A Grape Tale

Isaiah 5:1-7 – The 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, August 18, 2013

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard…” (Isaiah 5:1)

Imagine a vineyard.

Ring.BlogVineyards symbolize the most precious vow I’ve taken. I wear golden grapes and vines on my left hand. Inspired by the fifteenth chapter of John, a friend designed the wedding rings my wife and I wear.

I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

Throughout all of Biblical times, Old and New Testament, in the myths, parables and history of Israel, vineyards represented life. They literally provided a safe drink and symbolized stability for an individual and community.

Though grapes were not specifically mentioned, Genesis’ third day of creation witnessed vegetation spreading across the newly formed earth. Bring forth seed that becomes fruit!

In the mythology of the flood (Genesis 9:20), the first Noah planted on the still moist ground were vines. A verse later, faster than you can say Chardonnay, Noah was already guzzling the harvest, soon to become a fall-down drunk.

Wasn’t that first post-flood vineyard—with the quickest time from planting a vine to drinking wine ever recorded—a cautionary story?

Jesus, of course, in several parables, used vineyard imagery. One, the so-called parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:1-12, Matthew 21:3-46 and Luke 20:9-19), depicted mayhem and murder between the rows of vines. There was punishment for those who didn’t follow the ways of . . . of God, of justice, of compassion? And long before Jesus took his listeners into a familiar field of grapes as a backdrop for a tale of divine disappointment, Isaiah 5:1-7 scribed a bitter “love song” about a vineyard gone wrong. If you don’t want to search any of the winey Gospel accounts of mayhem and murder, or to physically or digitally thumb through Isaiah to “hear” the fifth chapter’s vineyard lament, let me summarize the grape tales for you . . .

People of faith lose (abuse, ignore, deny, trivialize) their faith and God got grumpy. Isaiah 5 summarized God’s reason for destroying the vineyard (aka, Israel) with: God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry. I’m polite when I referred to God’s response as grumpy, since the divine “hand” ripped apart the gift of the vineyard. Instead of toasting the people of Israel, their vineyard became toast.

I’d prefer to avoid this vile vineyard view of holy vengeance.

Let God always be love.

Let Jesus always welcome the children onto his lap.

Let all the prophets of old like Isaiah only share dreams of hope.

Let the followers of Jesus forever serve a happy meal of bread and wine and forgiveness.

From a nearby vineyard...
From a nearby vineyard…

Though I live in the sidewalk-encircled suburbs of California’s Fresno, I’m a half-hour bike ride from a tidy little vineyard. It’s no more than an acre of grapes, with a community college’s baseball diamond forming one border and newly built homes pressing against the property’s other sides. I won’t be surprised if the vineyard vanished in a few years, bulldozed for more mansionettes or to add a baseball field or two. For now, though, I can pedal there, hop off my bike, and walk in the rows to enjoy the grapes through the seasons.

They are summer luscious right now, easy on the eyes, months from harvest. The green of the leaves stuns the eyes. The fresh purple of the fruit, as if a living gem, is a compelling sight. I saunter around this vineyard and can pretend to be the former captain of the ark, proud of a first harvest and without a thought in my Noahish head about getting drunk and—at least mythologically speaking—launching generations of curses.

As I continue deeper into the vineyard close to my home, I can also imagine I’ve joined Isaiah’s listeners or Jesus’ followers to hear the tales of a vineyard. I can’t help but feel my chest expand with pride.

I am God’s creation, after all.

God is the giver of gifts.

The bounty of the earth is mine.

All will be well.

Please and thank you, pass the grape and the grain, the chalice and the paten, the wine and the bread, and let me taste the easy harvest of mercy, forgiveness and justice.

But the fruit of righteousness and the harvest of hope are not easy.

An old fig orchard, neglected and nearly gone...
An old fig orchard, neglected and nearly gone…

I enjoy a stroll in the vineyard near home and can’t help but know—know—the frailty of the plants and fruit. The rows of vines could disappear overnight. I know that, because even closer to my suburban home are the remnants of a different but familiar Biblical fruit: figs. Planted a century ago by early twentieth century farmers, the once vibrant fig orchards were abandoned for city growth and the endless human quest for profit.

The prophet calls for justice.

And yet, so often humans—like me—only listen to the profit. We care more about judging others than justice. Righteousness is defined by what I think is right. Hope for all is swell as long as your version of hope doesn’t upset mine.

How easy for the creation to forget the Creator.

Isaiah 5 tells a story about a vineyard. How green the vine, how lush the grape, how sweet the wine. Will it not always be that way?

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