Let’s do a little Bible trivia. I write a love poem from the Scriptures and you tell me what book it is from. Ready?
I will sing for the one I Love a song about His vineyard
You got your answer? Most of you will pick Song of Songs, a book filled with erotic poetry throughout, but you would be wrong.
This is from Isaiah son of Amoz a prophet for the kings of Judah starting with the reign of Uzziah. Like many other prophets before him, Isaiah was a master at using metaphors and poetic language to speak to dignitaries. Little known fact amongst church attendees is that Isaiah’s contemporary was no other than Homer the great Greek poet.
Here is the full word given to the leaders of Judah:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”
The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
In today’s’ world, poetry has been reduced to the sidelines of official communication. Yet, poetry was once the artful form of delivering powerful messages to people in positions of authority. Poetry is a way to say something harsh and controversial packaged in a melodious form. This is exactly what Isaiah was a master of.
Using imagery such as vineyard and fruits, the poet draws his audience to self-examine their own ways. Vineyards, fruits, shepherds, fields, husband are motifs throughout the Scriptures used to identify characters in the story pointing to the Hebrews, their lives, the Lord himself, etc…
Blessed Through You
The love poem I mentioned earlier was actually a severe rebuke to Judah for the way they had forgotten their original calling and purpose as a monarchy. Instead of justice, they gave bloodshed, and instead of righteousness, cries of distress were heard. The concept of Justice and Righteousness is a very important one for the Lord. It sets up a way of living that is fair, equitable and based on the fact that every human being is made in the image of God. No one is superior or inferior. The calling to be God’s image bearer is to be a light for the rest of the world, an example of love and kindness, hospitality to immigrants and strangers, right treatments of each other and fair economics between individuals and nations and so on.
From the beginning, God conferred on Adam and Eve the privilege to bear good fruits and be like God for the human race. They didn’t do so well and turned their attention inward. After the fall, Abraham and Sarah shared the same privilege, and through them, all the families of the earth would be blessed. One thing led to another and we find the people chosen by God in slavery. A leader is called to liberate them and once again set them on a path to be a light to the world through one nation. Unfortunately, the people began to rebel, jockeyed for power and ultimately civil war ensued. What was supposed to be good fruits turned into bitter grapes!
The leaders of Judah were more in love with their own interests at the expense of others than they were about the nation’s calling to bear good fruits for the rest of the World. Instead of bearing succulent grapes in God’s vineyard, they yielded rotten, bitter ones. This prophecy is not unlike something another prophet shared some 700 years later using the same poetic language, except this time the story takes another turn.
Jesus, Pharisees and vineyard worker
Matthew 21 and 22 tells the story of Jesus making his return to Jerusalem, the capital of what would have been Israel had it not been under the subjugation of Rome. As you can expect from the king of kings, He didn’t make His entrance discreet, especially when he cleansed the temple of a hodgepodge of merchants trying to make a buck or two on the backs of honest people trying to obey the Mosaic law and offer sacrifices for the Passover feast. Now, if you know anything about the temple, you know it was the sacred place where heaven met earth. A place so holy that only a select few would be permitted to enter the inner chamber. And for the religious leaders of His time, the temple was the seat of power.
For a rabbi to come and flip tables and drive out the animals meant only one thing: arrest. The Temple was the house of God, and Jesus came to clean up the mess religion had made. But as you can imagine, these leaders were very furious and demanded that Jesus shared by what authority he was disrupting the established status quo of religious living. Jesus could have simply explained in plain language what He was doing and what was the origin of His authority, but that would have been boring. Jesus, like many of His predecessors who wanted their messages to stick, used three parables to answer their question. The first one is about two sons asked to go work in their father’s vineyard. The second one tells the story of some wicked employees of a vineyard, and the last story of a wedding feast. We are talking about fruits here, so let’s go to the second of these poems of sorts.
“Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Matt 22:33
Did you see it? Yes, did you see how Jesus pulls from Isaiah’s poem to drive His point home? These religious leaders had learned the prophecies; they knew the Hebrew Scriptures like the back of their hands, or like your grandma’s secret recipe for those famous brownies you like so much. By recalling Isaiah, Jesus is subtly taking His audience on a self-introspection journey with one difference. Though the owner is still looking for good fruit, the pivotal point of Jesus’ parable is the wicked tenants instead of the bad fruit. They thought that by killing, stoning, and beating up the messengers then finally the owner’s son, the inheritance would be given to them. It’s somewhat logical: no heir means no claim to the land they tended.
Modern Day Offering
In 1980, King Hussein of Jordan was made aware of an attempted coup against his monarchy. Some seventy high ranking military officials were meeting in a barrack to discuss the details of their endeavor. When King Hussein heard about it, his counselors advised him to quench the rebellion with a show of force. Killing every single one of those rebels was the only appropriate response to such blatant foolishness. Instead of violence and deaths, King Hussein met the angry military leaders who wanted to take the power away from him and offered himself up. What transpired was a plea for mercy on behalf of soldiers and families, as well as innocents who would likely suffer when the country would be thrown into a civil war. King Hussein offered himself as a willing sacrifice for the sake of the whole country. “If it is me you want, just take my life and take the kingdom peacefully”. As he knelt in front of these power-hungry men, waiting for the fatal blow, something extraordinary happened. One by one these men began to reconsider their position and finally gave up their ideal and embraced the King.
This is somewhat what the owner of the field in the parable was hoping. By presenting his own son, the tenants would surely reconsider their violent ways and come to their senses. We all know that this parable is also a foretelling of the ways the Father Himself would send His Son to appeal to the leaders of Israel to reconsider their ways, but we also know that Jesus encountered the same fate as the owner’s son.
The religious and political leaders of Israel wanted to regain the glory of the old days, the days when the nation was a monarchy. They thought that by imposing some stringent religious laws, they would force people to clean up their act and turn to God. Unfortunately, in doing so they began rejecting the broken, the widows, the poor, the strangers in the land, the fatherless, and the least among them. They imposed on the population, heavy religious burdens in order to be part of the new Israel they so desperately wanted. They set themselves as superior, and inevitably the outcasts suffered further humiliation. You can imagine how challenging it would have been for them to see this new Rabbi serving the poor, feeding the hungry, loving on the broken and releasing the Kingdom of God to them first. They had made Israel their own, forgetting that they were to be a light to the world, a city on a hill for people to see. By killing Jesus, they expected to receive the inheritance for themselves. What a foolish idea.
The Rejected Stone
Just like Isaiah, Jesus asked his audience how he should proceed with these wicked vinedressers. And of course, our predisposition to act violently is on display by their response. Destroy them and give the field to someone else. And once again what you expect God to do is not at all what He does.
“Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
“He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit
Have you not read your Bible? Jesus isn’t being sarcastic, He simply is amazed at their lack of understanding. But what does a rejected stone have to do with the story of a murdered son? Architects of old were known to walk the quarry with the builders to select the most perfect stones to be placed in the most important part of their edifice. The stone would become the showcase piece of their marvelous creation. Everyone would see the cornerstone. We tend to notice these more than the stone stuck in the middle of the wall amongst other lookalikes. Builders knew that, so they took special attention in selecting the best stone for the corner. The cracked ones, the jagged ones, the less than perfect ones, the discolored ones, would be rejected for the honored position. Yet, the Psalmist writes about a time when even the rejected, imperfect stones would be chosen to be the cornerstone to this new Kingdom God was ushering. Here is the genius of the Scriptures: The word SON in Hebrew is… you guessed it, BEN. The word for STONE is == EBEN. Just like poetry, Jesus is telling the religious leaders that the BEN they were rejecting and will be killed in a few days is the EBEN the Father would use to build His new edifice where His presence would be dwelling forever. This is also pointing to all the people those religious leaders had rejected in the past. All the poor, broken, sick, invalid, impure, rejected of society, the scum, the prostitutes, the less than desirable, the criminal, these would become the cornerstone of this new Kingdom at hand.
But what about the Parable for today?
Before we just chalk this story pointing the fingers at some religious nuts too concerned about their self-righteous attitude, we need to take stock about our own lives. If these poems and parables are in the Scriptures, it is to teach us something. The vineyard is a cautionary tale about our own fruits.
Here’s the thing, we have been invited to participate in the field and like Adam, we are called to produce good fruits for the sake of the whole world to taste and see how much goodness is in God. The problem is when we begin to use the field of God or in other words the kingdom of God for our own benefit, we turn into the wicked tenants, taking what is God and making it our own through violence. Ohh, but you say we are non-violent? Think again! Every time we use people to promote ourselves. Every time we use the church to get a leg up, every time we are more concerned about our personal calling and purpose at the expense of others, every time we are using ministry to self-promote, we are acting like the wicked tenants. We are using the kingdom for our personal benefit. That is in the eyes of the Owner as if we were doing violence to his servants and son. When we want prophetic words that wow the audience. When we want to be called apostles, prophets, or any other ministry. When everything we want to hear is only feeding our egotistical self. When the world revolves around us, we are acting like the wicked tenants.
A word about the fruit
Fruits seem to be what God is looking for. In both the prophetic word of Isaiah and the parable of Jesus, the owner is looking for good fruits. Paul, in his letters to the believers in Galatia, takes on the same motif and goes on to tell us what kind of fruit we are to bear.
But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (Gal 5:22-23)
This is the life we should have, the kind of fruit the Lord is looking for. But honestly, if a vine, an apple tree, a blueberry bush produces fruits, it is not for its own benefit. Fruits are always to be given away to others, otherwise, it is self-centeredness. A fruit tree is created for the feeding of others, not as a measure of greatness, or maturity. Remember the story of a certain fig tree unable to give fruits when Jesus was hungry?
Even though Jesus was talking to religious leaders who had made their ideal of the kingdom so contrary to the reality Jesus wanted to bring, this parable should not be dismissed. It is a reminder that we are always so close to becoming like terrible tenants while being entrusted with the beauty of the extravagant Kingdom of God. We are invited to look into our own lives and see if we are tracking with the original plan of God for the planet earth and all its inhabitants. Like Abraham, are we becoming a blessing to all the family of the earth or only the ones in our bubble? Are we acting as royal priesthood for our own sake or are we laying down our lives, like our High Priest Jesus, for the sake of our friends and enemies alike? I like how Eugene Peterson translated Galatians 5:22-24. Let us always remember that after everything is said and done, the life we now live is not our own.
But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.
Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.
To hear more about what Justice and Righteousness are all about in God’s kingdom, you can check out The Bible Project and their study of these concepts.
How about King Hussein of Jordan?
Picture: Vineyard from the Alsace Region