1Let me sing for my beloved
My love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines:
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yield wild grapes.
3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
5And now I will tell you
what to do with my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.
7For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
Matthew 21:33-46 (29)
33”Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, skilled another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes?’ 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parable, they realized he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
Isaiah and God have a very different relationship than the discipleship we normally imagine. In a world where we often keep God at arms length by talking about the god of all heaven and earth, who spins the whirling planets, whose majesty is without end, there's something scandalous about beginning a prophetic passage with "Let me sing for my beloved." I have not found that level of divine intimacy in many of the churches in which I have worshipped.
The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were accustomed to the grand language of Temple worship, where God was enthroned in the heavens, and the earth was his footstool. God was always accessible for the divided kingdoms, but as also kept distant by the pomp and ritual of the temple. It was the kind of difference between shaking hands and holding hands.
God held Isaiah's hand. God wanted to hold Israel's hand, and Judah's, as he had when they wandered in the wilderness together. But the divided kingdoms kept God at a distance.
Perhaps God's covenant peoples kept God at a distance because an intimate relationship with God means living a transformed life. Reformed and always being reformed, as the saying goes.
Yet God is not satisfied with a handshake and an unchanged life. Isaiah's love-song on God's behalf portrays a vineyard owner who tirelessly and diligently does everything right. "My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines: he built a watchtower in the midst of it," The land is ready, the best vines are selected, a watchtower is built to defend it from any pest that might threaten the vineyard. This is not the act of a creator who can be held at a distance, this kind of loving cultivation shows that God cares deeply about our response in faith.
God carefully collects us and prepares a place for us as a long-term investment, even hewing a wine vat which would not pay for itself for many harvests. Truly no vine could hope for better circumstances in which to grow. "However, it is not our self-interest that God is cultivating...God's love, care, and protection come with an expectation: justice and righteousness. These are the fruits God longs to see flourish in us.”
When those fruits do not flourish, things take a darker turn. Isaiah’s love-song changes voice, and we find ourselves feasting on the bitterness of wild or rotten grapes. God is deeply hurt by the failure of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
For all the work God has done establishing a covenant people, guiding them from slavery to the promised land, preserving them through the centuries, one would expect unfettered faithfulness. Yet the chosen people cannot keep the covenant, and the consequences for their crimes are vivid.
”The threat of judgment may be thunderous here, but the parable also invites us to glimpse the potential for abundant fruitfulness in the lives of those who are faithful." Everything is set up for our success as servants of the living God, who redeems with a strong arm and who holds our hand throughout all our struggles. God’s reaction to Israel and Judah’s failure is not that of a distant God, but of the intimate beloved on whose behalf Isaiah sings.
God cares about us so much that God cares how we respond to the intimate intervention in our lives. God longs to see us live righteously, to Do Justice when we interact with one another. Justice and Righteousness in scripture are more than just finding what is fair or living according to some expansive ruleset.
In scripture, Justice tears down oppression and liberates both the prisoner and the jailer. Justice and righteousness reach beyond the boundaries we draw between people and show hospitality to the ones we might consider “other.” Justice and righteousness always point to God as the source of all authority and reject and subversion of God’s sovereign love. Justice and righteousness shine through loving your neighbor as yourself, as commanded in Leviticus 19:18, and through loving the LORD our God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength as commanded in Deuteronomy 6:5.
We all know the passage where Jesus quotes those two laws as the greatest commandments. They were nothing new, and yet the people of God then, as now, struggled to live the covenant fully. When God expected the fruit of his vineyard, he instead found violence.
“When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, skilled another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’”
"This is the heir, let us kill him and get his inheritance!" I don’t have much experience with estate planning, but I don’t imagine most people write their wills to include leaving something to the one who murders their heirs. But it's exactly how God worked at the cross. We killed the heir of heaven and earth, and through the resurrection we were also made heirs! None of the chief priests and elders of the people to whom Jesus was speaking had this radical grace in mind when they were asked to predict what happened next:
“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.
Where we expect, and deserve, a miserable death for our failure to produce justice and righteousness, God instead responds with unyielding grace. There is still kingdom work to be done, and God cares about creation enough to see it done, even if it means having to find new hands with which to do it. "[The kingdom of God] refers not to the age to come but to a special relationship to God's sovereignty.” When we fail to be faithful, God’s work will still be done, we just lose the joy of having God work through us. God plants new vineyards, God hires new workers.
And yet neither of these texts are hopeless. There is judgment to be sure, but God’s judgment, like God’s justice, restores and invites us back into relationship with the Holy One. “The transfer of stewardship to a ‘people that produces the fruits of the kingdom’ is a restorative act, not a punitive act.” God is intimately involved in creation, will not wait for us to figure it out on our own, because we’ve shown we can’t get there by ourselves. So at the same moment he is pronouncing judgment, God is already working in both of these passages to bring God’s people back into the joyful relationship which God intends for them. For the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, that meant prophets and catastrophe, and eventually restoration. For the people to whom Jesus was speaking in the temple when he told his parable, that meant that he would be led to the cross, and that the cross would lead to the resurrection, where the power of sin and death would be forever broken.
We believe that in Communion, by the power of the Holy Spirit we are elevated to dine with Christ at God's table. Our whole selves are nourished by Christ's real presence among us, and we are reminded of how far God went to restore us to the intimate relationship where we can share a meal with God and with one another. Every time we break bread or drink of the fruit of the vine, we proclaim Christ's saving death until he comes again.
Until then, we have the responsibility to bear the fruits of the kingdom of God: justice and righteousness. God cares deeply about us, and holds our hand throughout the whole of human history, and cares about how we respond in faith to what God has already done. We can try and hold God at arms length, like the divided kingdoms did, like the chief priests and the elder of the people did, like the church still sometimes does. But it is better to embrace the transformation God has already accomplished in us, and sing the songs of our beloved, and to bear the fruits from this table, where we are fed, out into the vineyard of all of the peoples of God.