FIRST LESSON: Isaiah 5: 1-7
This passage is one of the best-known oracles of the eighth century prophet and summons its Judean audience to judge the legal complaint of a would-be vintner who lavishes care upon his vineyard but only harvests bitter and useless grapes. It begins with a song and the writer takes up the role of a minstrel. It sets the stage for what we think is going to be a wonderful feel-good love song that that brings visions of beauty and love and goodwill, a rich ritual celebration, because this is normal for Biblical literature.
But that is not the song we hear; because, unlike most of the Hebrew love poetry, this song quickly loses its beauty and sensuality and gives way to a sort of judicial oracle. The “Song of the Vineyard” becomes a parable of judgment against the Hebrew people for their continued disobedience of God. The words of this song remind us that God did not merely create humanity and then set down Creation with everything that was needed for our enjoyment. The passage tells us that God expects something from us. God invites us to a new vision of the world around us. That is the song that we are about to hear.
Remember that this part of Isaiah is generally assumed to be set in the 8th century, probably sometimes between the death of King Uzziah of Judah and the final fall of Judah in 701 BCE. During this time, Judah became a vassal of Assyria and fell into practices that were not in accordance with what we would call a right relationship with God, practicing social oppression and allowing social injustices to pervade their society in what the prophet saw as an out and out rejection of God.
The parable begins with a portrayal of a vineyard nestled on a lush and fertile hill. The image of the fertile soil depicts an image of growing, ongoing life. There is nothing stagnant about God’s gift of Creation. According to the passage, the owner has “dug it and cleared it of stones.” This implies that God has worked for this—this is not just some “haphazard” act of Creation. God has planted this lush, green vineyard with choice vines, those deep red vines, capable of producing the best and sweetest of fruits and the finest wines.
The song continues as the owner builds a watchtower in the vineyard, which housed a wine vat. Think about it. This image of the watchtower is one of a permanent, immovable point that is higher than everything surrounding it. The whole vineyard can see this watchtower and from this tower, then, it is possible to view the entire vineyard. But it is more than a place of mere observation. It includes a wine vat, or winepress. This watchtower, then, is the place to which the harvest is brought, peeled, and aged. It is the place where the harvest is converted to a finely aged wine. It is the central point, the place where all come to be “aged”, changed into God’s people. For the Old Testament Hebrews, this was the temple, the center of society. It was for them that highest holy place where all came to worship God and to be formed into right relationship with their Creator.
God had done everything necessary and expected it to yield the choicest of fruits. But something went wrong and the harvest was one of wild, sour grapes which, though edible, are not fit for the making of fine wines. This is probably the key to the passage, for it is here that it is evident that the vineyard is useless without the harvest—it is just land; it is here that we are reminded that God’s Creation is meant for our response. God expects something of us.
And then the song changes key. And now we begin to get a little uncomfortable. “And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah…” “And now inhabitants of the vineyard that God has created…” It is at this point that it becomes apparent that the parable is no longer just a nice little entertaining story but is rather an indictment and denouncement of the injustices that had overtaken this society. You know, for me, this sudden change in person and structure of the passage almost implies that those hearing it just weren’t getting it. They had gotten so wrapped up in the story that they hadn’t yet realized that it was about them.
And then at the end for those who are apparently really slow on the uptake, the prophet explains it all: the vineyard is indeed Israel and its people are the Lord’s “pleasant planting”. The implication is that the inhabitants and laborers of the vineyard are no longer even listening to God. They have treated others badly, even being guilty of the act of oppression or the passive act of closing their eyes or turning their backs while social oppression happens around them. They have allowed the vineyard to be swallowed up and overtaken by their own greed, self-centeredness, and perhaps even fear. They have taken what God has provided but have not responded to God’s call to action in faith. So what began as a glorious love song is now waiting for a harmonious chord once again from the people of God.
- What is your response to this passage?
- Where do we see ourselves in this passage?
- What more was there to do that God has not done?
- Why has it turned out like this?
- Why is it hard for us to listen to condemnation like this?
NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 11: 29-12:2
This week’s Lectionary passage continues with our so-called “roll call” of the faithful. Think of it as our family photo album, as the writer of Hebrews (we don’t really know who that is) brings into our memories the snapshots of the faithful that came before us. Remember that Hebrews was probably written to a small band of new Christians who were suffering persecution and feeling isolated. So as we look at this remarkable family the writer of Hebrews sketches, we discover two portraits of faith. One portrait is full of images of triumph: conquering enemies, obtaining promises, shutting the mouths of lions, even gaining victory over death. But the other portrait is filled with images of suffering: public mocking, imprisonment, beating, stoning, homelessness, violence, and death. Our lives are always a mixture of successes and failures, of ups and downs. But the writer of Hebrews mixes the categories because our lot in life is not a measure of our faithfulness.
The passage becomes a word of encouragement for struggling Christians. If we are struggling, and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is suffering, we might despair. Must our suffering continue forever? If we are struggling and someone tells us that the true mark of faithfulness is triumph and victory, what hope is there for us? But the mixing of suffering and triumph gives us a word of hope: faithfulness shines both in suffering and in triumph, both in sorrow and in joy. Faith trusts God and God’s promises even when it doesn’t make much sense. We are in good company. We are never alone.
We are reminded that there is work to do, a race to run, so to speak. Think of it as a marathon—sometimes invigorating, sometimes grueling, sometimes crowded, sometimes lonely, but always fixed on what is to come. So we are exhorted to lay aside those things that might trip us up or weigh us down. And before us, as laid out by the writer of Hebrews is Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Pioneer, here, is the Greek word archegos, which means author, beginner, instigator. In the context of a race, the archegos is the team captain, the trailblazer. The writer also depicts Jesus as the perfecter—the one who fills in what is lacking in our faithfulness or our work. He takes our incomplete faith and makes it whole. And, for us Christians, there is also the awareness that Jesus, too, has traveled this road.
This passage is read a lot in conjunction with funerals. You can see why. But it is also a reminder of our connection through Christ to all those past, present, and future and the fact that we are expected to actually do something, to actually participate in the life we’ve been given, to join in this long list of saints and become part of them. In remembrance, we find our calling to go forward and be who God calls us to be.
Some of you may remember the movie “Dead Poets Society.” The movie stars the amazingly talented Robin Williams. Williams plays John Keating, a high school English teacher at an all-boys private academy, who is committed to helping his students take advantage of life’s opportunities.
There is a compelling scene in the movie when Keating leads his class out into the foyer of the building where old photographs of graduating classes from decades past cover the walls. As the boys study the portraits of the classes who had graduated generations before them, Keating remarks that the men in those pictures were just like them, full of hope and ambition. Then Keating asks his class, “Did they wait till it was too late to realize their full potential?”
Then he tells the class that if they lean in close they can hear a message from the men in these pictures. So they lean in and Keating whispers, “Carpe Diem. Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” (From “Postcard from Heaven”, a sermon by Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb, August 15, 2010, available at http://day1.org/2111-postcard_from_heaven, accessed 11 August, 2010.)
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What does comfort does this give you?
- What discomfort does this give you?
- We Protestants don’t have a lot of “saints” or “heroes” that we’ve publicly recognized. We try to be a bit more inclusive. So who are the “saints” in your faith story? Who are your heroes? Why are they on that list?
- What would that look like to make your life extraordinary?
GOSPEL: Luke 12:49-56
Needless to say, this is a hard passage. We’d rather read of unity and harmony and Jesus instead says that apparently we’re just going to have to live with divisions and disharmony. Here, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem towards his demise. So it is apparent here that Jesus is weighing two types of peace—one secular, the other sacred. The truth is, Jesus did NOT come to bring peace to those in power or to bring comfort to the comfortable. Jesus came to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, to loosely quote a journalist of 100 years ago or so. Remember that Jesus had in mind a completely new vision, not a “peaceful” earth such that we know.
This is hard for us. We tend to want an empathetic God, a God who is nice to everyone. But how in the world, then, would the earth truly get redeemed? Jesus is combating forms of authority and power that do not fit in with that vision of a wholly-redeemed earth. The passage begins with the words, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” That does not sound good. It sounds much more like confrontation and conflict. So how can this be good news? Our answer depends on the way we view the world and the way we view God. If the world was exactly the way it should be, then this passage would make no sense. But if the world is marred by oppression and social injustices and killing and war, what would that say about a God who would just let that be? Jesus is not coming to disturb and bring havoc to a “nice” world; he came to redeem the one we have.
This is a call to fragmentation for the sake of ultimate wholeness. It is a call to tear down in order to build up. It is a call, once again, to “die to self”, to let go of what we know and what we have created and what walls we have constructed, and put our faith wholly in the wholly-redeeming God that we know. It is a call to give your life for the mission of Christ in the world.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- What makes this so difficult for us to hear?
- What does “redemption” mean to you?
- What does “peace” mean to you?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
We all desperately want peace…that is why “Shalom” is such an oft-repeated word. For, even as a simple greeting, it embodies deep yearning and solemn promise. So the ancient sage Hillel insisted that it is not enough to simply want peace, to hope for peace, even to pray for peace; he taught us to “love peace and actively pursue peace.” (Wayne Dosick, in Dancing with God)
If the poor, the women, and the dispossessed sat at the tables where theological decisions are made, there would be a different set of sins. (Joan Chittister, Called to Question)
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. (Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century)
…The world has become so strange, and our place in it so tenuous, where gray seems clearer than the white purity of our hopes, or the darkness of our deathly passions. There is so little agreement among us, perhaps so little truth among us, so little, good Lord, that we scarcely know how to pray, or for what to pray. We do know, however, to whom to pray!
We pray to you, Creator God, who wills the world good; We pray to you Redeemer God, who makes all things new. We pray to you, stirring Spirit, healer of the nations. We pray for guidance, And before that, we pray in repentance, for too much wanting the world on our own terms. We pray for your powerful mercy, to put the world—and us—in a new way, a way after Jesus who gave himself, a way after Jesus who confounded the authorities and who lived more excellently.
Whelm us by your newness, by peace on your terms—the newness you have promised, of which we have seen glimpses in your Son who is our Lord. Amen. (Walter Brueggemann, from Prayers for a Privileged People, p. 65-66)