Tag Archives: justice

The Tenants of the Vineyard (Isaiah 2-5 and Mark 12:1-12)

Isaiah 2:2-4 gives a glorious description of the future of Zion:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the LORD
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.  [Isaiah 2:2-4, ESV]

Surprisingly the rest of the chapter will be very negative in its assessment of Jerusalem. In between the positive and the negative are these words:

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.  [2:5, ESV]

This is the cry of Isaiah, because as Isaiah said at the end of Chapter 1, God is going to avenge himself on the leaders of Judah and bring justice to the fatherless and the widow. This will be the theme of Chapters 2 and 3:

And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.  [2:17, ESV]

It is not until Isaiah 3:10 that we get positive words:

Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them,
for they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.  [3:10, ESV]

But then the words immediately turn negative again. This is because Isaiah 2-5 is directed against the leaders of Judah. God has compassion for those mistreated by the corrupt leaders of Judah, and God here announces to these leaders their doom:

My people—infants are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
O my people, your guides mislead you
and they have swallowed up the course of your paths.

The LORD has taken his place to contend;
he stands to judge peoples.
The LORD will enter into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
the spoil of the poor is in your houses.
What do you mean by crushing my people,
by grinding the face of the poor?”
declares the Lord GOD of hosts.  [3:12-15, ESV]

In Chapter 5 Isaiah will sing the song of God’s vineyard, how God did everything for the vineyard and yet it did not yield good grapes for him, and so God will let the vineyard be destroyed. Jesus takes up this theme in Mark 12, but with a slightly different emphasis. Whereas Isaiah 5 speaks of the destruction of the vineyard, Mark 12 speaks of the judgment of the tenants and of the giving of the vineyard to others. Clearly Jesus is interacting not only with the song of the vineyard in Chapter 5, but also with God’s plan in Isaiah 1-4 of taking out the corrupt leaders in Judah and replacing them with godly leaders. The leaders in Mark recognize this, for Mark 12:12 says:

And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them.  [ESV]

Matthew and Luke both close Jesus’ parable with an allusion to Isaiah 8:14-15, where the Lord becomes a stumbling block to both houses of Israel. The corrupt among God’s own people will find the Lord to be a stumbling block and will be destroyed for that very reason. Two chapters later in Luke Jesus follows this up with a promise to the apostles:

I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  [Luke 22:29-30, ESV]

We see here Jesus’ goal: to rid Israel of its ungodly leadership. This was the goal of Isaiah when he ministered in his day. God has compassion on the poor, and he will not tolerate the abuses of the poor that take place under ungodly leadership.

This makes me wonder about the way I lead. Do I do so in a way that the poor will be cared for? Do I listen to the voices of the oppressed? It was a great threat for the early church when in Acts 6 it becomes clear that the Hellenist widows are being neglected in the daily distribution. The apostles are attempting to care for the poor and are failing. But they quickly set things right, appointing Spirit-filled leaders who will make sure that no one gets neglected. How is the church doing today? Are the poor overlooked? Are there those who are oppressed? Is the vineyard failing to bear fruit because of oppressive leadership? We must watch ourselves, lest the Lord become a stumbling block to us!

As I read Isaiah or the Gospel of Luke or Deuteronomy or the Epistle of James I am constantly confronted with a message of care for the poor. Having been taken advantage of by some who are poor in America, I find myself holding back from caring for the poor. Having been brought up in a Republican environment I am tempted to resist government intervention in the market. But I cannot let these experiences and views drive me to a place where the poor and oppressed are neglected. What am I going to do to combat the fact that those who are born to poor families tend to not get as good of an education and to not have as many opportunities to succeed in life? What will the church do to make sure justice is available to all? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I cannot read Isaiah and not ask these questions. Friends, let us not be the haughty who will be humbled. Let us be the righteous, who “shall eat the fruit of their deeds.” “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.”

Come Now, Let Us Reason Together (Isaiah 1:18-20)

Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be eaten by the sword;
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 1:18-20 (ESV)

Oftentimes Christians quote a verse with little knowledge of its context. As I am reading through Isaiah right now I thought I would share some thoughts on reading this verse not as an isolated promise text, but as a part of Isaiah’s literary masterpiece.

Typically you will hear 1:18 quoted without reference to 1:19-20. When this is done it sounds like God is saying, “I have a deal for you: I will take away your sin and replace it with purity.” But this is only part of the deal. Not only does God wash away the sins of his people but he also offers the benefits of purity: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land.”

In verses 21-23 God describes the city of Jerusalem as a city where the poor are oppressed and uncared for. In this sense “the faithful city has become a whore” (1:21). It is because of this that Israel is facing calamity, both physically and militarily (1:5-8). The cry of the whole chapter is:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
plead the widow’s cause.

Isaiah 1:16-17 (ESV)

The emphasis on widows and orphans runs throughout Isaiah. It is this line of thought that is reflected well in James 1:27:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

Isaiah describes other attempts at religion in his first chapter. The people are bringing God a “multitude of … sacrifices” (1:11), but the religion of Israel is an abomination to God (1:10-15). At the end of the chapter we see hints that Israel is pursuing Canaanite worship rituals, which Isaiah says will result in their death (1:29-31).

The central point of the chapter (where we began in verses 18-20) is then this: You need to wash your sins away so that you can eat the good of the land rather than be eaten by the sword! A little bit of historical context may help here. Isaiah prophesied “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (1:1). The days of Uzziah were good days for the nation. Both the northern kingdom (Israel) and the southern kingdom (Judah) were expanding during this time. These were the best years for Israel/Judah since the days of Solomon. But by the end of the 8th century BC the northern kingdom would fall to the Assyrians, and Judah too would be invaded with the Assyrians laying siege to Jerusalem.

It is not clear when in this time frame Isaiah said these words, but based on verses 5-9 it is likely that these words came toward the end of the period. Judah had seen Israel fall and was in danger of falling itself.  Sacrifices likely abounded as the people tried to appease Yahweh (and perhaps other gods as well, though Hezekiah himself worked to put an end to idol-worship and to focus people on Yahweh-worship). But God wanted one thing: justice for the oppressed.

As I think about how to apply this today, I realize that I must be a Christian who fights for justice. Other religion is no religion at all. We can make all kinds of prayers and sacrifices for God, but if we freely benefit off of the oppression of the poor in the process, God will not hear our prayers. God would say to the Christian today, “Come now, let us reason together. Your sins have been like scarlet; let’s change that. If you agree to this, I will bless you. If you do not, you will experience my wrath.” Of course God’s blessing does not always mean eating the good of the land in this life and his wrath does not always mean military defeat. But the basic message remains the same. We need to fight for justice, or God will bring us to justice. Lord, help us.