August 18, 2019
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Isaiah 5:1-7||Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19||Hebrews 11:29-12:2||Luke 12:49-56||Jeremiah 23:23-29||Psalm 82|
by Nichole Torbitzky
About two hundred years after the split into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah, Isaiah is prophesying for Judah. The name Judah comes from one of the twelve tribes of Israel, after Jacob’s fourth oldest son, Judah. Not coincidentally, the words “Jewish” and “Jew” derive from the word Judah. Isaiah’s prophesy, directed to the Southern Kingdom, comes just before the fall of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, to the Assyrians.
Chapter 1, verse 1 tells us that the prophet Isaiah began his work in the time of King Uzziah. Uzziah’s story can be found in 2 Chronicles 26. Generally, Uzziah has been regarded as a good king, wise in his rule and faithful to God until his disastrous decision at the end of his reign. Uzziah inherited a weak kingdom from his father and spent most of his early reign strengthening the borders of Judah. Chapter 6 reports the death of King Uzziah, so it is commonly assumed that Isaiah’s song recorded in chapter 5 comes toward the end of Uzziah’s reign.
Vineyards: The vineyard is often used figuratively for one’s “lover” in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Ancient Near Eastern poetry in general. Vineyards, especially in this context, often have a park-like design. They function not just to grow grapes, but also provide a beautiful outdoor space to enjoy. Watchtowers, which were also used for shelter and storage during the harvest, were built for security. Park-like vineyards also often had stone walls or hedges of thorns to help keep out undesirable animals (and people).
A Love Song:
I hope that the irony of these verses is not lost on you, dear preacher; it made me chuckle. Isaiah begins chapter five by telling us that he is going to sing a love song. How lovely! he Song of Solomon and its imagery of a couple in love in a dewy garden spring to my mind. Isaiah goes onto explain in verse 1 that he will be singing a song, not about his own love story, but he’ll be singing about the love story of a friend. Verse 1 references the friend as “my beloved.” It is a little confusing. The friend is not just any-old friend; rather this is the story about a best friend, a beloved friend and the one who is loved by that friend.
Isaiah’s love story begins with such sweet tenderness. The friend has planted a vineyard on high and fertile ground. The friend has done all of the necessary things to get his vineyard to grow and produce good grapes. He did the grueling work of digging and clearing stones. Then, he found the “choice” vines (the best ones) and planted those in the cleared, smooth, fertile soil. Then, he built a watchtower to keep the vineyard safe. So sure was the friend of the goodness of his vineyard and the bounty to come, he even made a vat to store the wine. So far, so good! As a metaphor for a love story, we see great effort and care on the part of the friend. Seems like, with such good preparation, this should be a love story to rival even the steamiest of Solomon’s songs. Before we even get to the end of verse 2, we see that the vineyard failed to rise to these expectations. Where the friend had planted and expected sweet, delicious grapes, he got wild grapes, small and bitter. The imagery should not be lost on us.
The people are asked to judge, what should the friend do? The friend had done everything in his power to provide for his vineyard, so why did it turn so sour? What would you tell your friend to do with such bad luck? I would tell him to tear out the plants and start over. In verses 5-6, this is exactly what the friend does, and more. The whole garden will be destroyed, walls and hedges removed, weeds allowed to grow, even the rain is stopped. This vineyard will be utterly gone.
It is there in verse 7 that Isaiah reveals the plot twist. The vineyard is Judah and the beloved friend is God. God has done everything necessary to provide the right conditions for God’s people and still they are small and bitter. God expected justice and righteousness, but got blood-shed and pleas. It is probably safe to assume that Isaiah uses the vineyard metaphor as a warning. Since the people refuse to produce the good fruit that God has worked hard to cultivate, then the people too will be trampled upon and left to grow wild and unproductive.
In the world of process theological thought, we hold a natural view of God’s relationship with humanity. This relationship is one where God wants the best possible for every moment of every situation. What do we make of this passage, where it appears that God is bent on destruction? We have to be careful about falling into the trap of thinking that God will coerce. Even for the good. God does not coerce, even for the good. Forgive me for stretching a metaphor too far, as Isaiah tells us, God will put together a good garden, but God cannot force us to bear good fruit. When we refuse, we will grow wild. We will be less fruitful.
To be more concrete, dear preacher, when we are given everything we need in this world to do justice and behave with righteousness and we do not, the results will be destruction. We have the ability to wipe out poverty, end hunger, and provide healthcare for every man, woman, and child on this planet and we do not. Would it take a monumental effort? Absolutely. And yet, we do not. Even though we have been given everything we need to do justice and live righteously. The results are astoundingly destructive.
Hope is not lost. God’s love song is unending. Because God will not let us go. God refuses to leave us to our wildness forever. Even wild growth is growth and God will work with that. Alone, I can do little. I am not alone. We are not alone. What I can do, what each person in your congregation can do, dear preacher, is just exactly what they have in their power to do. I cannot end hunger on a global scale, but I can volunteer at my food pantry. I cannot end the sinful wealth inequality that marks modern American life, but I can vote for people who have as much concern for the most vulnerable in our society as they do for the most powerful. I cannot end the system that causes the fewest people in the world to control the most money, but I can use my resources to help support someone who would otherwise not get a decent education. One of our jobs as leaders of churches and congregations is to connect and empower our members to do what they can, with what they have, to grow good fruit.
Back at the end of chapter 10, Jesus visited Martha and Mary, who are most often said to be located in the town of Bethany (John 11), about two miles southeast of Jerusalem. He goes from there to pray, have dinner with some Pharisees, and to cast out a demon, and to teach a gathered crowd. He appears to be traveling, at least some of the time, with the disciples. No mention is made of the specific geographic location since the mention of Martha and Mary’s house. It is probably safe to say that he is in Judea during the events of our text for this Sunday. For this particular teaching, we know that the disciples are present along with other people (see vs. 41). It appears that verses 49-53 are intended for the disciples privately, and then in verses 54-56, Jesus addresses his teaching to the crowd.
Verse 54 makes sense when I stop to think about it. Judea is situated with the Mediterranean Sea to its west. When a storm is going to brew, typically, it is going to come from moisture picked up over the ocean to the West.
Verse 55 alludes to the fact that Judea is located by vast deserts to the east (the Arabian Peninsula) and south (the Negev and Sinai desert). When the winds kick up from the south, the dry air and heat from the desert will blow in extremely high heat.
Interpreting the Times:
In verses 54-56 Jesus scolds the gathered crowds for their ability to understand weather patterns like second nature, but not understand what God is doing in the present time. If this criticism still stands, then readers today can understand the weather but not what God is doing in the present time. Is our time the same time as the time Jesus is talking about? Here is the mistake I think we make; we think that his times are still our times, and that there is no need for new and careful interpretations of the times. Maybe we ought to be interpreting what God is doing in the present time as the present time. Jesus’ criticism leaps the millennia to indict us today.
As the times change, the interpretations will change. Traditionally, Christians have rejected this line of thinking for (at least) two reasons. Many believe that Jesus’ first visit to the planet initiated the end-times and that we are still living in those times, therefore nothing has changed. Therefore, interpretation cannot (or should not) change. Others believe that any claim to change in the times insinuates that God can change. Many Christians make the pagan Greek claim that for God to be God, God must be completely unchanging. By extension, the times do not change either… or at least not significantly enough to call for a different interpretation between Jesus’ times and our times.
While many ‘prooftexts’ can show that the Bible says that God does not change, just as many attest that God does change. This should be a warning about ‘prooftexting’ the Bible. Every reading of the Bible is always an interpretation. Jesus’ criticism of those who can interpret the weather but not the times is an appropriate warning for those who interpret the Bible today. We should heed the warning and be very careful that we are turning our attention to the times as they are. The times as they are, are simply not the same as they were when Jesus first uttered these words. While guidance and wisdom on modern issues can be found in the Bible, we must approach the task of finding guidance knowing full well that what we do is interpretation. In our task of interpretation, we must leave space for the humility to acknowledge that we are doing our best, and that sometimes even our best will have to be modified as we continue to live into the times.
From a process theological perspective, the Greek notions of perfect, simplicity, and immutability of God are misunderstandings of perfection. Whitehead, a mathematician, writing at the time of Einstein, Schrodinger, and Heisenberg, wrote Process and Reality after Heisenberg produced his paper on the uncertainty principle. Without bogging down in a discussion of physics, it is important to note that the way we understand the world to work changed dramatically because of quantum mechanics. Our best understanding of how the world works now differs from the best understanding of how the world works in Plato and Aristotle’s time. For the Greeks, simplicity, immutability, and self-sufficiency were understood to be marks of perfection. Based on our best understanding of the world, Whitehead theorized that perfection has to do with complexity, mutability, and interconnection as the marks of perfection. God, to be God, is the one who is ultimately complex, the most capable of incorporating change and relation.
The ‘times’ and God are so deeply connected that to misinterpret the times is to misinterpret God. They are not, of course, equivalents. God is so intimately involved in the unfolding events that we should, as Jesus scolds, be able to look at the times and interpret God, the same way we can know that clouds out to the west mean a storm is coming.
I am tempted, dear reader, to leave verses 49-53 alone, as you may be. I would not blame you. Let me tell you what the Spirit laid on my heart about this passage. Perhaps it can help speak to your situation.
A warning about literal reading may be in order for our congregations. Let us be very careful in interpreting this passage. If we want to be literalists and say that “from now on” means that this division applies to followers today, then we have to continue with that literal reading and remember that this division applies only to households of five, and somehow only to father vs. son, mother vs. daughter, and mother-in-law vs. daughter-in-law and vice versa. The math does not add up. That is because this passage cannot be read literally.
Let us also be very careful about what this passage actually says. A close reading of this text reveals that Jesus has come to bring division, not us. As far as I can tell, nowhere in the gospels does Jesus command us, or any of his followers, to bring fire or division. Jesus’ commands for us are about care for the vulnerable and the oppressed, love of God and each other, and at the most negative, to shake the dust from our feet when we leave a place that has rejected Jesus’ teachings. It is arrogance at its highest to take what Jesus says is his prerogative as mine. These verses have often been used by those who are up to no good to justify their shady actions. Many a cult leader has used today’s passage to isolate vulnerable people, especially young adults, from their families. The curative is to remember that division is Jesus’ prerogative alone.
Christian process thinkers assert that Jesus was the incarnation of the Word of the God, the Logos, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. Typically, this is understood as possible because Jesus perfectly grasped and incorporated God’s aims for him, such that he was the Word. This explains the orthodox teaching on the incarnation in process theological terms. There is no reason for us to believe that God’s aims for a particular time and specific context could not include division rather than peace. It is possible that division is the best possible and that peace is not.
Keep in mind here that Jesus uses division as the opposite of peace, rather than war or violence. I think you may be able to think of times when division was necessary to stand up for what is right and good rather than peace at any cost. It might be a good time to refer to today’s readings from Isaiah. God wants justice and righteousness from us. Division for the sake of justice is God’s prerogative.
Our prerogative is to remember the Great Command “love one another.” It is easy to go too far, dear preacher, and take the command to love one another to an extreme that allows the abusive to get away with their shady and sinful doings. Jesus also does not command us to be doormats and in the name of love allow abuse and shady behavior. This passage can be balanced with the reading from Isaiah that calls us to behave with justice. When we stand up for the good, division can sometimes result. The difference is that division is the unfortunate fallout of a world in progress. This passage simply does not give us the prerogative to aim at division or justify an unfortunate fallout with this passage.
 “Lover” is such a loaded word in modern American usage, denoting the tawdry and illicit, that I hesitate to use it. What is meant, is the “one who is loved,” or one’s romantic partner.
 Cf. Song of Solomon 1:6, 14; 2:3, 15: 4:12-16; 7:6-13; 8:12, Psalm 80:9.
 Cf. Numbers 23:19; Ps 90:7; 102:25-27; Isaiah 40:8,28; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17. Note that several of these verses attest to God’s everlastingness rather than immutability.
 Cf. Ex 32:12-14; 2 Samuel 24:16; Jeremiah 18: 8,10,13; 26:3,13,19; Amos 7:3,6; Jonah 3:9-10; 4:2; James 4:8.
 For further reading on how Greek philosophical principles have influenced Christian interpretation of Scripture see: Edwards, Rem B. “The Pagan Dogma of the Absolute Unchangeableness of God.” Religious Studies. 14, 305-3I3.
Rev. Dr. Nichole Torbitzky earned her BA from Truman State University and her MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion and Theology from Claremont Graduate University. Before joining the faculty in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Lindenwood University, Dr. Torbitzky worked as an adjunct professor at LaVerne University.