Sunday, August 14, 2022
The Parable of the Vineyard from Isaiah
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy, TX 77493
August 14, 2022
This morning I want to look at a famous passage from Isaiah, the song or parable of the vineyard which takes up most of chapter 5. We only get the first half of the passage, but I will go into what the second half has to say because it is important. This is an important early prophecy by Isaiah around 700 BCE and written by the first of the authors of Isaiah. Scholars think that there were two or three writers that contributed to this book which spans far more than a lifetime of any one prophet.
This Isaiah passage is a parable. We all know that Jesus taught in parables. However, he didn’t invent the parable, they had been a standard teaching tool for almost 1000 years before Jesus was even born. They were often filled with questions that were to provoke the listener into deeper understanding of the teachings of these parables rather than telling someone what to think. They sought to bring about an understanding through their thought process.
Now this parable ought to bring up some possible parallels from other scriptures. In particular the story where Nathan confronts David over his affair with Bathsheba. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant David ultimately sends Uriah the Hittite to the front of the battle and then draws the army back and Uriah is killed. Nathan tells the story of the ruler who took the lamb from the poor man for a banquet rather than kill one of his own sheep. David says how horrible that is and that man should be punished and Nathan looks at him and says, “You are that man.” Isaiah does the same thing in verses 3 and 4 to the audience and then convicts them of being the unfruitful vineyard. Just as with the story of Nathan and David the audience is tricked into condemning the wrong actions before they realize that they are the ones who are being criticized.
It is important to pay attention to who is speaking. Verses 1&2 are Isaiah serving as narrator. In verse three and beyond it is the vineyard owner who is speaking in 4&5. Then it becomes obvious that Isaiah is speaking judgement from and on behalf of God.
In the Hebrew scriptures the vineyard almost always stands for the people of Israel (Jewish). The vineyard owner is God.
The explanation of the nature of the sin of Israel comes after the reading ends. The issue is that greedy people have bought up all the vineyards and land and kicked the poorer people off their land. Jewish people were expected to take care of the poor and needy not steal their land. Now the grapes were grown not to eat but to make wine. So the people who had been growing food on the land now saw all the land being used to make money by selling the wine that was produced. A classic corporate versus family farm conflict made worse because it made food more expensive for the people.
This is where Isaiah gets into the idea of justice and righteousness. To be righteous in this world meant to be in a right relationship with God. Now later in the Jewish history it meant careful observation of the law, but Deuteronomy had not yet been written at the time of Isaiah so that is not the factor it was later. We need to look at the aspect of justice to understand what the issue is.
Before we look at that there is a wonderful word play in the original Hebrew. He expected mispAt (“justice”) but saw (mispAh, “bloodshed”), zudAqâ (“righteousness”) and heard (zuAqâ, “a cry”). Just a single change in letter changes the word to something totally different.
Now what about the term justice. In the field of ethics which we all studied in seminary there are multiple types of justice. The New Interpreter’s Bible commentary says this, “Justice,” particularly in Isaiah, refers to fair and equitable relationships within society grounded in the just will of the Lord and established through honest procedures. When such justice fails, it is because the economically and/or politically powerful have taken advantage of the weak. “Righteousness” refers to that relationship with the Lord from which springs loyalty to the Lord’s expectations of justice.”
One type of justice is distributive justice which was very important to the nation of Israel. Distributive justice is concerned with the equitable distribution of resources, such as land (Isa 5:8). This is the issue at hand here in Isaiah. The peasant class has been driven from their land so that the wealthy can profit. Distributive justice is something that Jesus was very concerned about as was the early church. A key tenant of the early church was that all God’s children would have what they needed. Distributive justice is still a major issue today. I only need to look at how the first world has treated the third world countries in terms of providing vaccines. The pandemic also made the gulf between the lower and upper classes even greater.
Then we have retributive justice. This is the justice that demands punishment. Our entire penal system is built on this premise. You hear it in the person being interviewed on the news who has had a family killed or injured. “I want justice” they proclaim, but what they really want is vengeance and retribution. At first glance retributive justice is what the destruction of the vineyard would seem, but I’m not so sure. God doesn’t “punish” just to work out his anger. I believe that God works more in the restorative justice area. That is justice that seeks to restore, to repair the damage that the sin has done. We see all through the prophets, the story of the judges and the rise and fall of the various kingdoms after the time of David and Solomon a cycle that always ends with the people of Israel getting their act together and restoring their righteous relationship with God.
The best example of restorative justice is found in C.S. Lewis’ Great Divorce. In this story a group of people who are living in hell (they don’t think it is hell, just a dismal London slum town). There is a bus that periodically leaves that takes them for a holiday in what is heaven, even though they don’t realize it. All of them have the chance to stay in heaven if they wish. For many it is so foreign and beyond their understanding they get back on the bus and return to hell because much of what goes on in heaven they don’t like. What is that all about. Well it is restorative justice.
Each person who chooses to stay is given a guide to help them deal with whatever it is that has landed them in hell. Of course none of them expects to see those who they dislike or who hurt them during their life up in heaven. Yet the visitors to heaven are surprised by who they encounter when they take that bus ride up to heaven.
Those who were the ones that caused hurt ended up in a couple of cases being the ones assigned to help their victims overcome whatever it is that is keeping them out of heaven. Now all of the guides have acknowledged their sin and are ready to make amends. They are called to restore their relationship with the person who they harmed. The sin of the one they have harmed is that they foster a deep hatred and dislike for the person that harmed them and by extension most other people. They are very miserable but also most are very self-righteous. Some our so convinced that they are right to be so angry that they would rather go back to hell than reconcile. This is Lewis speaking about restorative justice and how difficult it is.
Now this is a very painful experience for those folks who have come up on the bus and most would rather skip the pain and stay the way they are. Working in a system of restorative justice is hard because it calls on us to forgive others as well as our selves. That would be the love your neighbor as yourself. That always starts with loving and forgiving yourself before you worry about someone else.
I’ve always thought about how God can work in our lives as similar in some ways to a good massage therapist. I had a nasty knot in my left shoulder on Monday when I went in for my monthly massage and chiropractor visit. I’m trying to avoid back or neck surgery that everyone on my side of the family seems to have to do. This was not your relaxing massage it was work for me and for my therapist. I remember my first therapist her name was Olga Veltmen. I’m sure you all have an image in your mind and it’s wrong. She was 5 ft and maybe 90 pounds but she had her “elbow of death” that she would work on those knots that I would get. Did it hurt, you bet. Did I feel better a couple days later, absolutely. Now I truly wish that those adjustments from God were painless, but I’m not sure I’d listen and remember if they were.
Yes God is a God of love but sometimes like the parent that love can be on the tough side. I have learned in times of trial not to ask “Why God” but what can you teach me through this challenge. That’s how as I said a couple weeks ago, God can help us turn stumbling blocks into steppingstones. Sometimes those stepping stones expect us to do work that is restorative in nature. This is always a challenge, I truly believe that working toward restorative justice is a good way to begin to heal our world.