14th August 2016- Hugh Perry
Isaiah 5, 1-7
In this passage from Isaiah the people of Jerusalem are provoked into accepting judgement on themselves. The friend has done everything possible to cultivate a vineyard and would expect it to produce grapes. At that point the people of Jerusalem are called to make a judgement between the friend and the vineyard.
Finally the friend is identified as God and the vineyard is the people of Judah. God expected justice but received bloodshed.
Fred Craddock says that Jesus is the crisis of the world and by that he does not mean an emergency but the moment of truth and decision about life.
As an image to help the understanding of that comment he suggests a gable of a house where two raindrops strike the gable and could run off either way If instead of a gable we think of a ridge in a mountain range the raindrops could indeed, end up oceans apart. To turn towards one person, goal or value means turning away from another.
According to the sayings in this reading God is acting through Jesus in a way that creates a crisis that creates difference even in families. Peace in the sense of status quo is disrupted. Historically this has proved to be true.
In verses 40-53 the image of baptism is used to refer to the cross and fire. Fire was an image used by John the Baptist to refer to judgement and purification.
‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’ (Luke 12:49).
Jesus then goes on to describe how even families will be divided by his call to a new way of being human. ‘The kingdom of God’ he called it.
This particular section of Luke’s Gospel divides congregations whenever it’s preached. Nice middle class, comfortable Christians don’t like it.
We like gentle Jesus meek and mild. We sing Jesus loves me’ and we equate love with always agreeing with each.
I am regularly encouraged to forget that the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand discriminates against homosexual people and those in loving relationships outside marriage. I am supposed to accept my colleague’s point of view even though I know they will not accept mine.
However the church wasn’t invented when Jesus suggested that the fire he brings could divide the very basic structure of the human community, the family, mum, dad and the kids. That certainly upsets us but if we think about the amount of income lawyers make from disputed wills, divorces and custody cases we have to admit the family division is not unknown in our culture.
Then there are families in other cultures with dad and several mums and their kids and we can certainly start to picture the possibility of division within the family.
Jacob and Esau is the classical biblical case of family division. In fact the whole Abraham saga is an archetypal example of family division and dysfunction moving from one generation to the next. There is plenty of work in the Bible for social workers and child and family psychologists and the fact that we need such professionals today proves that families are not always nice places to be. A child is killed every five weeks in New Zealand and most murders happen with families.
But however loving or dangerous the family is and however the family is structured the family unity that Jesus is attacking in this passage is the patriarchal family. The ethic of that institution often demands complete loyalty from its members but disregards the rest of humanity. That is an ethic that says that if an action benefits the family then that action is good regardless of who else it might hurt. We have seen examples of that in family violence crimes where no family member will give evidence against the perpetrator. That cone of silence gets even tighter if a family member commits a crime against a non family member.
In making the statements in today’s reading Jesus was recognising the reality that not everyone was going to agree with his vision of ‘the kingdom of God,’ a new way of being where our greatest loyalty is to the total family of all humanity.
Baden Powell got it right with the promise I made on my honour at the age of eleven.
To do my best,
to do my duty to God and the Queen,
to help other people at all times
and obey the Scout Law.
That wording has changed slightly over the last sixty years as we have become less jingoistic, the strings of the British Empire have frayed somewhat and we seek to live by rules rather than slavishly obey. Nevertheless that is still a promise that recognises a commitment to a wider community, a commitment to all humanity and an admission that God is the supreme parent of all humanity.
When I was a Scout there was even an interfaith clause in the Scout Law. The commitment that I made guided my growing towards the acceptance that we are all brothers and sisters in the total family of all humanity. A family where even if our neighbours beat us in trap shooting and women’s sevens we still must love them as ourselves.
In promoting his vision for humanity Jesus recognised the challenge of the patriarchal family in a strong long established religious tradition where new ideas are seen as wrong just because they are new.
In fact the Gospels give us examples of Jesus’ call dividing families. Jesus saw two brothers James and John in the boat with their father mending their nets and he called them. ‘Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.’ (Matthew 4:22)
That was not the sort of behaviour that would be expected in a patriarchal family in Jesus’ time and was a case of ‘son against father.’ (Luke 12: 53)
Those two men were born into a fishing household and the expectation would have been that they would remain with the household and be fishermen. However if they had remained loyal to that tradition, along with the other disciples, there would have been no Jesus movement and no church.
Jesus’ understanding of God came from his scriptural heritage but his reading and interpreting of it was challenging to the established Temple practise and therefore would be challenging to families loyal to Temple Judaism. So if a member of a conservative family wanted to join Jesus’ disciples that could well cause trouble.
I can just imagine a patriarch chastising a son. ‘You want to join that band of no hopers roaming around the countryside. Look at James and John, they rushed off and joined that Jesus fellow and left their poor old dad to run the business himself. Poor old Zebedee ended up having to sell the boat that had been in the family for generations. As for James and John they are little better than beggars now so what good did it do them’.
That sort of tension is not unheard of within families in our world, even in today. In his novel Brother Fish Bryce Courtenay tells the story of three people brought together by common hardship. Jack McKenzie is a harmonica player, soldier, dreamer and small-time professional fisherman from a tiny island is Bass Strait. Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan is a strong-willed woman hiding from an ambiguous past in Shanghai. Larger than life, Private Jimmy Oldcorn was once a street kid and leader of a New York gang.
Jack’s mother regards their family as not worth ‘a pinch of the proverbial’ and continually chastises him for spending so much time at the library where the Liberian, Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan is determined to teach him to read. When Jack’s father dies he has to go to sea to support the family but his education makes him restless and he ends up as a prisoner in the Korean War with Jimmy Oldcorn . On his return he falls in love with a doctor’s daughter in Melbourne. Her father offers him a considerable sum of money to break of the relationship but they defiantly marry.
The book ends with Jack and his wife along with Jimmy and Nicole running a multi-million dollar fishing and fish export business that raised the standard of living for the island’s population. They also provide employment and business opportunity for his family and his old comrades in arms. Needles to say the narrative has more twists and turns than a roller coaster ride. But that brief story outline highlights the divisions caused in families when children answer a call that is beyond the expectation of their parents. The story also suggests that extraordinary opportunities present themselves and lives and communities can change when such opportunities are grasped. The Power of One is the title of Bryce Courtenay’s first novel and that theme runs through many of his novels. The power of one is a theme that is easily identified with Jesus, the man who changed so much that his memory is still worshiped two thousand years later.
But Jesus’ ongoing influence depends on people grasping the message and answering the Spirit’s call, even when that message challenges the status quo.
Our passage looks at the division that the ‘Jesus Way’ can cause in families but of course Jesus also disrupts the church family as well. Five hundred years ago the European Church strongly controlled people’s lives. That power of the church was disrupted when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. That caused massive division which lead to further division but also created much needed reform on both sides of the divide.
We could see the church as Isaiah’s vineyard planted by those first disciples of Jesus. Along with others there were James and John who ‘left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him’. (Mark 1:20) Just as Zebedee might have expected his fishing business to carry on through James and John to generation after generation those first disciples probably saw whatever they set moving from generation to generation. After all they were fired by the Spirit sent down at Pentecost and very much saw themselves on a mission from God. But throughout history the church vineyard has grown its fair share of wild grapes. Not the vineyard that Jesus and the disciples planted but what humanity has grown the church into. However people and communities, including the church, always have a choice, a decision point, and Christ is in that moment of choice.
The church, like any other human community from families, to towns, cities and nations exist in a continual watershed, a ridge on a mountain range where the raindrops begin their journey and can end up oceans apart. A change in the breeze can send raindrops tumbling into the Tasman Sea or though the braided river of Canterbury to the Pacific Ocean.
Through the call of Christ we each have the chance to be the wind, the fiery wind of the Spirit or the gentle breeze of small decisions. Christ inspired decisions that move the flow of humanity to fruitfulness or disaster. We can encourage productive growth in the vineyard that Christ planted or be carried along in the wild disorder that the tempest of greed and self-centred disorder blows into our world.
What Jesus both warns us of, and challenges us to, is the reality that he is the decision point. Christ is the ridge on the mountain range that continually asks us to make decisions that may separate us from others. Christ’ decisions can be difficult and divisive but a decision for Christ can move humanity to a more just and caring way of being human.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp402,403.