For audio of this sermon go here: The Cathedral Church of St. John’s Sermon Archive and look for October 2, 2011
Our Old Testament reading this week is curious. In it the prophet Isaiah says, “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard.” He describes the vineyard, but then informs us that instead of the expected harvest of grapes, the vineyard has yielded wild grapes. Because of this, God—the beloved Isaiah speaks of—breaks down the hedge and tears down the wall and lets his vineyard get ruined. Furthermore, God says, “I will make it a waste…I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” Now I’m not a musical expert, but it doesn’t seem this love song has a much of a chance at the Billboard top 40.
Verse 7 makes sure that the metaphor will not be misunderstood:
“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!”
What a chilling statement. In Hebrew, it’s a play on words, but even that doesn’t make it less scary. The Hebrew word for justice here is mishpat while the word for bloodshed is mishpah; the word for righteousness is tsedeqah, the word for cry is tseaqah. Bloodshed then is a subtle pervsion of justice, and a cry of despair is what happens when righteousness is perverted.
These wild grapes that God is so upset about, then, are precisely these perversions of justice: turning justice into bloodshed and righteousness into a cry of suffering. That Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts is preeminently concerned about justice, and is really, really upset about the perversion of justice is a primary theme for the prophet Isaiah as it is for most of the Old Testament prophets.
Isaiah 5:16 tells us that:
“The LORD of Hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.”
Throughout the book the children of Israel are condemned for their unjust deeds and exhorted to make them right, like in chapter 1:
“I have had enough of your burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs, or of goats…
Rather, God says further in that same chapter:
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
In chapter 10 verses 1-2 we find this:
“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that the widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away?”
Just another verse of that love song.
Turning to the rest of the Old Testament we find passage after passage, injunction after injunction, statement after statement about God’s concern for justice: the Psalmist says,
“He loves justice and righteousness; the earth is full of the loving-kindness of the LORD.” And “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” Moses tells the Israelites, “Justice and only justice, you shall pursue that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.” Amos says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24); In chapter 22 of Jeremiah, King Jehoiakim is reminded that doing justice and righteousness, and rightly judging the cause of the needy is what it means to know God.
But as we see in our passage and many others, it did not go well for the people of Israel when they did not do justice. The Old Testament paints a picture of God’s dealings with the ancient Israelites as a cycle: God tells the Israelites they must do justice, and worship only Him. They fail to do these two things, he sends prophets to warn the people and get them to repent. They don’t. God judges them, and bad things happen. Then the people repent. Then God rescues and restores them, tells them to do justice and worship only Him and the cycle begins again. This is the story that Isaiah calls a love song.
Then Jesus comes along, and he tells the parable we heard this morning, clearly evoking the passage about the vineyard in Isaiah 5. But in this telling, there are tenants—which represent the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees and priests of Israel, some of whom just happened to be present as he tells the story.
Jesus tells how when the servants of the landowner, came to the tenants to ask for the fruit owed to the landowner, they were beaten and thrown out. These servants represent the prophets like Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Amos. And so it becomes pretty clear that this parable is describing this long cyclical story, the history of God’s dealings with His people. And then Jesus does something brave. He inserts himself into the narrative: the Son, who is sent by the patient landowner as a last ditch effort to reconcile the unruly tenants to Himself. Jesus is unabashedly calling himself the son of God. But the Son is thrown out of the vineyard and killed. Rejection, betrayal, murder; the building blocks of all good love songs.
There are at least two exceptional things about this story that I want to point out.
First, is that Jesus takes the focus from the vineyard as a whole being unruly, producing wild grapes, etc., and puts it on the religious leaders of his day. For Jesus, the blame is on them. He was a prophetic voice in the very truest sense, calling these guys out and telling them who they were, and forcing them to pass judgment on themselves. Notice they are the ones who suggest that the landowner come back and destroy the tenants, and then they realize that they are the tenants. Did they also see the irony in their reaction to finding out that Jesus was talking about them, that they immediately wished to arrest and kill him, the Son?
Second, Jesus inserts himself not just into this little story, but into the cosmic narrative of how God is saving His people; Jesus places himself in the context of this cycle of Israel being told by God to do justice and worship him alone—or as Jesus puts it, “To love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” Justice begins and ends with neighbor-love.
But Jesus is not just another in a long line prophets who come to warn the Israelites of impending doom. He is also the solution, the cycle-breaker. He is the stone the builder’s rejected which has become the cornerstone; God’s final answer to the problem of injustice, bloodshed and the disobedience of His people. The Gospel writers tells us that Isaiah is prophesying about Jesus when he says:
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry of lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”
Injustice is not an endless cycle, it has an end, and that end lies with Jesus. But it is a surprising end. Because Jesus did not come in the form of the wrath of God to destroy the unjust, he did not kill those who killed the prophets or those who had a big hand in getting him killed. Jesus’ solution to injustice is much crazier and disturbing than that. His solution to the injustice of the people is to offer himself over to that injustice. To suffer. To die. And through his death to conquer death. The cycle of injustice and bloodshed was only, can only be broken through love, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice. Salvation, freedom, justice, and righteousness can only be acquired through love, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice.
And so it is because of Jesus and his ultimate and surprising solution to injustice, that we can look back at Isaiah 5 through the lens of the Gospel and say, yeah, that is a love song. The whole narrative arc of Scripture, when it is seen through the interpretive lens of Christ, is nothing less than the greatest love song ever written, a love song of a God who yearns to reconcile all His people, all creation in fact to himself.
Through his life, teachings, death, and resurrection Christ has inaugurated the reign of God on earth, and it is a reign of justice and of peace. As Isaiah prophesies again:
“His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time onwards and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of Hosts shall do this.”
And yet this kingdom remains not fully consummated. There is still much injustice and bloodshed in this world. All of creation still groans for the day when this justice and righteousness and peace and love of God will flow like an ever-flowing stream.
It’s as if the Son, Jesus, has gone off to a distant place and has left tenants in his vineyard until his return. We, Christ’s followers, are the signs and the symbols, the first-fruits, the representatives of that now-but-not-yet Kingdom. We are the tenants in the vineyard of the Kingdom of God. Our task today then is the same as it was in Isaiah’s day: to worship only God, and to tend to the vines of justice and righteousness, to bring about the fruit of love and reconciliation in our little corner of the vineyard, in our community, and our families and our church, so that with hope and joy in our hearts, we can all anxiously await the arrival of the landowner’s Son. Amen.