BIBLE READINGS: Isaiah 5:1-10 Luke 12:49-56
The prophet Isaiah was a city dweller, but his mind was on the countryside. Trees, vineyards, and fields populate his thinking in his writings, where vegetation serves both as metaphor (as in Isaiah 5:1-7), and as the life-sustaining growth on which humans literally depend (as in vv. 8-10). Agricultural imagery appears from one end of the book to the other (1:8; 66:17), spelling out both judgement and hope.
In Isaiah, trees represent vulnerable human greatness and fatal human error. Fields of grain both symbolise the people and nourish them - or fail to do so. Destruction and renewal are pictured as grass withering and flourishing. Cities being transformed into wastelands, and the desert being transformed into lush fields of plenty, track Judah's inhabitants’ falling and rising fortunes.
But vineyard imagery both starts and highlights important thoughts throughout the book. In the devastated opening scene, Jerusalem is Daughter Zion, “left like a booth in a vineyard, like a shelter in a cucumber field, like a besieged city.” In Isaiah 3:14, the vineyard’s destruction is reinforced when, speaking to the leaders of Judah, the prophet declares, “It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.”
Other passages spell out the disaster of agricultural loss: “Every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns” (7:23); “Joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field; and in the vineyards no songs are sung, no shouts are raised; no-one treads out wine in the presses” (16:10).
That Isaiah uses agricultural images made sense in an ancient society that relied on nature totally to survive and flourish. Since the Industrial Revolution, however, our society has become more distant from the earth and agriculture. We are more likely to find meaning in our machines – our cars, our computers, our MRI's than to look to nature for comfort.
The vintner (the owner of the vineyard) in Isaiah 5 has established all that is needed for an excellent vineyard: a fertile hill, a cleared field, choicest vinestock, a watchtower and press. But defying all expectation, the grapes are sour. The Hebrew word we translate here as sour could be translated many different ways, from “wild grapes”, to “rotten grapes” or, simply and pointedly, “bad fruit”.
The story begins in third person, but in verse 3 the voice of the frustrated vineyard owner breaks in, proposing to destroy the worthless vineyard as deliberately as they had once built it up. In the final verse (v. 7) the prophet reveals who the owner is: this discouraged, angry vineyard owner is none other than God. God expected justice but instead found bloodshed. God expected righteousness but found an outcry of distress.
The prophets of ancient Israel tried to teach leaders that responsibility to the poor would benefit everyone. They channelled this teaching through the reward of divine approval (resulting in prosperity) and disapproval (resulting in collective disaster, as here). But such rewards aren’t immediately apparent. Both in the ancient world and today, the shortsighted may see and seek only short-term, personal gains, harming others.
While this story about the vineyard concerns us all – Isaiah focuses in on violent greed among the wealthy. Wine, grain, and oil were export products benefiting Israel’s upper classes. As today, gluttony for larger profits clash tragically with subsistence needs. Verses 8-10 warn that those who amass property at their neighbours’ expense will not profit.
As we reflect on our stewardship we need to ask ourselves whether we are more interested in short term personal gain or do seek to build a church of welcome for everyone that will be a flourishing vineyard full of sweet tasting grapes.
Acknowledgement: Rev. Dr. Patricia K. Tull