Blogging toward Sunday

July 13, 2007

I was teaching a class on Isaiah and we had reached chapter 40,”Every
valley shall be exalted.” A student piped up, “So Isaiah borrowed these
words from Handel?” He was reading the Old Testament in the light of
“new” history. In Isaiah I find it hard not to read the Old Testament
in the light of the new—the New Testament, that is. Such a re-reading
is fitting as long as we first allow the Old Testament to speak for
itself.

And it does speak here. Let
this passage not be read in our congregation with too much
self-control—“Here beginneth the fifth chapter…” Rather let it come as
what it is: the urgent cry of one who is heart-broken. Perhaps the
reader should be someone recently bereaved, and pause for sobs of grief
between paragraphs. Let’s hear God’s anguish—it might help shatter the
common assumptions about divine impassibility. Certainly God feels
pain!

The form is a love song, which Isaiah sings to Judah and
Jerusalem on behalf of the God they have spurned. I think of it as if
the prophet had been best man at the wedding. Now, at a point of crisis
in the marriage, he acts as a third party—reminding the bride of the
height and depth of God’s devoted love. Until God can keep silence no
longer, blurting in from verse 3. This lover is not proud: “What more
was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done?”

This lover does not wander off lightly. God gets cross, very cross. The anger is focused on the yield of wild
grapes. Is it unreasonable to expect decent fruit from a vineyard that
has received the very best tender loving care? If the anger seems
disproportionate, we are probably underestimating the extent of this
lover’s devotion. God’s anger is the flip-side of God’s love. The anger
brings destruction, rendering the vineyard as wild as the fruit it has
borne.

How does one measure fruitfulness? In the parable of
the sower, as also with the faithful/unfaithful servants, the focus is
on the yield returned relative to the seed (or talent) sown. Here, in
terms which are classic of an eighth-century prophet, the concern is
with “justice and righteousness.” Neither barns nor banks can measure
these. The focus is on persons not things; and not just on individuals
but on their social relations. This is counter to the Western mindset.
Putting it another way, it begins to sound more familiar: the people of
God are invited to fulfill their share in the covenant with God —to
express their love of God—by the way in which they practice
hospitality, generosity and equality with their neighbors. In the end,
as ever, it comes down to whether we are sheep or goats.

The problem is—as the Hebrew of Isaiah expresses it—that our capacity for self-deception is very great. Mishpakh (bloodshed) can easily look just like mishpat (justice), and tse’akah (cry) can be made to sound similar to tsedekah
(righteousness). Doesn’t our history suggest we (the human race in
general but especially those with wealth and power and “watchtowers”)
seek to defend the indefensible with reference to the same lofty
rhetoric? That is the story of slavery by slave owners; the story of
apartheid according to the ruling white elite; and, in both these
cases, the justification was made theologically.

How does one
measure fruitfulness? If it’s about social relations, we cannot measure
this by ourselves. The harvest itself is about others sharing in it. We
will need others to help taste our grape, to share a common cup.