I have to confess I found the Revised Common Lectionary passages for today challenging and uncomfortable. I am troubled. Troubled because to faithfully express and pass on stories from our faith, we sometimes have to place ourselves in theological contexts difficult for post-modern sensibilities to believe, to understand how our ancestors in faith believed. I struggled with these texts, now I invite you to engage with them, too.
So what to do when encountering an uncomfortable passage or teaching? Take it apart, examine it from multiple angles, try to learn something from it, and perhaps explore a compatible, more contemporary metaphor to help us see and understand how we fit into the greater story.
For the first text, it has been two thousand seven hundred and thirty some years since Isaiah’s time. Despite that, what common themes can we draw out? Isaiah represents a prophetic voice – calling the people to recognize where they have stumbled or fallen short of following God’s way. The prophetic voice is still one that needs to be heard from time to time for similar societal reasons. The common challenge is discerning how a prophetic voice could be preached in such a way that a populace reluctant to hear it might still have ears to hear.
Putting Isaiah’s passage in it’s own contextual time frame, we learn the passage is nothing less than an allusion to divine retributive justice; something I am personally uncomfortable with upholding in our day and age. Yet it is a theological concept Isaiah and much of the Hebrew scripture writers intrinsically understood as truth. Isaiah stands in a long line of believers claiming that injustice deserves divine judgment; and that stream has trickled through into some forms of Christianity even today. What can we do with such an uncomfortable understanding of Isaiah’s passage?
At the beginning of today’s passage we have a vineyard planted and cared for; but then the story turns dark as the lover, God, is faced with the reality of unresponsive, unrequited love. The tension in the text is the generous provision given by God for the human family, yet the human family treats this with ingratitude. Anna Case-Winters observes,
“Isaiah understands all political success or failure to be directly related to the moral condition of the society. [In relationships], the initiatives of love have every reason to expect a response of love, but [in this case] the response is contempt…. [Since] the love of God and the love of neighbor are inextricably intertwined; so also, contempt for [God] issues in contempt for [neighbor].”
In the ancient Biblical stream of the prophetic voice, this becomes a matter of divine law and divine law-breaking, inescapably leading to the conclusion that justice must be served.
Leaping forward about eleven hundred years, we find an established Roman Catholic church influenced by Augustine of Hippo’s focus on the theology of sin, and it bumps up against a gradually spreading creation-based Celtic stream influenced by Pelagius and others who focus on the core goodness God embedded in the heart of all of us. Isaiah writes his parable as a vineyard story, with God as the planter, and Israel the grapes gone wild. In Isaiah’s metaphor, God gets upset, destroys the vineyard and causes a drought so nothing can grow there, not even wild grapes.
On the other hand, I suspect Pelagius would prefer a parable using the metaphor of tarnished silver. In this perspective, tarnished silver, with some polish, a rag, and a little old-fashioned sweat-equity, can be cleaned up to reveal the original beauty of the silver’s shine, upholding its essential goodness. In that case, the metaphor becomes a story of restoration. I confess I like that one better.
What causes tarnish, you may ask? As people, it could be disappointments, broken dreams, poor choices, challenging situations, victimization, addictions, or other reasons, all of which lead us into alienation from God, one-another and all that is good in Creation.
To me this second metaphor opens the door to God’s grace for any and all people expressed through Christ’s journey to the cross once and for all. It speaks to me of the deep and abiding love of God for each of us and all that God has made. It speaks to me of restoration to our original goodness.
The Psalmist, recognizing the state of Israel at his juncture in time, a state not dissimilar to what Isaiah saw, sees things a little differently. The Psalmist’s position is more of a victim’s perspective – circumstances have made life unbearable, so claiming God planted them in their place, the entire community of the Psalmist now joins together to hold God accountable, hoping God will look upon them in kindness and grant deliverance. It is their view that, “The God who began the story is required to remain faithful to the original covenant.”
Our third reading from Luke is yet another difficult teaching – this one from Jesus himself. Commentator Audrey West writes,
“Many preachers cringe to see this pericope appearing in the lectionary. Having more than once offered Jesus’ message of repentance and reconciliation as a healing balm for fractured communities and shattered lives, we find it hard to make sense of a teaching that claims for itself the outcomes of alienation and division.”
Thankfully, commentator Richard Carlson observed that,
“The harsh sayings and indictments resounding in this text remind us that Jesus has not come to validate the social realities and values we have constructed [and I would add constructed apart from God]. Such social realities and values have a propensity to seek a harmony that favors those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who are powerless and expendable. Jesus’ missional agenda of compassion, mercy, and justice shatters such a status quo.”
From that perspective, and if we are the body of Christ in the world today, those of us who have decided to be Christ’s disciples, following in his footsteps, therefore also inhabit a position designed to seek compassion, mercy, and justice for all; and in so doing, embody the prophetic voice once more, reminding the world of a higher standard to which, as children of God, humanity – and particularly the Church – is called.
In the final analysis, then, what do these passages teach? For me, they are a reminder that our Creator God made us and loves us, planting us on this earth to live out our lives in these fragile bodies for a time. Through millennia, the human element has often turned away from God, to our detriment. Yet still God loves us and seeks us, having even come into the world as one of us in Jesus Christ to reconcile us to God and restore our broken relationships. Granted the freedom to belong – or not – to God’s family, we are prompted over and over again by prophets who see into the heart of God that God is still waiting to welcome us home, should we choose to turn, even as the prodigal returns, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.
May all glory be unto the One who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen? May it be so.
 Anna Case-Winters, “Theological Perspective, Isaiah 5:1-7” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
 Bill J. Leonard, “Theological Perspective, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
 Audrey West, “Theological Perspective, Luke 12:49-56” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0
 Richard P. Carlson, “Exegetical Perspective, Luke 12:49-56” in Feasting on the Word – Year C, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Accordance edition hyper-texted and formatted by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.0