October 5, 2014
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
Love songs conjure up happy thoughts: affection, romance, fulfillment. People like listening to love songs for those positive emotions, but conversely some of the most powerful love songs are the dark ones—the ones that start off rosy and end up blue. In this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah, we find such a love song. It begins with such hope and promise, but ends on a sour note.
Isaiah 5 comes toward the beginning of this book of judgment. The prophet puts the people of God on trial before heaven and earth (Isa 1:2) and they are found wanting. He calls them to account for violating the covenant of the Lord and bringing upon themselves the deserved covenant punishment. Here, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah uses many metaphors to describe the people’s unfaithfulness and this love song is one of the most potent.
The prophet opens the song with reference to “my beloved” or “my friend.” The Hebrew word underlying these translations is yadid, normally used to indicate one who is loved (e.g. Deut 33:12). The word is closely related to dod, which is used by the lovers in the Song of Songs to refer to one another. The fictive voice of the poet in Isaiah 5 could be the prophet as the Lord’s “best man” singing about his unfaithful bride. On the other hand, it could be Israel herself, singing to the Lord, as “my beloved,” the tragic love song of their relationship. Either way, the song of Isaiah 5 has many vocabulary links to the Song of Songs—love, vines, vineyards, fidelity are all common themes. While the Song of Songs shows the bright side of Israel’s loving relationship with the Lord, here we see the troublesome dimensions.
Notably, the Lord’s relationship with his people is described in a metaphor wrapped in a metaphor: It is like a loving couple, which is like a vineyard. The Lord is portrayed as the vintner, diligently preparing a field for his vines: digging, clearing, planting, watching, building. (Jesus invokes this passage by repeating these ideas in Matt 21, but then he adds a new twist.) The vintner makes sure that all of the conditions are right for his vines to flourish—in the same way that the Lord prepared and promised a special land for his people to dwell in, to flourish in. Yet despite the vinedresser’s hard work, the vines yield only wild grapes. Here wild grapes are sour grapes. “Wild” here does not indicate organic, locally-grown, vine-ripened grapes as a luxury product, but the nasty side of wild grapes, ones that are so sour you can’t even swallow them. Wild grapes like this are not what you expect when you prepare your field so well. They would be a huge disappointment, a whole year’s work down the drain! The vintner would likely have to go into debt just to make it through the winter since he could not sell his worthless crop or make decent wine with it. The quality of the fruit is essential.
When the vines produce sour grapes, they need to be destroyed. Isaiah extends the metaphor to show the vintner taking down the hedge around the vineyard, so that it is given over to prairie grass for animals to graze on. It shows him neglecting it by refusing to hoe or to prune, so the vines revert from a cultivated state back into a wild one. Eventually the vineyard will be covered with thorn bushes and be totally useless for winemaking. While the prophet draws the allegory out and ratchets up the drama, he is illustrating how Israel’s chosen status and the blessings that go with it are being undone by the nation’s own disobedience.
Just like a vineyard is a specially cared for piece of property, God’s people were cared for in a special way. Now that God’s judgment is coming upon them, their land will be over-run. In effect, they will become just like any other nation, common, trampled, dry. The blessings of the Lord: land, prosperity, life in his presence, will be revoked during the time of exile. The song ends with two dramatic wordplays. The Lord looks for mishpat, justice, but gets mishpach, bloodshed. He wants tzedaqah, righteousness,but gets tze‘aqah, outcry. The people have not only failed to live up to his expectations, they’re headed in the opposite direction.
I suppose we can draw a little hope from the fact that God’s plans can sometimes backfire. Despite his utter faithfulness to them, they were not faithful to him. But I think this passage can cause us to look inside ourselves to see whether we find mishpat or mishpach. We not always great at being God’s friends. Lastly, though, just as God tilled the soil, and cleared the stones from his ancient “vineyard,” he prepares our hearts too. And even if we find ourselves producing wild grapes, he always is ready to receive us back and turn that despairing love song back to its original aspiration.