaside residence to keep an eye on how the peace was being kept – by whatever means.

And we are the other side of Palm Sunday. Jesus has made his feted arrival into the city, and caused himself to be noticed by religious and political authorities alike. We know it as Holy Week but that suggests the contours of the week were known to everybody, when this is not the case. But Jesus is apparently something of a marked man, as we walks in the Temple, fielding questions from the religious authorities.

Next, the content matter of the parable is very different. This is not a pastoral picture of the kingdom of God. This is a story about the people of Israel, God’s people. Yes, the headline is of a vineyard, but every faithful Jew recognised the vineyard as a picture of God’s people. Isaiah 5 is just one example: ‘for the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.’ So this is a parable about God, his people and what he asks of them.

The goal of the vineyard is to produce fruit for the owner. But this is not what happens in the story. In scenes which seem almost cartoon-like in their violence, the tenants, instead of passing on the harvested fruit to the owner’s messengers, reject their requests. The owner’s slaves are walloped over the head, sent packing, bumped off. To the discerning listener this must have spoken of the way in which the prophets had been treated over the centuries when they tried to call God’s people back to fruitfulness.

Then the story slows down and we hear the owner for the first time. He deliberates and considers and decides to send his own son, believing that this beloved son will receive better treatment.

He doesn’t. He meets the fate of so many of the previous messengers: seized, killed, thrown out.

The twist at the end of the parable is that the tenants are destroyed and the vineyard placed into new ownership, all because of how the beloved son was treated.

This is incendiary stuff, and the temple authorities see it as such. They know this parable is being told against them and their plan to stop Jesus saying more of this is only halted by the crowd being apparently on Jesus’ side. They skulk away, determined, however, to come back.

As we begin Holy Week, may I suggest that this parable gives us four points to reflect on as we follow Christ in the way of the cross. For all the familiar rhythms of this week for many of us, I hope we might be able to see as if for the first time.

First, it invites us to remember that all the actions we will witness this week are being done to the God the Father’s beloved Son. The language of the beloved son in this parable takes us back to the baptism of Jesus and his transfiguration, moments when the divine approval, favour and love was made known. If we watch with increasing horror at what Jesus has to go through, how much more does God the Father see with pain what his son, his beloved son must endure. For he had deliberated, he had considered, he had decided to send his Son into our world. Perhaps we are being called this week to wonder afresh at God’s great love for the world, that he gave his only begotten and beloved son, knowing what would happen to him.

Second, this parable invites us to consider the violence of the events of Holy Week. For all the brief and somewhat slapstick detail, this is a profoundly violent parable. It details brutality and premeditated murder. But then again, this is a violent week. We will hear of swords and blindfolds and ripped clothes and beatings and floggings and nails and blood. And all part of a shared murder plot. Such violence invites us to ask: what is about humanity that we act in such a way? It is a question demanded by our witnessing not only the past events of Holy Week, but also the present atrocities in Sudan, in Gaza, in Israel, in Ukraine. And what might we say of our God that God did not keep a distance from such violence but entered right into the middle of it, and took its impact – and its cause – into himself?

Third, we are invited to feel afresh the shock of the events of the week to come. The parable Jesus told was shocking in its denouement and the temple authorities saw it as such. And I wonder if we are being invited to see afresh what is surprising and shocking in the events that will unfold for Jesus. That a man acclaimed became a man condemned. That a man with authority became a man judged. That a man with power became a man flogged. That a man without sin became a man who bore the sins of the world. Our sense of familiarity can take away the shock we should perhaps all feel. If there is an earthquake on Good Friday, perhaps we need to feel the earth move beneath our feet.

Fourth, we are invited – or perhaps challenged – to consider our response to the events of the week to come. It is all too easy to take our seat on the moral high ground because we are sure we would not behave like the temple authorities. And that may be true in our deliberate plotting. But the reference to the crowd at the end of the parable should bring us up short, for while at the moment they are on Jesus’ side, they will before long turn on him and shout ‘crucify’. Their fickleness is a reminder of the sin we all share, the sin for which Jesus will die. If we follow Jesus this week, as we are called to do, we do so knowing he will be dying for us as well.

This is no ordinary week and this is no ordinary compline. Rather I suggest this is the time to still ourselves and prepare ourselves not simply to observe the events of Holy Week, but to follow Jesus as he walks the way of the cross. Parables are to get us thinking and responding, and this parable does that for us at the beginning of this week. We are invited to wonder at the love of God the Father. We are invited to notice the violence which the Son entered into. We are invited to be awed at God’s plan which unfolds. And we are invited to recognise it is for us – and the whole world – this is taking place.

May our week be holy and our walk faithful. Amen.

Very Revd Dr Philip Plyming
Durham Cathedral
25 March 2024