Pentecost 16 (Proper 22) October 2, 2011
GOTCHA! Today's readings lead with an element of surprise that intends to catch their hearers off-guard. Since "making the familiar strange" is one of the prerequisites for good preaching (at least among those who may think that there's not much new in the old, old story), we do well to pay close attention to how these three readings use surprise as a strategic tool to communicate their message of warning and hope.
The First Reading from Isaiah illustrates well why that prophet is the biblical master nonpareil of the Hebrew language. He seems to start out harmlessly enough, with a "love-song"--perhaps for the harvest season--about a certain vineyard. But, despite all the pampering preparations one could hope for on the part of the owner, the project disappoints, yielding wild grapes (cf. the "sour grapes" of last week's Old Testament reading, Ezek 18:2). So, the singer turns to the audience and asks, what's to be done? Wherein, if at all, were the owner's attentions lacking? Speak now, or forever hold your peace! Very well, in the absence of any such shared blame or extenuating circumstances, the judgment falls on the vineyard: it is to be devoured, trampled, a waste, overgrown, parched. To the extent that the hearers might suspect that the prophet is telling some kind of agricultural fable with a meaning beyond the literal and extending to the human sphere, the audience is lured into nodding its heads at the rightness of the outcome. Schadenfreude (delight in the misery of others) is never far from the human surface.
But then "Snap!" goes the mousetrap: "the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting." The hearers have convicted themselves, as surely as did David in 2 Sam 12:7. They had passed on their chance to play legal offense against God, just as they did in the "covenant lawsuit" in Mic 6:3 (Isaiah's contemporary!). All that remains now is the explanation of the verdict: God had expected justice (mispat) from his people, but saw bloodshed (mispach), instead; God had sought righteousness (tseddqd), but heard a cry (tse'aqa). Here Isaiah shows his linguistic finesse: he is not merely punning; rather, the vineyard's produce is a twisted perversion of the planting. Aural form serves theological function.
Given that Jesus' hearers knew their Scriptures (i.e., our Old Testament) better than we do, there's no surprise left in his use of the vineyard as a trope for Israel in the Holy Gospel (as, indeed, was the case last week, too, in the immediately preceding pericope from Matthew). So he adds a twist: it's not the vineyard per se that is the focus of concern, but its tenants. The latter bear a disturbing resemblance to Joseph's brothers in Gen 37:19-20: "Here comes this dreamer [lit., 'lord of the dreams']. Come now, let us kill him." But what the brothers merely discussed, the tenants actually do to those the vineyard owner sends to them, first slaves, then the owner's very son. In this case, the hearers are invited to convict not so much themselves, but their leaders (as the latter realize quickly enough, v. 45). Yet even the hearers will bear the fallout: quoting from a festival (Hallel) psalm (118:22-23), Jesus declares that the kingdom of God will be taken away and given to another people "that produces the fruits of the kingdom" (v. …