God's Open House

Sunday, August 18, 2019

“Bearing Fruit”

All three of these passages share a central metaphor – the idea that God is a vinegrower, God’s people are the vineyard, and God wants us to bear good fruit. The two NT passages are rooted in the language Isaiah gives us, so it’s a lens we can use to look at all three passages.

In the Isaiah passage, we’re given the metaphor of God as a vinegrower, and God’s people as the vineyard. God found a nice place, cleared the stones from the soil. God tilled the soil; God planted choice vines. God built a hedge and watchtower to protect the vineyard. Is there anything else God could have done to raise good grapes? No. But the grapes that grew were wild grapes. God did everything God could, but the grapes grew as if God had done nothing at all. All that work was for nothing. They remembered nothing that God had done for them, and they did not bear good fruit.

The consequence for the vineyard is a sort of poetic justice. If cultivation produces wild grapes, then God will no longer cultivate. God will remove the hedge and the watchtower, God will stop tilling the soil and planting choice vines. “If you want to grow wild, grow wild.” God seems to be saying, “You don’t need my help to do that.” Sometimes we think of this as a threat or a punishment, but it might be better seen as free will. God will leave them to the tyranny of dealing with their own choices. Sometimes what feels like divine punishment is simply the end of the trail we’ve blazed for ourselves.[1]

But I want us to be careful when we talk about divine punishment, especially on someone else. Every time there is a natural disaster, some jerk comes out of the woodwork to say that it’s God’s punishment for something. And he (I’m not even going to pretend it’s not always a he, and almost always someone who reflects poorly on my profession) just happens to be able to pinpoint the exact reason for God’s punishment. And sure enough it almost always just happens to be that preacher’s enemies that God has chosen to punish. It’s usually an obsession with who has sex with whom. The condemnation is the same regardless of situation. Doesn’t matter if it’s a hurricane, a tornado, a mass shooting. Doesn’t matter if it hit New York or Miami, or Tulsa, or Mobile. It’s almost always the same thing. I suspect that if a tornado tore the roof off of their home, they would consider it an unfortunate tragedy, and not an opportunity for repentance. Or perhaps a case of mistaken identity on God’s part.

There is something faithful about this, but there’s also something unfaithful, and something dangerous. The faithful part is this. These men really believe that God cares about what goes on down here and takes action in the world. There are plenty of Christians who see sin and suffering in the world but aren’t really expecting God to do anything about it. But if we believe in a God who heard the cry of his people enslaved in Egypt and delivered them, a God who saved Israel from Babylon and David from the lion’s den, a God who so loved the world that God sent God’s only son so that we might have life, we have to believe that God hears and God cares about our world, and that God takes action in it. And that’s faithful.

What is dangerous is conflating our own voice with the voice of God. It’s dangerous because humans are masters at self-deception. We are flawed, sinful people. And we are amazingly good at convincing ourselves that God wants us to do whatever we were already doing. We easily mix up God’s opinions with our opinions, God’s enemies with our enemies. More darkly, this can lead to believing that we ourselves are God’s chosen instruments of punishment, and advocating or enacting violence against our neighbors. When you look at some of the most horrific actions that Christians have undertaken, like the extermination of native peoples in this country, the colonial conquests, abuse and enslavement of Africans, the Crusades, they have all involved people who convinced themselves that this was what God wanted them to do.

That does not mean that we cannot talk about what God wants in our world, only that when we do so we should be deeply careful that we’re not exposing our backside by substituting what we want for what God wants. When we talk about what God wants and how God acts in our world we need to stay firmly grounded in the Word of God, firmly connected to a family of faith that helps us stay on the right track, and humbly listening to God’s Holy Spirit.

What is faithless about preachers who blame hurricanes on people they don’t like is that they have found a way to obsess over mint, dill, and cumin, while ignoring the weightier matters of the law. In the quote for thought and prayer William Sloane Coffin says it in a sermon from 1986 called AIDS much better than I can. If you think that God cares so much about sex that God will destroy New Orleans with a hurricane, but will not lift a finger to stop arms dealers, pill pushers, war makers, and destroyers of God’s precious creation, you have made an idol out of a cruel caricature of God. If you think God sends tornadoes at liberals, but don’t think God cares about weapons manufacturers making wars to sell their products, drugmakers who lie to get people addicted to opioids, rich people who take a bigger piece of the pie out of a poor person’s medicine budget, you’ve missed the point.

So I want to draw your attention to the last two verses of that passage in Isaiah:

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;
but heard a cry!

That last phrase, I can’t help but tell you this, is a pun. If you’re into Dad jokes, you’d love the Bible in Hebrew, there are puns everywhere. He expected justice (mishpat), but he got bloodshed (mispach), he expected righteousness (tzedakah), but heard a cry (tzeakah).[2] If you read through the prophets, there are two primary focuses for God’s frustration and anger. Justice-that is, our responsibility to our neighbor, and idolatry, i.e. our responsibility to our God. I like to think of them as the two great commandments that Jesus gave to us. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:5. The Ten Commandments put it this way: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me.” And the Golden Rule, which comes from Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That is, here are the things that God expects of us – do not put anything between yourself and God. This is frequently Israel and Judah’s problem in the Old Testament. They trust their gated community to protect them, their ties to powerful people to protect them, their work ethic or bank accounts to protect them. They worship whoever everybody else is worshipping, whoever seems like they can get the job done, and they forget that the God of Moses has always been there for them. But what God wants is trust.

The other expectation that God lays on us is care for our neighbor. This is throughout the Bible, especially in the prophets, who excoriate the people of God for forgetting about the poor while they live in comfort. In its first chapter, Isaiah says,

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

So when we pull at the threads of what God expects, we get these two main threads – do justice, and be righteous. Love God, and Love your neighbor. I think of it as a vertical line, and a horizontal line. The vertical line is our relationship with God. The horizontal line is our relationship with each other, with our neighbors. This is the expectation that God lays out in the prophets, and this is the tradition that Jesus is tapping into when he tells these stories about vineyards. Tell me, is there anywhere in the sanctuary you can see a vertical line and a horizontal line together? That’s right. The cross. That’s why we put the cross front and center, because this is what it’s all about.

The cross, and what it represents, is about these two commandments that Jesus gave us, and the life that Jesus lead, the death that Jesus lead, and the resurrection that shows us Christ’s victory. What the cross shows us is that the vertical and the horizontal are connected. One of the most profound ways we show devotion to God is living in harmony, in solidarity, as one family, with our neighbors. Not just with the people we like, but the people we don’t like.

So ultimately, this passage, and all of the passages in which we see this metaphor of Israel (that’s us) as a vine or vineyard are about bearing fruit. And bearing fruit means aligning ourselves vertically—putting no Gods before God, loving God with all our heart, and rejecting anything that drags us away from God. And aligning ourselves horizontally, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and treating everyone as if they are a child of God, incarnations of Christ.


[1] Ratliff, Robert. “Commentary 2: Connecting the Reading with the World; Isaiah 5:1-7 and Jeremiah 23:23-29” Connections; A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship, ed. Green, Joel and Thomas Long, Luke Powery, Cynthia Rigby. Year C, Vol. 3 Season After Pentecost, 2019. p. 236.

[2] Wilhelm, Dawn Ottoni “Of Grapes and Other Wild Things; Isaiah 5:1-10” Brethren Life and Thought, Vol. 52 no. 4 Fall 2007, p 206.