Monday, March 10, 2014

A Love Song Concerning His Vineyard

During Lent, the Church reads Genesis, Proverbs and Isaiah.  The New Testament is not read during Lent, except on the weekends, when there is somewhat of a lessening or lightening of the fast. After the Psalms, I imagine that Isaiah is the most quoted book of the Old Testament in the hymns and verses of the Church services. Not only does Isaiah have amazingly accurate prophetic pronouncements concerning the Coming of Christ, but Isaiah also reveals quite plainly in many images and parables God’s heart toward His people and how, in His love, God deals with his people to lead them to repentance.  

One of the common metaphors both in Isaiah and throughout the whole scriptures used to describe God’s love and relationship with His people and how and why He deals with them the way He does is the image of a vineyard. In the liturgical services of the Orthodox Church today, this image is still often used. For example, when the Bishop is blessing the community during a hierarchical Divine Liturgy, he blesses by paraphrasing Psalm 79 (80), “O Lord, look down from heaven and visit this vine and perfect that which Your Right Hand has planted.”

In Isaiah chapter five, God address his people as “My Beloved” and sings a song about a vineyard. The RSV translates the passage this way:

Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.  He digged it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes (or thorn bushes according to the Septuagint).

What do we have here? The vines represent the people of God, and the vineyard is all that God has done to help the vines grow and become all they are called to be. The vines are given everything they need to produce good fruit, and the vineyard is supplied with all of the equipment that is necessary to turn that fruit into wine. We might say that the fruit refers to the result of human effort in cooperation with Grace, while the wine refers to the spiritual beauty and heavenly result of God’s transformation of this fruit into something divine. Human effort is necessary, but it is not sufficient. To follow the metaphor of the vine, God provides the soil and the nutrients, God provides the rain and the sun—all of this represents all of the Grace and help God pours out on us so that we can produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. But still, we must cooperate with Grace, just as the vine itself must grow and produce fruit, transforming the nutrients, water and sunshine into grapes.

But producing fruit is only the first step of a process, a process that will eventually produce wine. The Fathers of the Church teach us that virtue is the fruit of the Holy Spirit—or the fruit of the Holy Spirit is virtue. St. Paul, in the book of Galatians, lists nine qualities that he calls the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the Christ-like virtues. We could also include virtues such as wisdom, hope, and humility—but to tell you the truth, I think if we could all just focus on the love, joy, peace, patience and kindness, our lives would be transformed.  These qualities, or virtues, are evidence not only of the Grace of the Holy Spirit in our lives, but also of our cooperation with that Grace. The first step in producing the heavenly wine, is for us to cooperate with the Grace of God by loving our neighbours, being kind to one another (even when we don’t feel like it), bearing patiently uncomfortable or even painful situations that are beyond our control, and controlling ourselves—what we eat, what we say, what we do.

Producing this fruit of the Spirit is the first step in the transformation into the image of Jesus. It is what St. Isaac the Syrian calls the discipline of the body and the discipline of the mind. Cooperating with the Grace of God, we learn to control our bodies and our minds, we learn to bring our body and our mind under control, under the obedience of Christ, as St. Paul puts in 2 Corinthians chapter ten, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ.” This is the spiritual warfare Christians are called to engage in. All of the evil in the world that Christians are called to battle against must first be conquered in ourselves before we can have any hope of influencing the world around us. In fact, it is a common error pointed out by many fathers and mothers of the Church for beginners to focus outside themselves on the problems that need be solved in the world while passions and foolishness are still raging in their own minds and bodies. Remember, the fruit of the Holy Spirit is virtue, not a better political system or a better society—although these may result in a community of men and women who have obtained virtue.  

But even virtue and all of the societal benefits it might bring is not the goal. It is a necessary step on the way. All of our virtue must be offered to God to be transformed into the wine of God. That is, ours is not to choose or determine the result of our lives lived for God. Our lives are offered to God, and just as grape juice must be transformed by the action of yeast into wine, so our lives through prayer and stillness are transformed by the action of the Holy Spirit.  What does this divine wine look like—well, we don’t know yet, exactly. As St. John puts it, “Beloved…it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He appears we shall be like him, for we shall see Him as He is.” The wine of God is the blood of Jesus Christ. We do not yet know exactly what we shall be, but we do know that we shall be like Him.

Let’s return, now to Isaiah and the parable or metaphor of the vineyard. God gives us Grace, God gives all we need to bear good fruit—the fruit of the Spirit—but what happens?  Isaiah tells us that instead of bearing fruit, God’s people bear wild grapes, or thorn bushes (in the Septuagint). Then God asks a question: “What more could I have done?” If God has given us every protection and advantage to produce good fruit, and we refuse to cooperate, what should He do?  

Well, contemporary business consultants will commonly say that to do the same thing over and over again expecting different results is a form of foolishness and insanity. God is no fool. God will try something different. God loves us that much. If blessing and prosperity, protection and nurture do not result in our bearing godly fruit, then God will do something else. Here’s how Isaiah puts it:

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed and briers and thorns will grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

Now I think many of us when we hear these words might be thinking individually. That is, we think these words are referring to how God deals with individuals. It is true that God does deal with individuals sometimes with blessing and sometimes with hard times, and although this passage could be applied to individual people, it is not what this passage is talking about. This passage is talking about how God deals with his people as a community. This is very significant, especially as we are praying through Lent. As we pray together, the repentance of each of us becomes the repentance of all of us.  

And as we struggle with our repentance together in the Church, it sometimes happens that it seems like the Church, God’s people, are like a vineyard that has been abandoned. Of course, God has not abandoned his people—far from it—but for the sake of our repentance, so that we will desire to bear fruit, God sometimes allows his people, the Church, to be trampled on and devoured by unworthy and worldly people (both from within and from outside the Church) as though the protecting wall (or hedge) has been removed. Sometimes God allows what seems to be ruin, dry seasons, empty churches, and hard times during which nothing but prickly relationships and weedy encounters confront us in the very place we had thought to find hope and encouragement. God allows this, and even though it does not feel very loving, God allows this out of His Great love for us so that we will develop a longing for life, spiritual life, real life, life that bears godly fruit, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Until we begin to long for Life, until we begin to hunger and thirst after righteousness, what good are the blessings? What good is heavenly protection when we don’t even desire to produce any fruit worthy of heaven? We must ask to receive, but in order to ask, we must first desire, we must long for a Christ-like life.

And of course, longing is not enough, but longing is a start.  We must learn to long for the Life of God so that when God does send a little rain, a little Grace into our life, we will seize it. We will attend to ourselves and to the little Grace given us and let a little fruit of godliness be born in our life—a little kindness, a little patience, a little peace. This is the beginning. I can do nothing about “the Church at large,” although I must suffer and endure together with the whole Church whatever trials or ignominies or humiliations that God allows for our repentance. I cannot do anything about others, but I can repent myself. And here’s the mystery—the amazingly powerful mystery of repentance—my repentance becomes the repentance of the whole Church. Yes! Just as I suffer with whatever weaknesses the whole Church suffers from, the whole Church benefits and is revived by the repentance of only one. God was willing to spare Sodom and Gomorra for the sake of only ten righteous people. How much more will God have mercy on His Church, His beloved Bride, when just a handful of people repent. How much blessing will God pour out, how much blessing has and does God continue to pour out on all of us because of the humility and repentance of a handful of men and women hidden in the mountains and caves of the earth?  

The angels rejoice, Jesus tells us, over the repentance of one sinner. I make a difference. You make a difference.  I don’t have to set my mind on things too high for me, as Prophet David said, I need to still and quiet my own soul, like a weaned child at her mother’s breast. I cannot fix the world’s problems. I cannot fix the Churches problems. But I can repent myself. I can still and quiet my own soul. And who knows? Maybe God will see my desire to repent and send just a little more Grace to the whole Church. Maybe God will notice your longing for piety and pull a few of the weeds and thorns out of the way. Who knows? God is, after the vine dresser. I am only one vine in the whole vineyard.  I cannot do anything about the whole vineyard. But what I can do is long to bear fruit and await the rain. I can cry out to God in prayer for mercy, I can learn to control my mind and my body, and I can await with longing the coming of Grace. Then, like I say, who knows, maybe the whole vineyard, the whole Church will be blessed and experience again the gentle care and loving touch of the heavenly Master who only loves mankind and only desires to see us become all that He has created us to be.

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