This story occurs early in Isaiah’s role as a prophet. He has a difficult task, because the people of God are not doing what God wishes. In this case, Isaiah speaks to them using a parable.
- Isaiah says he will sing them a song. Other translations say that he will sing them a “love-song”. (v. 1)
- He tells (or sings) them a story about a friend who plants a vineyard, hoping it would produce sweet fruit. (v.2)
- The listeners are invited to participate, and help the owner decide what to do. I like to think that clever Isaiah is like a fisherman, teasing the fish with the bait. (v.3)
- Bad news! The grapes are bitter. I’ve read that in the original Hebrew, “bitter” is actually “stinking grapes”! (v. 4)
- The landowner decides to destroy his vineyard, because it has not provided the hoped-for delicious fruit. (vv.5-6)
- Now, Isaiah “sets the hook”. God in the story is the landowner, and the vineyard is Israel. God had rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and “planted” them in the Promised Land. He had hoped that they would grow into a beautiful people, bearing sweet fruit of honesty and justice. They did not. So now, he will “unplant” them. A trip to Babylon is in Israel’s future. (v. 7)
Isaiah chose the literary form of a love song to tell Israel of their disobedience to God. It might seem odd to call this a love song, since He decides to destroy His “vineyard”. God loves his people! We have all known about a marriage where a spouse is not living up to the other’s expectations. This is exactly what is going on between God and His people. He loves them, and wants them to grow; but he also wants them to be good, and live up to His expectations. He expected honesty and justice (v. 7b), but His people let Him down.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Even today, honesty and justice are in short supply. If you doubt that statement, just turn on the television. We are bombarded with Fact Checks and accusations of Fake News. Social injustice is at such a level of frustration that rioting and mass shootings are weekly occurrences. Things haven’t changed one bit since Isaiah’s time.
More than ever, we need Jesus!
In the verses just preceding today’s selection (vv.2-4a), Paul warns his Gentile Christian friends to beware of people we call Judaizers. The Judaizers wanted the Gentile Christians to conform to the old Hebrew practices, including circumcision, the dietary rules, and obeying all the Laws of Moses. Paul even calls the Judaisers “dogs”. Back then, calling someone a dog was a terrible insult. These “dogs” were even bragging about themselves and their Jewish piety.
- Paul tells the Philippians that he has better bragging rights. He gives us his resume. Paul himself was a Pharisee, and was the best of the best! (vv. 5-6)
- But then, Paul surprises them all, by saying that all that is worthless. Compared to knowing Jesus, all those spiritual practices are garbage. The King James Version even uses the word “dung” instead of garbage. (vv.7-8a)
- Here is the gold nugget in this passage. (vv. 7-8a) (More on this below.)
- For Paul, knowing Jesus and being more and more like Jesus is all that he wants out of life. (vv. 10-13)
- He likens his spiritual struggle to a foot race. (v. 14)
Verses 5 & 6 give us a glimpse into what it meant to be a Pharisee. You might remember that last week I said that Pharisees got a bum rap. Here, from Paul’s pen, we see that there was a good side to being a Pharisee. Their motives were noble, but they failed in the execution.
Let’s look at verses 8b & 9, and break it down into three parts:
- All I want is Christ, and know that I belong to him.
- I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law.
- God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ.
This is important. God’s acceptance is there for us, simply by believing in Jesus as his Son. Obeying the Law does not bring us closer to God, only faith does that.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Paul was a tireless, accomplished evangelist for Jesus. He brought thousands to the faith. His letters to the early churches have provided us with a precious source of knowledge. Yet, Paul felt that his spiritual journey was not complete. He was still running the race. I wish that we (including myself, of course) would all have his hunger for spiritual improvement.
To this day, people of faith seek rules, by-laws, & guidelines for their faith walk. We want someone to break it down into simple steps for us Jesus tells us it is simply about love. Do our church rules reflect the Law of Love, or something else?
We get another parable about a vineyard! These parables, this week’s and last week’s, come right after the Pharisees have challenged Jesus’ authority. Both of these parables form Jesus’ response to that challenge.
- This parable starts out almost exactly like Isaiah’s. Coincidence? I doubt it. Jesus knew his bible, so I’m sure that he knew of Isaiah’s love-song parable. I’ll bet that the chief priest and elders were also familiar with the song. Maybe Jesus starts out his parable like this to get their attention. But then, his story takes a sharp turn. (v. 33a)
- When the landowner sends people to get his share of the crop, they are murdered by the renters. They even murder the landowner’s son as part of a takeover scheme. (vv.33b-39)
- Then, Jesus asks them for an answer. “What will the landowner do?” They answer correctly, and in doing so incriminate themselves. (vv.40-41)
- Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23 in verse 42. More on that below.
- Then, Jesus lowers the boom, telling them that the keys to the kingdom are being taken away from them. They will be handed over to those “who do what he (God) demands”. In other words, the followers of Jesus will be God’s beloved, and not the chief priest and elders. (vv. 43-44)
- This does not set well with them, and they start working out ways to get even.
As with Isaiah’s parable, the landowner is God, and the vines are his people. The renters are the people who have been put in charge of caring for the “vines”, God’s precious people; the chief priest and Pharisees. The son in the story is, of course, God’s son Jesus.
Jesus is basically telling them that they have done a lousy job of caring for God’s people, and that they are fired. He states that His followers will now become the true heirs of the kingdom of God.
When Jesus quotes Psalm 118, he is referring to himself being the stone the builders rejected. We know now, that he would indeed be rejected most completely. Cornerstones are the first stones set, when building a new structure. It is the point from which the entire building is measured. We also know that he and his church will be the “New Jerusalem”. This is what the early Christian church called themselves.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
I keep going back to Jesus’s conclusion to the parable (v 43):
“I tell you that God’s kingdom will be taken from you and given to people who will do what he demands.”
(I’ve added italics to emphasize my point.)
What exactly is it that God demands of us?
After reading today’s passage from Philippians, It is clear to me that it is definitely not obeying the Law of Moses, or any church rules for that matter. Instead, the answer comes from Jesus’ lips and Paul’s pen:
- 37 He [Jesus] said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
- “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6)
So, the answer is love, believing in Jesus, and putting that love into action..