ELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (15th August) 2004
Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19
Early in the writings of Isaiah we find this beautiful stand-alone poem of the vineyard. It’s message, an extended metaphor or word-picture, is abundantly clear: the beautifully tilled vineyard that yields only sour and wizened grapes is an image hard to forget.
Like the greatest images of the bible (the parables of Jesus for example) this poem unlocks a timeless and multi-applicable truth. It can, as the poet intended, be a lament for the Israel that has forgotten its standards of justice and compassion, standards to which it was called, standards that were supposed to make it stand as a beacon amongst the foreign and so-called godless nations. It can stand as a parable of humanity: the theoretical crown of creation that with all its gifts and all its intelligence has not learned to live in peace and harmony either with creation or with itself. It can stand as a parable of the Christian community, founded centuries after the song’s first airing, that considers itself to be the bearer of new insights into and new access to the gracious and forbearing, forgiving love of God, but which still fails to live up to the high demands of the way of humbleness, the way of the Cross to which it is – we are – called.
The prophet of the poem sings on behalf of his beloved, the creator and redeemer God. The tenderness of his love for God could be the entire message of the poem. To what extent do we manage to connect with our Creator and redeemer with such tenderness that we can call God our beloved? Do we share the intimacy with our God that we share with those most beloved who we have known in the most love-soaked days of our existence? For most of us the answer is probably “no” – the silent love of God allows us too often to push our godward thoughts and feelings to the fringes of our existence.
Yet the voice of the poem is stood on its head. The tenderness of the prophet for his God is undeniable, and out of that tenderness he fathoms the tenderness of God for the vineyard People of God. One might well look at the bitter hardness of the modern state of Israel, or the bitter hardness of the western nations that speak peace only out of the barrels of a military arsenal, to recognize the pain of the vineyard’s owner. How the God of this poem longs for tenderness, but finds only bitterness! How the God of this poem longs for a Christian world that sees the broken nations of the earth not as threats but as opportunities to exercise stringless compassionate aid! How the 21st century might be a different landscape if the wealthy nations of the west had listened to the cries of the homeless and the starving in nations that are now turning by the bucket load to embrace militant Islam!
How we on a micro-scale could have demonstrated the magnificence of Christian love had we seen refugees these past several years not as a threat to our too-important borders but as an opportunity to exercise God’s unavoidable volition to love and to care! Or had we worked at the forefront of attempts to broker understanding between ethnic groups or between town and country in our own land!
The poet delivers a harsh threat to the people who are the vineyard. Tragic though the events of the world have been since September 11th 2001, I cannot help wondering if they are not, like the destruction of the two great temples of Israel’s history, harsh warning to the people of the once-Christian west that we are beyond the eleventh hour in which to show care and compassion. Was the hedge of a complacent West torn down like that of Isaiah’s vineyard on September 11th 2001?
You and I won’t change the world. Nor is that our calling. Our calling is to change our world – perhaps even to adopt that wonderfully quirky new agey gismo-motto “practice acts of senseless beauty and random kindness.” Can the grapes of our vineyard be sweetened? Can we touch a life around us with an act of Christlike compassion this day?