Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7, Matthew 21:33-46, Secrets of Heaven #4599 (see below)
Photo by Tim Mossholder: https://www.pexels.com/photo/macro-shot-of-leaves-3895185/
The parable from Matthew today is pretty brutal. It’s gratuitously violent, and we automatically shrink from its telling. We don’t want these words coming out of Jesus’ mouth, just as we don’t want terrible things to happen in God’s creation. But they do happen. Evil sometimes appears to prevail, we countenance loss and trauma, we find ourselves in lament, grappling and wrestling with the devastating reality that we are fragile, limited, and not in control. We might wonder: where is God in all of this? As our hearts are breaking from all our various losses, where is God? God is right beside us, meeting us where we are, right in the midst of the carnage, right in the midst of the loss and fear and anger and pain, God meets us there, heart-breaking in tandem with us, and whispers a love story. A love story? How can this be? How can our terrible, brutal realities, like the parable from the text today, have anything to do with a love story? Well, let’s start with looking at Isaiah.
The reading for Isaiah 5 begins as if it were a love poem. “I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard.” Such songs were common in ancient times; often Hebrew love poetry would refer to the beloved as a vineyard. But as soon as we hear verse 2, the tone begins to change and by the end of verse 2 we understand that things are not going well: the vineyard is not producing fruit. In verse 3 the speaker changes, and we hear imaginatively from the owner, asking the people of Jerusalem to judge what more he could possibly have done. Again, this is a familiar form…the prophets would often style their writings in the form of a trial, with God presenting all the evidence of God’s people turning away. Finally in verse 7, the prophet speaks as himself again, revealing the vineyard to be the people of Israel and Judah. That verse ends with the poignancy of dashed expectations, rendered with wordplay that we cannot hear in translation. “And he looked for justice but saw bloodshed, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.” In Hebrew, the word couplets sound very similar…he looked for justice (מִשְׁפָּט mishpâṭ) but saw bloodshed (מִשְׂפָּח mispâch), for righteousness (צְדָקָה tsᵉdâqâh) but heard a cry (צַעֲקָה tsaʻăqâh).”
So, on the face of it, this chapter in Isaiah is more like a country song than a love poem: the story of love gone wrong. It is God’s immense love, though, that begins it all. It begins in the assumption of love that God has for God’s people, the work and care and nurture that God has put/does put into us, and comparing this to the work that an owner might put into caring for a vineyard. The ancient Israelites understood how much work this was on the land of the Middle East, rocky, hilly, difficult land, which takes a lot of work to cultivate. But work that God is clearly willing to do. We see the Genesis of this love story right where the bible begins with God creatively and lovingly bringing forth the world and all its abundant blessings, again called “work” which God rested from on the Sabbath. This is picture of a God who loves, and works to make that love known.
What else becomes possible, though, when we are invested in something? The possibility of disappointment. In Isaiah, we see the prophets' picture of God’s disappointment, as imagined by a prophet who is disappointed too, disappointed on God’s behalf, angry on God’s behalf, desperate to see a people bear the fruits that he knows they are capable of. Why all these feelings? Because of love. God loves God’s people, and a prophet always loves their people too. We hear in Jeremiah chapter 9: “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.” Love is imaginative and optimistic. Love sees the potential for good and wants to make it a reality. And thus Love also mourns for this reality delayed, destroyed, or ignored.
The disappointment in the writings of the prophets has an even deeper quality, in that many times evil is not an accident, and not a mistake. The rich and powerful of Israel and Judah were consciously ignoring God’s will for justice, and they knew better. And thus the disappointment is coupled with bewilderment; what more can God do? Perhaps we can relate to that sense of bewilderment and sadness and powerlessness as we contemplate the tragedies of this world, like war or climate change. How long, oh Lord, how long?
Taking the next step, and broadening our lens, we see the love story that is begun in Genesis, continued in Isaiah, is continued in the gospels as well. In the temple context, the rich and elite are still ignoring God’s vision for the thriving of all people, the same problem as always. What is God to do? Does God punish? Does God give up? No, this God doubles down in what might be the most powerful gesture of love, care and nurture possible: the incarnation. God reaches forth God’s nature so completely as to be one of us, to root God’s self in our ground, to experience our experience, and our suffering. This is what God did for us; a powerful ministry of presence and solidarity. And it is in this sense, that the parable from Matthew speaks to us as the continuation of God’s love song. Jesus birth, life and death, and presence, as the ultimate expression of love.
Because, even the scholars who most adamantly oppose automatically allegorical readings of the parables, admit that such a reading is impossible to ignore in our Matthew text. Jesus is calling forth the whole history of the Jewish people by telling this particular tale. The image of the nation of Israel as a vineyard is used often in the Old Testament - there would be no confusion at all about what Jesus was saying. He was calling the priests and the Pharisees out for being like those evil tenants, of being like the recalcitrant Israel of old, enriching themselves and forgetting about the least among them. The parables’s servants are God’s prophets throughout time, like Isaiah, who spoke on behalf of God, often with negative outcomes for themselves. And, of course, the beloved son, Jesus, is the ultimate, intimate reaching forth of God’s presence. Now, the owner acts pretty uncharacteristically for that time, for any time. Seriously, one murder-y episode would have been plenty enough to otherwise have convinced a man of clear financial means to rally some forces and rout those awful tenants. But what looks like naive patience in the parable, in allegory becomes the all-encompassing nature of God’s divine love…we all get way more chances than we deserve because humanity is often pretty horrible. But God still reaches out, even in the hell that we make for ourselves, God waits for an opportunity to reach us.
We often make it pretty difficult to be reached. Even with all the things that make the vineyard work, and produce fruit, we often decide to twist them and use for our own purposes. From Swedenborg, we learn that the machinery of the vineyard represent ways that God sets us up to be fruitful. In particular, as we heard in our reading, the watchtower, which in earthly ways works for the purpose of the safety and security of the vineyard, in the spirit represents interior things, internal aspects of truth, principles, ideas, which stand above our everyday life and oversee our work and our actions. From the tower, with the benefit of a larger survey, a larger sight, we see how our life is organized, how it might need to be organized. Another way to say this is: what do we make “high” in our lives, what do we put “above” all else as the most important things by which we will be guided? It might be something like, the golden rule, the doctrine of use, all people are created equal, all people should have access to food and shelter, freedom of speech, or respect for the rule of law. The tower will represent things that we consider to be integral to us being able to produce “good fruit.”
The contrary representative sense of tower is the worship of self.(1) Remember the story of the tower of Babel? When we place ourselves and our own needs as the ultimate, as the one “highest” and most integral thing that organizes our lives, then it is no surprise if we produce “bad” grapes, grapes which do not reflect the love of God in the world. When the “tower” is ourselves and our own benefit, then that will be all we can see, the servants approaching from the owner will represent material impediments to our own agenda, and we will do whatever we can to destroy them. This can be a simple as closing our eyes to the truth; thinking that if we don’t acknowledge the truth, then it doesn’t have to exist. And when we make the tower ourselves, even in the smallest or most ordinary of ways, the outcome will always be to destroy the sweet, life-giving nourishment of the grapes.
The fruitfulness of the vineyard is God’s main purpose, for God’s love to be known and felt, for God’s love to transform and lift up and inspire. The good news is that we may *feel* broken, we may feel irredeemable, we may feel discouraged, but God keeps on sending those servants, keeps on sending that inspiration, some words, a hug, an intervention, a just law, a sunset, a flower, a wake-up call, a song, a revolution, a baby in a manger. Because God will go as far as God possibly can to be near us, to be with us. Isn’t that what we do when we love someone?
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #1306
1 I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. 2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. 3 “Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. 4 What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? 5 Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. 6 I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” 7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. 34 When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. 35 “The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. 36 Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. 37 Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. 38 “But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ 39 So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.” 42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “ ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 “Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. 44 Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. 46 They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet.
Secrets of Heaven 4599
The reason 'beyond the tower' means towards more interior aspects is that things which are more interior are expressed as objects that are lofty and high - as mountains, hills, towers, housetops, and the like…
 That 'towers' means interior things may also be seen from other places in the Word, as in Isaiah,
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill…planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it. Isaiah 5:1, 2.