Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

The Song of the Unfruitful Vineyard

We continue our conversation with the prophet Isaiah this Sunday reading from chapter 5 verses 1-7.

5 Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.

2 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.

3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.

4 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.

6 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; righteousness, but heard a cry!

This is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word.  Thanks be to God.

Shel Silverstein is one of my favorite children’s authors.   I stumbled upon

his poetry in high school and was always impressed with his whimsical and creative sense of humor.   Often, I would take one of his books with me to my babysitting gigs to share my charges. When I was in college, I encountered his picture books.   One book in particular caught my attention, the Giving Tree. This story has captured me for years. It is frustrating, sad, and heartwarming all at the same time.   For those of you who may not have had the pleasure of experiencing this story, I’ll give you a quick summary. There is this tree who loved a little boy and the boy loved the tree as well.   The boy spent a lot of time with the tree, doing what most children do–he climbed the tree, he swung from her branches, he wove a crown from her leaves, and he rested in the shade she provided.   The boy and this tree had such a wonderful relationship until the boy started growing into a young man. He eventually grew up, got married, and started his family. From time to time he would come to visit the tree and ask for her support, to help him secure the things he thought he would need in his life that would bring him happiness.  So the tree told him to take her apples to sell, then her branches to build a house, and finally, her trunk to build a boat. The visits were few and far between and each time the boy returned the tree always greeted him with an invitation to stay and play for awhile. The boy refused her invitations to stay and play–he was busy building his life and pursuing his happiness.  And yet, the tree was always delighted to welcome him back. It made her happy to see him and offer him what she could in the way of support. That is until the day he cut down her trunk and hauled it off to build his boat. Then the tree was sad. And at the very end of his life, when he was an old man, the boy came back to see the tree once more. And before he could make any asks, the tree told him she did not have anything left to offer him and in a surpising turn of events, the boy told the tree that he didn’t need anything but a place to sit and rest–at which point, the tree straightened up as much as she could and offered him a seat on her stump.   And the book ends with the tree being very happy. 

There have been different interpretations of this children’s story and not all of them favorable.   Some have decided that the boy is an entitled brat who has no regard for the tree’s feelings and the tree is complicit in perpetuating the boy’s entitled attitude by giving him everything he asks without asking anything of him in return.   In the end, however, the boy seems to realize that the tree has been one of the constants in his life and he comes back home to spend some time sitting with an old friend and the focus returns to the relationship between the boy and the tree.  

Today’s scripture is a little bit like the story of The Giving Tree, except it’s about a vineyard and the ending is more of an indictment than a mended relationship.  In our scripture today, the voice of the storyteller shifts throughout the seven verses. “Let me sing of my friend who planted a vineyard,” the prophet begins, inviting Judah to listen to a love song of creation, care, and provision.  The vineyard owner has thought of everything to create a vineyard with the expectation that it will produce grapes for making wine.

And then, in verse three the voice of our passage shifts to God’s voice asking the people of Judah to be the judge between Godself and the vineyard.  God asks the people what more could have been done in order for the vineyard to produce grapes useful for making wine. Why did the vines produce wild grapes? 

Verses five and six then shift with God pronouncing judgment on the vineyard.  God will remove the protections of the vineyard and allow the field to be trampled and infested with thorns and weeds.   It is in these verses, that we the reader, get the sense that God isn’t really talking about a vineyard. That perhaps, there is a metaphor at play.  

Our suspicions are confirmed when in verse seven the voice shifts back to that of the prophet revealing to the people that God is the vineyard owner and that Judah was the vineyard. Like a vineyard owner who expects fertile soil and choice vines to produce wine, God expected Judah to be a just and righteous people.  

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!  

The contrast of Judah being God’s pleasant planting and Judah producing, not justice and righteousness, but bloodshed and cries has my attention.   I’ve wrestled with this passage all week and have held it in conversation with the other passages in the prophets we have already stepped through this summer.   These texts which are old, seem so very relevant.

When I first sat down to read the text for this week, it was with a bit of curiosity and a lot of trepidation.  Reading from the prophets is not always my first choice when I want to feel good about myself and the world around me.   And it takes work. These days, it would seem, these days take a lot of work to navigate. Couple that with the truth telling of the prophets and color me frustrated and depressed.  So when I read the first verse and saw this was a love story about a vineyard, I continued reading with pleasant anticipation. Until the end of verse two and then sensed immediately that this was a love song gone wrong.  But I was already moving through the passage and so I read the quick seven verses and yes, my initial assessment was correct. Our passage today is definitely a love song gone wrong–or is it?

Three times in verse one we see the word love.  “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”  And it is reinforced in verse seven with the Hebrew children being told that they are the vineyard, God’s pleasant planting.  We were created in love to be love–this is where our identity begins and is grounded. One would think it not necessary to point out that love is relational and how we love ourselves and neighbor matters.   So in verse two when the vines produce wild grapes, or bitter grapes, as one translation reads, we know immediately that it is so very important to be reminded of our identity and response to the love we’ve been freely given.  

This past summer, I have made several announcements and asks of you all in regards to the Family Life Curriculum forums being held by Tucson Unified School District.   I want to say thank you for your willingness to show up and also your willingness to speak. If ever there was a place or time in our community, to remind people that we are created in love to be love, I would say that these community forums are the place.   I have been amazed at the narratives that have presented themselves at these meetings. There seem to be two groups of people who are speaking up and speaking out. One is the group who are in favor of a curriculum which is medically and scientifically accurate, is inclusive, and age appropriate.  Many of those speakers have shared personal experiences of how a curriculum which didn’t utilize the above criteria has done more harm than good. In particular, our LGBTQ friends have shared painful stories of irrelevant and exclusionary lessons which perpetuate a culture of abuse, misogyny, and discrimmination. 

The other is a group who approach this curriculum through the lens of conservative christianity.   They have argued against the science, they are not in favor of inclusivity, and they certainly don’t believe that the curriculum is age appropriate.  The overarching concern for them is that this curriculum would be harmful for their children and their community, all of it supported with their theological lens and comments about what God wants for our children.   Some of the speakers, this past Thursday, went even further to spew hate and ignorance directed at those who think differently. I was not able to attend Thursday night, but instead watched the video afterwards. Rachael Eggebeen was in attendance wearing her St. Mark’s shirt and used her three minutes to address both the value of the curriculum and the need to not use religion as a tool for discrimmination.   I was so thankful she was there. But I have to say, that as this plays out in our community, I find it very troubling. The level of disrespect and the lack of human connection shown by the conservative christians who are speaking has been destructive. They are unified in their stance, evidenced by the white shirts they wear, creating a visual of uniformity when surveying the room. This has prompted many others to unify and do their best to create a visual of signs and bright colors for the next open forum.  The struggle is no longer about a curriculum but of human rights and validation. There is a divide and it is polarized.

Somewhere in this standoff, we have lost the piece that connects us all; we are all the result of a loving Creator’s desire to be God with us.   We were created in love to spread love. We have been given everything we need to navigate life–strong emotions, hearts for compassion, sharp minds to think critically and creatively, and unique gifts–all of us and all so very necessary to help us bridge our differences and live rich and diverse lives.   Instead, we find ourselves bearing not grapes, but wild grapes–experiencing the bitterness of a divided community struggling to overcome the inequalities we can so easily name found in the power dynamics of racism, violence, immigation, classism, ageism, sexism, environmental stewardship, and political ideologies.   

Love requires reciprocity.  It cannot be like a tree who gives everything away to make a young boy happy.  It cannot be a vineyard owner who plants only to harvest wild grapes. The prophet tells us that our God of Love requires justice and righteousness.  The text highlights quite cleverly the expectation of justice and righteousness with a play on words. The word for justice is mispat and the word for bloodshed is mispah.  With a slight shift in letters, the message becomes even more clear in contrast. The bloodshed that God has noticed is the economic policies that eventually bleed the poor to death.  Similarly, the word for righteousness is sedaqa and the word for outcry is seaqa. The outcry that is raised against victimization of people by greedy social policy. So the truth of God’s love is that we were created by love to be love in this world which not only needs justice and righteousness but is expected.  It would be so easy to throw up our hands in surrender and agreement that our community, our state, our nation is a love song gone wrong.  But our story is not yet over. We are grounded in love and gifted by God to be a people who promote and cultivate justice. Our fertile soil, hearts of love and hands ready to work can bring about righteousness.  Our efforts are the reciprocity that God demands. So as we go out from this place and into the community I leave you with a verse from Galatians: …let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.   God expects it and our world needs it.   May it be so.