13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 18, 2013
Commentary on the Texts
This reading is known as the "Song of the Vineyard" and is considered one of the finest literary pieces in the Old Testament. It is a carefully crafted allegory, a relatively rare literary form in the Old Testament that uses symbolic figures, characters, or actions to illustrate a truth or observation about human experience (cf. Eze 16; a fable is a specific kind of allegory in which plants or animals are allowed to speak in order to illustrate the message, for example, Jud 9:7-15, 2 Kings 14:9). An allegory usually involves a short story in which different elements represent different aspects of the truth to be illustrated. This differs from the much more common use of metaphor or symbol in which one thing represents or is compared to another ("the Lord is my shepherd," Psa 23:1; cf. Jer 2:21 where the same imagery of a vineyard is used in a simple metaphor). An allegory likewise differs from a parable in which a single truth is illustrated by the parable without specific parts of the story representing specific things (for example, 2 Sam 12:1-7).
While the allegorical reading of much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, was a common practice in the Early Church and still prevails in some circles, allegory is now recognized as a very specific literary form that is little used in Scripture. In all biblical occurrences of allegory, the meaning of the story is clearly explained within the context of the biblical text. Parables or didactic narratives (for example, Jonah), on the other hand, are often left for the reader to reflect on the meaning and make his/her own application and response.
Like many of the collections of prophetic sayings, the particular historical context of this passage is unknown. We can only place it within the general ministry of Isaiah of Jerusalem during the Assyrian crisis as he brought God's warnings of consequences for the nation because of their unfaithfulness to God.
This reading comes as part of the conclusion and climax to the opening collection of Isaiah's more general sayings before the book turns to deal specifically with the historical events related to the Assyrian crisis (7:1ff, preceded by Isaiah's call narrative in ch. 6 that also serves to illustrate the content of Isaiah's message, especially 6:9-13). Chapter five stands as the summary negative evaluation of Israel that the preceding chapters have been expressing. These verses contain the fourth judgment speech in the book (1:2-3, 2:6-8, 3:13-14) and introduce a series of woe oracles that serve to pronounce summary judgment on Judah (5:8-24) before the final sentence is given specifically in terms of the impending Assyrian threat (5:25-30).
There has been much discussion of the original historical setting of this literary form called a "song" in the Hebrew text (Heb: shierah). Some have proposed that it was patterned after songs composed for the autumn harvest festival (Succoth or Feast of Booths) celebrating the blessings of the land and good crops (cf. Deut 16:13-15). Others have proposed that its background is a marriage song sung for the bridegroom concerning the bride. This would involve a double metaphor, with the vineyard referring to the bride and the bride a symbol for Israel, and the vineyard owner, the friend, referring to the bridegroom and the bridegroom a symbol for God (see Song 8:12 for the metaphor of a vineyard to refer to a bride or lover). However, the original setting of the song has less importance here than its present function as it stands in the text.
The song itself moves in four main parts marked by shifts in person and time frame. It begins with a first person account of the song about a friend's vineyard that he had once planted (vv. 1-2). Many modern versions translate the Hebrew term in the opening verse (Heb: dodi) as "beloved." Since this is the same term that is often used for a betrothed or a lover (for example, Song 1:13 ff), this might imply a song for a lover. However, the term can also mean a loved one (relative) or simply a dearly loved friend. Since the pronouns indicate that this friend is masculine ("his vineyard"), it is better understood as "dear friend" or "beloved friend." Since in the allegory the "friend" turns out to be God, some sense of deep relationship is implied without overtones of sexuality.
The second part of the song (vv. 3-4) shifts to the owner himself speaking to the audience in second person direct address asking for their judgment about the situation described in the ballad. There is also a shift from a description of the past to the present ("and now"). The question is rhetorical since the decision does not really lie with the audience; it is the vineyard owner's decision.
In the third part of the song (vv. 5-6) the vineyard owner again speaks in answering the question posed rhetorically to the audience. The time frame here shifts to the future as the coming consequences of the present situation are given, as well as the longer range results of the owner's actions. The final section (v. 7) returns to the singer's perspective as he interprets the meaning of the allegory.
The images used in this allegory were all taken from common practices of raising grapes in the Ancient Middle East, many of which are still in use today (cf. Matt 21:33). Especially in the hill country of Israel, grapes were often grown on hillsides terraced by retaining walls and backfilled with fertile soil. On more level ground, the hard earth was plowed or dug and the numerous stones that are a common part of the Near Eastern landscape were removed and used in walls around the fields or to build a watchtower in the middle of the field. Since grapes were a staple food, used both for wine and preserved as raisins for use throughout the year, the grape harvest was extremely important and needed to be protected from animals, birds, and even theft. During the grape harvest, the vineyard owner or men hired for the job would man the watchtower to protect the vineyard (See PhotoTour: A Watchtower in a Field).
The singer emphasized that only "choice vines" were planted. This would refer to cultured stock that would produce wine-quality grapes with small seeds and juice with a high sugar content. Wild grapes only produce small fruit with large seeds and are often sour. In fact, some trace the origin of the Hebrew term translated "wild grapes" (v. 4) to a root word that means "bitter."
All of these images intend to portray the time and energy the vineyard owner had invested in this vineyard. There is also a clear sense that there is some expectation of return on this investment. In other words, the vineyard owner was not doing all of this just to amuse himself, but had a larger purpose in mind. This sense of expectation of a return on his investment of time and care is heightened by mention of building a winepress for the expected harvest of grapes (v. 2). Some winepresses were constructed above ground using large stones. However, the indication here is that this winepress, like others mentioned in Scripture, was carved out of bedrock. These were usually constructed in two parts with an upper section in which the grapes were piled and then crushed by treading, with channels cut into a lower vat that collected the juice (Joel 3:13). Even though the rock in this area is relatively soft limestone, this would involve a considerable expenditure of time and was a long-range investment. Such winepresses lasted indefinitely, evidenced by the fact that they could become landmarks (Jud 7:25).
Any farming involves both confidence and patience to justify the cost and effort. There must be a confidence in the future outcome that allows the farmer to invest resources with no guarantee of any return beyond the expectation that the crop will produce fruit. And there must be patience since there is often a span of months or years between the original planting and the harvest. Especially with crops like grapes or olives, full production would not begin for several years (17 years in the case of olive trees). A frequent symbol for judgment or impending tragedy is to plant a vineyard and not eat of its fruit (Deut 28:30, Amos 5:11, Zeph 1:13; cf. 1 Cor 9:7), with the opposite metaphor a symbol of peace and security (Jer 31:5). So, not only does the emphasis fall on the time and energy invested, the patience of the vineyard owner and his confidence of a good harvest is also clearly part of this story.
And yet this part of the story concludes with disappointment. With everything favorable, and every reason to expect a good harvest, there was nothing but wild grapes, a harvest the vineyard owner could have reaped from the beginning with no effort and no expense. The anticipated result of his efforts failed to materialize and he was left with only a bitter harvest.
The owner himself then spoke to the audience, with the rhetorical questions serving to draw them into the story (vv. 3-4). There is no direct indication in the story as to the actual response of the audience. Yet we might speculate that they, being familiar with the process of vineyard culture, would quickly have agreed that not only had the owner done everything he could have done to achieve the expected result, something needed to be done to the vineyard, if for no other reason than to put the fertile land to better use.
There is a degree of pathos in the questions. Using a different metaphor, what parent of a wayward child has not asked the same questions? What more could I have done? Why did they turn out this way? One can almost picture Isaiah's audience shaking their heads in sadness and disbelief that such well intentioned efforts should produce such miserable results. The answers to the questions are not expressed, but they are obvious. With the unspoken answer of "nothing" to the question "what more could I have done?" there rings a finality, as if we are about to witness the end of something.
The owner responded, not in answer to the questions, but to address the situation of the vineyard. It is interesting that the response was not that he would tear up the vines and destroy them, although that might have been expected. Instead, what he described was simply the removal of his care and protection of the vineyard. He would remove the protecting wall and hedge, usually made up of a row of thorn bushes around the wall to keep out scavenging animals. This would allow the animals to have free run of the vineyard, not only allowing them to eat the fruit but also putting the plants themselves at risk of damage.
He would also stop pruning the vines, which would allow them to grow into a tangled mass. The result would be vines too long to support the fruit, which would in turn mean fewer and smaller fruit since precious moisture would be taken to support the excess vines. Also, some branches would not get the sunlight they needed to stay healthy. And he would stop trying to keep the weeds eliminated, thus allowing other plants to compete for necessary nutrients and water. This would inevitably result in stunted and sickly plants.
While we often tend to conceptualize "judgment" of God in terms of active punishment, it is important to note that here it is conceptualized simply as the absence of the sustaining presence of God. He will simply allow the vineyard to take its natural course without intervention, without doing anything to shape it for a better purpose. This is a crucial point in the story.
If the audience had been amused by this song so far, whether they were attending a wedding or a harvest festival they would quickly begin realizing by the end of verse six that something far more important than an unproductive vineyard is at stake in this song. The owner finally said that he would withhold rain from the vineyard. It would quickly dawn on them that only God can withhold rain. In the arid Middle East, rain was understood to be the very life of the land, so much so that the Canaanites worshipped rain and the fertility of the land that it brought (See Baal Worship in the Old Testament). Because of this climate, the hot desert wind, especially in the absence of rain, became a metaphor for the judgment of God against sin and unrighteousness (for example, Jer 4:11-13). In fact, lack of rain was often interpreted as a warning from God (Amos 4:7). As in many stories and parables in Scripture, the skill of the prophet has drawn his listeners into the story, and then allowed the message to make its own impression upon them (cf. the same technique in Nathan's parable to David, 2 Sam 12:1-7, or in Jesus' parables, for example, Luke 18:10-14).
Finally, the climax of the story comes quickly, almost as a slap in the face as the prophet explains the allegory (v. 7). Just as Nathan's parable of the ewe lamb, the allegory has been told so well that it does not need much explanation. The people of Israel simply have not met God's expectations. He had heard their cries as slaves oppressed in Egypt, had taken them out of slavery, and promised that he would be with them, that he would be their God and that they would be his people (see Commentary on Hosea 1:2-10, the section on the covenant formula). Faithful to his promises, he had created them as a people, had brought them into the land, fought for them as they settled into the land, and then guided them with his presence through judges, prophets, kings, and priests.
But God's creation of a people was not simply that he might have someone to worship him or so that they might exist in the world as a privileged nation of pampered people, no more than the vineyard owner planted the vineyard simply to have pampered plants. They existed in the world because God had chosen them to be a blessing to the world (Gen 12:3; cf. Isa 19:24-25). They had a purpose in the world. God had revealed himself to them so they might respond to that revelation, live in the world as God's people, and in so doing the other nations and peoples might come to see and know and understand Israel's God (this theme will become central in the later Isaiah traditions; for example, 42:6-7, 43:10-12, 49:6, 51:2, 58:6-15).
Following the metaphor in this allegory, they were to produce fruit. Here, we need to be careful that we do not read New Testament or evangelical Christian ideas back into this text. The fruit they were to produce was not a harvest of saved "souls" as we might tend to think (which is implied in different contexts in some New Testament passages, for example, John 4:35-36). That may be true as the result in a derived sense here, but is not the purpose in view in the text. The fruit they were to produce was to fulfill their calling in the world as God's people by doing torah, that is by following God's instructions for how to live as God's people in God's world (a perspective also present in many New Testament passages, e.g., Gal 5:22-23, Col 1:9-10). The Torah, as well as priestly and prophetic torah (see Commentary on Isaiah 1:1, 10-20), tried to explain in some detail the specifics of what that might entail, not unlike what a modern church Discipline or Manual or Book of Order attempts to do.
Yet, frequently in Scripture all of that is expressed not just in terms of specific laws or regulations or rituals, but simply summarized by the terms righteousness and justice. In other words, the expectation of God from these people whom he had created and "planted" in the land was that they should be righteous and practice justice (see Voice Bible Study on John 15:1-16:15).
The prophet makes this point uniquely in a clever play on the sound of words in Hebrew (v. 7), a feature lost in English translations. The play on sound is between two sets of paired words, justice-bloodshed and righteousness-a cry (for help). The Hebrew word for "justice" here is mishpat and bloodshed is mishpach ("ch" is pronounced "k" here). The Hebrew translated "righteousness" is tsedeqah and "a cry" is tse'ahqah. We might transliterate the sentence: He expected mishpat but saw mishpach, tsedeqah but heard tse'ahqah.
One hundred years earlier in the Northern Kingdom of Israel the prophet Amos, in a context nearly identical to that with which the book of Isaiah opens (Isa 1:10-20), rejected sacrifices and rituals as the end of serving God. He concluded (Amos 5:23-24):
Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
A contemporary of Isaiah, Micah, also stressed the same point in slightly different words. He rejected the idea that being the people of God and worshipping God was the end of what it meant to be his people. He asked a series of gripping rhetorical questions, and then answered them in terms nearly identical to Amos and Isaiah (Micah 6:6-8):
"With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
And later Jesus, when asked a question with similar intent concerning the most important religious regulations that God's people should be concerned with obeying, responded in different words but with the same answer drawn from the Old Testament (Mark 12:30-31 and parallels):
" . . .you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." . . . "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." There is no other commandment greater than these.
Here Jesus summarizes the Old Testament concepts of righteousness and justice in Isaiah and the passages quoted above. Righteousness is what is owed to God because he is God, because he has revealed himself as God, because he has called these people into existence as his people. Here righteousness is not a moral category of perfection, but living a life (the meaning of the metaphor "walk" in Micah 6:8 above; cf. Phil 2:27) that acknowledges that God is indeed God. It is a response of faithfulness that is willing to accept the responsibility of being God's people. It is a relationship in which the people "love the Lord" totally and completely.
As a result, the people would practice justice. Here justice is not a legal category, but is a way to talk about equality and fairness arising from a concern for others that is willing to place human need and relationship as the highest priority of life flowing from relationship with God. In the fullest sense, to "do justice" is the same thing as loving one's neighbor as oneself.
It is in this sense that Isaiah has already used the metaphor of hands stained with blood to symbolize the lack of concern for widows, orphans, and the oppressed, the lack of justice (1:15; cf. 59:3, 7, Jer7:6; 22:3, Micah 3:9-10, 7:2-3). Again in this context, by pairing justice with bloodshed as its opposite, he stresses the importance of relationship with other people and responsibility to them as a crucial aspect of being God's people. This will emerge again later in the book as key component of the mission of God's people after the exile (for example, 58:6-11).
And yet for all this, the graphic point is that, just like the vineyard, Israel has not lived up to God's expectations even after he has given them every opportunity to produce fruit. Called to be righteous and to do justice as God's people they had failed, and the harvest was bitter.
The woe oracles which follow immediately in the remainder of chapter five (vv. 24f) unfold the details of the injustice and unrighteousness of the people. And there will come later passages of the book where Isaiah will warn the people of the imminent historical consequences of their actions (for example, 5:25-30). But even within the context of these few verses, the conclusion is clear. The vineyard will be abandoned and without care or cultivation, it will be overrun and eventually be destroyed.
One commentator has called this passage "chilling." Others have commented that this passage cannot really be preached as a Christian text since the Christian message is Good News, and this text is not. There is some sense in which that is true. The Gospel is always Good News, with a message of hope and possibility for the future. However, even the Isaiah tradition itself reverses this imagery of the vineyard and later speaks of a new vineyard that God will again plant in the land (Isa 27:2-6; even though Isaiah 24-27 is contained within the material attributed to Isaiah of Jerusalem ca. 700 BC, many scholars think it comes from the post-exilic period around 540-500 BC; see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah).
Still, even Jesus' teachings were preceded by the preaching of John the Baptist, which was anything but a message of unqualified hope. And even Jesus often balanced his message of love and forgiveness with warnings of consequences on sin. This suggests that there is more to the message of the Gospel than unqualified hope and possibility. So, while keeping in mind that all biblical messages end in hope, and a Christian message should never end in judgment, there is a reality here that cannot be ignored or glossed over with warm fuzzies. If we are to be faithful to the whole message of Scripture, we must come to grips with such "chilling" passages that speak of endings. After all, it is foundational to the Christian message that new beginnings can only come out of endings.
The Preaching Paths from this text can go at least three directions here depending on the scope. While varying the application, the focus can be 1) more globally on conceptions about God and his work in the world, 2) more generally on the church and its mission and ensuing responsibility, or 3) more specifically on application of the message in contemporary terms to the communal life of the church or individuals as part of God's people.
1) While we are sometimes reluctant to deal with larger theological issues that relate to how people think about God or conceptualize his work in the world, such theological reflection is important for spiritual maturity. We tend to act out of our belief structures, and often how an individual lives their life on a daily basis is directly related to how they conceptualize the larger theological issues about God.
The perspective of this biblical writer in this text provides a basis for asking certain questions about how God relates to sinful humanity, and can provide a broader foundation for thinking and discussion than we might think. This is especially true from certain theological perspectives that have tended to conceptualize God in almost totally legal categories. In this text, we have a picture of God that is not at all legal, although it certainly deals with consequences that arise from how we respond to him.
We often conceptualize the "judgment" of God as active punishment for violation of the law of God, in which God "zaps" people for transgression of that law. While that may be a valid model for understanding certain aspects of God, it is not the model in view in this text. It is not at all too strong to label the consequences about which this text is speaking as judgment of God, but that judgment is not punishment in the normal sense of that term. Punishment, especially as conceived legally, is almost always an end in itself, it is the final working out of the application of law. But that is not what is at work here, especially in the larger context of the entire book of Isaiah.
The judgment of God in this text is the withdrawing of God's presence from the people to let history take its own course without God's further involvement with this "vineyard." This suggests that the judgment of God can be, perhaps should be, conceptualized as the absence of God's active presence. Or, to say this another way, the existence of these people as God's people depended on God's sustaining presence, and if that were withdrawn, they would cease to exist as his people, just as the vineyard would gradually succumb to the forces around it without care and cultivation. The difference in being God's people in the world is the presence of God that the people themselves allow to work in their midst, in allowing God to cultivate, prepare, and nurture them for God's purposes in the world. God will do what he will do, but there is a point where God's work awaits a response of the people to his care.
That does not at all suggest that relationship with God is totally dependent upon us. But it does suggest that the relationship involves our participation; that is, it is not a one-sided relationship. In fact, "one-sided relationship" is an oxymoron, since relationships can never be unilateral or they are not relationships. God does not work with us apart from ourselves or others. He desires to enter into relationship with us, will do whatever is necessary to reveal himself and call us into that relationship, but finally the response is ours.
If we fail to respond in love and relationship, the judgment of God is that he will leave us to our own choice, and allow us to make our own way without him. He will do everything possible as an expression of his love and nurture of us, but if we reject him and his love, he will not force the issue.
2) A second approach to this text can focus on the expectation of the vineyard owner as a way to deal with the church and its reason for existing. This allows questions to be asked about why the church or the people of God exist, what its real mission in the world is, and what responsibility we bear for carrying out that mission. Especially in western evangelical Christianity, we have tended to focus on personal salvation to the point that any responsibility we assume is personal and individual concerning only us. This even leaves efforts at evangelism focused on individuals and salvation aimed at assuaging personal guilt. While there is certainly a place for such a model as one aspect of relationship with God, if we are not careful this leads to a perspective on Christianity that allows the game to be over once personal reconciliation with God is achieved.
Yet, it is not enough to be planted as a choice vine. That was never the goal; the goal was to produce fruit, to live in the world as God's people, as the transforming agents of God's grace. This text calls us to look more carefully at the end product, the fruit bearing that is in view in this allegory. In agreement with New Testament perspectives, this text expresses relationship with God as transformation of the person and the community of which they are a part, transformation as growth directing life in a new direction that moves outward from self to a concern with others. The "fruit" of relationship with God always becomes bitter if it is concerned more with how that relationship affects personal interests than it is with how that relationship with God transforms relationship with others.
Here the impact of the paired concepts of righteousness and justice can be allowed to have full force. This text, as well as many others, suggests that righteousness without justice is not really righteousness, or that a failure of justice can reveal a failure of righteousness. Our responsibility in the world as God's people is not just to be God's people (righteousness) but to allow being God's people to transform us into people who care about others in the world (justice). In the truest sense of the term, this is evangelism, a way of reaching out to others that goes far beyond prayer for their souls from our perspective of righteousness to a willingness actually to do justice by putting others' interests ahead of our own in the reality of life (cf. James 2:15-17). In this sense, relationship with God, or in our modern Christian terms "salvation," is not for ourselves; it is the way God has chosen to call the world to himself by calling people to himself that then live out that call in the world. That is the fruit for which he waits expectantly.
3) Finally, there remains the "chilling" aspect of this passage, which is really the intent in its present context. We may debate about how to present this message, may worry about the balance of judgment and grace, fret over how people might respond to such a message, and finally must decide whether this is really God's word for any particular community of faith at a certain time. But the message itself will not go away as a truth about how God works in the world with people. It will not go away just because we are Christians and want to talk more about grace than we do about judgment, or because we live in a post-modern world in which we do not want to be too judgmental of others. That is what makes the message chilling.
Simply put, the message is that there is a point of no return for this community, and perhaps for individuals as well, beyond which the consequences of their failure will work out. That does not mean that any sin is unforgivable, nor does it mean that there is always an inevitability to the process that operates apart from God. But it does say that there comes a time when God allows the seeds of sin to reach their bitter harvest.
While this can be taken in many directions, it probably should not be taken in the direction of being used as a club of fear to scare people into making decisions for God. There is none of that here. There is only the simple statement of the fact and reality of the consequences.
When linked with the concept of responsibility, this text says that even given the care and love of God, no matter what or how much he does to compel or prod us to be responsible people of God, we may choose to go our own way, reject that love, and set in motion consequences that bring ending and death.
Certainly there is more to be said about the role of endings in new beginnings and about the grace of God that goes beyond our own ability to avert consequences, as the book of Isaiah itself makes abundantly clear. But that does not diminish the fact that at the point of no return, there is a simple honesty and a simple truth in the reality of judgment. If we are not honest enough to proclaim that truth and that reality to people, we risk failing to bring the whole message of God to the world. While judgment can never be the final word to people, we may be less than honest and less than responsible, if we do not begin with judgment, with a call to accountability and responsibility, before we proclaim grace. Otherwise, grace has little meaning.
This Sunday in the Church Year
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Year A, Proper 22