It’s been a while since I’ve written anything I felt like posting here, but now is the time! 🙂 As odd as it is for a seminary graduate to be in this situation, today was actually the first time I’ve ever preached in front of a congregation (as opposed to in front of fellow seminarians). I was a little nervous, but things ended up going really well. So, if you’re interested, you can get a taste of my most recent theological reflections. You don’t quite get the full effect just reading it, especially outside the context of the rest of the service–the hymns and prayers tied in really nicely–but I hope you’ll find this as edifying to read as I found it to write. The texts I preached on were Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80, and Luke 12:49-56.
I don’t know about you, but when I first read the Gospel lesson for today, I didn’t know what to make of it. The passage picks up shortly after the one we read last week about being prepared for the thief or the master to return. Jesus is still journeying toward Jerusalem, where he will eventually be killed, and is still teaching his disciples. But the lesson we hear in this teaching is disconcerting. Here we have Jesus—the Son of God—the Prince of Peace—the same Jesus who is famous for tenderly caring for the least, the last and the lost—and he’s telling his disciples about how he wants the earth to burn, and how he came not to bring peace but rather division. That he wants to divide parents against their children and children against their parents. What is this?? It makes Jesus sound more like a comic book super-villain than the Savior of the world. But Jesus isn’t like that, right!?! So why would he say such things?
I think a good place to start in trying to answer that question is to get some background. After all, Jesus did not exist in a vacuum with no cultural context. He lived in a specific time, in a specific place, and as a member of a specific group of people. As a first-century Palestinian Jew, Jesus grew up immersed in the traditions and customs of the Jewish people. Studying Scripture, which in Jesus’ time meant the Old Testament, made up a huge portion of his life. So all of his teachings are deeply rooted in the traditions and spirituality of the Old Testament.
As it so happens, we also read a couple of Old Testament passages today. These specific passages may or may not have been in Jesus’ mind at this particular moment, when he spoke of bringing fire to the earth, but they do shed light on his teaching. As a rabbi, a Bible scholar of his day, he would certainly have been familiar with them, and they would have helped to form the understandings out of which teachings, such as this one, arose.
The first reading today, from Isaiah, is a strange one. It starts off idyllic and beautiful—it is the love song a man sings to his cherished vineyard. He plants the vineyard on a fertile hillside, toiling over the soil to remove the rocks. He plants good seeds, builds walls and a watchtower to protect the vineyard from thieves or animals, and waits for the vines to grow fruit. But when the fruit comes, it’s no good! Despite his diligent effort, the man finds his beloved vines producing rotten fruit! Now furious, the man no longer sings of his love. Instead, he promises to destroy the vineyard: to tear down its walls, stop pruning and hoeing it, and let it dry up. It is only at this point that the author reveals who this vineyard owner is. The owner is God, and the vineyard is God’s people. God brings destruction upon the people for corrupting God’s good plan, yielding violence instead of justice and suffering instead of righteousness. The Hebrew text for verse 7 emphasizes just how much the people’s sin is a perversion of what should have been good. Where God expects justice (in Hebrew, mishpat), God finds bloodshed (in Hebrew, mispah). Where God expects righteousness (tsedakah), there is instead a cry of distress (tse’akah). Just as switching one or two letters changes these words from signifying something good to meaning something terrible, the people have been corrupted such that the good seed and good soil from which they came grows into fruit that is utterly rotten.
And this is why Jesus said all those things about bringing fire to the earth and causing division. The people in Jesus’ day bore just as much rotten fruit as did the Israelites in Isaiah’s time. Likewise, we ourselves bear plenty of rotten fruit. God created human beings for justice and righteousness. Like a patient gardener, God gives us the very best soil and the very best seeds. Out of love for us, God tills the ground, waters the seeds, and protects them from harm. God gives us the time, the room, and the guidance for justice and righteousness to flourish. And yet, somehow, the rottenness seeps in. Instead of growing up to do justice and to love righteousness, we continue to fall short. The world is not just if children die of hunger each day while others eat until they are full and throw away the scraps. This is rotten fruit. The world is not just if people are beaten and killed for standing up for their beliefs. This is rotten fruit. The world is not just if those who are bullied, abused, oppressed, and tortured do not receive protection and care. This is rotten fruit! The vineyard of God should be a place where all are cared for, all have food and water, and all have a safe place to live. When this good fruit of justice and righteousness is supplanted by the rotten fruit we can plainly see littered across our world, it’s no wonder that God gets angry.
And it’s not like poverty, world hunger, war, and domestic violence are the only injustices that plague our world. As hard as we may try to live righteously, each one of us makes mistakes. We fall victim to the temptations of society: selfishness, greed, jealousy, vengeance, gossip, and countless others. We may not be stealing food from the hungry, but what if our penny-pinching buying practices unintentionally rob someone else of their livelihood? We may not be physically abusing anyone, but what if our silence allows abuses to continue that would otherwise be prevented? We don’t mean to hurt anyone, but what if our offers of gifts or hospitality to some make others feel rejected and excluded? The world is made up of broken systems, in which the good fruit can’t stop the rot from spreading. We have all made our fair share of bad decisions—sins that we knew we shouldn’t do but couldn’t resist doing anyway. Those are rotten fruit, to be sure. But they are not the only rotten things corrupting God’s vineyard. So much of the injustice in the world is caused not by people sinning knowingly, but by people who don’t understand the full consequences of their actions—usually because the institutions and systems in which they are operating are themselves so broken. As my seminary ethics professor likes to say, the world is full of people “doing good things badly.” Rottenness abounds, tainting the good in every fruit it touches, until the entire yield is rotted through.
And what is a good gardener to do with such a mess? Once a piece of fruit goes bad, there’s no going back. No one wants to eat a soggy, moldy grape. God, the vineyard owner, knows this. The rotten fruit has to go. Violence and bloodshed are not okay. Preventable suffering must be stopped. God will not tolerate the rotten fruit of injustice when the vines were meant to bear the good fruit of righteousness. The reason Jesus calls for fire to descend upon the earth is the same reason the vineyard owner knocks down the vineyard’s walls and uproots its vines. The evil, rotten fruit of injustice must be destroyed.
But…because there’s always a “but”… this is not the whole story. God’s commitment to mercy is just as strong as God’s commitment to justice. Our God is both just and forgiving. And God, the creator of the universe, is so powerful that God’s judgment creates good out of evil. Instead of returning evil for evil, God turns evil into good. This is what it means to justify: “to make just.” In this way, justice and forgiveness can walk hand in hand, for God’s justice is restorative, not punitive. So when God uproots the walls of the vineyard, it is not simply a lashing out in anger. It is God taking action against the devastation that the rotten fruit has caused, and making room for new fruit to grow in its place.
In the Psalm for today, get a hint of this. We see the Israelites pleading for God to restore them. Again using the analogy of a vineyard, they talk about how their branches—once so strong and blessed—are now defiled as wild boars and insects trample them and eat their fruit. The once-strong nation of Israel has been invaded. The people suffer, weeping so much that they eat “bread made of tears” and are given “tears to drink.” They cry out to God, saying, “Why have you torn down the walls and allowed us to be plundered? You tilled the ground and planted us to be so great… what happened?” But, in their hearts, they know. They know that they have sinned. In the glory of the success that God had given them, they grew arrogant. They turned away from their God—their loving gardener. They did things they knew to be wrong. They bore the rotten fruit of injustice rather than the good fruit of righteousness. And, as they sing this psalm, they know that God’s punishment is just.
But, they know something else, too. They know that justice is not God’s only concern—that God’s true nature is to forgive. So despite how abandoned they feel, despite their knowledge of their shortcomings, despite how hopeless their situation seems… they call out to God anyway: “Restore us, O God! Let your face shine, that we may be saved.” In the midst of their suffering, this repentant people understands that God forgives. God restores. God justifies. As rotten as their fruit has become, God will not abandon this vine forever.
How does justification work, though? Well, it’s not easy. Transforming bad fruit into good fruit requires some big changes. When the system itself is unjust, surface changes alone won’t make the system just. When the status quo is rotten fruit, then the status quo must be disrupted. And what is good at disrupting? Fire.
Which brings us back to the Luke passage. Jesus doesn’t want to cast fire upon the earth to destroy the earth; the fire that Jesus is talking about is a purifying fire—a justifying fire. The fire of the Holy Spirit. Only when the rot-infected vines are burned away can new vines grow which will yield healthy, good fruit. Yes, the fire brings division and upheaval, but this is only temporary, so that the end result is peace. There can be no true peace when justice is missing. So while it’s true that Jesus “came to bring division,” as he said, it is not true that he did not also come to bring peace. He came to bring the kind of peace meant by the Hebrew word, shalom. Shalom is not simply the absence of violence. It is the presence of wholeness. Relationships are restored, bellies are full, and children may rest safely and quietly in their own beds. This is the kind of world Jesus came to bring… Unfortunately, the only way to get there requires a serious disruption of the rottenness in the world today. We need that justifying fire. Desperately.
We receive this justifying fire in our baptism, when the Holy Spirit is poured out like fire and purifies our hearts. This purification is a promise—a first-fruit—of the continuing presence of God’s restorative, justifying presence in us throughout our lives. It’s not that baptized Christians no longer sin; it’s that baptized Christians have been sealed with God’s promise to continue to justify them—over and over again—in the Holy Spirit, so that the fruit that they bear becomes less and less rotten, and more and more good. This is why Jesus wants the fire to come: because it’s the fire of baptism. It’s the hope for new life out of the ashes. Through the purifying fire and life-giving water of baptism, the old rotten vines are burned away so that the seeds of goodness can grow and be nourished.
So instead of fearing the fire of justification, we can embrace it. We can open our hearts to the continuing transformation of the Holy Spirit so that fruit of righteousness and justice can grow in the place of the rotten fruit in our lives. God loves us deeply, like the gardener loved his vineyard—so much that he poured his heart out tending to it and giving it all he could. We are sinners, yes. We have borne rotten fruit. But our forgiving God not only still loves us, but goes so far as to transform that fruit to make it good. In your baptism, God claimed you as God’s forever, which means that the Spirit of God will never stop transforming your life to be more just and bear more good fruit.
And there’s more! Not only does the Holy Spirit’s justifying fire work in our own hearts and lives; it works in the wider world as well. The Spirit convicts the rotten places in our institutions and systems, declaring their injustices to be evil, and breathing transformation so that good fruit may grow. And as children of God, claimed at baptism, we too are empowered by the Holy Spirit to participate in God’s justifying work beyond our own homes and backyards. Through prayer, through generosity, through advocacy, and through the willingness to step out of our comfort zones, we can take part in what God is doing to restore goodness to a world where rotten fruit is all too common. Rot may be contagious, but so is the Holy Spirit. As we open ourselves to receive the Spirit and allow God’s transformation in our own lives, the Spirit’s transformative power grows more and more. It extends beyond us, beyond our neighborhoods, and out into the rest of the world. The vineyard that produces fruits of justice and righteousness is not just a story; it is a promise. The shalom of the kingdom of God is on its way. Come, Holy Spirit, come!