Perhaps you are, like me, having a hard time attending to any of your usual routines–in my case writing a Sunday morning blog post. Being near the internet, as one is when one approaches a computer for any reason, devolves into an invitation to scroll and scroll in horror, gaping as the news filters in about Israel and its war with Hamas. In between news updates I’ve been trying to pray, and doing a bad job of it. There doesn’t seem to be any human solution. No one can even talk about it without throwing ideological flames into an already roaring fire. Most irritating are the various people who explain that there ought not be war. As you know, it would be better if people just didn’t kill each other, if they laid down their weapons and searched out “shalom.” Yes, obviously. War is bad. And yet here we are.
Therefore I scroll in irritation and despair, watching helplessly as the human family stumbles and lurches into destruction and ruin. Nevertheless, I must desist, I must turn away from the news as best I can, because one of my favorite texts from Scripture has been appointed for today, from Isaiah chapter five:
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;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men 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 looked for 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 briers and thorns shall grow up;
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 men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
but behold, an outcry!
Wild grapes, you might remember, are rotten ones, the fruit of rebellion. They are the disappointing outcome of human efforts to live in a vineyard made by a provident and perfect Master without having anything to do with him. The image turns on the Lord likening himself to a vineyard owner who has done everything for those whom he brought forth by his own will only to find that his beloved has rebelled against him, rejecting him utterly. He looks around in astonishment, trying to discover the traces of the goodness he gave so freely, finding in its place only bloodshed and an outcry.
The lectionary makers paired, rather brilliantly I think, this text with the stumbling stone of the gospel:
“Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
Don’t miss the bite of Jesus inquiring of the chief priests and the elders of Israel if they have ever read the Bible. “Have you never read?” he asks the people who only read, who devote themselves to studying the text. It’s their job. It’s what they do. And yet the meaning of it, the implications of the story, even their own place in the narrative entirely eludes them. When they heard the words “master of the house who planted a vineyard” they should have been, in the blink of an eye, transported back to that ancient vineyard, the one that yielded the rotten rebellious fruit of disobedience. And who were those grapes? Who was the vineyard? Who are the servants who kill the servants of the master and then finally his own son? Jesus allows the meaning of his words to settle into the space between him and the spiritual leaders of his people. If you turn forward a few pages you will see how it goes. They reject him–their own brother, their Lord, their God, their Master, the Son of Man who came to rescue them from themselves. They kill him. But what they intend for evil, God turns around for good, to bring you–even you–into the vineyard, to make peace with you by the blood of his cross.
As some of you know, I am reading Scott McKnight’s short book, The Bible is Not Enough: Imagination and Making Peace in the Modern World. In chapter two, McKnight quotes from Isaiah some of the most famous passages about how God loves peace and will bring peace, and explains that
Among the Bible’s prophets peace is so broad one must contend that peace involves salvation and liberation, justice and material blessing, interpersonal harmony and health and economic justice… one could go on. Peace is an imagined reality that inspires a person to improvise, in her specific situation and location, a way of life that counters the way of violence and death. The reason we are stuck in the “humane” war and white Christian nationalism is in part because those who claim most to follow Jesus lack a peaceful imagination that can shake systemic structures of violence and war to the ground.
Which war? That’s what I’d like to know. What is “the white Christian nationalism” exactly? Probably I don’t really want to know. I think one thing that makes it very hard to consider what McKnight is saying is that the writing is riddled with so many unspoken and unexplained assumptions. He trusts that you, the reader, already know what he is talking about and agree with him because he is so obviously right. He doesn’t have to “do the work” of explaining what the text means or what he believes about the text.
It’s so vastly different than the way God speaks in his own Word. God also has a certain set of assumptions, and you do have to “do the work” to understand them, but on the whole, they are uncomfortably plain. They are so clear that the people hearing them stumble, they break against the rock, gnashing their teeth in rage against the Savior.
McKnight explains that “Shalom is an ‘iridescent word’ and can mean prosperity, safety, salvation, personal and interpersonal peacefulness, blessing, well-being, healing and health, moral goodness and holiness, wholeness, and rest.” That’s of course true, and maybe he will go into the very heart of the matter in the forthcoming pages. Just to cut to the chase, though, how can one get the peace of the Lord that passes our understanding? How? Is lecturing people to be peaceful enough? Is it sufficient to admonish a wild, rotten, and disreputable human community that they should put down their weapons of war and move on into the golden light of comfort and safety? That’s been tried over and over and over and over and what has it produced? What is the fruit of telling people that they ought not to be at war with one another?
If you don’t know what that fruit is, go over the app formerly known as Twitter and type in any subject that catches your fancy. Any single one will do. There is not a single conversation or news item that is not replete, full to the brim, pressed down, shaken together, pouring over with foaming rage and discord. There is no way that we can have peace merely by telling each other to. There is only one way for peace to come to us in this dark and vexing hour. The Psalmist picks up the thread:
Turn again, O God of hosts!
Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted,
and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.
They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
But let your hand be on the man of your right hand,
the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!
Then we shall not turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call upon your name!
Call upon the name of Jesus. That’s it–that’s the Tweet and the solution and the hope and the peace.
Church is over by this point, at least for me, so I hope with a backward glance that you went. Have a nice day!
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