Wild Lectionary: Ecological Theology of the Vineyard

Old millstone, Palestine

Proper 22 (27)
18th Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46

By Ched Myers

The 18th Sunday after Pentecost this year comes on the heels of the “Season of Creation,” a contemporary liturgical and lectionary movement celebrated during the four Sundays in September prior to St Francis of Assisi Day (4 October). Today’s haftorah—Isaiah’s famous “Song of the Vineyard”—continues this vein of ecological theology.

Our text (Isa. 5:1-7) arose from Israel’s struggle to survive as a small, agrarian vassal state living in the shadow of the Assyrian empire in the late 8th century BCE. Not only is this oracle key for understanding the whole of Isaiah; it was such an important prophetic analysis that seven centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth reappropriated it, recontextualizing it for a different historical moment of empire (as reflected in today’s gospel reading, Mt 21:33-46).

Verses 1-2 begin in a third person voice. An observer—probably the prophet himself—is singing a love song about someone’s relationship with a vineyard. This is noteworthy. The prophetic vocation of speaking truth to power is not predicated on contempt, but upon love.  This is a crucial thing for us North American Christian peace and justice activists to understand. If we do not truly love the people and places to which our challenges are directed, then our necessary negations will deteriorate into destructive nihilism, and our criticisms into mere calumny. Without deep affection for our place and people, we can hardly be part of the vast work of healing and reconstruction that faces us.

Isaiah’s story realistically describes the social setting of early Iron Age highlands Israel and the dry-farming viticulture that was so central to it. Preparing and working a steep, rocky hillside in the Judean countryside was an arduous process. Victor Matthews writes:

The first step was construction of terraces, which were designed to minimize erosion and to provide sufficient farming space to meet the needs of small villages… By the time of Isaiah… the slopes had been harvested of their lumber and [were] badly eroded.  To counteract the damage, farmers built retaining walls and brought in new topsoil from elsewhere to fill the terraces.  Is. 5:1-7 probably describes the reconstruction of such a terrace. (Social World of the Hebrew Prophets, Hendrickson Publishers, 2001, pp 84-85.)

Next the ancient Israelite farmer would lay out the precious vine cuttings, planting them carefully, because the future depended upon their survival. What followed was the laborious process of keeping the vineyard free of weeds and briars, and years of hoeing and pruning mature vines. The “watchtower” mentioned in verse 2 was to protect the vineyard from predation by both large animal and humans; the stone structure also provided shelter for laborers. A hedge or stone wall would also have been erected around the vineyard to screen out smaller wild animals and browsing herds.

Finally, a wine vat would have been carved out of soft limestone of the hillside. This signaled a communal operation, where the whole village would gather for the annual grape crushing. The grape pressing work was accompanied by singing, chanting, rhythm, usually by women to keep the men working. We get a glimpse of this harvest culture later in Isaiah, in which the imperial destruction of viticulture in the Moabite areas of Jazer and Sibmah to the north is alluded to: “The shout over your fruit harvest and your grain harvest has ceased.  Joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field; and in the vineyards no songs are sung, no shouts are raised; no worker treads out wine in the presses; the vintage-shout is hushed” (Isa. 16:9f).

The social setting of Isaiah 5 is probably the harvest festival in late summer, when the grapes would have been tasted for quality. And that is where the love song goes sour in Isaiah’s oracle. For these vines have yielded “wild” grapes, which means the fruit has not ripened. In this story, the vine is at fault—not the farmer or the soil or the weather.  Thus the entire project is a failure, and must be abandoned. Years of work are lost, and the future of the village is in jeopardy.

Verse 3 suddenly switches to the first person voice. With the declaration “Now then!” the owner of the vineyard interrupts the love song with a direct appeal for a judgment regarding this disaster. The fact that this demand is directed toward “inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judah” unmask Isaiah’s story as a juridical parable. As Brevard Childs puts it, the owner’s plea forces the audience “out of their neutral stance, as they unknowingly pass judgment on themselves.” In this sense, Isaiah’s rhetorical strategy here is similar to the agrarian parable used by the prophet Nathan to indict King David in 2 Samuel 12.

A second “now then” in v. 5 interrupts the flow again, this time so that the owner can make his decision. The narrative tone is one of impatience: the whole project must be deconstructed. This Isaiah does step by step: the hedge and walls come down, and the field is recolonized by weeds. The culmination of the judgment–“I will also command the clouds not to rain” (6b)—finally reveals the identity of the speaker. It is none other than YHWH. As the ancient Levitical Jubilee legislation had put it, “the land is Mine, says God, and you are but tenants on it (Lev 25:23).

Isaiah 6:7 returns to the narrator’s voice that began the parable. The prophet now decodes the parable as an allegory about the nation. The image of Israel as a vineyard being assessed by the true Landowner recurs several times throughout Isaiah (we find a parallel song in Isa. 27:2-6). In 6:7 YHWH’s lament is a poignant play on words:

God looked for justice (משפט  mishpat),
but saw only bloodshed (משפח  mispach);
righteousness (צדקה  tsĕdaqah),
but heard only a cry (צעקה  tsa`aqah)

This last verb, which could be translated as “scream” (or “groan” as Jim Perkinson calls is) connotes an outcry against injustice or a cry of distress. It is used in Exodus 3:7, upon which the whole liberation history of Israel turns: “Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their oppressors. Indeed, I know their sufferings…’”

This represents the “punchline” of Isaiah’s parable, revealing that the people are being judged before the bar of social justice. The theme has already been established by Isaiah in 3:13-15, which similarly uses the vineyard metaphor:

The Lord rises to argue his case; he stands to judge the peoples.
The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes:
It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says YHWH.

There the image is particularly graphic: the poor—meaning the marginalized sharecroppers who do the work of harvesting—are themselves crushed like grapes and ground like grain by an economic system they must serve, but which does not benefit them.

Ched Myers is an activist theologian who has worked in social change movements for forty years. With a Masters degree in New Testament Studies, he is a popular educator who animates Scripture and issues of faith-based peace and justice. He has published over 100 articles and more than a half-dozen books. He and his partner Elaine Enns codirect Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in the Ventura River watershed, traditional Chumash territory, in southern California.

Wild Lectionary is a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.

One thought on “Wild Lectionary: Ecological Theology of the Vineyard

  1. Pingback: Questions on a Sunday with Ursula LeGuin, Daniel Kahneman, and Ched Myers - rosemarieberger.com

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