At around 6AM on Saturday morning, Israel time (11 o’clock on Friday night for us) Hamas, the Palestinian Militant Organization that is in power in the Gaza Strip unleashed a surprise attack, launching thousands of rockets that exploded throughout southern and coastal Israel, as far north as Tel Aviv.
Here we go again.
Someone out there – I suppose it’s the leaders of Hamas this time – someone actually thought that the best solution to their problem is to start a new round of killing.
Were these people born yesterday?
Do they know nothing at all about human history?
Because if they know anything… anything at all, about human history – even the most basic stuff – they should know that another round of killing is not going to help anything.
We all know the first lesson that human history teaches us – you know it, I know it,
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker…
Everyone knows it.
It is this:
Killing does not solve problems.
Killing only guarantees one thing…
When you point a rocket at someone else, you are not pointing a rocket at them. You are pointing it at yourself.
You know that O leaders of Hamas!
You know that…
Most Biblical Scholars date the writing of the book of Isaiah to about 740 BC.
So, at least 700 years separates Isaiah’s words on the back of this morning’s bulletin, from Jesus of Nazareth’s words that are on the inside.
That’s a long time.
And yet the debt that Jesus’ parable owes to Isaiah’s prophetic words is quite clear.
When Jesus describes the vineyard in his parable, he tells of a piece of land with a fence around it, a wine press in its midst, and a watch-tower at the center.
This matches, almost exactly, the description that Isaiah gives:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
In Isaiah’s time Hebrew was a written language, and the prophet’s words were written on scrolls of parchment – a material made of sheep, calf, or goat skin.
That said, the great majority of people, during Isaiah’s time – and indeed well into modern times – were illiterate – so even if they wanted to read the parchment scrolls, they didn’t know how.
I want you to appreciate the significance of this.
I think it is safe to say that, in an environment so hostile to any notion of preservation, it was far more likely that a story would disappear, than it would survive. Many stories probably suffered just this fate. We will, of course, never know.
For a story to survive for 700 years it would have needed the two things:
the first thing it would need is a small number of highly motivated literate people who made written copies and read them out to groups of people, and,
the second thing it would need is a large population of people who faithfully passed the stories down to their children, around the hearth, by their bedsides, and in places of worship.
It may be that places of worship were the ideal place to keep stories alive.
Communities love to have stories.
And a community that is interested in trying to understand the actions of God in the lives of a people, are going to be interested in the old stories that are told about God.
No doubt the temple priests recited the book of Isaiah. Liturgists probably celebrated the prophet’s words in song and prayer – just as we do today.
However it was preserved, we know that it made it 700 years and got to Jesus, who used it as the context for his parable.
But Jesus did not grab the whole cloth of Isaiah’s story and use it to make a point. No. Jesus transformed the story, altering it in order to give it a new voice – a new relevance to his listeners – people who lived, after all, 700 years after Isaiah!
In Isaiah’s version of the Vineyard story, God is the one who tends the vineyard. But in spite of God’s care, the vineyard bears rotten fruit. The rotten grapes, of course, represent the children of Israel who have turned away from God. In response, God threatens to break down the wall that protects the vineyard, and allow it to be vulnerable to the forces of chaos that will trample and destroy it. This is Isaiah’s prophetic word.
Jesus takes the same scenario but in his story, God is an is not involved with the hands-on care of the vineyard. In this story, God is absent landlord who has entrusted the vineyard to a group of tenant farmers. In this story it is the tenant farmers, not the grapes, that, are the children of Israel. When the land owner sends some slaves to collect the portion of the harvest that is his due the tenants respond with violence – killing the slaves. The third messenger – the land owner’s own son – a clear reference to Jesus himself – is also ruthlessly killed..
Isaiah does not tell us why the grapes are rotten. The grapes are passive. The only violence that occurs in this story happens when God allows the walls and hedges that protect the vineyard to be breached so that the vineyard becomes vulnerable to the forces of chaos.
Christ’s version of the story is quite different. In this story the people are actively violent. They have brought judgment upon themselves by responding to order with disorder. In this story, the vineyard is not a character, but a setting – the place where the drama is acted out. The focus of the story is on the tenants, and it is their fate that is instructive. They were the first to use violence. They will certainly die by it, for, as Jesus himself says, only a few chapters later:
“all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
A headline on New York Times.com read: ‘The Children Were Terrified.’ Fear Grips Israel and Gaza.
The article tells of a woman…
named Doreen who told Israel’s Channel 12 that militants were in her house in Nahal Oz, a small rural community, “My husband is holding the door of the bomb shelter,” she said. “Now they’re shooting sprays of bullets at the bomb shelter’s window. Sprays. And my three children are here with me.”
The article also reports on the conditions in Gaza, where
Jamila Al-Zanin, a 39 year old mother, tried to distract her own three children as they fled their home and drove south.
“The children were terrified.” she said. “As we drove down they were looking left and right, everywhere there were explosions and booms,” she said. “They were hysterical.”
Today, it is about 2800 years since Isaiah told his Vineyard story.
It is more than two thousand years after Jesus told his parable about the vineyard,
The events of yesterday move me to tell it again:
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to a tenant and went to another country.
While the landlord was gone, a drought came upon the land, and the harvest was small. The tenant, who was struggling to keep his family fed, knew that when the landowner sent for his portion of the harvest, his family might not have enough to survive. So when the tenant saw the landowner’s messengers coming to gather his portion, the tenant said to himself: “I shall kill these messengers and keep the full harvest that I might feed my family.” So the tenant seized the messengers, killing one of them. The other escaped. This messenger returned later with a sword, and seeing the tenant’s son on the road, he slew him, and his blood was taken into the earth. The tenant came upon them, and saw that his son dead on the road. What, then, did the tenant do?
“Surely he killed the messenger,” the people said.
“No. He did not. The tenant fell on the ground and covered his head with ashes. he repented saying: “Surely, it was I myself that caused the death of my son, because I was the first to kill.”