Community. That seems to be where my mind is focused this week. Of course, if you’re the kind of person that wants to hole up in your cave, this post will be a waste. This week’s readings offer us a more fufilling alternative to the life we live now. As long as we suffer from guilt, or seek to succeed, or to be blameless – maybe the first thing we think of as seeking freedom – it just doesn’t work. Because all those things remain in endless supply, and the fight never stops. But what if there was another way…? What if there were a new way to see and perceive, where all those things vanish? A new way where we’re not fighting, but thriving?
How exciting to have a reading from Isaiah this week! I’m in the 4th week of the Old Testament course in the diakonia program. Lately I’ve been studying about the prophets of Israel, learning about their background, their prophesies, and the time period in which they worked. Isaiah is a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah. Judah is the smaller kingdom, compared to the northern kingdom of Israel. Judah’s captial city is Jerusalem, with the holy Temple, and the people are much more unified in their faith to Yahweh, compared to Israel. Unified, but not holding particularly close to their covenant with God, by any means.
This reading is Isaiah’s story of the vineyard, where he expresses God’s sorrow at His people’s hardness of heart, but yet unbendingly demanding that justice be done. Isaiah is calling for a reformation, a return of the people’s hearts to life rooted in the convenant given to Moses at Mount Sinai. From what I’ve been learning so far, I have the impression that for Judea, the reformation isn’t so much about a threat of pagan influence, so much as it is a cry to reform the hypocracy of the Temple priests and prophets. Judea is very attached to the legacy of the house of David, and rooted in Temple-centric worship, and the Temple liturgy celebrates the oracle of the prophet Nathan, promising a lasting throne to the kings who came from the family of David. So, perhaps an element of king-worship is taking place, that distracts people from worship of Yahweh. As long as the king is in power, everything must be great, and God will protect us, so what I do doesn’t really matter.
I’m reminded of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, about cheap grace versus costly grace. Grace as a presupposition versus a result. If grace is a presupposition, then it’s a justification of sin. There’s no call to reform, to repent. Whereas, grace becomes a result when we first acknowledge our brokenness, our sinfulness, and our faith leads us to see how we live in the light of grace. That we continue to live and breathe, to serve in spite of continuing to sin, and yet know that God still loves us as His children, grace is the result.
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 watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. – Isaiah 5:1-2
God’s people living in Judah is God’s vineyard. Planted and tended on fertile soil with so much promise and potential. God sets Isaiah as a watchtower in the midst of it, and the Temple in Jerusalem could be the wine vat, where a meaty, robust vintage could be produced. God has done no small thing in preparing for amazing things to happen, but for naught. Wild grapes. There may be juice, but nothing robust enough for the wine that God must long to produce. What more could God have done to have wine? And Isaiah continues:
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. – Isaiah 5:5-6
With Egypt and Assyria swollen with power and ready to conquer Judea, it’s not a stretch to see this vineyard be laid to waste. What would be the point of continuing as-is? The point is that God’s convenant isn’t just a mess of rules imposed upon us, making us God’s slaves. God’s covenant is like a portrait and instruction manual, showing us what faithful community is and looks like. But that’s hard for us to understand, with how some of the writings and the words read to our 21st century brains. Language changes, and we sadly miss some of the richest imagery and ideas without some help. Judea is not faithful community, and so, what’s the point in it existing at all?
I suppose that’s the core thought I have from this reading. If our church or our community isn’t modeling righteousness as liberation and hope, or isn’t serving the world and thus bringing God’s vision into being, then why do we exist? Same for me. And if I disappeared, would my existence have ever mattered? But the faith given to me by God, that now swells my heart with a passion for the Gospel more than ever, will not let my existence be in vain. It simply cannot be.
This leads me to offer a prayer for our government and leaders. Not a stretch after learning more about Isaiah and his crusade for a society that would, arising from faith, strive to treat all people with compassion and dignity.
Lord of Justice, we thank You for the many blessings that you give to us. Grant our leaders with compassion, to make decisions that care for the needs of all people, and that model how we might all offer compassion to the people in our midst. Grant safety and hope to our military and relief workers who labor in danger, as they strive to protect our safety and freedom.
Paul starts out telling us about his background:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. – Philippians 3:4b-6
I guess I feel like it’s important to have some background when reading Scripture, to get more meaning out of the readings. Sounds like this could have been written by one of the Temple priests that Isaiah was rebuking. Zeal and pride may satisfy now, but if we have a measure of God’s wisdom to see a greater vision, we see how shortsighted we were, how our zeal and pride were clouding our vision.
Paul tells us about the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Philippians 3:8) He’s not just talking about the experience of losing those things that the world values, which would seem to be what make us who we are, but also about how he regards them as rubbish. He shares with us how he enjoyed a righteousness of his own that comes from the law, but it’s eclipsed by his righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do; forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:13-14
It feels like we’re back to the same core message as of the Isaiah reading. Living in faithfulness through the resurrection of Christ is far more satisfying, holds far more potential, than what we perceive now. As we live into that potential, the former righteousness, our former success, will seem so small, so limiting. So not success or potential. This is a righteousness that isn’t just about escaping blame, but a righteousness that grants us actual liberation. Who wouldn’t want that?
This reading seems to be leading me to want to write a prayer for the Church. What other place even speaks of this kind of liberation and freedom? This is a gift that I certainly wish for all people to have. But yet, so many people sitting right beside me in the pews may not be hearing this offer. I think I want to pray that we could better proclaim and offer this liberation.
God of Liberation, we thank You for the gift of faith that gives us hope, and the gift of grace that frees us from despair and allows us to thrive. Grant us love, that we might help each other to know this liberation that frees us from guilt and inspires us to act, and help us to help Your Church to proclaim and to offer this gift to all people.
Well! Wicked landowners, vineyards, wine presses, watchtowers. This parable seems to easily continue the same theme of a body of people with great potential and blessing, who throw it all away and end up doing nothing or worse.
Finally he sent his son to them, saying “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the sone, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. – Matthew 21:37-38
Of course, including a messianic element this time. But before that, the landowner sent other slaves to collect the produce. I’d say this sounds like the many prophets called by God through the centuries, who proclaimed the importance of living rooted in the Mosaic covenant, and who called out the injustices and infidelities that gripped the people.
And so, not surprising to read “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21:43) Of course, my proclivity is to not dwell on God’s wrath (since I don’t believe in it), even though this reading paints God’s response as angry. Regardless which way you might swing on the scale, we can still talk about the pointlessness of a non-producing vineyard. It might as well have never existed. Even the most humanist person would agree that we all seek meaning and purpose, and without those things, we feel lost. A little like hell on earth perhaps.
And so, I’m left with wanting to write a prayer for the local community. Common causes bind us together and give us meaning as a group or a body of people. And suddenly it occurs to me that there’s a CROP Walk coming up in a couple weeks in Zionsville….
Spirit of Community, we thank You for having brought us together in this community, where we can learn how to live together, learn how to forgive and to mourn together, and learn how to celebrate with each other. Bless the upcoming CROP Walk, that it might be a meaningful expereince for us to share, and that it might provide needed help both for here and around the world.
So, my hope for you this week is that you might buy into the idea that there’s a liberation you could have. But it requires being with other people. You won’t find it on your own. Kind of non-intuitive that way. Liberating myself by burdening myself. Kind of like Theology of the Cross. It’s a mental shift, and an emotional sea-change, and there’s no single way to get there. But just think, you’ll have wine!