A Sad Tale to TellPentecost
When I first read the lectionary passages for today, all I saw was failure. Many important things, however, cannot be said simply and directly. The stories in the Bible use images, metaphor, and poetic language to convey meaning. Such is the case in the two passages from our lectionary passages of the day.
Isaiah 5 is a parable told by the prophet. Everything the vineyard needed to flourish had been provided.” We find God’s generosity reflected in the poetry of verses 1-2. …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; he expected it to yield grapes, The outcome was nothing but failure, as the crop yielded wild grapes.
The vineyard owner describes a courtroom scene in which he brings charges against an unproductive vineyard. He litigates, “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, I will break down its wall. I will make it a waste.” In essence, he said that he will let nature take care of the failure of this vineyard. The passage moves from God’s goodness in verses 1-2 to realizing that things have not worked out as hoped. The vineyard owner has delivered his closing argument.
In the final verse, the speaker is now the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah refers to “good grapes” as justice and righteousness. To hear this in Hebrew, we hear the poetry we cannot hear in English. The prophet uses a play on the Hebrew words to differentiate what was hoped and the outcome. He says, God expected justice, mishpat, but instead he saw bloodshed, mispah. God looked for righteousness, tseaqah, he heard a cry, tsedaqah Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman identifies justice and righteousness in our own context. “Justice refers to an economy in which people are treated like neighbours. Righteousness means to devote energy and resources to the common good. But, says the prophet, what God got instead was bloodshed, which means predatory action by which the powerful had sucked the lifeblood out of the vulnerable. Or we got a cry, a cry of desperation…like a dying person without medical access. Such a cry, such bloodshed of exploitation is just the opposite of the hope for justice and righteousness.” The point of Isaiah 5 is to help us look at understanding what God has provided for us so that we can become his faithful people. The ultimate question is whether God gives up on us like this vineyard owner gave up on the vineyard?
In Isaiah the best outcome is expected; the worst outcome is realized. In Luke, the worst outcome is predicted from the start.
Luke 12 is troubling for me. This doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know. This sounds more like John the Baptist who had spoken of a baptism by fire. Today’s scriptures challenge us at the very core of our faith.
In the Luke passage, Jesus is talking to his disciples who are setting out to share Jesus’ message on their own after his death, but they don’t really understand that yet. Jesus wants them to know that living this new life of faith will not be easy. He is calling them to a radical journey of mission and ministry.
The Message translation ends with Jesus saying, “That’s the kind of decision I am asking you to make.” All of chapter 12 is preparing the disciples to make a decision about their commitment to Christ. Whether those decisions to live a life of faith will hold up against systems of family, religion, politics, and self-interests.
The passage begins, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is complete! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
If you take this at face value by looking only at these verses, it goes against everything we know about Jesus or think we know. It goes against everything we know about family as a cohesive unit. This is about the greater human family. Jesus says that you predict the weather and hit the nail on the head, but you don’t interpret the present times. Jesus was warning the disciples about the inherent conflict their decision to live a life of faith will bring against systems of family, religion, politics, and self-interests.
What is the question underneath the question that we need to hear? This isn’t just a simple assumption about our lives and who we are called to be and what we are called to do. The commitment we are being asked to make affects our family and frankly our world. We are asked to make choices that are not financially driven, or for power or prestige, they are for service.
The question underneath the question is that faith in Jesus Christ will put us at odds with the world around us. Give up your life, the gospel demands.
Coming back to Isaiah, even though it is a sad story, the question in Isaiah is this: just as the vineyard owner gave up on the vineyard, does God give up on us? We know the answer is always no, he does not.
It is astonishing but not surprising that in the midst of the destruction of the vineyard, we do not get the silence of despair. Instead, in the Psalm for today, we hear an act of hope with the prayer that is addressed to the God of all restoration.
Everything we’ve known and have experienced about God is that we can trust that God. Even as the Psalmist quoted in our Call to Worship that began our worship, so may it frame belief and practice as we end our worship and move out into the challenges of our days ahead. As the Psalmist prayed, so may we as well… Restore us, O God, teach us to love. Gentle teacher, help us to return to You in prayer, fasting from our negative thoughts. In your steadfast love, You uphold us, when our anxiety threatens to paralyze us. Restore us, O God. Teach us to love. Amen.