INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year C - Proper 15
ISAIAH 5:1-7. Israel and Judah, the northern and southern kingdoms resulting from the breakup of the united kingdom of David and Solomon, were being threatened by advancing Assyrian armies circa 722 BC. Isaiah saw this threat as God’s judgment for the injustice and apostasy of God’s people. This lyrical poem described them as a vineyard that failed to produce good fruit and so had to be destroyed.
PSALM 80:1-2, 8-19. This prayer pleads for God to save Israel from destruction as a shepherd protects his sheep. Then Israel is likened to a vine that had been brought from Egypt, prospered in a new land, but now was about to be destroyed.
JEREMIAH 23:23-29. (Alternate) It would have been better to end this reading at the natural end of the oracle and chapter (vs. 40) or at the end of a paragraph (vs. 32) in the NRSV. The whole passage conveys Jeremiah’s fierce tone of divine condemnation against the many false prophets of his time.
The burden of Jeremiah’s message is that these false prophets have completely misunderstood who God really is, and not some neighbourhood deity who reigns over a small hilltop sanctuary or one sends propitious dreams promising good favour. Instead, the word of God to the true prophet is as different as wheat from straw (vs. 28c). The dreams of the false prophets lead people astray, providing no moral or spiritual benefit at all.
PSALM 82. (Alternate) The emphasis on social justice rooted in the prophetic awareness of a just and righteous God manifests itself in this short poem. The psalm ends with a prophetic call for God to judge the earth over which God alone reigns.
HEBREWS 11:29-12:2. This passage recalls more of Israel’s religious heroes and describes how they suffered because of their faith. Then it gives the reason for this recital of their heroic endurance. We too may join them in following the example of the greatest of all, Jesus, who suffered death on the cross and now reigns with God.
LUKE 12:49-56. This apocalyptic vision of conflict about what Jesus means presents us with a picture of what may have actually happened in the community for which Luke was writing his gospel in the second last decade of the 1st century. Confronted by Jews who had expelled all Christians from their synagogues and threatened with persecution by the Romans, it would have been natural for them to seek a deeper understanding of what was happening to them in the Jewish traditions about the end of time and the teachings of Jesus himself. No one can tell how much of these words were actually spoken by Jesus or created by Luke for his audience.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
ISAIAH 5:1-7. Not long ago I drove through the rich vineyard countryside below the Niagara escarpment on the south side of Lake Ontario. The vineyards were in beautiful condition. The weather has been good. The farmers are expecting a bumper crop to deliver to the wineries. Every mile along the road has its wineries, some large, some small. Many of the larger ones draw bus loads of visitors in season to tour their facilities, taste their products and purchase their winter supply. Niagara ice wine, made from grapes allowed to freeze hard on the vines, is becoming famous around the world for its special flavor.
In The Interpreter’s Bible (vol. 5, 196) the late Professor R. B. Y. Scott called this “Song of the Vineyard" unique among prophetic canon. His exegetical comments give rise to an imaginative scene as one might have seen in Jerusalem circa 725 BCE:
A huge multitude had gathered in the temple precincts to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. This vintage festival of thanksgiving was a time of song when small groups and solo voices filled the air with singing in the informal environment as people waited for the temple sacrifices to begin. Some may even have been a little inebriated from sampling too much of the early vintage. Tolerance for such frivolity did not dull the expectation of the crowd for a great celebration. This year’s crop from Israel’s vineyards had indeed been good.
The prophet Isaiah seized the opportunity to imitate one of the popular vintage songs with a different message. Perhaps because he was a priest and distinctively dressed, he caused something of a stir as people rushed to hear this new voice. His presence as well as the timbre of his voice beguiled many to listen carefully.
The opening lines of his song (vss.1-2) described the typical undertakings of the vine grower, the preparations he made and the failure he encountered. Many in the audience would have been familiar such an experience. As they listened to his next lines, (vss. 3-4) they empathized with the depth of his tragedy. In a year when so many had reaped an abundant harvest, the vine stock he had planted had yielded only wild grapes.
Suddenly the meter of the song changed. In short abrupt words the vintner’s anger burst forth. His disappointment had turned to fury. He will devastate the vineyard that failed so miserably (vss. 5-6.) Knowingly, many agreed with his decision. It was the only thing to do.
Then suddenly, the prophet uttered the real meaning of his song (vs. 7). The vineyard was a metaphor for Yahweh’s covenant people; and the devastation to come Yahweh’s was judgment against them for their rebellion against the sacred covenant.
One can imagine the shock that swept through the crowd as the prophet stared at them, meeting eye after eye until heads turned away in dismay and shame as he pressed home his powerful condemnation.
PSALM 80:1-2, 8-19. This lament offers a prayer for deliverance using similar imagery from Israel’s vineyards. The metaphor occurs in prophetic oracles other than that of Isaiah and in the Gospels as well. (See Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 17:1-10; Hosea 10:1; Matthew 21:33-42; John 15:1-8) Here it is used as a synonym for the Israelites in general. Or, if the tribal names of vss.1-2 are considered in addition to such geographical features as the cedars and “the River,” probably the Euphrates (vss.10-11), the Northern Kingdom in particular is intended.
These geographical references represent the imagined boundaries of the Davidic kingdom to an extent which the great king never achieved. Vs. 8 refers to the vine being brought out of Egypt, an obvious reference to the Exodus. Thus the poet uses imagery to express the intended glory of Yahweh’s people in the Promised Land.
Vss.12-13 constitute a reality check. The walls have been broken down and wild animals now feed in the vineyard. The threat of invaders was by no means imagined. After Solomon’s death, the Northern Kingdom never enjoyed much security. The specific period referred to from the 10th to the 8th centuries BCE cannot be identified, but could well be close to the Assyrian invasion and destruction of Samaria in 721 BCE.
Vs. 17 personifies the nation as a human being. Some older versions, including the KJV and the RSV, retain the phrase “the son of man” which some regard as a messianic interpretation not intended by the psalmist.
The lament ends as usual with a vow in vs.18-19. “Never again!” is a phrase often used by religious devotees when repenting their transgressions. Its sincerity has to be measured by the behavioral change that follows, not the beauty or sanctity of the prayer.
JEREMIAH 23:23-29. (Alternate) It remains a mystery why the reading has been terminated at vs. 29 rather than at the natural end of the oracle and chapter (vs. 40) or at the end of a paragraph (vs. 32) in the NRSV. The whole passage conveys Jeremiah’s to fierce condemnation on behalf of Yahweh against the many false prophets of his time.
The burden of Jeremiah’s message is that these false prophets have completely misunderstood who Yahweh really is. Yahweh is not some neighbourhood deity who reigns over a small hilltop sanctuary or one sends propitious dreams promising good favour. Instead, the word of Yahweh to the true prophet is as different as wheat from straw (vs. 28c). The dreams of the false prophets lead people astray, providing no benefit for them.
Reading this passage recalls the plethora of television and radio evangelists and prophets one can tune in to almost any day of the week. Their broadcasts outnumber those of more careful and helpful analysts and religious commentators many times over. Their message has more to do with a political agenda or making a profit from their audience than proclaiming the good news of God’s love in Christ.
PSALM 82. (Alternate) The emphasis on social justice rooted in the prophetic awareness of a just and righteous God manifests itself in this short poem. Yet these few verses depict an unusual scene.
Like the introduction to the Book of Job (Job 1:6), vs. 1 portrays a heavenly council over which Yahweh presides. Yahweh addresses the assembled “gods” or “children of the Most High.” This phrase appears only in Job and Genesis 6:2, 4. They seem to be heavenly beings exercising some authority on earth. Yahweh excoriates them for aiding and abetting injustice among the people by favouring the wicked. They have failed to do due diligence in helping the poor and weak who have no knowledge or understanding. Failure to do what is required will bring death to these “children of the Most High.”
The psalm ends with a prophetic call for Yahweh to judge the earth over which Yahweh alone reigns.
HEBREWS 11:29-12:2. Like a prosecutor in a law court, the author presents the case for faith with a powerful list of witnesses in this second half of the Hebrews 11. The roll call of heroes and heroines of faith cover the history of Israel from the Exodus to the tribulations of the Hasmonean period between the OT and NT. It points to the historical reality that faith alone enabled Israel to survive through those violent centuries. Surely this is not surprising to us who have experienced similar “end of the century of holocausts.”
The implications of this long citation of faithfulness in the face of unparalleled oppression come to the fore in the conclusion of the passage in 12:1-2, which William Barclay describes as “a well-nigh perfect summary of the Christian life.” He elaborates by showing that this life has a goal, an inspiration, a handicap, a means, an example and a presence. (See Daily Bible Readings: The Letter to the Hebrews. Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press;194-197) The metaphor of a long-distance race carries the message to its conclusion. The goal which brings joy in its achievement, however, is not to win a race, but to have direct access to God through Christ.
An interesting feature of this conclusion is that the author uses only the simple human name of Jesus, not the theological names of Christ or Son of God, or his designation as “the great high priest.” It is the human experience of Jesus, and in particular his endurance of the cross, which fits our need for an example to follow as “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” The Christian life is not a 100-metre dash, but an exhausting marathon. Paul used a similar metaphor in writing to the Philippians from prison in Rome (Phil. 3:12-14).
If, as many commentators believe, The Letter to the Hebrews was addressed to a church facing imminent persecution and possible martyrdom, we need nothing less than faithfulness that endures unto death. This spiritual insight may mean nothing now to Christians in the so-called “First World.” African and Asian Christians have a different story to tell. We may yet need their testimony as militarism, tribalism and terrorism, the aftermath of racist colonialism in earlier times, take their toll in the 21st century.
LUKE 12:49-56. The question arises immediately as to whether or not Jesus actually spoke in these terms. The ideas resemble much Jewish eschatology of the time. Luke’s eschatology tended to emphasize a delay in the Parousia, but this passage has a much greater sense of immediacy about it. Is Luke here thinking ahead to Jesus’ Gethsemane experience (22:39-46) and thereby presenting his readers fifty years later with a similar warning of severe trials to come? Furthermore, is it not also true that Christian faith and behavior do at times create conflict such as this passage describes?
Luke has drawn together several sayings from Q which Matthew distributes elsewhere. (Cf. Matthew 10:34-36; 16:1-2) So there must have been a certain collective memory of Jesus’ teaching that the end of the age would involve harsh judgment and division. Were Jesus and Luke not being as realistic as any observant person should have been, given the tenuous state of affairs at the time when they lived?
John Dominic Crossan presents a novel approach in limiting the actual words of Jesus to the aphorism about a divided household. He notes that the division is not dependent on faith in the reign of God or on Jesus himself. He also points to the emphasis on generations rather than gender. He suggests that the reign of God’s love tears families apart along the axis of power, particularly power that is abused as parental power has often done.
Another progressive scholar, Bruce Chilton, frequently presents Jesus as very abrasive in his teaching style. If this is what the anticipated messianic kingdom would be like, this teaching would inevitably raise considerable controversy in his audience. Ever ready for an argument on some fine point of the Torah or its implications for daily life, the Jews were notorious for the fervor with which they debated and re-debated each issue a new rabbi defined.
On the other hand, we have to deal with the incredulity of the modern western mind. Eschatology is as far from our concerns as Middle Eastern terrorism and African tribal conflicts during our August vacation. How do we interpret these strange words for those who meet us in the comfortable pews week by week? Underneath their facade of sophistication do we not all have real anxieties about the future? Perhaps the answer lies in the phrase that ends this passage, “to interpret the present time,” (cf. NEB “this fateful hour”) as Jesus and Luke did in their time. Is God not saying something to us in the events of our own time?
SOME ADDITIONAL PREACHING POINTS.
HEBREWS 11:29-12:2. We do not need to look far from our own time for heroes
who pursued the goal of faith to which the author of this letter/essay referred. We have witnessed similar commitment in leaders such Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. By their words and actions these men eloquently put forth a vision of racial harmony as the only possible perception of God’s intention for our time and paid dearly for their vision. Desmond Tutu caught the vision and led his nation to a deeper commitment to truth and reconciliation in the midst of strong opposition. What they saw was “a foretaste of the future in the present,” as Frances Taylor Gench put it. “God’s design for our humanity becomes visible in lives of radical trust and costly obedience.”
Gench continued: “Hebrews maintains that the saints of every generation empowered by faith to endure suffering and even death if need be, because they know that their ultimate destiny is in the hands of the unseen God whose promises are sure. And because they know that he purposes of God will not fail to be achieved despite all appearances to the contrary…. We are one with them waiting for the final realization of God’s saving purposes. And because Jesus Christ and the new covenant established in his death represent the fulfillment of God’s promises, Hebrews maintains that he saints of preceding generations will ‘not, apart from us’ who believe in Christ, ‘be made perfect.’” (*Hebrews and James*. Westminster Bible Companion Series. Westminster John Knox Press, 1996; 64-66.)
Nearly fifty years ago at a conference in Green Lake, Wisconsin, I met several people who left an indelible mark on me. One was a military chaplain who had landed with the Marines on Iwo Jima for the battle that may well have turned the struggle of the Pacific theatre of World War II in the direction of victory. He had subsequently trained as a psychiatrist and, at the time I met him, filled a unique role in leading a specialized course in group dynamics for clergy. Although it was long after meeting him, I came to realize how much he helped me see how one person can effect change by faithful living in community.
The other person was a young Japanese missionary on the island of Okinawa. She was the only member of her immediate family to have survived the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945. She had been out of town visiting an aunt on the day of that holocaust. Her experience convinced her to become a minister and offer her services to the Japanese people of Okinawa where the vast American military base was located and seriously affected the residents there.
Like myself, this young Japanese woman was greatly intrigued by the conflict we witnessed between a brash young Methodist minister and a quiet but strong Mennonite minister. These two men became close friends over the two week course when the Mennonite realized and shared openly that it was the brassy buttons on the Methodist’s jacket that so disturbed him. They reminded him of the way the Prussians had persecuted him Mennonite ancestors in Germany a century or more ago.
LUKE 12:49-56. In 1949 when Mao Ze-Dong had led the Communists in triumph into Beijing, the late Professor J.S. Thomson said to a class discussing what the meaning of that event might be, “Who knows what will happen if the Chinese people decide to move?” More than fifty years later, one in every five persons on this planet is Chinese. Is this what President George W. Bush had in mind when he uses the phrase “some rogue nation” and described the threat for which he wanted the American military to be armed with dazzling new weapons in space? Is divine sovereignty not the essential point of this passage in Luke’s gospel? “We are not alone. We live in God’s world.”
Do any of the so-called experts, analysts and commentators we follow so carefully for their views really know what lies ahead? The best strategic minds of our day can only guess, but cannot penetrate the mists of the future. History holds its secrets until they happen. Did Jesus really know what lay ahead of him as he “set his face toward Jerusalem?” Did he fully realize what the cost would be when he overthrew the tables of the priests’ moneychangers in the temple courts?
In summary chapter, “The Non-Religious Christ,” of his 1993 work, This Hebrew Lord, John Spong stated that the possibility of death was always in Jesus’ mind from the time of his baptism and temptation. As time passed, he also became aware that neither his teaching nor his healing acts had convinced even his closest disciples that he possessed the power of divine love to bring peace, healing and liberty to life in all would accept it. Only at the Last Supper did the full price of his mission finally come to him – and, as he prayed in Gethsemane, he wanted to avoid it. “He would live love out in the face of every human distortion of love.” He died on the cross leaving all in the hands of God, not knowing for sure what God had in mind for himself or for his followers. It was only after his death in the loneliness of a criminal’s crucifixion that those who had known him most intimately came to realize who he was and what he had been trying to say and to do all along.
In his ultimate sacrifice in love he communicated the full, the abundant, the inescapable grace of God’s love and became for all humanity “the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb. 12:2) The New Testament is the record of his closest followers themselves and others they convinced coming to believe that he was indeed the Saviour and Messiah/Christ. They rallied to carry on his ministry of sharing God’s love. The history of the Church is the record of those innumerable saints who have stumbled, failed, fallen and risen once more to struggle on in their footsteps.