Isaiah 5:1-7 | Matthew 21:33-46
It’s a funny sort of love song.
Traditionally, a love song would be full of words of praise for the beloved, painting a picture of them as wonderful beyond imagining, reciting all the things that are lovely and beautiful and admirable. Love songs cast the beloved in the best light possible, or even better. Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate…
Isaiah sings a love song, from God, to his people. It starts well enough, with flowery praise; they are a fertile hill which God has cleared and planted, prepared, poured love and effort into.
But there the traditional love song ends.
He expected it to yield grapes, but the grapes it yielded were wild.
And the song continues: the vineyard will be laid waste, the wall torn down, the fertile land overgrown with thorns and weeds.
It’s a funny sort of love song. The love song of the angry, rejected lover. The love song of the one who has given everything to their beloved, who has tried again and again to win them back, but has finally given up, whose love has turned to disappointment, and their disappointment has turned to anger.
Is this an image of God you feel comfortable with?
Is this a side of the character of God you rejoice in?
Is this a love song?
Most of us, most of the time, tend to focus more on more positive aspects of God’s portrayal in the Bible. We talk about God’s unending love, God’s desire to again and again give another chance, God’s seeking out of the lost to bring them home.
In fact, you’ll often hear people say they don’t believe, or don’t want to believe, in a God of judgement; they can’t imagine the God of Jesus Christ as a God of anger; they don’t want a God who runs out of patience.
There’s even a dismissive phrase for it: we talk about this sort of portrayal of God as ‘an Old Testament God’; by contrast, the implication is, with the New Testament God of love and reconciliation and mercy.
So we have to read Jesus’ story as well.
Jesus is speaking to the people in Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry. He’s in the Temple, surrounded by those who know the law, know the prophets, know the scriptures. There can surely be no doubt that as he starts to speak of a vineyard, with a winepress, and a fence and a watchtower, those listening got the reference to Isaiah. But then the story changes. For where in Isaiah, the vineyard is to blame, for producing poor grapes, in Jesus’ retelling of the tale the vineyard is faultless. It produces it’s harvest.
In Jesus story those at fault are the tenants, the ones who have been given responsibility for the vineyard. And their fault is not simply a failure to perform as expected: they are violent, dishonest, deliberately criminal, and ultimately murderous.
In Isaiah, the people of God are judged for failing to produce the fruits that God expected of them; in Jesus’ words the religious leaders are condemned for rejecting those who came from God to claim what was rightfully God’s.
But in both stories there is this: judgement on those who have failed in their responsibilities before God.
Judgement is not a ‘Old Testament God’ thing. Indeed, the harshest words of judgement in the Bible are to be found in the New Testament – and not just in the gory apocalyptic visions of John’s revelation. But in the mouth of Jesus: this stone will crush any on who it falls; they will be thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; it would be better for a millstone to be tied around their neck and they be thrown into the sea.
However much we might – rightly – focus our attention on the love and mercy and grace of God, we cannot avoid this truth: the Bible portrays judgement as an aspect of the character of God.
And it’s an aspect of the character of God, that in many times and places, is not a threat, not something to be feared, but a promise, a hope, a comfort.
When the people of Israel were in exile, seeking God but persecuted by powerful empires that cared nothing of justice, they wanted God to be judge. When the Jews in Jesus’ day submitted to Roman law, saw the temple defiled, saw emperors set themselves up as divine, saw the people of the empire oppressed so that a wealthy elite might play, they wanted God to be judge.
When the early Church was persecuted, when Christians were crucified, burned, thrown to the wild beasts because they would not deny their faith, they wanted God to be judge. When African nations were taken to the new world and forced into slavery, they wanted God to be judge.
And don’t we feel the same? When you hear of brutal dictators being allowed to escape trial, don’t you want to believe they will meet justice? When white collar criminals walk away with a fortune as jobs are destroyed and economies ruined, don’t you want to believe there will be justice? When you hear of a child abused, and the perpetrator walking free, don’t you hope that one day justice will be done?
To speak of love and judgement as if they were opposites of one another is to fail to understand either love or justice. Love demands justice, and justice demands that wrongdoing be named as such, and that those who cause harm to their fellow woman and man be held to account. That is why the Christian faith should be unashamed to own that our God is a God of judgement. Because God cares about justice, God cares about the rights of the powerless, God cares about the protection of those who cannot protect themselves. So God is, will be, and always has been, a God of judgement. Because there is right – caring for those in need, loving those who have been rejected, accepting those who are different – and there is wrong – abusing wealth and power, neglecting the needs of the poor, turning a blind eye and thus participating in injustice – and the difference matters.
But there are two more things that we must say about the judgement of God, lest we get very mush the wrong end of the stick.
The first is this: notice that in both Isaiah and in the words of Jesus, God’s judgement is against the people of God, not against those who do not know God. God’s words in Isaiah are of a vineyard that God has tended, and “I expected it to bear grapes”. Remember this next time you hear someone speak of “God’ judgement on the ungodly” – the majority of the judgement language in the Bible is reserved for those who have known God – those who ought to know better, those of whom God says “I expected justice. I expected you to care for the weak, to protect the powerless. You are the people who have received my gracious love – I expected you to look with mercy on those who called out for help.”. Of those to whom much has been given, much will be expected. It is we, the people who claim God’s name, who God expects to produce fruit.
And the second is this: in most cases in the Bible, God’s judgment carries with it the possibility of renewal. To abuse an already hackneyed phrase, it’s God’s tough love; God’s final attempt to draw his people back onto the path they were created to walk before, in their neglect of justice, they destroy their very selves. As we saw in the story of Jonah the other week: God’s judgement is not without hope. It is judgement for the sake of mercy, judgement with the offer of grace.
For the prophecy of Isaiah does not end in chapter 5. There are many hard words for the people of God, but Isaiah ends in the promise of restoration: comfort, comfort, all my people; listen, though your sins be as scarlet, I shall make them white as snow. As far as the east is from the west, so far shall I remove your sins from you.
God judges, because to fail to do so is to fail to protect the victims; victims of active wrongdoing, and victims of neglectful failure to do. But God’s judgement always aims to save not just the victim, but the perpetrator.
That’s love and judgement. We could learn from that.