Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it. For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! Isaiah 5:1-7, NRSV
Every Sunday morning at church, regardless of how early the service is, Episcopalians share a bit of wine. Although people in other denominations might accuse us of simply wanting a head start on brunch, we know that’s not really the point. Wine is a powerful symbol of Jesus’ blood, signifying his sacrifice and love for us, so potent that he asked us to remember him in the drinking of it. It’s also, not incidentally, an important sign of hospitality and sharing. Jesus chose as his first miracle something apparently trivial, re-stocking the wine supply at a wedding, dramatically establishing hospitality as central to his ministry.
Wine was important to Jesus because it had already been important to the inhabitants of that whole region surrounding the Mediterranean Sea for several thousands of years. This area was the first region in the world to produce wine, and wine was one of the very earliest commodities traded among the different regions, so it became a way to get familiar with and create relationships with people of other cultures. However, if you were an Israeli merchant, you had a big problem: the wine was no good. One wine writer says that it had such a bad reputation, that when Israel was conquered by Islamic nations who don’t drink alcohol and shut down wine production for almost 1000 years, no one complained. In scripture, the people of Israel are frequently referred to as a vine or vineyard, and you can see why–it’s a perfect double-duty metaphor. On the one hand, a positive symbol of celebration and abundance; on the other, a familiar reminder of something not living up to its potential.
Like others, the prophet Isaiah turned to this vineyard metaphor to illustrate how the people of Israel had been showing a lack of hospitality, exactly the opposite of what a vineyard is for. Landowners had been colluding and extending their property lines to join each other’s, kicking out the subsistence farmers who had been living in between, and who, according to Mosaic law, were supposed to be left with those in-between places to grow just enough food for their small families and survive. It’s similar to what’s been happening here in Los Angeles and other major cities where landlords are evicting their tenants so they can instead make huge profits in short-term rentals, a present-day gold rush made possible through websites and apps, particularly airbnb. In a tight housing market like LA’s, greedy practices like this have a direct impact on the homelessness and housing crisis. That is not how God’s vineyard is supposed to work. Wine is to be shared, and you don’t plant a vineyard so you can drink all the wine yourself. So Isaiah expresses God’s dismay that he has planted a pleasant vineyard, but has reaped a greedy people.
That was 3000 years ago. What about now? We were God’s pleasant planting in this past year of 2016, and when God looks at us now, is God happy with the yield he has gotten? Does he see justice from us, like he hoped for? Is God pleased when unarmed African-American men are gunned down by police at three times the rate as whites? Is God pleased when he sees thousands of homeless living on our streets while developers make fortunes putting up huge McMansions and luxury apartments? Is God pleased when we allow easy access to guns because one powerful political group gives obscene amounts of money to politicians? Is God pleased that the highest office in the land will soon be held by someone who spewed forth racist, xenophobic, violence-inciting and downright hateful comments all year long? I don’t think God is pleased, and I believe there will be a reckoning, but I don’t think it’s going to look like hellfire and brimstone and destruction, despite the strong language we see from Isaiah, and I’ll tell you why by going back to the vineyard.
Here in California, we are blessed to live in an area of the world, like the Mediterranean, known for its climate, a climate favorable for many things, including vineyards. As you know, despite this usually temperate climate, we’ve been through a horrible drought recently, especially this past year, which you might think is bad news for vineyards, but guess what? Winemakers are saying that the 2016 vintage is the best they’ve tasted in at least a decade. You see, when grapevines undergo stresses such as drought, they produce much more flavorful grapes, resulting in much better wine. So when God says all the stuff he’s going to do to the vineyard, like commanding the clouds to withhold the rain, that is not to destroy it, that is to improve it so that it will finally yield the good grapes it’s meant to. And that’s exactly what happened to the vineyards of Israel. They were not tended, as I said above, for over 1000 years. But despite the bad reputation of Israeli wines from ancient times, modern winemakers began trying again in the late 1800s. Despite decades of disappointment, they persisted, and those vineyards which were trampled down and made waste are finally producing good wine, so much so that for the past decade, Israeli wines have been winning international competitions and winning over wine critics.
Like the nation of Israel before us, today we are God’s pleasant planting. God didn’t give up on his people back then, and he’s not going to give up on us now. He is going to walk beside us and teach us to take care of each other, to love each other, to stop killing each other. God is going to stay with us until we yield the good grapes he planted, the justice that he expects, until we become a people who share magnanimously our hospitality and create justice for each other.
It’s easy to read this and say, “Yeah, all those people out there doing injustice need to stop! But I don’t do anything like that, so this is a message for them, not for me.” But simply not causing harm to others is not good enough. God wants more from you. God wants you to be a laborer in the vineyard. To be the one who lovingly tends the grapes, through drought or through rain, so that they yield up good wine. To be the one who helps lift up your brothers and sisters and teach them the ways of justice and hospitality to each other. Because what can seem like the toughest years in the vineyard, if you are faithful and stick it out, yield up the greatest wine. And that’s what God’s reckoning is going to look like. Not hellfire and brimstone and destruction, but us working together to tend the vineyard, to root out injustice and stand up against bigotry and violence, showing our brothers and sisters a better way. That is what God calls us to. It sounds like a lot of work, but those who toil in the vineyard are sure to enjoy the good fruits–and hopefully, the good wine–of their labor.