Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7
Isaiah tells of a beloved vineyard, lovingly tended yet gone horribly wrong. Even with devoted care, it yields only bad fruit. In the face of this tragic result, the owner of the vineyard turns against it, willfully uprooting and destroying it.
What are we to make of this about-face? How do we receive this judgment?
The truth of bad fruit
The vineyard owner determines by the end of verse 2 that all the fruit is bad. There is no waffling here, no wiggle room. The fruit is declared outright to be “only bad” (verse 2). This stark truth is jarring, baffling after so much careful sowing.
Even God seems stumped. How can it yield bad fruit? “What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?” (verse 4) The insistent drumbeat of disappointment leaves no doubt. The truth is clear: the Holy One who planted the vineyard “looked for justice but saw bloodshed; for righteousness but heard cries of distress” (verse 7). This truth-telling is the fulcrum upon which transformation rests.
These truths may be hard to hear, yet set the foundation for the flourishing of all. Naming how things really are, not sugar-coating it or pretending maybe things are ok, is necessary. Glossing over reality does not transform it but simply covers it up, making it unavailable for transformation. The vineyard owner is clear-eyed and unapologetic about speaking the truth. Truth-telling is the first, hard, powerful step toward change.
When God speaks truth to power and that power is us
But this truth is really hard to hear! We much prefer to be the ones speaking truth to power, power that is elsewhere. But what happens when we are the power? When God speaks truth to power and that power is us?
Many white Christians are in a time of reckoning with our power. There is an awakening to systemic power we have wielded blindly, the very hallmark of privilege. We all swim in this water, immersed in systems of privilege designed to be invisible. Many white Christians are in the continuing work of recognizing our complicity, our participation in systems so pervasive we don’t even see them. Each day brings new discoveries of our unconscious bias and its harmful consequences.
Bad fruit indeed. Fruit that poisons rather than nourishes. Not the fruit of justice and righteousness the vineyard owner intended when the vineyard was planted.
Can we hear it? Do we, as Jesus says, “have ears to hear?” The insidious thing about privilege is that it prevents us from developing the very muscle we need to hear these hard words. Privilege makes us tone-deaf, seeing the current order as simply “the way things are”.
But when we pause and allow these words from Isaiah to be planted in us, we can hear an invitation, a way forward, into possibility and hope. Learning to hear the truth, to recognize the bad fruit, to see the harmful reality and persistence of racism, can be a doorway into reconciliation.
The invitation: truth and reconciliation
Of course, we, the omniscient reader, know that Isaiah does not end with this devastating judgment. As we journey through Isaiah, there is hope and God will save and comfort all God’s people.
The invitation, however, is to not jump straight to the good feelings as we are prone to do. That will only produce more bad fruit, not “fruit that lasts”. Neither is the invitation to somehow prove that we are the “good” white people. This is a common strategy driven by fears of being called racist. This posture is more concerned about not appearing racist than about dismantling the reality of racism.
Instead, Isaiah’s invitation is to truth-telling. This lesson was demonstrated powerfully in South Africa through the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” following the end of formal apartheid. The commitment here was to the practice of truth-telling as the path to reconciliation. The Commission invited both victims and perpetrators of apartheid crime and violence to give testimony.
This is a hard and hopeful practice that requires sustained focus and work, not a quick fix. It is not a rote formula or magic wand, because it requires broken hearts and open ears. Unless these truths break our hearts, reconciliation will be shallow and perfunctory.
Broken-heartedness can lead to broken-open-heartedness, a posture that tells the truth about present injustice and holds open the hope of reconciliation. Broken-open hearts have eyes to see and ears to hear, seeing what we had been unable or unwilling to see before. We are changed and, in turn, change the systems we are in. Our imaginations are activated, expanding the scope of future possibilities. Our hearts break open for the world God so loves.
The one I love
By the time we get to the end of these verses, it’s hard to remember the very first line. This song is declared for “the one I love,” God’s beloved. Admittedly, the shift from second to first person through the song makes it hard to determine just who is the “beloved”. But there is no doubt that the vineyard was lovingly prepared and planted.
Can we know ourselves to be both God’s beloved and also the powerful to whom truth is spoken? The good news is: Yes! This is the hard and hopeful place of faith. Nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:39).