Several themes came up in the Hebrew Bible text for the 20th Sunday in ordinary time, from the fifth chapter of Isaiah, including the element of justice that involves the consequences of actions; isolation vs. responsibility for community; and the problematic character of texts that deal with judgement in a world in which we are encouraged to think of God as a cosmic teddy bear.
Today’s text is from the first part of Isaiah, and it has a name: “the song of the vineyard.” Here it is in the language of the New Revised Standard Version:
Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
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,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What 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?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I 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.
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;
but heard a cry!
Every commentary I’ve looked at – and I’ve looked at a few this time – points out that verse 7 ends with a dramatic play on words in the original Hebrew; the word for “justice” and the word for “bloodshed,” the word for “righteousness” and the word for “cry” each differ by just a syllable. That play on words intensifies and dramatizes the stark contrast between the justice and the bloodshed, the righteousness and the cry – of anguish at injustice and unrighteousness. That cry echoes the cry God heard from the lips of the Hebrews when they were slaves in Egypt. And in a way, too, it emphasizes how little it takes, really, to fall from one to the other … just the matter of a little change here … a little inflection there … which over time, like compound interest, can add up to something massive.
So I see why the Revised Common Lectionary ends the reading there, on that dramatic note. But the text itself doesn’t seem to end well there. It feels better to look at the next 10 verses, at least, which extend the themes of the pleasant enclosed vineyard, the fruits of the vineyard, and the vision for justice held by the divine poet out to a revised land use plan. Here are vv. 8-17 …
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses without inhabitant.
For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.
Ah, you who rise early in the morning
in pursuit of strong drink,
who linger in the evening
to be inflamed by wine,
whose feasts consist of lyre and harp,
tambourine and flute and wine,
but who do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
or see the work of his hands!
Therefore my people go into
exile without knowledge;
Their nobles are dying of hunger,
and their multitude is parched with thirst.
Therefore Sheol has enlarged its appetite
and opened its mouth beyond measure;
the nobility of Jerusalem and her multitude go down,
her throng and all who exult in her.
People are bowed down, everyone is brought low,
and the eyes of the haughty are humbled.
But the Lord of hosts is exalted by justice,
and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.
Then the lambs shall graze as in their pasture,
fatlings and kids [alt: aliens] shall feed among the ruins.
Let’s end there – although the rest of the chapter still seems to be part of this single unit of text, the last verses continuing on the theme of wine and of wisdom, conspicuous by its absence, as it warns the partiers who mockingly call for the dénouement of this divine remodeling work that they won’t like the part where the subcontractors sweep through at peak efficiency like the Extreme Makeover wrecking crew, and haul everything off in their massive noisy dump truck. [OK, it doesn’t use those exact words, but have a look at Isaiah 5:18-30 and see if you don’t agree that if it had been written today, it could have.]
So imagine this: a singer begins her song – it sounds like any other popular love song when we first catch it on the radio – has a catchy tune, singable lyrics, the kind of song that’ll stick in our heads – but then almost before we know it, the song takes an unexpected turn … it gets a little deep … actually kind of grim … and then … we get the idea that not only is this song way more serious than we’d thought at first, it’s about us.
Pop singer Roberta Flack had a song that hit the top of the charts in 1973, “Killing Me Softly,” that’s almost a perfect expression of the effect the prophet Isaiah’s words might have had on his 8th century BCE audience – except that Flack’s song is a plaintive ballad that feels more like the poetry of a woman who’s been wounded in love. As the “song of the vineyard” unfolds, it sounds more and more like a political protest anthem, addressed to people who are hogging their positions of prosperity and power, living large in the land, and thinking of no one but themselves … as if the prophet has managed a mash-up of “Killing Me Softly” with Bob Dylan’s “The Times They are a Changin’”
The divine landscape architect of the vineyard metaphor has envisioned, planned, and prepared a beautiful, fruitful, almost paradisal place – paradisal, because the original meaning of the word “paradise” is “walled garden,” which this vineyard is. But the fruit of this design, that should have been luscious and fresh, turns out to be foul …
It should have been justice, but it is bloodshed; it should have been righteousness, but there is a cry – of suffering, of oppression.
We begin to understand the origins of the injustice and unrighteousness, maybe, from the specific complaints in those later verses. The people who were to have been the pleasant metaphorical planting think only of themselves … joining field to field and house to house, squeezing out all thought of, and place for, “little guys” or “neighbors,” leaving only a few spacious estates where the winners can stretch themselves out in luxury. … it’s prosperity thinking run amok. They indulge in pleasure, maybe even sophisticated culture, listening to music and drinking up all the wine that a vineyard can produce, but ignoring the larger purpose of the protections and blessings that ensured the prosperity, spurning the vision of justice and peace for all that was God’s original intent, and ignoring the predictable consequences of their failure to make those purposes their own. It is as if the sheltering and enclosing of the vineyard actually made matters worse, holding in a kind of rot or infection and allowing it to run rampant. The divine estate manager announces a course of action to repair the problem; to remove the enclosures, first off … open things up to the animals the hedge and wall have kept out; to stop sheltering it – stop clearing away the weeds, briars and thistles from plants that are taking up more than their share of nourishment already. To let the corrupted vines dry up. If the original vision hasn’t materialized, maybe the larger purpose – the purpose of abundance for all – can be brought about a different way; since the vineyard didn’t work, let’s try letting it sink back into pasturage. Because one way or another, says the God of the land, I am going to grow justice here.
Isaiah’s song of the vineyard is a beautiful piece of Biblical literature. One of its themes is God’s justice, and the egalitarian nature of that justice. Its metaphors are benignly vegetal. This would make a comfortable stopping point.
It’s tempting. Because going on with this text is far from comfortable. Trying to read a message for today in a text of prophetic judgment like this is an exercise in twisting and turning, in rejecting and scratching out and deleting and revising, in wondering whether it would be better to give up and start over with a different text, an easier one.
I’m acutely aware that it’s one of those texts that give some people the idea to say things like that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment for Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras and gay pride parades in the city of New Orleans. I don’t want to give any aid or comfort to that kind of reading. I’m one of those believers that, whatever “act of God” Hurricane Katrina might or might not have been, it occasioned as much human misery as it did because of the way the long history of American racism and the segregation and economic inequality it gave rise to had shaped the map of the city, and because of the way that map not coincidentally intersected with the map of the levee system and its vulnerabilities, and because of the way that levee system not coincidentally intersected with the environmental degradation that was rendering the Mississippi Delta region more and more exposed to the effects of Atlantic storms, and because of the way that environmental degradation was also linked not coincidentally to the oil and gas industrial activity on which many people in the area depended for their livelihoods, so that whatever judgment or revelation might or might not have been wrapped up in that disaster was sufficiently ambiguous and complex to make blaming it on liquor and license so simplistic as to be just plain wrong. I’m a believer that doing injustice to the messy, complex, inconvenient facts is as deep an injustice as any other, and presumably just as offensive to God.
But that doesn’t make it easier to read this text, because it’s one of those texts that resists domestication. It’s one of those texts that, like the crucifixion, doesn’t apologize for the fact that the divine subject of the text accepts a lot of what we might call, euphemistically, “collateral damage” on the way to whatever realization is ultimately in mind. This text tells me that, if I had my heart set on that particular vineyard plan, or that pasture plan, or any one particular penultimate outcome, I’m likely to be disappointed. And whatever the ultimate outcome, it seems my chances of being caught up in and suffering from the chaos accommodated by the relentless divine redactor of blighted paradises and ruined relationships on the way to it are excellent. The text’s image of the exposed vineyard, the sense things could get a lot worse before they get much better, feels contemporary.
And it’s one of those texts that, like the resurrection, doesn’t apologize for offering its audience incredible good news. My beloved, sings the prophet, is working out a purpose in human life and human history that erases humanity’s chronic equation of justice with the will of the stronger. God is doing something good, despite the appearances to the contrary, and it involves people … so it requires patience and persistence, because the divine artist insists on working in this exacting medium of humanity. My friend, implies the singer, could be yours, too … people can join in with, instead of against, God’s transformative process. You’ll still be exposed to suffering and loss, but you won’t imagine that injustice and idolatry will insulate you from it, and you will know it is laboring towards something good.
This, to me, feels like the stopping place to accept: a song of the vineyard that, somber as it is, is ultimately a song of hope.