Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
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 wild grapes.
Isa 5:1-2; full passage, Isa 5:1-7, for Aug. 18, 2019 linked at https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+5%3A1-7&version=NRSV
It feels a bit awkward trying to appropriate for my own life texts so obviously addressed to a community. The prophet speaks of and to ‘the house of Israel’ and ‘the people of Judah’ (5:7) — the nation planted for justice and righteousness (Isa 5:7), yet yielding only ‘wild grapes’ (Isa 5:2), ‘bloodshed’ and ‘a cry’ (Isa 5:7). I can read the text and recall the sound-play that in Hebrew joins and opposes ‘justice’ and ‘bloodshed,’ ‘righteousness’ and ‘a cry.’ I can review the context of eighth century Judah, the inequity of its affluence, the iniquity of its structures, and I can posit convicting connections to my own context. But that reading alone does not carry me through. I do not need to read the text to see my own world. I know it already as broken and ill. Reading the text as a lens on my context — find the parallels, connect the dots — is important and necessary work. Yet doing just this week after week feels reductionist, redundant. It becomes a short cut that takes me quickly to a blank wall, a dead end. I stand there staring at graffitied bricks. There’s no way forward.
But what if I turn the lens the other way? Instead of treating the text as God’s revelation meant to show me my world and myself, receive the text as a revelation of God’s self. Read the text and look for God. What then do I see? Who is the LORD revealed in this given word?
God as lover. The singer, the LORD, and the vineyard are conjoined in this title, not just ‘beloved’ but ‘my beloved’ — relationship claimed.
God as gardener. There’s love in that image as well, and a suggestion of physical exertion and intimate contact. God breaks up and turns over the soil — heavy, sweaty, dirty work. God hauls out the stones, sets them aside for the watchtower to be built. God plants choice vines: soaks the roots, digs holes and sets the tender plants in, bends to press the dirt around, stakes the tiny vines. Does God’s back ache? Are God’s fingers filthy? Does God pause to wipe sweat from the divine forehead with a forearm? Does God gaze with pardonable pride at the work, seeing already and gloating with joy over the sure growth coming? God builds a watchtower and hews out a wine vat and looks forward to the harvest, the processing, the wine given to ‘gladden the heart’ (Psa 104:15), mixed and poured and set on a table for all to partake (Prov 9:1-6).
God as generous, as ultimately invested. Having given all that could possibly be given: ‘What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?’ (Isa 5:4). God as hurt and puzzled: ‘Why did it yield wild grapes?’ (Isa 5:4). God allowing that emotion, acknowledging the cost of the investment in naming the disappointment of its failure.
God as inviting the vineyard to be invested as well. The inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah are called to judge between the LORD and the vineyard (Isa 5:3). Such judgment is only possible when both sides are fully seen. To ‘judge between’ means to see the vineyard truly, which the text defines as seeing the vineyard in relation to God. So, and again: read the text to see God. The glance turning back and forth between, from one to the other; looking deliberately, carefully; widening the gaze; acknowledging the identity-with as well as the vast distance between.
The LORD planted a vineyard. I — we — are the LORD’s ‘pleasant planting’ (Isa 5:7).
Harvest will come. The LORD makes that plain. God’s plan may be resisted but will not be gainsaid. God commands creation itself to further God’s aim (Isa 5:6). Harvest will come. Yet God wants all of this — planting and nurture and growth and harvest — not done to us but with us. God calls the vineyard itself to ‘judge between,’ and so that we can see enough to judge, God lights the way with words that shine to reveal God’s self.
The writing is no graffitied dead-end but an open door. Through it I glimpse the gardener — if only from behind — bent over and working to till and plant and nurture the growth. Persistently willing a tableful of joy.
Please, LORD: Let me see the world with your sight, by your light. Give me enough heart and courage to walk out into it bearing your image. Lover, gardener, risking the gift, persistently working to bring the harvest to full and joyful fruit. As I myself am brought.