God judges his own choice vineyard, and pilgrims find hard going on their way to a better time.
The reading from the Prophets is the second passage from Isaiah of Jerusalem, a passage often called the Song of the Vineyard.
The drama of this song should be appreciated: it is an imitation of the complaint of a disappointed lover. (In the lounges and inns of Jerusalem the “vineyard” would be understood as a sought-after woman.) It begins, “Let me tell you a love story.” My friend planted his vineyard, a long-term investment with lots of infrastructure—site selection, land-clearing, plantings that take years to yield well, a watchtower built in the center, and a wall and a hedge around the cultivated area. My friend provided everything a first-rate vineyard needs. But my friend was disappointed; the vineyard produced only sour grapes.
The singer appeals to his audience, the people of Jerusalem and Judah, to judge the friend’s case. He has done everything; why these sour grapes? The appeal is to the justice of his further action. It is only fair that he tear down the wall and the hedge and let the vineyard be overrun by animals and wanderers. He will no longer cultivate and prune it; it will go to waste. And he will—but here a new dimension is introduced—command the clouds that they no longer rain on this vineyard. This commanding the clouds breaks the convention of the song. This is not an ordinary lover of vineyards; this is a God who shepherds the clouds of heaven.
And with that the allegory is dropped and the indictment declared directly.
The vineyard is the house of Israel, and the planting is the people of Judah. These should have produced the good grapes of Justice and Righteousness, but instead they produced Bloodshed and a Scream. The word translated “Bloodshed” occurs only here and is vague in meaning, but the “scream” or “outcry” is used to describe oppressed people, crying out to God and evoking a strong act of deliverance for them—Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 3:7 and 9) or Israelites oppressed by Philistines (I Samuel 9:16). Here it is God’s people, the “poor,” who scream because they are oppressed by their leaders.
The Lord enters into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard;
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?
says the Lord God of hosts. (Isaiah 3:14-15, NRSV)
This other indictment of the leaders is the plain prose meaning embodied in the poetry of the Song of the Vineyard.
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19
The Psalm reading sustains the image of the vine planted in a vineyard by God. Here the vine symbolizes Israel brought out of Egypt and planted it in a good land. However, in this song, the judgment that the prophetic song viewed as still in the future has already been carried out. The vineyard has been overrun, the walls broken down, wild animals ravage it, the vine has been burnt and cut off (verses 12-16).
Given this judgment, the purpose of the psalm is to appeal for a restoration. The climax is a direct appeal for a strong king—“the one at [God’s] right hand” (verse 17, NRSV). Such an Anointed One will not turn back in defeat (verse 18).
All through the psalm a refrain has run like a drum beat, which in its fullest form is the concluding word of the communal lament: “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; / let your face shine, that we may be saved” (verse 19).
In the Epistle reading we continue to hear the names of the “cloud of witnesses” who lived by faith down through the ages of Israel’s prophets, kings, and martyrs. There are brief allusions to those who followed their faith through the Red Sea and then through all the ups and downs of Israel’s life in the promised land, down to the severe sufferings of the martyrs of the Maccabean times who were crushed by their opponents (the stories of II Maccabees 6-7 are alluded to). By faith Jericho fell and judges and kings conquered Israel’s enemies, but “Rahab the prostitute” is also remembered as a heroine of faith, as are the widows whose sons were raised from the dead by Elijah and Elisha (verse 35). The pilgrimage of faith is peopled by many who were not native Israelites.
The writer of the Letter sees present-day Christians in continuity with these past witnesses, except now the goal they all lived and died for has come into view.
These past champions of faith did not receive their rewards in their own times, “since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect” (verse 40, NRSV). It is the appearing of that Anointed One at God’s right hand that inaugurates the fulfillment of the promises to the past worthies. Jesus became “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (12:2, NRSV).
That does not mean the pilgrimage to the city of God is yet complete. The trip continues, but now all know where they came from and where they are going. The trials and challenges of the pilgrimage can be met with joy and renewed faith in the final rest, which is now promised to us as well as to all the worthy ancestors of yore.
Hardship and opposition for the pilgrims who follow Jesus is reinforced by the Gospel reading. Here there are three statements by Jesus about his own mission, statements that implicate the disciples in the strife and violence that Jesus himself faces.
- I came to bring [literally “cast, hurl”] fire to the earth…
- I have a baptism [= violent death, in this case] with which to be baptized…
- Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division [the Matthew parallel reads “a sword”]!” (verses 49-51, NRSV).
The “division” to come is illustrated by divided families, father against son, etc. (Luke 12:52-53, a wordier version of the saying given in Matthew 10:35-36). This picture of the families torn by conflict most likely comes from meditating on Micah’s prophecy of the last days before God’s final judgment. Micah 7:1-7 portrays a literally God-forsaken society in which everyone consumes those near them and no one can be trusted.
Put no trust in a friend,
have no confidence in a loved one;
guard the doors of your mouth
from her who lies in your embrace;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
your enemies are members of your own household. (Micah 7:5-6)
This is followed in Micah by Zion’s expression of confidence that her Lord will deliver her, and then by prophecies of return from exile and rehabilitation of the holy city. The social chaos is followed by the urban utopia.
The great dissolution of society is the darkness before the dawn. It is standard procedure in eschatological and apocalyptic writings that things must get worse before they can get better. In later traditions this time of severe trial was called “the birth-pangs of the Messiah.”
Thus Jesus’ announcement of coming conflict and enmity, right down to the family level, is part of the announcement that things are going to get worse before they get better. Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem, a journey to reach rejection, abuse, and death. In that view the pilgrim’s journey by faith threatens the security one feels “at home,” and is weighted with sadness for those who will be lost. However, the end they labor toward will be a transformed life and a new family of faith in that city whose architect and builder is God.