I’ve never been much of a gardener. I love the land in the abstract: knowing the path of the rain after it falls, how to get from here to there, and what’s below the top layer of soil. But I don’t love getting my hands dirty for the sake of intimacy with the ground. I’ve worked to grow plants in the American Midwest, the Moroccan Sahara and the Arava valley of southern Israel. Gowing food is tremendously important work, but it will always remain work for me rather than pleasure.
Since it is work, I focus on the land and the yield rather than deriving any pleasure from the growing process. At every step—fertilizing, planting, tending, feeding, defending, harvesting and composting—I ask two questions: “What is good for the harvest?” and “What is good for the land?” This means that sometimes I’m not as focused on the plants (or co-workers) as I could be. As an example, at times I prune a plant or give it less water than it would like. I’ve even uprooted plants at the end of the season and composted them after they’ve yielded tomatoes or eggplants. In this week’s lectionary passages, God seeks a good harvest from the land and, in the absence of that good harvest, seeks answers from the plants and laborers.
The song of the vineyard in Isaiah frames much of the rest of that prophetic book. God planted a vineyard in the Judean hills. God cleared stones from the rocky soil, planted a beautiful red vintage, dug a winepress and built a watchtower. In this parable, the vine represents the people of Judah and the vineyard is the house of Israel. God expected a harvest of justice and righteousness from God’s people who were planted in the Holy Land (Isaiah 5:7). But seeing only a harvest of wickedness, God tore down the hedge of protection and allowed the plant to be overrun by wild animals and weeds.
The psalmist describes the experience from the Israelites’ perspective. They were a vine plucked from Egypt and hand-carried to a new territory. Other nations were displaced to plant this special vintage. In time the vine grew to spread branches in all directions. But eventually God removed the protection from the vulnerable vine, and it was eaten by wild swine (Psalm 80:8-13).
God, it must be said, isn’t interested in growing vines for their own sake. God wants a good harvest. God wants righteousness and justice. Just as God displaced the Amorites and residents of the Holy Land because of their wickedness and planted the Israelites in their place (Genesis 15:16-20), God would displace the Israelites because of their wickedness (Deuteronomy 28:49-52, 64-68; 1 Kings 8:46; Jeremiah 7:12-15). The plant is not the point by itself. God, in God’s grace, gave the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob several do-overs. But God never ceases to look for a good harvest of justice and righteousness.
God is the God of the harvest of justice and righteousness. God doesn’t plant a vineyard for the fun of it—God expects a yield.
Several centuries later, Jesus spoke to the leaders of the people, adapting the parable of the vineyard to address a leadership problem. No longer does the vineyard fail to produce a harvest. Instead, the harvest is being contained and consumed by those responsible for producing it. Jesus, with exactly zero subtlety, adapts the Isaiah passage to say that some of the religious leaders are inhibiting God from collecting the harvest of justice and righteousness that God has desired for centuries.
God had sent servants (prophets) to those in charge to remind them that justice is due. The leaders should render to their Lord the harvest of righteousness. Instead of giving what God was due, those in charge of the vineyard exiled, beat and killed the prophets. According to tradition (and Hebrews 11:37), Jeremiah was stoned to death by Israeli leaders in Egypt, Isaiah was sawn in half by King Manasseh, and Ezekiel was executed by an idolatrous Israelite exilarch. Jesus knew that God’s son would be treated no differently. He was eventually handed over to the Romans for execution by a hastily and incompletely assembled Sanhedrin.
Even the leaders whom Jesus indicted with this adaptation of the vineyard parable knew what God would do to those who prevented the full harvest of righteousness and justice: they would be brought to a wretched end and the vineyard would be handed over to other workers who would yield up a good harvest in time (Matthew 21:41). Jesus agreed and told the leaders who prevented and perverted justice that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit” (Matthew 21:43).
Make no mistake, God is the God of the harvest of justice and righteousness. God doesn’t plant a vineyard for the fun of it—God expects a yield. Jesus comes to save humans, including saving us from the ways in which we inhibit justice.