17th Sunday after Trinity
Phil 3:1-14; Mt 21:33-45
St Barbara’s 08.10.2023 8am
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Today we will be celebrating harvest at our 10am service. The readings we will be using will be slightly different there.
But what do our readings from the church lectionary that we have heard this morning have to say to us about this theme?
The parable we heard Jesus tell in Matthew’s gospel is certainly one, like so many of Jesus’ parables, that has an agricultural theme. Here is a theme of growing crops, in this case, grapes, and who gets to benefit from their produce. And here we encounter a set of unscrupulous tenants looking to exploit their power as much as possible, refusing to give the owner the share of the produce they have grown and that is rightly his.
Like so many of Jesus’ parables, it would have been a story that would have surprised his listeners. This parable turns upside down the normal power dynamics in agricultural societies. Normally, it would be the tenants who were in the weak situation, the ones who were easily and all too frequently exploited by the land-owner, demanding ever-higher proportions of the crops that were grown. In many cases, landowners would demand that they were paid in full from the first-fruits of the harvest. In bad, unproductive years, this may amount to the sum total of the crop, leaving the tenants destitute and penniless, and then thrown off the land altogether. That is all too often the story for tenant farmers around the world today.
The story would have caught Jesus’ listeners attention for the fact that here was a different story. Unusually, it was the tenants in a position of power, it was they who were exploiting the landowner.
It brings into sharp focus the point that Jesus was making in this parable. Every one of his listeners would have known that when he spoke of a vineyard, he was speaking of Israel, and when he spoke of those tending the vineyard he was referring to the leaders, the priests, the elders of Israel. It was the common metaphor used by many of the Old Testament prophets. So to imply that the tenants have power in this story is to point to the freedom, the responsibility, that God entrusts to those who care for Israel, and also to highlight how badly they have abused their position.
But the analogy can apply to us today as well. God has entrusted us with his vineyard, a vineyard that has grown beyond Israel to one representing the whole world. It is a good world, but one where we as tenants, as stewards, run the risk of exploiting it and abusing it for our own purposes. And like the original recipients of Jesus’ message, we run the risk of ignoring the countless messages and messengers we have received warning us to turn away from our path towards destruction – in this case human and environmental. Just on Thursday this week yet another messenger arrived – that in the form of the Copernicus Climate Change Service – reporting that the world’s September temperatures were the warmest on record.
Climate change is having immediate and catastrophic impact on people’s lives now. In Nepal, the focus of our harvest video at 10am, people are no longer able to grow crops because of the lack of rains, and faced with the prospect of starvation, whole villages are being abandoned and people heading to the cities. It is a story repeated countless times in places all over the world.
Jesus did not tell the story as an environmental message. It was a story that appealed to the leaders of Israel to heed the warnings of ignoring God before it was too late, and to recognise God’s son when he came among them. Otherwise God would seek a new people to tend and care for his people.
But the environmental references are fair to make. For, as that new people called by God, it is right to ask ourselves, how are we doing in caring for the vineyard, in caring for the people of the world and the world in which they live. Harvest is a time to give thanks for all the good things we enjoy but also a time to ask are we being good tenants of the land entrusted to us.
And what does our other reading from Philippians have to say to us on this day of harvest. Well, Paul writes to the Philippian church: “I want to know Christ – to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”
A relationship of love means sharing in the life of the other. My marriage would be diminished if I did not care about those things that bring Sarah joy or if I remained indifferent about those things which cause her grief or anxiety. To love someone means to share their joys and sorrows, to journey their life with them.
To know Christ, Paul writes, means to share with him in his sufferings and death. That means weeping over the things that sadden him – people’s inhumanity to one another, people’s greed, people’s abuse of the environment. To know Christ deeply means to know his love and pain for all that is not right in the world.
And to know Christ deeply, means also to know the hope and power of Christ’s love, to transform situations of darkness into situations of light, to bring life from death, hope from despair. To know Christ deeply means to know his resurrection power at work in us, giving us confidence to be people of faith, hope and love. And to be people who believe that hope and change is possible in our world.
In many parts of the world, the church is indeed being a catalyst for remarkable transformation. In Nepal, for example, whole communities are being turned around, their lives made more secure, by the church working with them to find new ways to adapt to the changing climate.
There is hope. Let us be the tenants of the vineyard that God calls us to be – carers of his world, carers of his people.