My father was a preacher and a master gardener. I never asked him which activity he enjoyed more, probably because I was afraid of how he might have answered. And while I did inherit his appreciation of the dramatic arc of a well-constructed sermon, he did not pass down his green thumb to his son. So, I can very much identify with the frustrated gardener who takes center stage in most of our readings this week.
The idea in both the love song from Isaiah 5 and in the 80th psalm is that Yahweh is a gracious, generous vineyard keeper who planted a vineyard, looked after it, caused it to prosper, and expected it to flourish. The image of Yahweh as a gardener and Israel as a vineyard is a favorite one in the Hebrew scriptures. But in this case, according to Isaiah, it did not work out. After all of the careful planning and generous care, the vineyard failed. The vineyard has failed and it has disappointed the gardener.
Again, I can so identify. Now I would not equate my pitiful attempts at gardening with keeping an entire vineyard. I just like tomatoes. After all, there is nothing more glorious than eating a freshly harvested tomato on a hot summer evening. The problem is that I live in the middle of the city. And in this city are squirrels. These are city squirrels. They’re tough, street smart. These are ninja squirrels.
I spent hours trying to outsmart these squirrels. I put up fencing, netting and even tried some electronic gadgets to scare them away. But for all that work and expense, the results were always the same. Whenever I went out to pick one of my beloved tomatoes at its perfect point of ripeness, I would find it lying on the ground at the foot of the plant with just one large bite taken out of it. After this process was repeated time and again, I started to take this personally.
Not that my efforts were a total waste. At the end of the season, I balanced the numbers of tomatoes that made it to my table with the costs incurred in my war against these neighborhood squirrels and determined that each tomato cost me about $25 (my ever-patient wife who watches the finances in our home actually has a higher estimate). So, now I get my tomatoes from the grocery store.
Yahweh is frustrated, too. After all of the investment and work, a bountiful harvest was expected. And what kind of harvest did Yahweh want? Well, according to Isaiah 5, verse 7, Yahweh waited for justice and righteousness, but instead saw nothing but bloodshed and a cry of distress. You have to continue beyond the lectionary to get a description of the specific kind of injustice that is causing this helplessness and pain: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Isaiah 5:8).
This may be hard to picture at first, but think of someone who keeps adding onto their house by building an entirely new house whose walls abut the old house. This building process continues until the mansion takes up acres and acres of land. The builder then buys the adjoining piece of property, and then the next, and then the next, until the nearest neighbors are miles and miles away. One landowner, living in a vast house on a vast estate, with not one neighbor nearby.
This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ vision of hell in his book The Great Divorce. Instead of a place of fire and brimstone, Lewis describes hell as a vast gray town made up of one empty street after another. The reason it is so empty is that the residents are so quarrelsome. As soon as anyone arrives, they settle in some street, and before they have been there twenty-four hours, a quarrel erupts with the neighbors. Before the week is over the quarrel has escalated so much that the newcomer decides to move. Very likely they’ll find the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbors and moved on. After this keeps happening, they’ll finally move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house, miles from their nearest neighbor. All of this can happen because in the gray town, you only have to think of a house and there it is. So, that’s how the town keeps growing, leaving behind more and more empty streets, so that by the time Lewis shows up, the gray town is light years across.
It's not wealth per se that Isaiah condemns, but the use of wealth to insulate and isolate from others rather than to serve others. Whether it’s the multinationals gobbling up family farms or even our own tendency to wall ourselves off from our neighbors, this is just not sustainable. Isaiah warns that the land will become unproductive and hard. In God’s economy, there is a direct relationship in how social intimacy leads to interrelationship and cooperation which in turn results in productivity.
As frustrating as all of this is to the gardener, Yahweh won’t give up. True, there is to be a change of management. And true, all of the edifices that have been constructed to isolate and separate will fall into disrepair. Despite these harsh words of judgment, if you look closely, there is still hope. “Then the lambs shall graze as in their pasture, fatlings and kids shall feed among the ruins” (Isaiah 5:17). In other words, the gardener has not given up. The landscape may not be orderly or developed, but the land will still provide.
I guess here is where Yahweh’s and my own styles of gardening differ. When it came down to a cost-benefit analysis, I threw in the towel pretty quickly. Not so with this gardener. Our God is in it for the long haul, balance sheets be damned.
This same kind of tenaciousness is on display in our parable this week. The problem here is not with the produce of the vineyard, but the workers in the vineyard. These tenants who have been hired by the landowner somehow have come to mistake stewardship with ownership. So, when the representatives of the owner show up to collect what is due, the tenants beat, kill, and stone them. Finally, the owner sends his own son, assuming they will respect him, but just the opposite is true, for the tenants conclude that they can gain the inheritance by killing him so that’s what they do.
It's kind of crazy when you think about it. How on earth do these tenants come to think that they’re going to inherit the vineyard? It’s not as if this is an absentee landlord. He’s sent servants, and more servants, and then finally his own son. In other words, he’s not going anywhere.
But as crazy as these workers are, they’re not half so crazy as this landowner! In what world is it a good strategy to send his son, his heir, all alone to meet with this mob when they’ve already proven how violent and bloodthirsty they are. Who would do such a thing?
No one, except maybe a crazy gardener who will not give up on his vineyard or even on these tenants. This landlord will do whatever it takes to bring in the harvest, no matter the cost. Again, this owner is not of this world and so does not operate by its usual balance sheet.
Obviously, the religious leaders to whom Jesus is talking miss the point. When Jesus concludes his parable with a question, “What will this landlord do when he comes?” all the religious leaders can imagine is violence, because, well that’s how this world works. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” The violence of the tenants will obviously bring about a violent response. That’s how you keep everything in balance.
But notice, it’s not Jesus talking right now. It is the religious leaders, who are already plotting Jesus’ death, who align themselves with a world of violence and retribution. Jesus never agrees with them, nor does he ever mention violence. As we know from the rest of the story, he will not shrink from the sacrifice on the cross, nor will he return with vengeance. Instead, the resurrected Jesus, having taken on the worst that our violence can inflict, comes back and instructs his disciples to take the good news of the Gospel to the very ends of the earth, promising to be with them always.
He does warn that there will be a change in management. “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” That is a reminder to all of us that there is just one owner of the garden, and that owner is not us.
It is a privilege living in a covenant relationship with God. After all, this owner is not giving up. But with privilege comes responsibility. No community – Christian or otherwise – may presume that gifts like grace and election are permanent possessions. Rather, they are opportunities for a life lived in response to God’s invitation. The kingdom comes with limitless grace, but also comes with limitless demand.
This week God is offering us a job. We are being invited to work in a garden. It is a gracious invitation and we’d be foolish to refuse. But we’d better remember that this garden works in a different way than we’re used to. The economics of this garden are based on grace and not on any cost-benefit analysis. Working here is not a short-term arrangement, because its owner is in it for the long haul. It means giving up some of our privilege, for the only way this garden will grow is through intimacy and relationship. And working for this owner will never be an entitlement but only always a privilege.
Given my questionable botanical skills, this may be the only kind of gardening that might work for me. My only question; will there be squirrels?
Let us pray. Dear Lord, you are our rock and our cornerstone. You are the foundation for our faith and the foundation for our lives. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.