Scripture: Isaiah 5: 1-7; Luke 12: 49-59
Conflict and change are the twin themes of today’s readings. Conflict is especially clear in the Gospel, where Jesus says that he came to bring division. He will cause strife between nations and even between family members. This reading seems inconsistent with everything we like to believe about Jesus. He was the wandering rabbi with the message of inclusion. The one who gave his disciples a “new commandment, that you should love one another.”
Conflict and change in today’s Gospel
What’s going on?
When we try to interpret difficult Scripture, we have to ask two questions: “What did the words mean when they were written?” and “What do they mean to us today?” The New Testament was written by Jewish authors. They were steeped in Jewish history, theology, and culture. They were not Christians, in the modern sense of the word.
Most scholars date Luke’s Gospel to around 80-85 CE. It was a time of great upheaval in Jewish society. Traditional religious practices had been destroyed, along with the Temple, in CE 70. Just as they were trying to recover from that disaster, they had to contend with an emerging new sect, the “Followers of the Way”. These early Christians believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. This was heretical for the Jewish leaders, and they expelled the “Jesus people” from the synagogue. Conflict was the result of change.
That background gives us two possible ways to interpret today’s Gospel. A traditional explanation is is that Jesus predicted all this when he was on earth, and Luke’s community remembered what he had said. “Progressive” Christians and Biblical scholars might argue instead that Luke himself wrote these words into his Gospel to make sense of contemporary events. To modern ears, that seems like lying. But Judaism had, and has, a long history of midrash, which means the continual reinterpretation of history, religion, and Scripture in the light of contemporary thought.
Whichever way you choose to explain it, we see that the break between Judaism and Christianity had consequences as serious as, for example, the later divide between Catholics and Protestants. Jesus caused division in his time. Some in a family might stick with the old way, while others favoured the new.
A parallel type of conflict and change in Isaiah’s day
In Chapter 1, Isaiah wrote that God did not care about religious practices. “Your sacrifices of animals mean nothing to God. God has had enough of burnt offerings, and the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.” What was wrong with society in those days was injustice, the treatment of people who had no means of support in the absence of modern social safety nets. I could imagine Isaiah making similar comments about us today. In the face of social inequality or of environmental destruction, does God really care about whether our understanding of the Eucharist differs from that of Roman Catholics or of Baptists?
The vineyard metaphor for Israel
Then Isaiah told an extended parable in which Israel is God’s favoured vineyard. God protected it with a wall, a hedge, and a watchtower, and planted it with the best vines. But the vineyard did not yield the luscious sweet grapes of justice and kindness. Instead, it had given only the sour wild grapes of greed and injustice towards the less fortunate. Let’s unpack that metaphor.
Old Testament Judaism likened the chosen people (Israel) to God’s favourite vineyard. It’s a beautiful image of God as gardener or vine-dresser. Psalm 80 uses the same vineyard image. “You brought a vine out of Egypt [the Passover story]; you drove out the nations [the Canaanites], and cleared the ground for it. It took deep root and filled the land.” Instead of yielding sweet grapes to make fine wines, all that they have produced is sour wild grapes. The reading is part of a larger piece in which Isaiah prophesies that the people had turned away from God. Their leaders had become proud and arrogant. They no longer cared for the less fortunate.
Isaiah’s prophesy: divine punishment for bad behaviour
Isaiah told the people of Israel that they had gone astray. The ancient world’s prophets were not fortune tellers. Their role was to speak out when society went wrong, often in its treatment of the less fortunate. Because Israel was a theocracy, Isaiah expected that divine punishment would follow bad behaviour by Israel’s rulers and people.
Our reading ends where God looked for justice but heard only a cry of distress. What follows is a series of “woes” – against great landowners, against drunkenness and partying, and against those who promote evil as though it were good. That will kindle God’s anger against Israel, says Isaiah. God will remove the protection from Israel. God will take down the watchtower and the hedge. The vineyard will fall into ruin, with thistles and weeds. The meaning under the parable was the prophesy that Israel risked military defeat by its bigger neighbours. This happened. The Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and took its leading citizens into exile. Isaiah saw this as God’s punishment of his beloved Israel for their unfaithfulness.
Parallels and contrasts between Jesus and Isaiah
Six hundred or so years later, Jesus spoke out about similar failings in his own society. It was another time of disagreement. Peace, meaning the status quo, no longer worked. Conflict, the result of change, had divided families. “Can’t you people see it?” said Jesus. “You’re good at looking at the sky to forecast tomorrow’s weather, but you can’t see where God is in your lives. He gave this example. If you have a legal dispute, it’s best to settle it out of court. If you go to court, you may win, but equally, you may lose everything.” Jesus wasn’t just spouting conventional wisdom. It was a parable. Settle with God now by repenting; otherwise on Judgement Day you may find that you are the one being condemned.
There are parallels and differences in this passage for we 21st century Canadians. Judgement Day does not seem as imminent for most modern Christians as it was for 1st century Jews and for the first Christians. For them, it really did seem that “The End is Nigh.” Jesus’ Second Coming must happen soon. The physical Jesus had been put to death before God’s kingdom had come on earth, so he would have to return to complete the task. Indeed, Paul had to reassure his Thessalonikan church that people who had died before Jesus returned had not missed the boat on salvation. Two thousand years have now passed, which tends to take away the urgency from the matter.
Is any of this relevant to our world today?
As we look around our world, we see that we also live in a very turbulent period of conflict and change. Jesus said, “The Kingdom has come near.” Change is up to us. God is not our fairy godmother. But either we do not recognize the Kingdom, or worse, we recognize it but don’t do anything about it.
I thought about this when I read about the two mass shootings last weekend in Monday’s Globe & Mail. David Shribman called the ritual events an American art form. “We know how things unfold: the sirens; the escalation of the death count; the emergence of a manifesto of hatred. Then the vigils, the multifaith services, the flower-laden shrines, the handwritten signs, the funerals. And of course the calls for gun control.” Here in Canada there were some 15 shootings in Toronto last weekend. But neither in the US nor here in Canada do we do anything, or anything much, about taking lethal weapons out of the hands of ordinary citizens.
People ask me why Scripture has any relevance for us today. It was written for different times and different cultures. But some things are constant. There is always need to care for the less fortunate. And changing times always bring conflict between those who accept or embrace change, and those who resist it.