I will sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded rotten grapes.
3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield rotten grapes?
5 And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a wasteland;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his cherished garden;
he expected justice
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Thanks be to God.
Several months ago, as we were surfing for a new show to watch, we stumbled on Gardener’s World with Monty Don. We had no idea the show is a phenomenon in Great Britain – in its 55th season – and Monty Don – who I now follow on Instagram – is a much beloved, self-taught horticulturist with a huge following. What we loved is his gentle style, constant encouragement, and the hope he sparked that we too could have a beautiful garden with all the “zen” that he exudes. Well, it’s now a growing season later and I can report mixed results.
We have learned a lot and have enjoyed planting and tending many things – some of which have grown. But I have had one spectacular failure: a hillside that I hoped would become wildflowers but has grown nothing but weeds. It has been a spectacular failure before. The soil is poor, the light is uneven, waters runs right off the hill, and the only thing we’ve gotten to grow is an invasive weed that smuggled in with a mulch delivery a few years ago. It has the special gift of thriving anywhere.
I bring all this up because our text from Isaiah begins with a love-song about a gardener and a vineyard. There is no need for suspense here: the gardener is God, and we are the vineyard. The prophet is a friend of the gardener, who sings a song of his dear friend’s garden. What did his dear friend the Gardener do?
“My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug out the ground and cleared it of stones and planted the very best vines in the vineyard. He built a watchtower in the middle so he could carefully observe the plants. And he dug out a wine vat in the hope of a wonderful harvest.”
The gardener had ridiculously high hopes – you and I have been there before – and he did everything he could to make the garden grow. But the gardener in Isaiah’s love song is frustrated, deeply frustrated. Despite everything the Gardener has done, the garden has yielded rotten fruit. The poetic imagery of the Hebrew is literally “stinking.” These grapes were supposed to smell sweet, instead they stink. And suddenly the love song has turned into an indictment against the vineyard – that is, against human society.
God is one frustrated gardener – and God is frustrated with us. Not that God does not love us; God loves us very much, but God is frustrated. We are the garden into which God has poured every imaginable blessing, constant love and care, in the hope of a wonderful harvest. But the fruit stinks. Ouch.
You and I can probably empathize with a frustrated gardener. I’ve looked at the hillside at my house and thought about how much time and money I’ve spent, all for nothing. Every summer, I think the best thing to do is just throw down some mulch and forget it. “I studied the light and soil, I amended the soil, I studied the plants, I read the tags, I looked them up online, I watered like I was supposed to, I fertilized – and I got nothing but weeds.” God is frustrated. And it sounds like God is ready to give up altogether.
What do we make of this song? Isaiah’s song is a metaphor: it is an invitation for us to look at our own lives as God’s garden and consider the fruit that we are bearing. God has given us so many blessings. Shelter, and nourishment, and meaningful work, and friendship, and so many things to enjoy. And above all, mercy and second chances and unconditional love. What kind of fruit are we bearing in return for God’s care? To reflect on that question well, we need to push deeper into the kind of harvest God is hoping to find. Near the end of this love-song-turned-indictment, the prophet gets more specific about the “good fruit” God intended.
At the end of verse seven, Isaiah lays it out. This is why the Divine Gardener is frustrated: “God expected justice, but got bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.” Let’s spend some time unpacking carefully what these terms mean.
A couple of weeks ago, when we were studying Micah 6:8, I mentioned that there are two Hebrew words for what we would call justice: mishpat and tzedekah. Mishpat is the first word that Isaiah uses here: God expected justice. This means that God expected basic fairness in human society: honesty in court, equality under the law, equity in the decisions of the law. But when God looks at human society, instead of finding justice, God finds bloodshed. This is a wordplay in Hebrew. It’s the only time the word is used in the Old Testament. The word is mishpah, a tragic rhyme. God is looking for mishpat, God sees mishpah. God is looking for fairness, God sees unfairness; God is looking for honesty, God sees spin.
Mishpat, the first thing God is looking for, is vital for a human society, but alone it is not enough to create a flourishing garden. You might envision a society where the law treats people fairly – mishpat – but a society that is also characterized by great inequalities of wealth. It’s all legal, but some have far more than they need, and others have not nearly enough. Some have two and three homes, others have none; some have five grocery stores within three blocks, others live in food deserts.
Basic fairness before the law is not enough to create a flourishing society, and that’s why the next word is important, the one you heard me read as “righteousness.” This Hebrew word is tzedakah, and the truth is, it has no easy English translation. It is translated here righteousness because it has the sense of “right relationship” between people. Sometimes it is translated charity – in the sense of generosity from one person to another. But that doesn’t quite capture it, because for us charity is a voluntary gift, and the root of this word means justice. In other words, the generosity envisioned by tzedakah is not strictly voluntary but flows from a mutual relationship of obligation between persons in society. Like every garden or vineyard needs soil and water, every human society needs mishpat and tzedakah. A basic fairness before the law, and a mutual obligation that we care for one another as neighbors by sharing our possessions and guarding human dignity.
Let me give you a brief illustration. A few months ago, David and I toured Transformation Village, which is one of the ministries of our mission partner ABCCM, who helps women who are homeless stabilize their lives, learn a trade, and prepare for a career. Inside of Transformation Village there is a clothing shop, where women can go and shop for new clothes for their job. There is no cost, but it’s set up like a store. The clothes are on racks and display shelves, all the clothes have new tags. The person is able to choose in the same way that someone might do if they were downtown or at the mall, and they checkout at the counter on the way out.
That is an example of tzedakah. Justice and charity woven together, in a way that cares for the person as a neighbor, meeting both the material need and the need for human dignity. Poverty is always humiliating, and the justice/charity of tzedakah is done in a way that protects the dignity and independence of the other person.
Isaiah says this is also what the divine Gardener is looking for, but instead finds another tragic rhyme: tseaqah, a word that means cries of distress. God looks for mutual sharing, but finds gaping chasms of need. God looks for mutual obligation to one another, but finds selfishness instead.
This is why the grapes are garbage: there is no mishpat and tzedakah.
And yet, for all of the Gardener’s frustration – and you only have to think briefly about our world to imagine God is still deeply frustrated with the human garden – for all of God’s frustration, the threat to just walk away– to mulch it and forget it – is not carried out. It turns out the divine Gardener is too faithful, too loving, too deeply committed to do that. God the Gardener has not given up on our world; God has not given up on our lives.
So, if we fast forward in the story, we find this same imagery in the gospel: God sent his very own Son into the human garden, to be the best vine that could produce good fruit. In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the vine, my Father is the Gardener… Remain in me, and I in you, and you will bear much fruit.” And this is God’s invitation for us – just as we heard in our study of Micah 6:8. Learn from Christ how to live the life that God envisions and to bear the fruit that God intends.
Christ shows us how to recognize in each person their innate dignity and worth. Christ shows us how to respond with compassion to cries of distress. Christ shows us how to set aside our ego to serve one another, and put aside our legalism to show compassion. Christ shows us how to use our possessions – all the time, energy, intelligence, skills, and resources that God has entrusted to us–into the service of our neighbor’s good and God’s fruitful garden. “Remain in me,” Christ says, “and I in you, and you will bear much fruit.”
Isaiah the prophet sings this love song to hold up a mirror to our lives. We may look in this mirror and feel frustrated – we may feel God’s own frustration – that our society does not bear the fruit of fairness and charity and dignity that allows every person to flourish. Sometimes the mirror leads us to confession and repentance and new awareness and new commitment to help the world bear better fruit.
We may look into this mirror and see our own lives and feel frustrated or even despairing that we have not born the fruit we wanted to bear, despite all the blessings that we have received. We could have been fairer, more just in our dealings with others. We could have been more generous, shared more freely with others in our lives – not only materially, but in other ways, with our time, our attention, our love. Sometimes the mirror leads us to our own personal confession and repentance.
Sometimes the mirror give us a vision of who God intends us to be. God has not given up on our world and on our lives. This prophet’s love song may spark in us a desire to bear more and better fruit.
If that is your desire, I invite you to trust Christ with your life. By God’s sheer mercy, the Spirit will graft us onto the vine of Christ. The Spirit will work in us to bear the fruit that God hopes to see. We can ask the Spirit, even now, to join us onto the vine of Christ and help us to stay there – so that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. And remaining always in Christ’s love, we may bear the good fruit in the garden of God’s creation.
Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.
First Presbyterian Church
Asheville, North Carolina