Interpreting the Present Time
February 26, 2012
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; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people 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 expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. 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!
“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 completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Our readings this week fall into the category of apocalyptic literature. This category can be identified by the making of broad statements about the poor quality of the current times or of a certain people and by a fairly clear statement predicting some sort of dramatic action or event in the near future.
For instance, our reading from Isaiah talks of the “people” of Jerusalem and Judah, comparing them to a vineyard that has been taken over by wild grapes rather than the cultivated variety. Isaiah is prophesying that God will destroy the people of Judah. The passage depicts for the reader, using the vineyard image, the sweeping destruction of the people of Judah.
What does this story hold for us? Is it just a recording of a historical proclamation to a certain group of people at a certain time? No, it has to be more than that; it is scripture. Is it a warning about what will happen if God is displeased with us?
On the literal level, the story is not about us at all. We do not live in Judah or in Jerusalem, so clearly the literal level of the story is not what we should be focusing on.
When I first read this passage, I really didn’t see what was so bad about wild grapevines. After some research, I found out a couple of things. First, a wild grape vineyard is not profitable: it is likely to contain several different types of grapes that all need to be harvested at different times and cannot really be used profitably. Moreover, wild grapes are not trained to grow any particular way, which makes it difficult to walk through them for harvesting. Finally, wild grapevines often overtake trees and other useful crops. We might say, taking a correspondential approach, that a wild grapevine does not care about anything or anyone other than its own desires. It does not care about working with the larger community of vines or the vineyard owner. In essence, we can understand a wild grapevine as unruly selfishness.
If we are not reading this passage literally, we need to re-understand what it means to be a person of Jerusalem or Judah. Jerusalem, as the home of the temple and the learned scholars of the Isaiah’s day, alludes to the church, and Jerusalem being likened to a wild grapevine suggests that the church is corrupt. Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, is a place of devotion and love. Jerusalem and Judah, when mentioned in a pair as they are here, represent perversions in our thoughts about God and in our desires.
But this passage from Isaiah should not be understood as a warning to us, the readers. It is simply a descriptive statement about a stage in our spiritual existence. There is really no question as to whether a person is going to experience this state or not. We all do! At some point in our lives, we want God to benefit us and be on our side alone. We all go through periods in which we love truths and ideas that benefit us more than anyone else. We all want God to make creation revolve around us. It’s normal.
In fact, I would even argue that such desires are healthy—to a point. These stages of selfishness we go through are stages that can lead to a healthier spiritual life.
Across the street, in William James Hall, the Harvard psychology folks have conducted research about delayed gratification. Their study showed that the children who successfully put off fulfilling their desire for a coveted object were more successful and happier later in life. The kids who understood and were actually able to practice delayed gratification had an easier time with hardship and understood abstracted good better than the kids who did not.
But to get to that point, these children had to be presented with a dilemma. They had to make a decision either to grab what they wanted now or wait for the promise of something better. The study started off like this: the researchers put a toy or a piece of candy on the table and told the child that if they waited until the researcher returned, he or she would receive an even tastier treat.
Throughout our lives, we learn that we cannot control the world. We learn that our desires do not always lead us to happiness. Most of us learn that instantly following our desires leads us into difficult places. This is the “destruction of the vineyard” we hear about in our Isaiah passage.
Our reading from Luke covers much the same subject, but with a slight twist. The reading from Isaiah is missing a certain character that the story from Luke contains—namely the Lord and the audience he is speaking to. This passage in Luke comes from a series of lessons in which Jesus is being tough on the disciples. In fact, it follows on the heels of the lesson about the master and his waiting servants. In other words, this story presupposes a bit of important knowledge.
This story presupposes that the reader understands intellectually the Lord’s commandments about loving the neighbor as oneself and loving God above all others. It takes for granted that the reader has been exposed to the concept that the divine good and the earthly good are separate things, but does not really understand it.
It’s tempting to count ourselves among the people who “get it,” right? Sadly, though, that’s unlikely. It is only through experience and learning that we begin to have a notion of what spiritual truth is, and it is probably only when we enter fully into the spiritual world that we will understand spiritual truth fully.
For now, we must understand that our actions lead to consequences we do not always understand. We must realize that we might be wrong, we must have humility, we must be present and watchful about what we do and why we do it.
But amid all this doom and gloom there is good news—gospel. Oddly, this good news comes in the seemingly disturbing announcement that the Lord comes to bring division. We could understand this as the Lord bringing war, but why? Why would an allpowerful God do that? It is like a child who builds a sand castle just to crush it. Sure, a child does that, but is that the picture we want to have of God?
I see this idea of division as being like a parent who watches his child walk for the first time. The parent knows the child will fall, but he also knows the child must fall in order to learn to walk. This is a picture of a God who is cautious, attentive, and present and yet limits his involvement for the sake of the betterment of his child. Many are offended by this analogy because the horrors of our world are unimaginable—hardly the equivalent of a child’s tumble while toddling—which is why we must labor to end such horrors. But it’s part of our job to work at understanding that the Lord’s love embraces all victims of evil with infinite love and total healing in the next world.
If we live a life in which we judge others based on their beliefs rather than seeking the good in them, we are like bad fathers who lack compassion for their little ones. On the other hand, if we encourage evil and good equally, we are like bad mothers who fail to do everything in their power to bring out the good in their children while discouraging the bad.
But we each have both a bad father and a bad mother in us—truths that we stick to or weakness in our hearts that leads us to deny the truth. But the Lord is continually coming to us, bringing division. This is a good thing: God’s love and wisdom are continually reaching into our lives to help us reform—to lead us toward goodness, when necessary, through guilt and negative feelings. The point is not to punish us but to allow us to reflect on what caused these feelings and do better next time.
Many times in my life, I have believed that acquiring something—a toy car, a computer, an iPhone—would make me happy. In a similar vein, many times I have thought that my way was the only way. How about you?
If we seek to rid ourselves of things like selfabsorption, the Lord will be able to enter into our hearts more fully. But to do that, we must look beyond today. We must look beyond the struggle and the conflict toward what God’s love has promised— even when we do not fully know what that promise involves. Amen.
My Lord, I have nothing to do in this world, but to seek and serve thee;
I have nothing to do with a heart and its affections, but to breathe after thee;
I have nothing to do with my tongue and my pen, but to speak to thee, and for thee, and to publish thy glory and will.
- Richard Baxter, 1615-1691
O blessed Lord, who hast commanded us to love one another, grant us grace that having received thy bounty, we may love everyone in thee and for thee. We implore thy clemency for all; but especially for the friends whom thy love has given us. Love them, O thou fountain of love, and make them to love thee with all their heart, that they may will, and speak, and do those things only which are pleasing to thee.
- St. Anselm
O Lord, let me not live to be useless.
- John Wesley (1703-1791)
Rev. Kevin K. Baxter