August 18, 2013 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 80 is the cry of God’s people. They are experiencing God’s absence and they raise their voices to protest. “We are the vine you planted and cared for. Why have you torn down the walls of the vineyard so that we are destroyed? Why are you ignoring our cry for help?” The people are so bold as to call on God to repent. “Turn again” they say. “Don’t turn your face away from us any more. Save us.”
The lectionary situates Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5 side by side. We might imagine in response to the cry of Psalm 80, Isaiah says, “Let me tell you a story.”
[Read Isaiah 5.1-7]
God expected justice but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry! The divine gardener made all the provisions for the vineyard expecting that the vines should produce beautiful, sweet grapes but instead only wild, bitter, useless grapes grew up. More literally, the Hebrew in verse two says the wild grapes were “stinkers.” In other places where that same Hebrew word is used it describes “decayed fish.”1 All the conditions were set for good grapes but what came up were bad grapes. Tilling the soil for justice and righteousness turned up a harvest of bloodshed and cries.
The word “righteousness” translates from the Hebrew word tzedakah and is a hard word for which to find an English equivalent. The Chief Rabbi in Britain, Jonathan Sacks, in his book The Dignity of Difference says tezdekah mashes together in a single word two ideas that we think of as opposites: charity and justice.2 Sacks relates the example of giving someone $100. If that person is entitled to the money, say it’s their wages for time worked, then giving it is an act of justice. It would be wrong not to give it. If the person is not entitled to the money, say it’s a gift for school clothes for a child whose family cannot afford them, then giving the money is an act of charity. In our English vocabulary, “a gesture of charity cannot be an act of justice, nor can an act of justice be described as charity. Tzedakah is…an unusual term, because it means both.”3
In the theology of Judaism, we are not owners of our property because all things belong to God. We are stewards or trustees on God’s behalf. One of the conditions of stewardship is that we “share part of what we have with others in need.”4 In Deuteronomy 15 we hear this instruction: If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land…do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be….Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you…Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you,‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”5
What is “lending enough to meet the need” which Deuteronomy directs? Tzedakah, or righteousness, means no one should be without the essentials of human existence: food, shelter, clothing. It’s not optional charity as we think of it today. It was part of Torah; the Jewish law, that could even be enforced by the courts.6 Today we could add dignity, freedom and equality as essentials of human existence. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights7, adopted shortly after the end of World War II, has 30 sections articulating particular human rights. But even these six: food, shelter, clothing, dignity, freedom and equality are hard enough for us to manage. Righteousness means no one should be without the essentials of human existence and those “who have more than they need must share some of that surplus with those who have less.” Again, this is not a charitable suggestion. This is the way God’s people are to live. Jonathan Sacks writes, “This is absolutely fundamental to the kind of society the Israelites were charged with creating, namely one in which everyone has a basic right to a dignified life and to be equal citizens in the covenantal community under the sovereignty of God…The society the Israelites were to construct would stand as a living contrast to what they experienced in Egypt: poverty, persecution and enslavement. Their release from bondage was only the first stage on their journey to freedom. The second–their covenant with God–involved collective responsibility to ensure that no one would be excluded from the shared graciousness of the community and its life.”8
This the tradition in which Jesus lived his life. It is the tradition from which Christianity was born.
So God has set this up for the people, provided freedom and a covenant of life together–the metaphorical vineyard with good soil and choice vines, a watchtower and rain. And what happens? Wild grapes sprout up. There is bloodshed instead of justice. Cries instead of righteousness.
This month marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In that speech in 1963 the country heard a collective cry for righteousness–tzedekah–the righteousness that ensures everyone has what they need to live a dignified, free and equal life. A righteousness where all the resources of the community are shared for the common good.
Earlier, in April of 1963, while sitting in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, serving a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations, Dr. King penned a long letter to eight white clergymen in Birmingham who publicly criticized the nonviolent action taken by civil rights activists, calling on Dr. King to wait until the time was right and let the courts decide on civil rights. The letter, titled “Why We Can’t Wait” in its published form, articulated the violence done to the humanity of African Americans who saw mobs lynch their family members, who were brutalized by policemen, who had to explain to their children why they couldn’t go to the amusement park or shop in the stores with all the pretty dresses, who drove non-stop when they took a vacation across the country because there weren’t motels where they could stop and rest.9 Dr. King’s letter was an articulation of generations of bloodshed and cries because there was no righteousness and no justice. All around were stinking, bitter grapes even though the vineyard had been created to cultivate sweet, nourishing fruit.
We don’t have to travel back fifty years to hear people crying for justice and righteousness. Looking back is a good practice to remember our history and to know that the cries of our day are not isolated from those of sisters and brother who have come before us. Today we can easily think of the stop and frisk practices in New York City; the deaths of far too many black boys and men just like Trayvon Martin but with much less press coverage; our own city with its neighborhoods segregated by race or economics or both; the enormous gap in wealth distribution in our country; the lack of access to affordable health care for millions of Americans.
It’s enough to make us despondent and numb.
But I keep thinking about prophetic imagination that Scott Clark peached about two weeks ago. He was drawing on the work of Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann and his book The Prophetic Imagination. Brueggemann says the task of prophetic ministry (whether it is Isaiah’s or ours) is to “evoke an alternative community” that knows the world is not limited to the way things currently are right now.
Do you remember that line from the movie “The Mission”? It’s near the end of the movie after there is a massacre at the mission and priests and the indigenous people are murdered. Hearing the report of the massacre, the governor of the area shrugs and says to the Catholic Cardinal, “The world is thus.” The Cardinal replies, “No, thus have we made the world.”10
The prophetic imagination says, “This is the way we have made the world but it is not the only way the world can be made.”
Prophetic imagination also asks us to hear and feel the cries of pain in the world. We cannot let ourselves grow numb or indifferent or we will succumb to the dominant, oppressive systems of power that want us to accept that the bloodshed and cries around us are just the way the world is and there’s nothing to be done about it. We must hear it and feel it and lament the lack of justice and the absence of righteousness.
Alongside the cries of the world, prophetic imagination invites us into a different reality. It invites us into the vineyard that God has so carefully tended and prepared for good grapes to grow and it invites us to make a place for others so they too can share in the abundance of what God intends for the world.
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1 Texts for Preaching, Year C, eds., Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, J. Clinton McCann, Jr., James D. Newsome, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994) p470.
2 Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference – How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, (London, Continuum, 2002) p113.
4 Ibid., p114.
5 Deuteronomy 15.7-8, 10-11. Cited at http://www.chiefrabbi.org/2013/07/31/covenant-conversation-reeh-judaisms-social-vision/#.Ug2Ce1O9ynE, accessed 15 August 2013.
6 Sacks, p114.
7 http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/, accessed 15 August 2013.
8 Sacks, pp114-115.
9 A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James M. Washington, (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986), pp292-293.
10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mission_%281986_film%29, accessed 17 August 2013.