Loving God in the Garden

Two Varieties of Spiritual Grapes called Mishpat & Tzedakah

Isaiah 5:1-7

You’ve heard of zinfandel and chardonnay. God’s garden also has several varieties of fruit. 

From the Reformation to modern times, the state church of most of Scandinavia has been the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The story is told of a 19th century Swedish Lutheran priest who preached on the teachings of Jesus. The congregation was so convicted that many were left crying. The minister, feeling for them, sought to console them with, “Don’t cry children. The whole thing could be a lie.” 

Kierkegaard said that true worship consists in simply doing God’s will.

“Why do you call me Lord and don’t do what I say?”

“If you love me, keep my commandments.”

How do we express our love of God?

Isaiah 5 gently begins as a sweet love song to God. Now I will sing for the one I love, a song about his vineyard… 

Who is it I love the best? Have I been singing love songs to my Jesus, my beloved God? Isaiah sings to YHWH. Songs sung to God have always meant more to me than ones sung about God. The best worship leaders are not putting on a show – they are singing love songs to Jesus. 

In his song, the prophet emphasizes the effort YHWH went to in establishing and caring for God’s garden. God chose a place with rich fertile soil, ploughed, disked and raked the soil, and cleared it of weeds and stones. Then, God enclosed it with a stonewall and built a watchtower so an eye could be kept at all times on the vineyard, the approaching weather, and predators.  A family of raccoons can desecrate your crop. 

God carefully hewed out a winepress. In biblical times, winepresses were often chiseled out of solid rock. They had two levels – one where the grapes were crushed and a lower level that collected the grape juice. A winepress such as this indicates a permanent commitment to be in this place and care for this vineyard. Clearly God was in this thing for the long haul. 

God prepared everything in advance to optimize success. Then, God planted the finest, choicest vines money could buy.

YHWH waited patiently for the grape harvest, but the grapes were wild, bitter. An alternate translation says they were “stinking things.” 

Now the song shifts. Isaiah is no longer singing. God is speaking, singing, chanting, pleading, poetically weeping:

Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
    you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
    that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
    why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?

Other than turn us into robots, mere puppets void of volition, what more could God do for us?

We were lost. Creation was ruined. 

God became human. Lived amongst us, walked in our shoes, resisted every temptation known to humankind. He served us, washed our feet, told us not to fear, and that our sins were forgiven. He healed us of our afflictions, set us free from the forces of evil, and taught us, in word and by example, how to live a new way as citizens in a new kingdom.

Then, he willingly went to Calvary. As he was accused, sentenced, mocked, whipped, humiliated, spit upon, slapped, punched, abused, crowned with thorns, stripped naked and nailed to a Roman gibbet where he was left for his diaphragm to squeeze the air from his lungs, he forgave his enemies. 

All the sin, evil, misery, corruption, violence, hatred, inequity, and transgression, not only of all humankind, but of the entire universe, coalesced and focused on him like a laser beam. He absorbed it all.

It killed him. The devil laughed. The disciples wept. The religious felt vindicated. The Romans felt exhausted. Religion and Empire killed Jesus. 

Unbeknownst to any of them at the time, everything had already changed. It was indeed Good Friday.

Death couldn’t stop him. The grave couldn’t hold him. Hades swallowed him, only to vomit him out. Up from the grave he arose.

All sin forgiven. Off the table. Gone forever. Power to set every captive free. Good news to the poor. Kingdom come. A new age. A new beginning. The entire cosmos rescued. All things new. Age-abiding life. 

King Jesus crossed an infinite divide to become sin with our sin so we could be the righteousness of God in him. 

He ascended to heaven and poured out his Holy Spirit on all flesh, flooding us with the power and graces we need for life in his Kingdom. 

What more could God do?

We love him because he first loved us.

Isaiah 5 identifies the vineyard with the nation of Israel:

The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
    The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.

Now, we – Jews and gentiles, of any and all nationalities, ethnicities, and circumstances – we who pledge our allegiance to Jesus – we are his vineyard. “I am the vine; you are the branches; my Father is the vinedresser,” says Jesus to us. 

And he looks for fruit. When we bear fruit, God prunes and supports so we can bear more fruit. He snips off the dead branches that never bear fruit.

The fruit for which God looks comes in two varieties.

Mishpat: Justice.

He expected a crop of justice, but instead he found oppression. (v. 7)

In English, mishpat means “justice.” We sometimes think of justice in terms of punishment, arresting officers, incarceration. God’s justice is not violent, vindictive, or punitive, but rather always restorative. God aims to make us just, ethical, moral, people of equity, people who treat others with dignity and respect, who live by the Golden Rule. 

Strict equality is not enough.  If a short person and a tall person are both given identically equal stools to sit on, the taller person is still taller. 

I’m a landlocked sailor. If every sailboat is exactly like every other in a race, they just race around a pre-set course according to pre-set rules. If, however, you have an open-class race in which boats of all different kinds are racing, the race has to be handicapped in order to be fair. Mathematical formulas are applied and time is added to the fastest boats to compensate for the ones that have no choice but to go slowly. So the old catboat takes three hours to complete a course the catamaran finishes in an hour, but when the formulas are applied and times adjusted for equity, the catboat wins. It sailed faster than expected. The human race is rigged in favor of white people. Flying about the Internet are misused statistics about race and crime, akin to pointing out that, clearly, the catamaran is faster. 

Equity means the playing field is leveled. It means reparations. It means affirmative action. It means black people and white people being treated the same by police officers, judges, juries, human resource departments, and landlords. Some people are trying to run the race with weights attached to their ankles – weights like intergenerational poverty and oppression, for example.

Had George Floyd been white, he would not have been on the ground with a callous knee squeezing the air out of his lungs. The race-hating white perpetrator of the Charleston Emanuel AME church massacre who killed nine people attending a mid-week prayer meeting was treated with respect, even taken to get something to eat by police. 

What applies to whites does not apply to blacks in this country. Government and institutions are saturated with unconscious systemic racism. It’s the water we swim in. We inherited a racialized society. 

Mishpat demands equity, honesty, listening to voices unlike ours, being open, teachable and willing to learn, and taking special care for the marginalized, disenfranchised, vulnerable, oppressed, and voiceless. It means social justice – equality in housing, healthcare, job market, education, and availability of services. 

God is looking for mishpat.

God is looking for tzedakahTzedakah means righteousness.

He expected to find righteousness, but instead he heard cries of violence. (v. 7)

Tzedakah is most often used in contemporary Jewish communities to mean charitable contributions.  In the middle ages, Rabbi Maimonides said the highest form of tzedakah is to give enough money to a stranger so they can live freely and independently for life, like setting someone up in a business, for example. The next highest, according to the good rabbi, would be a significant anonymous gift to someone you don’t know. 

Biblically, tzedakah means much more than generous charity, although that’s included. It is an ethical obligation, an essential behavioral feature – it implies being a person characterized by charity, understanding, nonjudgmentalism, generosity, tolerance, compassion, and liberality.

It means being teachable. It means listening to the voices of the lowly, the vulnerable, the alien, the sick, the incarcerated, the victimized, the oppressed – those Jesus called “the least of these my sisters and brothers” in Matthew 25. 

African-Americans really do have something to say. The rest of us need to listen.  

Turn off the white dominated media and listen to the voices of our black sisters and brothers. 

Lectures, sermons, writings and blogs by Doctors John M. Perkins, Bernice King, Drew G. I. Hart, and Dominique DuBois Gillard are great starting places.

There’s a poetic play on words here. God looked for mishpat/justice, but instead found mishpach/oppression; God looked for tzedakah/righteousness, but instead found tseakah/violence. 

In Isaiah 5, God cries woe on those who get rich at the expense of others, who are motivated by greed and consumption, live in opulence while others go hungry, who perpetrate injustice, who cheer cruelty, oppress the vulnerable, blame victims, or incite violence.

Judgment is God’s reluctant, strange work of stepping aside and allowing the natural consequences of evil to implode. Finding no justice, nor any righteousness, but instead injustice, oppression, violence, and inequity, God steps aside:

Now let me tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it.

Jesus will not stay in a church, a community, a city, a nation void of love. 

“History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”– Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Isaiah 5 New Living Translation (NLT)

A Song about the Lord’s Vineyard

Now I will sing for the one I love
    a song about his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a rich and fertile hill.
He plowed the land, cleared its stones,
    and planted it with the best vines.
In the middle he built a watchtower
    and carved a winepress in the nearby rocks.
Then he waited for a harvest of sweet grapes,
    but the grapes that grew were bitter.

Now, you people of Jerusalem and Judah,
    you judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could I have done for my vineyard
    that I have not already done?
When I expected sweet grapes,
    why did my vineyard give me bitter grapes?

Now let me tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard:
I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it.

The nation of Israel is the vineyard of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
    The people of Judah are his pleasant garden.
He expected a crop of justice,
    but instead he found oppression.
He expected to find righteousness,
    but instead he heard cries of violence.

About Dr. Larry Taylor

Radical Anabaptist Jesus Freak Red Letter Christian, sailor, thinker, pastor, teacher, chaplain, counselor, husband, father, grandfather

Posted on June 7, 2020, in anabaptist, apologetics, Bible, Bible Teaching, bodily resurrection, Christianity, creation, Jesus, Kingdom Life, kingdom of God, parables, Peace Shalom Hesed, Poetry, Prayer, Prophecy, Spirituality, The Cross, Worship. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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