Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14
In the middle of a courtyard bathed in the reflected light of golden stone a man stands alone. His clear voice floats an elegiac melody into the warm air. Modern expert musicologists would call his tonal range the Phrygian dominant scale. It’s common in Eastern European, Egyptian and Arabic music. But it’s also called the Jewish scale. This is Isaiah, at the Temple singing his heart out. And the people who heard his song would remember it all their lives.
Isaiah sings a sad song for God, lamenting the inedible fruit of a beautiful and blessed vineyard. Israel is the vineyard of course. And the song asks how could that vineyard have failed after being planted with all the tender love and care of God? God expected great things of the vineyard, but received in return a harvest of small and sour fruit failing to bring forth justice, peace, and praise for its creator.
Such a vineyard, if allowed to grow, would only spread its miserable fruit. So God must intervene. All divine protection would be stripped away.
Isaiah sang this song as a way to make sense of Israel’s impending disastrous defeat and exile at the hands of the Babylonians. It’s a call to consciousness to a nation that says it belongs to God. Where is the justice, the peace, and the joyful praise that announces to the whole world, “We are God’s people”?
Jesus repurposed this tragic song for a story in a later time of injustice, violence, and deep sadness. He changed it up by adding a landowner and tenants. The people to whom Jesus directed his vineyard parable probably identified with the landless tenants, as poorer urban Jews whose families had long since lost access to ancestral lands.
The parable could also be about Rome, their occupiers; latest in a long series. The Jewish people of Roman Palestine keenly felt the power of the empire against them. They were no better than slaves, disrespected and powerless. Their lives were valued far lower than citizens of Rome.
If Jesus’s listeners knew Isaiah’s song at all, they also would have known that the prophet next condemned the Israelites who acquired their neighbor’s lands but did not allowed the debt to be redeemed in the seventh year in accordance with the commandments. So a landless Jew was one whose family knew the pain of injustice on many levels.
The parable would have fallen on the ears of these people as a courageous but dangerous critique of the social disparities of the time. And a sharp judgement upon the inherently unjust practices that created such inequities. For, did not God intend and instruct the ones with greater means to take care of the ones with less so that all could live to praise God? But neither Roman nor Jewish leaders seemed to care much about the lives of God’s people.
Jesus put a sharp question to his listeners. What should the owner of the vineyard do? The people’s verdict was as swift and decisive as God’s judgement on Israel back in the day of Isaiah. Make it right! Restore this present kingdom to the ways of God so that a good harvest of justice, peace, and praise will be returned to the owner of the land. Who, is God, of course.
But the religious leaders and interpreters of God’s law didn’t think that Jesus was speaking about Rome at all. Our version of the text says that they wanted to arrest Jesus. It’s odd because they had no power to arrest anybody. Only Roman authorities could do that. Perhaps it’s better to read the word as saying the religious leaders wanted to prevent Jesus from teaching any more.
But stopping the popular rabbi from Galilee was not possible. To use the imagery of the parable, Jesus put the religious leaders between a rock and a hard place. Jesus had just said that they had failed to bring forth fruits worthy of God’s kingdom - justice, peace, and praise- and should be dismissed for dereliction of duty!
For such an accusation God’s prophets had been stoned. The crowds saw Jesus as a prophet. Yet, anyone trying to silence Jesus was bound to have a riot on their hands.
The religious leaders depended on Roman approval to hold on to their limited authority over the Temple and the spiritual lives of the Jewish population. A riot was to be avoided at all cost. Or else they would be crushed by the Romans and shattered to pieces by the gentle power of Rabbi Jesus.
All of this is on the surface of the texts today. Isaiah clearly said that God’s people failed to bring forth good fruits. And for this the cost to the people was very great. Jesus implicated the religious leaders and the civil authorities too, for the same thing. But ultimately he bore in his own body the terrible cost of people’s failure to enact justice, live peaceably, and to praise God.
I travelled this past week to western Wyoming to take the ashes of my father back to his tiny home town. It’s a long journey by plane and car to get there from here. Along the way I saw many billboards with various messages. One of them, outside Wells, Nevada caught my eye. It said, “Read the Bible for inspiration, correction, and guidance.” This is good advice. But the tricky part is the deep thought and discipline of applying it to ourselves.
I mean, sometimes we take as nicely inspirational something that should strike our hearts with a corrective jolt. Or sometimes we read correctives as guidance that others need to hear…but not us personally. In the end we fail to properly hear God’s urgent summons, calling each one of us to higher ways of being and behaving. And so we prevent God’s Word from bringing forth the fruits of the reign of God in our lives, our communities, and our world.
Traveling this past few days has also reminded me that each day, with every act and decision, we all are constructing the reign in which we live. If we are to make Jesus the cornerstone of all that we say and do, it means taking his life of loving servanthood as the framework and cornerstone of our own.
In this way God provides us with everything we need to be fruitful in heavenly ways. So that out of our vineyard may come the sweet wine of justice, peace, and praise worthy of Jesus Christ. Until we all sing the song of heaven together. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.