Have you even been walking down the street and observed a couple of people arguing? Maybe they were standing beside a car, one person was about to get in, things were getting pretty heated. You thought, “Don’t get involved. This isn’t your problem.” We it’s not hard to imagine that, but what if one of the arguers looked over at you and asked what you thought? Or what if one of them reached out grabbed your arm and said, “You decide this. Who’s right?” This is just the thing that is happening in the beginning of Isaiah 5.
In the first two verses of this chapter someone is telling us a little story: the speaker’s beloved has done a good job planting a vineyard but hasn’t been rewarded with a decent harvest. It like the story we hear from parents sometimes: “My daughter worked hard in university. She was involved in student government. She volunteered downtown, but it’s been two years now and she can’t find a decent job. Something isn’t right.” That’s the first two verses of Isaiah 5: loving, attentive, wise preparation—a result that doesn’t make sense. In verse three, though, things shift and the farmer addresses us directly, saying, “inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.” This is the arguer on the street, grabbing you by the arm asking you to settle things: “What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?”
I have in my head a picture of the ruins of an ancient farm in Nazareth. It’s a place I’ve visited. You can still make out what’s left of the terraces the farmer built to make usable land out of a steep hillside. The footings of the watchtower are still there. The farmer probably stayed in it during the harvest to protect the produce. There is also a small wine press and a connected vat hewn out of bedrock. When I visited I was given the job of hacking some new steps out of that same rock. It’s soft, but even with modern steel it takes work. You end up salting it with your sweat. Around the old farm are scattered rocks of what was once a protective wall. If you have a good guide she will give you a sense of the careful work of ancient farmers who knew how to both keep and cultivate this place.
With a hand on your arm, the farmer of Isaiah asks, what more he could have done? And then, still speaking to you, the farmer blurts out that his work is wasted. He looks you in the eye, disappointment and frustration on his face, and says that he’s going to tear the place down. He’s so disgusted that he’ll let it all go to seed. He says he’ll never work this land again.
And then there’s the line that throws you. It’s the moment things go from socially awkward to downright weird. The farmer says, “I will also command the clouds that they rain no more rain upon it.” It makes us a little fearful. What power does he think he has?
When it comes to the book of Isaiah there isn’t much that scholars agree on, yet most agree that this little packet of lines, the seven verses here at the beginning of the fifth chapter, was intentionally crafted as a unit of poetry. It might have been the lyrics of a song. The first six verses and that last line about controlling the rain lead up to a turn, a reveal, in verse 7. Here’s that verse in its entirety: “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness but heard a cry!” God is that farmer, God’s ambassador-people are the vineyard.
The book of Isaiah, of course, is part of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. However, the women and men of the New Testament communities, Jews and non-Jews, believed that when the Hebrew Scriptures, like Isaiah, talked about ancient Israel it applied to them too. They thought of the link in terms of a related agricultural metaphor: these New Testament followers of Jesus had been grafted onto the trunk of an older tree that was ancient Israel. They saw themselves and us in these passages.
That, we may be realizing, is both comforting and frightening. So much of the Bible is that way. The comfort is what we celebrate on Thanksgiving: God cares for us like an attentive farmer. God provides for us. Think again about the beginning of the passage: the farmer digs out the vineyard, removes the stones, plants choice vines, puts up a watchtower, hacks out a wine vat. Things begin with grace. God’s loving grace, shared within the triune life and extended outward to the vineyard. This is the loving provision we see all around us.
The natural world is icon of this truth. If we know how to read it, it speaks of God’s love. Every time we see the changing of the seasons, smell a meal, listen to the sound of migrating geese, watch a beaver go about its work, hear the churn of tractor or combine, feel the dampness of living soil, pick a ripe tomato, observe a river wind its way through our city—it all says: “What more was there to do for my vineyard?”
Part of me wishes we could end here: recognizing what we have been given, being thankful and then to going on eat lunch, our faces glowing with vitality (or whatever it is), our back sides seated in peace, confident in our righteousness. ‘Righteousness’ just means goodness or being in the clear ethically. There’s nothing we Mennonites love more than eating and feeling righteous. We may or may not love those who have no voice—but we sure hate feeling guilty. If any of you are interested in winning the heart of a Mennonite you should organize your dates around feeling righteous and eating. I’m being mean (and blowing my chances of a career in Mennodom). What I’m saying is just that while I wish giving thanks was simple and nice, it isn’t. This is something we all know.
On a week when I know some of your hearts ache, when you worry about your future and those you love; on a week when we have all seen pictures of thousands of people hunkered down in front of a concert stage, bullets whipping over their heads and into their flesh; on a week when we see video of families picking through pieces of their houses after yet another hurricane or earthquake. On a week like this, there is nothing simple about giving thanks.
God expects justice but finds bloodshed. God expects righteousness but hears cries of pain.
There is nothing naive about our Holy Scriptures. In this very collection of literature that calls us to give thanks is the memory of tragedy. In them there is the destruction of cities, brothers at each other’s throats, families with gaping holes ripped by war. In these Scriptures there is the memory of the grinding neglect of the poor, the abuse of women and dishonest business practice.
I expected justice but found bloodshed; righteousness but heard cries of pain—the words again of Isaiah’s farmer.
The problem, of course, is that we want to say it isn’t us. We want to say that when God looks at the vineyard it’s the other people that failed to produce good fruit, while we have been faithful. It’s tempting, at Thanksgiving especially, to look at the privileged status of our country and take it as a personal pat on the back. But isn’t that too easy? Doesn’t our very way of life mean we are complicit in, at least connected to, some terrible things?
Last September The Washington Post published a long feature looking into the global supply chain for cobalt. Cobalt is an important ingredient in the lithium-ion batteries in our hi-tech gadgets. What the Post reporters found, and some of us may expect this, is Congolese men working in terrible conditions. Kids in toxic dust sifting through gravel looking for leftover cobalt or copper. They found women eating fish and drinking water from rivers polluted from mine runoff. They found shockingly high rates of birth defects. And they found middlemen buying raw metals and selling them to huge companies—so that the companies we buy our gadgets from could never really audit their supply chains. Amnesty International and other organizations have done similar research. There are additional ingredients in the things we use every day that are even more well-known for being connected to the abuse of children, the funding war and poisoning of ecosystems.
Rob Nixon, professor of English at Princeton, has pointed out that if the damage caused by our way of life would happen all at once, like a bomb, we would have a clear sense of the harm we are implicated in. But it doesn’t. It happens slowly, over months and years. And so the story is hard to notice. Nixon calls it slow violence. I know this isn’t what we want to hear on Thanksgiving and I don’t want to dwell on it. My point is just to remind us that the good things we experience in life are not proof of our innocence.
Isaiah’s farmer drops our arm and turns to us now: I expected righteousness but heard cries of pain and misery!
God’s abundant provision isn’t proof of a nation’s innocence. We know that the middleman, standing in a dusty market, handing a miner $1 for a day’s dangerous labour is working for us. We may never pull a trigger but, nevertheless, we are part of a culture that makes violence seem normal, makes it seem logical for far too many. What are we to do? How do we rebel?
We do lobby our governments for justice. We’re citizens, so we should. But what do we do as church people, as apprentices of Jesus?
We give of our resources—yes. We try to be generous—yes. But I think there’s something more fundamental that we do. My suggestion is all around us on Thanksgiving.
What we do is we cultivate a way of life that has gratitude and contentment as its hallmarks. We work every single Sunday to be a people so overwhelmed by God’s grace and love that we cease to be caught up in the competition that pervades every inch of our society: competition for more stuff, more honor, more recognition, more success. We say that our lives are not achievements but gifts. We say it, we sing it, we know it, we live it. We see the vibrancy and creativity of our city as something to enjoy and something to which we might contribute, not as ladder we must climb and not as a pyramid that we must stand-atop.
It sounds silly and maybe a little naïve, but I still think it’s true. Thankfulness, gratitude and contentment matter. These virtues change things. What we do as followers of Jesus to cultivate these virtues and to welcome others into a community that celebrates these virtues—that has a public impact. People who are thankful and content don’t use others.
The encouragement to give thanks to God it knit all through the scriptures, so let me close with a few examples from the oldest Christian and Jewish songbook, the Psalms:
Psalm 7: I will give to the Lord the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High.
Psalm 28: The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.
Psalm 79: [W]e your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.
Psalm 106: Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
Psalm 118: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!
—Gracious God, may gratitude, thankfulness and contentment be the energy that charges us and makes us a different sort of people. Amen—