Short commentaries on the readings for Sunday 8th October 2023

Isaiah 5:1-7

What we have just heard read is wonderful poetry. As you know poetry can speak louder than prose and in doing so make a point more strongly. In this piece Isaiah is using a well worn technique of Hebrew literature, that of inserting poetry into the body of prose in order to make a significant remark. In this case the beautiful, pastoral words build us up and then in verses five and six dash us down.

He begins with the phrase:

“Let me sing for my beloved.”

This is Isaiah writing from God’s perspective, that is in God’s voice and he has God telling his listeners how wonderful and important Jerusalem is to him and thus by inference how important are they the Jews to him as well. The Jews are ‘God’s beloved’. God goes on to describe the care with which he tends his people using the analogy of the vineyard. In doing so he emphasises how much time and consideration he gives to the ones he loves, for tending vines is a time demanding job and much love and care is needed to produce a good harvest. This is analogy the Jews would have understood from their everyday lives but then at verse five everything comes crashing down. At verse five you can hear God’s anger at his beloved people. God questions as to why his beloved have strayed so far from his ways and his desires. He says their fruit is bad and as such he expresses the extent of his disappointment with them and he also decides to teach them a lesson they will not forget.

God trashes the vineyard and nothing but misfortune follows. In verse seven, everything is explained to the listeners. The vineyard is the house of Israel, the pleasant planting being the chosen ones and that where God expected to see good growth what he finds was fighting and a lack of care and concern for each other and a turning away from God himself. In these verses you really get an idea of how angry God was with Israel.

This for me is the power of poetry. You will after my years here as your Rector have realised from how often I use poetry in my sermons how important it is to me. I believe that poets can say in a few stanzas or words things far more clearly than an author can using hundreds of words, or a novel. Isaiah, and this is the original one, is I believe a superb writer and a consummate poet. A writer who knows when to turn to poetry and leave prose behind in order to make his point. That being so, what is he trying to say to us in this passage?

What, I think, that we can take from this piece of Scripture is that we too are God’s beloved and that God will do all he can for us, if we learn to love him properly and do not chase after other gods or ways that are not his but humankind’s.

Philippians 3:4b-14

On first hearing or reading this piece of Paul’s writing (and this is one of the original Paul’s letters) to the first congregation he founded, one might be forgiven for thin king that Paul is something of a ‘big-head’. This piece begins with Paul establishing his credentials and seemingly trying to outdo everyone with emphasising his origins and piety.

“...even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”       3:4b-6 

And just as you might begin to feel fed up with his boasting he says:

“Yet whatever gains I had these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” v.7

How powerful is that? Paul, like Isaiah is using literary techniques to emphasise his points and he does so in this piece by using himself as an example. What he is basically saying is that it does not matter a hoot who you are or what your connections might be, all that matters to God is your commitment to Christ.

This verse, verse seven, is levelling. No one is able to put him or herself above anyone else for in Christ we are all one, all equal. This is the real Paul – radical and dangerous writing. You can see why many slave owners became worried when their staff became Christian and in some ways this passage could be seem as a forerunner of the Communist manifesto – all are equal. All are equal but we gain that equality though Jesus Christ and his sacrifice and that is where we part company from the Communists who would deny Christ.

Yet, saying this in a former congregation I ministered in I had a very devout and committed Christian man, who had for decades been a member of the Scottish Communist Party, who when that organisation fell apart became an Episcopalian because he felt that in Christ he could remain close to his political ideals. Communism was the cause of his conversion. This man remains a committed Christian and regular worshipper to this day.

So, what is Paul saying to us this morning? He tells us that if we turn to Christ and try to follow his ways then we are all equal in God’s eyes. No human being is more or less important to God than any other. We are all loved unconditionally and accepted. Viva, the revolution of Christ – this should be our rallying cry as we go out into the world and tell everybody how much God loves them.

Matthew 21:33-46

With Matthew, we are right back in the vineyard again. The vineyard was a familiar sight in Christ’s time and world and they would have always been well cared for, for unless they were the harvest would have been poor and the wine awful.

The owner of this vineyard, like the one in Isaiah cares for his property and he chooses people to tend it for him whom he thinks will care for it too. They do care for it but they care too much and want to possess it and not to share its crop with the owner. There is a direct analogy here to God (the owner) and his people (the tenants). All goes well until the owner comes for his payment and it is then that the tenants revolt. They believe the owner does not deserve and payment for their hard work. The owner is patient and sends his envoys to explain that without him the tenants would not have anything to harvest for he owns the land and the vines and as such is rightly due his rent. The tenants do not want to listen and kill the messengers. Eventually, the owner sends his son, who in turn is murdered as well. Again this is a foreshadowing of Christ’s crucifixion. 

The owner had hoped that the tenants would respect his son and see sense – but some hope. Selfishness and envy win the day.

If we see the owner of the vineyard as God, the messengers as the prophets and the son as Christ we get a very clear picture of how Jesus was came to be crucified. The owner was not greedy, he did not expect all the harvest just his due but the tenants have become so self-centred and self-absorbed that they reject the owner and murder his son, thus forever removing themselves from the generosity of the owner. This is a warning to us not to reject God or his son through our own self-centredness. God has so much to offer us if we worship him, so much if we choose to share in his kingdom.

Our God is a generous God and one who repeatedly offers us the choice to follow his ways in love or not. All we have to do is learn to live in his love and enjoy sharing it with others for it is not ours to keep but to pass on and on, through our actions.