Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The song of the vineyard is a ditty turned tragic.

October 2, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 5:1-7

The song of the vineyard is a ditty turned tragic.

What begins as a simple, even simplistic, song about love gone wrong slides into a minor and discordant key. A harmless exercise in listening quickly turns painful as the audience is caught in a rhetorical trap.

Isaiah 5:1-7 introduces a series of woes leveled against Judah for their infidelity to Yahweh (5:8-30). In the canonical shape of the book, chapter five leads into chapter six where the prophet Isaiah is commissioned to his hard, prophetic work: “Go and say to this people, Keep on listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand…Then I said, “How long, O Lord? (Isaiah 6:9,11). The difficult message of the first half of Isaiah (despite where one divides the book, e.g., chapter 35 or 39) is as follows: If Yahweh’s people will not be his people, then they will not be a people at all.

The setting of this rhetorically charged text is a public forum where a bard sings a song. The one singing in Isaiah 5 is the prophet. The audience is described in verse three as “inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah.” But about whom is the prophet singing? Most texts translate the subject of the song as “Beloved.” This is a fair translation, though the term does not have to have sexual or romantic connotations. It could fairly translated as “my dear friend” or simply, “friend.” The ambiguity of the reference lends itself to the rhetorical force of the text. Who is the beloved or dear friend? The unassuming audience would not have thought Yahweh. So the listener is drawn in only to find the stunning conclusion that this song is about Yahweh and, more disconcertingly, themselves.

The first two verses reveal the lyrics of the song. “My beloved has a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it…” And so goes the song. What the lyrics reveal is the enormous amount of energy the “dear friend” put into his vineyard. He placed the vineyard on choice property, on the side of a fertile hill. Then he prepared the ground, which involved more than simple hoeing. Stones were removed and choice vines were planted (cf. Jeremiah 2:21). (As I’m writing these words, I’ve just come from my modest urban garden: my fingers are still sore from pulling weeds, wielding a hoe, and tending my heirloom tomatoes.) The “dear friend” placed so much hope in his vineyard’s production that he set up a tower for those who would protect the vineyard, not a mere hut.

More than this, he installs a winepress in full anticipation that this vineyard will yield quality grapes resulting in first-rate wine. Wrong. The care, attention, and hope the “dear friend” put into his vineyard made the disappointing outcome all the more tragic. The song ends, “He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild (or better, “diseased”) grapes.” Those of you who are gardeners may know this kind of disappointing sting.

But the sad ditty is more than this: a simple song eliciting empathetic yet detached groans from the audience. “Poor friend.” Verses three and four reveal the unfolding tension of the poetic trap. After singing the song, the prophet turns to the audience abruptly, “But now.” Then with a bait and switch tactic, he asks a series of rhetorical questions: What more could I have done? Why did this happen? These questions lure in the audience, disarming them for what is about to come.
The change of person in verses three and four is noteworthy. The distinction between the singer (the prophet) and owner of the vineyard (Yahweh) in verse one becomes opaque: my vineyard. Who is speaking? The prophet? Yahweh? The answer is, “Yes.”

The scene intensifies in verses five and six. In a moment of decisive action, the owner of the vineyard’s despair turns to wrath. “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard” (Isaiah 5:5). All the labor put into the “dear friend’s” vineyard is overturned: “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.” The necessary care a vineyard must have is dispensed with: “it will not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns.” The scene is devastating, like a frustrated artist ripping canvas and splattering paint.

If we allow the text to have its intended rhetorical force, then the ending of verse six comes as a surprise. “I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” This statement creates anticipation for what comes in the following verse. Who can command the rains to cease other than God? The inhabitants of Judah are now caught. This song is about Yahweh and them.
The final verse explains the allegorical nature of the song. Yahweh is the owner of the vineyard. The people of Judah are his choice plantings.

The prophet uses another literary device in verse seven for rhetorical effectiveness (paronomasia is the technical term). “He expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mishpach); righteousness (zedekah), but heard a cry (ze’akah).” Israel’s election was not only a privilege to be enjoyed but a responsibility to be performed. “I will be your God and you will be my people” brings with it obligations for covenant fidelity: a fidelity marked by justice and righteousness. If Judah would not be Yahweh’s people, then they would not be a people at all. The vineyard would be destroyed.

The image of the vineyard is picked up in several places in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 21:33-46). John 15:1-11 is a robustly Christological take on the vineyard motif. If we as the branches are connected with Jesus the vine, fruit will be produced. This is a classic expression of faith leading to works of justice and mercy. Our righteousness is a first a gift of grace received by faith that in turn enables and engenders righteous acts. The vineyard of Christ’s church produces fruit only when the church is in complete dependence on the vine.

It is a powerful image: God the Father before the cross with dead vines in his blistered hands. In the final analysis, God in a triune act of love destroyed his choicest vineyard — this is my beloved son — for the sake of planting a vineyard of love and grace in the whole world. Or as St. Paul said, “You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God” (Colossians 1:5-6).