The scripture lessons this week all continue their themes of last week, this time using highly visual examples to emphasize their points. Isaiah continues to address Israel concerning its failure to live up to the terms of God’s covenant with them. The prophet uses a didactic song as an allegory for Israel’s relationship with God. After an extended description of God’s work and loving tending of the vineyard—and of the vineyard’s failure to produce good grapes, resulting in God’s displeasure—the prophet states the analogy’s meaning plainly: “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!”
The structure of the song’s argument leaves Israel little choice but to pronounce judgment on itself. After such considered planning and good care, the vineyard had every reason to be productive. If Israel had faithfully applied God’s will to daily living, justice would have flourished; if they had lived in right and mutual relationship with God, righteousness would have resulted. Absent that, “a cry” from the oppressed goes up to God, who will respond to their need, to the possible destruction of Israel.
The letter to the Hebrews concludes its roll call of heroes and heroines of the faith, used as inspiring examples to exhort the faithful to confidence and endurance. The passage concludes with the familiar appeal to the “great cloud of witnesses” and to the ultimate example of Jesus: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus goes before and points the way for all his followers: discipline, putting aside all encumbrances and hindrances to running the “race,” results in joy. As in Isaiah, following the ways of God lead to loving and fruitful relationship with God, and all who live in Him.
Jesus continues his message of preparation and watchfulness in our reading from Luke’s gospel. His tone becomes even more emphatic, to a point that makes us uncomfortable: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! […] Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” This is not the Jesus we like to talk about. This prophetic Jesus follows Isaiah in announcing the inevitability of God’s judgment, this time represented as fire. Why, Jesus asks, are you unable to see how far from God’s ways you have gone? Then he uses a vivid visual appeal: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Jesus’ analogy makes sense to us all, and we all stand accused. Here is one more illustration. The artwork accompanying the lectionary this week is J.M.W. Turner’s “The Burning of the Houses of Parliament” (1835). Turner often used dynamic, emotionally charged color to depict scenes indicting the social structures of his day. “The Slave Ship” (1840) is perhaps the most famous. The painting we see this week captures the urban structure that was the seat of power in 19th-century England, here being laid to waste (like Isaiah’s vineyard) by the encumbrance of its own weight. The fire began in the disposal of old, worm-eaten wood. Rather than being given to the neighboring poor for fuel, the wood was stuffed into the furnaces of Parliament, and the fire resulting from overheating burned not only the Houses of Parliament but the neighborhoods of the poor.
Thoughts For Connecting Lessons To Living
1.) Our uneasiness with parts of scripture that focus on judgment points us toward our awareness of the reality of suffering and our anxiety surrounding how to deal with difficult problems. How do we make choices in our daily living that reflect poorly on our relationship with God?
2.) Isaiah’s purpose was to inspire change in Israel. The letter to the Hebrews aimed to promote the faith and solidify the young Church. Jesus was (and is) leading his followers. How do they speak to you about the need for discipline in your life of faith?
3.) Joan Chittester, a writer and speaker on Christian living, has responded in a pithy way to cultural claims of the irrelevance of the Church: “Religion is dead. So what do you want to be caught dead doing?”