What more was there to do for
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
. . . he expected justice
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry! Isaiah 5:4 and 7b
âFinally he sent his son to them, saying,
âThey will respect my son.ââ Matthew 21:37
There are few passages in Scripture more heartbreaking than the ones quoted above. Isaiah and Matthew pull back the curtain to reveal Godâs heartâand that heart is wounded. As reported by the two writers, these laments of the Creator about Godâs created beings are not the words of an almighty God but of a vulnerable Creator. The cry reported by Isaiah and the simple, unemotional parable told by Jesus have a powerful impact on those of us who listen to themâthey scare us and bring us to despair.
âBut isnât everything that God created good?â we ask. âHow is it possible that God expects results that are not realized? How is it that God sounds so regretful and so hurt? And how is it that God did not know ahead of time how we would ignore Godâs love?â
So we return to the prophet and the evangelist and read the words again and again, trying to understand. The vineyard is a recognizable image and a familiar metaphor in both the Old and the New Testaments.
The speaker in this âlove-songâ of Isaiah concerning the vineyard is not identified, and we do not know who âthe belovedâ is (v 1). Is Isaiah quoting an ancient hymn or is he creating a new poem? Who is the singer? Who is the beloved? The answers can only be guessed at. Scholars tell us that it is Judah that is passing judgment on herself in the Isaiah passage, but the sound of it is recognizable from other references as the cry of God. It is a repetition of other instances where God ârepentsâ of the creatures God created. The question-and-answer format of the poet has the stamp of the creatorâthe one who owns the vineyard, who builds the watchtower, who digs the wine press, who waits patiently for the yielding of the grapes.
Jesus uses the Isaiah poem in his parable of the wicked tenants; he always told parables that were based on the lives of his listeners. He chose materials that were well known to these people who worked the land and fished the waters of the lake and the sea. And very few images were as familiar to them as those of the small vineyards that dotted the land, the severely pruned stalks in off season, the delightful sight of the loaded vines at harvest, the joyful pressing of the grapes, the comforting presence of watchtowers that lifted high above the ground and were visible from a distance.
It is not only the description of the vineyard found in Isaiah that is echoed in Jesusâ matter-of-fact, utterly tragic parable; the cry and the pain of the poem are reflected in the story, but this time with no ambiguity. All through the ages, this same cry has been echoed by parents in despair. What have I done? How did the child I loved and nurtured grow into a rebel I donât recognize? How did it happen that my child has turned into an addict, into someone who is unjust and cruel, into someone I never expected when, filled with hope for the future, I held an innocent infant in my hands? What more could I have done? What did I fail to do? These are the cries of someone who loves and who is bitterly hurt.
In the parable of Jesus there is no doubt of who the speaker is and who the tenants are; even those who want to see Jesus arrested and silenced get the message: âthey realized that he was speaking about them.â And Matthew leaves not doubt in retelling the story: The landowner who planted a vineyard is God; the tenants are the people of Israel; the slaves who are repeatedly sent to the vineyard, only to be put to death, are the prophets; the son is the one speaking to them, the one whose death is approaching because his proclamation of the kingdom of God is being rejected. So the kingdom will be given to those who bear fruit, Jesus tells them, not to those whose indifference kills the prophets.
Now let us pay attention to the poem and the storyânot from the perspective of the listeners of old but from our own perspective, our own lives.
Listen to the prophet speak to us: âHe expected justice but saw bloodshed, righteousness, but heard a cry!â and listen to the reaction of the people who heard the parable of Jesus: âHe will put those wretches (the tenants) to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.â
It is easy to see injustice when others are perpetrating it but we remain blind when we are the perpetrators. To take a current example of national and international scope: How easy it is for us today to blame Muslims for their violence and their injustice and how blind we are to our own acts that cause a cry from the oppressed and the neglected of this world. How easy it is to proclaim condemnation on those on the other side while totally ignoring the condemnation that we may deserve in their eyes. We justify violence on our part but are horrified by the violence perpetrated by those who disagree with our worldview. Both they and we are continuing to wound the heart of God.
Bringing them even closer to our own selves, these passages cause us to ask: What is the dream of God for me? Have I come close to fulfilling Godâs dream? The grapes that Isaiah mentions and the fruits of the kingdom that Jesus requiresâwhat are they?
Justice and righteousness, Isaiah replies.
The fruits of the kingdom, Jesus proclaims.
So let us ask: Do I practice justice every day of my life? Do I recognize the righteousness of God that keeps me from self-righteousness? Do I remember to do mercy? Do I recognize that Jesus is speaking to me also and not to those other tenants, those âwretchesâ who deserve punishment?
We started this look at two lessons of the lectionary with despair and fear. Let us conclude with a prayer for a passion for justice and a desire to stop wounding the heart of God. AMEN