Homily for Proper 22 Year A by Phillip Jefferies
Isaiah 5: 1-7. Philippians 3: 4b-14. Matthew 21: 33-46.
Since the world appears on the whole to work according to reason, it would be logical to expect reasonable outcomes from things. You get in your car, turn the ignition and, if it’s got fuel and the battery’s not flat and it’s not flooded or damp, then it starts. That’s a fairly reasonable expectation – unless you’re Basil Fawlty. If your logic is like that of the owner of Fawlty Towers then when your car doesn’t start, you count to 3 and if still nothing happens you give your car a thorough thrashing.
But that is an unreasonable expectation. In the readings today we’re bracketed by vineyards – it could be a rollicking prospect, but it’s not! The parables of the vineyard in today’s readings from Isaiah and the Gospel of Matthew (and separated by about 800 years) disappoint and confuse.
It would be reasonable to expect good outcomes, perhaps euphoric even. In the first instance Isaiah’s poetic and ballad-like vineyard, against all reason, only produces a barren acidity that stinks. Matthew’s allegory of the vineyard of Israel results in the skewering of their long awaited Messiah, Jesus, by their leaders, the very defenders of the faith.
And then, in between, comes S Paul’s experience. Paul, Hebrew to the core, as to the law, faultless—a good Pharisee, no less! However, against all expectation, Paul seems to have lost everything and, what’s more, finds himself in prison. Now that doesn’t seem fair. Not a reasonable outcome you might think, for either a Roman citizen or a faithful follower of Jesus Christ—nor, within the justice of God, does it appear reasonable either. What is going on?
My Classics master with a crystal-clear mind, with 25 years as a sidesman, who never missed an 8 o’clock, was seriously confused when the frost took all his chrysanths. Stuff happens! Perhaps he’d imbibed too much vintage Greek because Greek philosophy, on the whole, centred on perfection. Greeks loved the circle with its symmetrical completeness. They loved the perfection of the universe swirling round the earth in perfect concentric circles.
They loved mathematics: Pythagoras’ Theorem of the square on the hypotenuse fame was wonderful, perfectly divine when it produced an integer, as with a 3, 4, 5 triangle. But when the answer was not a whole number, as with a 5, 5, 7.0710678 … triangle, or was expressed as a fraction, Mr P was unhappy. Imperfection and infinity didn’t fit in with the divine.
Mr P couldn’t cope with imperfection; he tried to suppress his discovery. If it’s not whole then it’s not perfect and it’s not divine: there was no closure, no completeness. On top of that, the planets, it was discovered in due course, revolved not in perfect circles, but at best in ellipses. And nor did they go round the earth. What a mess.
We seem to be making an awful mistake expecting perfect outcomes. I don’t know what expletives Paul used: pious Christians would say “none whatsoever”. But Paul was doing all the right things and was in prison. He’d at least say: “This isn’t quite going to plan, my word!” You can say that again! And on top of a pretty blameless life, Paul was a Roman citizen, to boot. “Sod this for a game of soldiers”, as the Vicar might say, would be more appropriate.
But Paul soldiers on. He’s got his feet on the ground—well, to be more accurate, he’s got his feet in prison shackles. He knows stuff happens—stuff that, in all reasonable justice should not. He does, however, have a coping philosophy to see him through: he says, “I press on”. I expect there was a prison mug telling him to Keep calm and carry on. And what else can you do? Stuff happens and you have to get on with it. This is the language of hope, not of assurance, certainly not of certainty.
Paul says something else. He says that he lets go of what has gone before. That is what we are frequently urged to do: to let go—and it is essential from a practical point of view. You can’t withdraw from the track because, now and again, you come a cropper. That, it seems to me, is the awful stupidity of the present hysteria of calling people victims and, even, to expect closure on anything unpleasant from our past. We deal with it by getting on with things. I mean, our historic life is an essential and rich part of our present life.
All of us have a past, with good and bad stuff back there. It is part of the truth of who we are. Sometimes it is less manageable than others – and even the marvellous memories can upset us. That’s life: neither pretend it didn’t happen nor let it stop you dead in your tracks (well not for long, anyway). Press on—not with closure or with perfect or even satisfactory outcomes but in hope.
In the desolation of the dreams for our vineyard, God doesn’t make it all right. Rather, He reminds us who actually owns this vineyard we occupy: first, last and all stations on the line, the landowner is God.