Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Replanting the Vineyard (Isaiah 5)

When we continue in the outward practice or language of religion but do not seek to right injustice in our own communities, the problem is not with our religion, but with our heart.

Isaiah 5:1-2 (ESVUK)
Let me sing for my beloved
    my love song concerning his vineyard:
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;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

As Chapter Five opens, Isaiah sings a song about a vineyard, a common image for the people of God in the prophetic books and the rest of the Hebrew Scripture as well. In the first three chapters of the book, Isaiah has spoken with very harsh language of the corruption and injustice in Israel, God’s covenant people. In the fourth chapter, he introduces the hope of a coming Messiah, whom he calls a branch, and a bright future when God will live among his people again. Now, in this song of the vineyard, he brings the text back to the dark present, and further illustrates God’s justification in holding his people accountable for their corruption.
The challenge in the passage is in the work of the gardener described in the first two verses, compared to the result of his labour. The gardener planted the vineyard on a fertile hill, without stones, from good vines. Still, the vines produced wild, or sour, grapes. The fruit is useless.

Isaiah 4:3-4 (ESVUK)
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
    that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?

The simple question sheds light on a dark truth. If the gardener has done all he can, and all the conditions have been right, then the problem is not with any act upon the vines. The corruption of the fruit is a symptom of a corruption in the vines themselves. The song continues with its expected yet devastating conclusion.

Isaiah 5:7
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
    but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
    but behold, an outcry!

The sour fruit of this vineyard of God is oppression and violence toward the poor and vulnerable, for the sake of the comfort of the arrogant rich. Though they had been liberated from Egypt by God to be made a nation of priests, ambassadors of God to all the nations of the world, they had instead returned to Egypt in spirit, becoming the same as all the violent empires that surrounded them.

Isaiah 5:7 (ESVUK)
Woe to those who join house to house,
    who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
    and you are made to dwell alone
    in the midst of the land.

Israel was given a law to guide their nation in justice as ambassadors of God’s justice in the world. In this beautiful document was an image of a profoundly just and merciful people. They were to be an inclusive community, welcoming strangers and judging them by the same law as the native community. They were to provide for the poor among them, the widows and orphans. They were a community of freedom, commanded by the law to release prisoners, cancel all debts, and redistribute all land equally every generation. This time of freedom was called the Year of Jubilee. By this law, no one would be able to accrue enormous wealth at the expense of others. Each generation would be given an equal chance at every year of Jubilee to enter community and prosper within it. Nobody would be given an extra advantage with enormous inheritance, an inequity that would only grow worse with each passing generation as the rich become more powerful and the poor more vulnerable if not for this law of debt cancellation and just redistribution of land and property.

Unfortunately, Israel never followed the law of the Year of Jubilee. Isaiah is calling out the landowners who are growing ever more wealthy as they buy up more property than they could ever personally use. This is an injustice, a symptom of the greed, selfishness, and corruption that has infected the community.

Isaiah 5:11-13 (ESVUK)
Woe to those who rise early in the morning,
    that they may run after strong drink,
who tarry late into the evening
    as wine inflames them!
 They have lyre and harp,
    tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts,
but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
    or see the work of his hands.
 Therefore my people go into exile
    for lack of knowledge;
their honoured men go hungry,
    and their multitude is parched with thirst.

The arrogant rich have time to party and the money to get drunk while the poor of the nation are losing their homes. The evidence of their corruption is their oppression of the poor. They have lost their knowledge of the law of God. For all of this, God places the responsibility on the hearts of the people. All that could be done to provide the conditions for health had been done. This hedonism is a virus of the spirit. Their bodies had been emancipated from their slavery to Egypt. Their continued bondage is their own, and it is now from themselves that they must be liberated.

Isaiah 5:21-24 (ESVUK)
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
    and shrewd in their own sight!
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
    and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
    and deprive the innocent of his right!
Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
    and as dry grass sinks down in the flame,
so their root will be as rottenness,
    and their blossom go up like dust;
for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts,
    and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

By these evidences of corruption does Isaiah argue that God is fully justified in punishing his nation by sending them into exile. In their exile, scattered among the empires of the North, will Israel become again aware of the sovereignty of God, and the blessing they had when living in their own land as God’s people. In their dark time, God will shine light in their hearts, and bring back to life that which had become dead and corrupt. Their exile will give the land its years of Jubilee that had been robbed in every generation that it was not celebrated. As foreigners in the the empire, they will learn again how to live as a blessing to those outside of God’s covenant. Scattered among foreign nations, they will become a blessing again to all people, as God had originally intended. Upon their return to the land, they will once again be made equal in their restored community, all set back to the order and purpose in which God had originally planted them.

This song of Isaiah is still a challenge to us today. God gives us no opportunity to excuse ourselves from our responsibility to live as agents of love, peace, and justice in the world. If we live selfish lives of hedonism and inexcusable affluence at the expense of others, the sour, wild fruit of our lives is showing the rottenness that exists within us to the core. Corrupted hearts filled with death will only ever produce corruption and death. In this condition of sin, we do not need an outward law to guide us to justice. We need a resurrection of our spirit.

Ephesians 5:6-14 (ESVUK)
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,
    and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Just before Isaiah’s song, he spoke of the future hope for the people of God in the coming Messiah, whom he called the branch of the Lord (Isaiah 4:2). The Messiah is a new branch in the vineyard of God, a healthy branch without any corruption, immune to the virus that has been killing the people of God and bearing fruit of injustice. Jesus, the branch of the stump of Jesse, the Son of David, is the true vine. God has planted the garden of goodness, love and peace. Every branch attached to the new vine may now show the Spirit of the one who grafted it in.

John 15:1-11 (ESVUK)
 (Jesus’ words) I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine dresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

God is just, and the corrupt will receive their reward for their injustice. Jesus’ invitation, however, is to escape this judgment by attaching ourselves to his true life. Jesus tells his disciples that to abide in him, to receive his life as a grafted branch receives life from a healthy vine, is to abide in love. The greatest love, Jesus says, is for one to lay down their very life for their friends. In this is the heart of the good news. Jesus, the only righteous one of the vineyard of God, gave up his life, receiving God’s judgment for the corrupt, for us. By his death, the penalty for our injustice has been paid. By his resurrection, his real life is now available to us, his family, if we will only abide in his love.

We’ve been made alive. We’ve been made new. The hardcore song of judgment has been turned into a love song ballad. We, the wretched exiles, are being called home.
Click the image above for the entire series from Isaiah

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