Monday, August 19, 2013

Coveting the View at the Cost of Justice

Scripture for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost includes Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

“Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard…” Now there’s a set-up for a song that was bound to turn heads and capture the attention of all sorts and conditions of folks attending the annual harvest festival at the great temple in Jerusalem. Songs about wine and wineries were expected, but what made this one stand out was who it was at the microphone: it wasn’t one of the expected crooners. It was the well-known prophet Isaiah, and he was about to let loose with a broadside to the bow of Israel’s self-satisfaction, a songlike parable that starts cleverly with an appeal to sweet reason and ends with a sharp reproach and a dire threat.

His parable is built on a metaphor. Israel is a vineyard. We notice a recurrence of that image in today’s psalm, where the interweaving of Egypt and Israel in history and legend is expressed in a verse addressed to God: “You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you cast out the nations and planted it.” Such a simple one-sentence summation of that long process by which generations of Hebrew immigrants took control of the land of Canaan, which they came to call the Promised Land—a point of view, an article of faith, that has fueled endless hostility around land and boundaries that still grips the Middle East.

Isaiah builds his case. His beloved is God, and this is a love song in that it celebrates the sheer lovingkindness of God to Israel in subduing the wild culture of the original settlers of the land, the Canaanites, and in their place cultivating a fine vineyard of choice vines meant to delight God and inspire the world. Isaiah’s vineyard on a very fertile hill is much like St. Matthew’s city on a hill, a light to the nations.

Wasting no words, utilizing words most cleverly, Isaiah shifts his song from celebration to alarm and lament, pivoting on that tiny word “but”: but the grapes that the vineyard yields are wild grapes. Bitter grapes. In Hebrew, literally, “stinking fruit.” If that’s all you remember from this sermon, consider how successful Isaiah’s song has been! What memorable lyrics!

I call him clever because he uses a play on words that sound similar but are in sharp contrast. In our text today we heard, “When I expected my vineyard to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” In Hebrew, it reads, “I looked for ‘mishpat’ (justice), but instead there was ‘mishpah’ (bloodshed).”

In an attempt to convey what the Hebrew does with sound, one early 20th-century commentator translated it, “For measures He looked—but lo, massacres! For right—but lo, riot!”

Can you imagine a better-fitting verse to describe a God’s-eye view of what has happened in Egypt over the past two or three weeks? I should say an expression of God’s-heart, God’s breaking heart, as Muslims kill Muslims, as Muslims kill Coptic Christians, and, the odds are, as some Coptic Christians inflict violence in self-defence and in reaction to what is coming down on them.

I know I’ve jumped the rails. Isaiah’s famous parable does not speak of Egypt at all. But how cam we ignore the proximity of this text to that tragedy unfolding across Egypt? Can’t we hear God lamenting over post-Morsi Egypt, “I looked for justice, but instead bloodshed… for intelligent measures, but lo, massacres! For right, but lo, riot.”

We must pray that verses from the Koran are being heard to fit this tragedy, to address the hearts and minds of Egypt’s people to end this descent into madness.

And we must look closer to home, to let Isaiah’s love song fit us and our culture here.

Jesus gives us ample warning today to face the temptation to hypocrisy. “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

That is quite precisely the task of the prophet: interpreting the present. Because Jesus makes prophesying sound like a responsibility expected of all who follow him, let’s hear this as a call to sharpen our own skill set. As we believe in the priesthood of all believers, let’s affirm the prophetic role of all believers.

The late Canadian scholar R. B.Y. Scott helps us appreciate the message of Israel’s famous prophets who emerged eight centuries before the common era:

“All confronted a society where a period of prolonged prosperity for the ruling classes had absorbed their interest and established new standards of luxury and social power; as a corollary, the old sense of kinship among members of the community was lost, the poor were exploited and oppressed, and justice was no longer administered in accordance with the old standards of right. At the same time, the meaning of religion itself was changed; worship became an occasion of display, and the worth of sacrifices was measured by their costliness. The forms and ceremonies adopted from Canaanite religion had become dominant, and the living relationship to the Lord as the covenant God (of love) peculiar to Israel was now a fading tradition…”

So here Isaiah announces that a day of reckoning is at hand, when those who have produced in their lives the bitter fruit of distorted religion and have lost their moral compass “will know a devastation like that of a vineyard abandoned to the wild beasts of the wilderness.”

I think it’s worth adding that the very next verses in the Book of Isaiah cast shame on people who build up great estates without regard to the impact on fellow Israelites and to the community as a whole. The specific doom that Isaiah sees befalling them is this (and oh my, it is so clever): by coveting the land that had once belonged to the many, the few wealthy ones who have deprived their neighbors of their land now deprive themselves of neighbors. The powerful and well-to-do are made to dwell alone, in a ghetto of their own making, with only their own kind around them, no diversity of neighbors to love (as six of the ten commandments require of us), and no workers nearby to hold the community together.

Do you think Williamstown needs to hear a prophetic word? A word about the profound worth of affordable housing? A word about coveting the view at the cost of justice?

If you think I may be going off the rails again by asking these questions, I can this time assure you that Isaiah’s parable directly addresses the subject I’m highlighting, which is social justice. The gist of Isaiah’s message might be paraphrased, God speaking: Not in my backyard, not in my vineyard, will I countenance the dispossessed, the vulnerable, the insecure playing second fiddle to the privileged, the well-connected, and the intimidating.

Isaiah’s parable is about more than land use. But clearly, the deeper theme of social justice then and now requires a community to have a deep and honest conversation about land use. We are fortunate that in our emerging progress around affordable housing, Williams College is demonstrating tangible encouragement of such conversation, by donating land for a project intended to provide housing for displaced Spruces residents.

For Isaiah, for people of faith today, and for people willing to interpret the present time,
that conversation must be rooted in the belief that gives Isaiah’s metaphor its power: the vineyard does not belong to a wealthy individual, or to a neighborhood association, or to any human owner. It belongs to God. The land in our community belongs to God.

All claims of ownership, all arrangements of custodial management, must answer to God. That is a higher accountability than answering to law.

Believe me, I can hear the objections to this approach. We would not want the theocracy required to administer it. A government of priests would likely be worse than a government of lawyers; and a government of prophets? Risky, as well.

Which is why ascribing ownership to God is not an approach: it is reality, from the viewpoint of faith, and its implication is that people of faith understand legal ownership as primarily stewardship answerable to God, answerable from what a person believes matters most to God and to the widest community.

Such faith is the subject of our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. By faith the Israelites left Egypt (and bondage) behind, passing through the Red Sea as if it were dry land. By faith all those famous and infamous Hebrew heroes did what they did (which had lots to do with keeping their homeland defended and extended). The point of our second lesson is that all the stewardship we exercise in this world is shaped and guided by faith.

Jesus makes it clear that putting into action what we believe will bring with it division. We are certainly experiencing that in Williamstown, as we attempt to discuss land use and as we propose ways to keep achieving affordable housing. Households and friendships are divided. Jesus treats conflict and controversy as necessary signs of people at work, pursuing truth and justice, learning grace and mercy, practicing faithfulness. I find a certain complex comfort in this, and even deeper peace in his insistence that these are signs that God is at work.

May our work be crowned with success. The success of clear understanding about how publicly-owned land may be used. The success of building healthy creative alliances that will result in building the housing needed for Spruces residents first, and then a wider range of people who need it. And the success of coming together as a community that will be known for, and healed by, its desire to do what is just and right.

R. B. Y. Scott’s commentary is found in Volume 5 of “The Interpreter’s Bible”, Abingdon Press, 1956. The quotation here is from page 199.