8th September 2017
In the first reading we have a very good illustration of a successful approach to delivering bad news when you are a prophet and that is your job. The book of Isaiah has been heavily edited, and our reading from chapter 5 is very likely the first public appearance of the prophet. If you want the crowd to listen to you, you don’t want to be known as a prophet of doom. So Isaiah draws a crowd by saying he is going to sing a song, like a street busker setting up his spot. It’s a song, he says, about his friend; it’s told as though it is about a man setting up a new vineyard, but it is really about unrequited love. He did everything one should for the vineyard to be successful, but it just produced (literally) stinking grapes. The friend then questions the crowd: “is there anything more I could have done?” And he tells them he is going to completely wreck the area and make it a wasteland. Then, when the crowd has grown and is listening intently, like a punch-line the prophet announces: “this song is about the Lord and you Israel!” The image of the vineyard became quite popular in the sayings of prophets and even among the people themselves; one of their hymns is the psalm that follows the reading for today.
The second reading is part of a final summing up of Paul’s wishes for the Christian community at Philippi. He himself is in a difficult situation in prison with an uncertain future; also there are some difficulties in the Christian community he is writing to; in the few verses before our reading Paul asks the church leaders there to help two females to make peace between themselves. He wants them to be at peace and tells them how to move towards it; “the peace of God” is a phrase that surprisingly only occurs here in the whole of the Bible (the name for such a single occurrence is hapax legomenon). There has also been a problem in Philippi with some Christians disdaining non-Jewish and pagan (secular) values for living. Paul, of course, as a Roman citizen, has had a good Roman as well as a Jewish education; and his attitude to non-Jews shows in the list of the six attitudes he recommends, all of which are those of contemporary philosophy (mostly Stoic). Many of the values that others hold, we would do well to aim for ourselves! Put this into practice and you will have peace; it is indeed the very peace that God Himself has, and that is why it is beyond human understanding and our unaided ability.
A parable is a story with a strong and telling overall meaning; there are many stories from Jesus in the Gospels that draw on the experiences of the listeners, but some of them are allegories rather than parables; an allegory is a story in which the people (or other elements) refer to people or things in the real world and often to the listeners themselves. The well-known Jewish story of the vineyard has additional bits added to it in Matthew’s gospel which we read today. The owner hands over the care of the crop and the business to tenants, but they are negligent and reject those servants sent by the master to see how they are progressing. It is an allegory about the rulers and priests responsible for the good of the people; the servants are the prophets sent by God and finally His own Son. It is difficult for us to hear this allegory, because the temptation is to relate the wicked tenants to our leaders, especially the ones in our worldwide church. Accusing others in this way might make us feel we are in the right, and then the story just inflates our pride and encourages our condemnation of others. Yet we too have responsibilities from God, and there are people who try to keep us on track whom we disregard. The allegory must be about us else it does no good at all for us to read or hear it when it should be challenging us to improve ourselves, that’s what today’s sermon should do.