A Ruined Vineyard
Twenty-Seventh Sunday of the Year. Fr Robert Eccles preaches without neglecting the sounds of violence and war.
As I sit at my window, angry sounds float up from the street below – not, this time, another demo (the European Commission is just across the park) but the hoarse shouting of marching soldiers. The Belgian army trains its officers next door.
Warlike sounds don’t get into Sunday homilies, not enough, not as they ought. The children die in Iraq and Palestine all the same.
So sweet and reasonable, the arguments for military intervention in Iraq, the war-talk. Yet there is a dream of innocence, the conspiratorial sense the North Atlantic world shares about its own innocence, casting ourselves as victims, never as agents of violence. And homilies notoriously shy away from the exploration of evil.
The Scriptures, though, insist that human anger and violence isn’t some kind of exceptional freakishness. What John calls the ‘sin of the world’ needs no special explanation, it lies within. Just as in today’s readings, the disorder and chaos that comes about in God’s beautiful vineyard, lies within – the vineyard in the Bible is the great symbol of the ordered life of God’s people.
Saddam Hussein, a homophobe, an interrogator in an Afghan village, are more than just themselves. They depend on other people to go along with what they do. Responsibility for their crimes doesn’t rest only with them.
What we see acted out is what lies within ourselves. Given the right circumstances, yes, maybe we would do just that.
The good that consists in loving God and neighbour isn’t a knack you can pick up and then run with, as when you’ve learnt to ride your bicycle. It is the constant struggle to live with love in God’s presence, not just to get up to a certain mousey decency but to live as a member of Christ who laid down his life for his friends.
What this also involves is that we know about being the Church of sinners. We have to come to terms, over and over again, with living in the ruined vineyard. A lad in prison tells me, “I had a job, I had a flat, why did I mess up again?” And he is bitterly angry.
O God, why did you break down the walls of the vineyard, why did you have to vandalise it? Everything was working out for me, but you came looking for the fruit too soon. I hear you say
I expected justice, but found bloodshed,
integrity, but only a cry of distress.
We already thought we were a success but we were not. We had a long way to go, not only the prisoner but the priest and bishop too. We weren’t ready to live at peace in our vineyard. So God came and smashed it.
This story of the vineyard comes in Old Testament and New, and it tells us we need to reckon with the weakness within, otherwise we shall not be real, even to ourselves. St Paul is saying to his friends at Philippi: when you pray, get in touch with your need – if there is anything you know you need, pray for it, ask God for it with prayer and with thanksgiving.
To pray with any sort of genuineness is to struggle towards being truthful, for God is the only one with whom there is no point in pretending. Then, says St Paul, the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your minds and hearts in Christ Jesus.
And this is good advice, because as St Francis de Sales said, a little child holds on to his father with one hand and picks the blackberries with the other. He means that in our prayer we’re meant to find and hang on to our heavenly Father, as well as the good things we’re asking him to give us.
And St Paul goes on to say: fill your minds with everything good and loveable, with what is honourable and of good report, what can really satisfy. Just to avoid the occasions of sin is never enough: don’t just keep out of trouble, people your life with all that can heartily satisfy.
Where is this vineyard I should be looking after, where does it need me? That might mean the people I need to be caring for, those I ought to be thinking of, those perhaps who have no one to speak for them. Then when the Lord comes to his vineyard, looking for the fruit, the produce, I might have it ready for him.