27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 4, 2020
This week we read from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Three prophets used the name Isaiah. We have been looking mostly at the two who spoke during and after the return of the Jews to Jerusalem in the 6th century BC. The Isaiah we will examine today tells us very clearly that he began his ministry in 742 BC within the southern kingdom of Judea. King Uzziah died the year he was called. This is significant.
Uzziah had reigned for 40 years and had greatly increased the GDP of his kingdom. But he did so by favoring and elite and creating prosperity for some by taking the properties of those not connected to the powerful. This was compounded by his successors who made alliances with Assyria requiring the Judeans to pay vast sums in protection money which the rich managed to avoid further impoverishing the peasants. It is clear why in the very first chapter of Isaiah God says to the people:
Wash yourselves clean!(Isaiah 1:16–17)
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil;
learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
Our passage today is “the Song of the Vineyard,” (5:1-7) Before we examine it however, let us read the sections which follow it:
Woe to you who join house to house,(Is 5:8-9)
who connect field with field,
Till no room remains, and you are left to dwell
alone in the midst of the land!
In my hearing the LORD of hosts has sworn:
Many houses shall be in ruins,
large ones and fine, with no one to live in them.
Great estates were often created by using the land to produce grain for export making basic commodities more expensive for the common people thus forcing them to give up more land to put food on the table.
The reason of course was the desire of some to live well at the cost of others living at all:
Woe to those who demand strong drink(Is 5:11–12)
as soon as they rise in the morning,
And linger into the night
while wine inflames them!
With harp and lyre, timbrel and flute,
they feast on wine;
But what the LORD does, they regard not,
the work of his hands they see not.
Why does the LORD care? He will answer that with the song.
The first two verses are literally a song. Indeed, the format is a ballad and might well have been adapted from a folk song about betrayed love. This is a rhetorical device, we might almost say trick, to lull the listeners into a false sense of security.
It is natural to extend sympathy to the “friend” with the vineyard. Vineyards were a significant investment. As the song relates, it takes considerable effort to establish. It does not bear a profitable crop, but only wild or soar grapes.
Isaiah then radically changes the literary form to a courtroom drama.
He identifies his audience as the people of Jerusalem, and he asks them to judge between the owner and the vineyard. Isaiah drops the pretense of speaking for someone else and refers to “I”. This “I” asks:
What more was there to do for my vineyard(Is 5:4)
that I had not done?
Without obtaining the judgement of the listeners, “I” tells them that he will not only abandon the vineyard, but he will actively destroy it. (Isaiah 5: 5-6a)
Only when he has detailed the devastation does “I” reveal who he is
I will command the clouds(Is 5:6b)
not to send rain upon it.
Only God can command the forces of nature.
For the completely dense who have not understood what has become a parable, he writes:
The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,(Is 5:7)
and the men of Judah are his cherished plant
The audience ultimately had to pronounce judgement on themselves. They may well have remembered the situation of King David. Having seduced Bathsheba and then killed her husband David was confronted by the prophet Nathan. Nathan came to the King when he was acting as judge over Judea and told him of a rich man who stole a lamb to serve at a banquet although he had plenty himself.
Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man.(2 Sa 12:5–7a)
He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives,
the man who has done this deserves to die;
he shall restore the lamb fourfold,
because he did this thing, and
because he had no pity.”Nathan said to David,
“You are the man!
The Lord had created the vineyard–formed the people–so that they could all participate in his love and kindness. By taking away the property of others, those who became rich destroyed the divine plan. Vast inequities of wealth prevents the development of a viable community. There is simply not enough “buy in” from the excluded to form secure enough relationships to fulfill the divine mission.
Note that Isaiah does not trace the tactics and techniques by which this was accomplished. He does not tell us which laws were broken or give effective strategies to prevent it from occurring again. The basic fact of great inequality makes divine retribution inevitable.
This has not changed and, literally today October 3, 2020, we have the latest installment of the LORD’s prophetic word on how we are to judge our society in the encyclical Fratelli tutti. Its title comes from the writings of St Francis, whose feast we celebrate tomorrow “Let us all, brothers, look to the Good Shepherd who suffered the passion of the Cross to save his sheep.” Its topic will be “solidarity:” our common bonds to God and each other.
It will not be comfortable to read and less so to put into effect. It is good to remember that Pope Francis like Isaiah is giving us this message so that we will be fruitful by God’s grace and not destroyed by our vices.