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Third week of Lent: Solemn Reproach #4

Read Isaiah 5: 1-7 and John 15: 1-5. 

 

O my people, O my church, what more could I have done for you?

Answer me.

I planted you as my fairest vineyard, but you brought forth bitter fruit;

I made you branches of the vine and never left your side,

but you have prepared a cross for your Savior.

Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal,

have mercy on us.

 

Jesus said to his disciples, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  I don’t believe this is one of those passages we’re tempted to take literally: Jesus is using a metaphor, an image, to help us imagine what it is like to be connected to him.  Jesus didn’t invent this image, either—there are plenty of places in Scripture where the people of God are likened to a vine or a vineyard, such as we just saw in the reading from Isaiah. 

 

Christians can listen to the proclamations of the prophets of Israel in their own context, and we can also heed the warnings of the prophets by asking what the prophets of the Old Testament might have to say to us, here and now, today.  Are we, today, still guilty of injustice?  Definitely.  If we were a vineyard, would we be bearing fruit that pleases God?  Uh, this is a good question to consider.  For us, here and now. 

 

The trouble comes when we look at the words of these Old Testament prophets, and the enduring, evocative images they employ, from our perspective as 21st century Christians, and assume these prophets are speaking against Jews or against Judaism.  Let me quote from “Preaching and Teaching with Love and Respect for the Jewish People”:

“When Isaiah says [in chapter five] that God’s vineyard, Israel, has yielded only wild grapes (or rotten berries), one might think that Judaism has nothing worthwhile in it.  But Isaiah also says that ‘in days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots, and fill the whole world with fruit,’ [which comes from Isaiah chapter 27].  In Isaiah’s view, God never abandons Israel.”[1]

 

Any time we gather for worship, we are reading from Scripture—the Old Testament and the New Testament—because God’s Word is our foundation.  But we’re almost never reading the entire Bible at one time because that is too much; we have to choose sections!  So how can we ever get the whole story?  How would we know that Isaiah uses the image of a vineyard to point out the rottenness going on in the people of Israel, AND later on, Isaiah imagines Israel as a blossoming and fruitful vine? 

 

It would help if, in the first place, we didn’t immediately assume the worst interpretation.  Again, quoting from this resource:

“For Jews…righteousness and justification and the gifts of the spirit through Torah are already part of what they know, have, and…live.  Gentiles in Christ are simply joining them as part of the one Israel of God that has been in view since God told Abraham that all the nations would be blessed through him.  …The one people of God who have been redeemed by Jesus Christ are added to the one people of God who were redeemed by God in the Exodus, and they add up to one people of God—all Israel.  One plus one equals one!”[2]

 

The trouble we encounter with this understanding of unity comes from centuries of Christian theologians.  One of these early, influential theologians was Augustine, who wrote theology during the early fifth century in the Roman Empire that was made Christian by a series of emperors only within the previous hundred years. 

 

Reading again from this resource:

“Jews were legally distinguished from Christians in the empire and treated unequally under the law unless and until they converted to the different religion of Christianity. …Christian bishops in the empire looked at Jews as condemned and rejected by God for their participation in Jesus’ execution and their refusal to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

 

In that context, Augustine had to account for the continuing presence of the Jewish community. If they had been condemned, why were they still around? Augustine’s proposal picked up on a line of thinking that had developed among the earlier bishops and theologians. God was maintaining the Jewish community in the world to be the opposite of what Christians are. Thus, Jews became for Augustine the paradigm of what opposition to God and Christ must be. …Part of the framework of this fateful division was to set “law” and “legalism” against “gospel” and “grace.”[3]

 

Writing about Christianity as distinct from and better than Judaism was so popular during this time that theologians gave these kinds of essays a title: adversus Judaeos, which means “against the Jews.”  These interpretations have shaped Christian theology for centuries, especially in the Western tradition, which is where we come from.  As scholars now are sensitive to these interpretations and highlighting the dangers, this is called replacement theology—the idea that Christians have come to replace Jews—or supersessionism—the idea that Christianity supercedes or is superior to prior existing traditions. 

 

With almost two thousand years of Christian theological interpretation that did not seek unity with Jewish traditions, and particularly for us Lutherans who are shaped by the work of Martin Luther, who was shaped by the teachings of Augustine, and Luther descended pretty heavily into anti-Semitism during his own lifetime, which is a whole other story, and we’ll get to that next week—it shouldn’t be surprising that anti-Jewish attitudes are so thoroughly embedded in our theology.  There is much for which we can repent. 

 

But are we helpless to get rid of these dangerous and harmful ideas?  Definitely not. 

 

Any good gardener with a decent set of tools can prune a vine that has been poorly tended—a few snips here and there to train the vine to grow in a healthy direction, careful attention to remove the dead stuff, all to make room for growth.  It’s not for nothing that Jesus spoke of God as the good gardener, the vinegrower who knows well how to prune away the unhelpful ideas that lead to hatred.  Let us trust in God’s power and God’s wisdom to help us grow, that our priorities for love and respect of our Jewish ancestors will create growth that bears fruit worthy to bless God’s creation and even bring delight to God. 


Amen. 

Pastor Cheryl


[1] “Preaching and Teaching with Love and Respect for the Jewish People,” page 6, available at www.elca.org 

[2] Ibid, page 22. 

[3] Ibid, pages 22-23.


 


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