Songs in a Season of Discontent

Isaiah 5:1-7 – Luke 12: 49-56

Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard is a poetic warning to Jerusalem and Judah concerning the terrible sickness that belied the appearance of prosperity and the false illusion of national security. Two characteristics defined the nature of the sickness. Firstly, the erosion of justice. Secondly, the willingness of the ordinary people to be distracted from the inner truth of the political sickness eating away from within Judah’s society, by a false narrative of prosperity .

It seemed that Mid 7th-century Judah enjoyed many parallels with contemporary America. As now, so then the rich grew richer at the expense of the ordinary citizenry, supported by an early form of GDP, a false and misleading measures of economic crude activity. As now, so then a false narrative functioned to distract attention away from the reality that ordinary families – the core social units of society – were languishing instead of flourishing in the face of a supposed booming economy.

Today, ordinary Americans are angry. Yet so many of us are distracted from the causes of our anger. We should connect our anger with the erosion of the rule of law – with the law interpreted one way for the privileged rich, and the corporations, and another for workers; the law interpreted one way for middle-class white Americans, and quite another for African Americans and Hispanics – with poverty preventing equal access and uniform application of the law.

We should connect our anger to the oppressions of a global economic system of multinational conglomerates who play fast and loose with national and community interests. We should demand better regulation and protection of privacy from the manipulations of social media platforms, which exploit our data for political gain and economic profit without out recompense. We should be more consciously angry that our government cares so little for our protection as individuals and as citizens from the exploitation by the misuse of power.

In the last lines of the song God abandons the subtlety of metaphor to sing plainly. God expected his people to produce a rich harvest of social justice and righteousness – a righteousness defined not by self-righteousness but by mutual obligation. Righteousness comes about only through doing right by someone else.

The Song of the Vineyard is a timeless love song of God’s lament against all our contemporary isms of oppression. It’s a song of bitter contrasts. It tells of God’s considerable investment of hope for a fruitful harvest of social justice and equity. It tells of God’s disappointment and hopes dashed time and again as human societies prefer to privilege the dynamics of inequality. The metaphor is the hope for a fruitful harvest of sweet grapes, contrasted with the bitterness of wild fruit that rots on the vine. God’s investment of love – cultivating and protecting his vineyard – is frustrated by human neglect.

Luke’s momentous 12th chapter contains the heart of Jesus teaching on social and economic justice. But it ends with a series of verses in which Jesus’ words sit very uncomfortably, with us. 

There is no comfort in Jesus’s words at the end of Luke 12. In a passage in which the overriding message is do not be afraid, Jesus suddenly confronts those who will say peace, peace, when there is no peace, and there, and castigates those who say there, it won’t be as bad as we fear! Maybe there were some just off stage whispering false words of security – another false narrative designed to distract. Jesus rounds on them with a harsh message. It’s not only going to be as bad as you fear – it’s going to be worse.

In a metaphor that strikes at the family as the core building block of society Jesus predicts – where there is five there will be three against two and two against three. In the heart of the family’s protection – wife will rise against husband, husband against wife; child against parent, and parent against child; parent and children against grandparents and grandparents against children and grandchildren. No, these are not words of comfort. Only words that promise the baptism of fire.

We are now harvesting the rotten and bitter fruits of 30 years of distorted and false narratives, of alternative facts – scattered for sectarian political gain producing a bitter harvest of cultural conflict. A large swathe of the electorate has been distracted by distorted political messaging on abortion, guns, immigration and unfettered rights and freedoms without mutual obligations.

We seem oblivious to the roads, bridges, railways, and levies crumbling around us. So distracted are we by the bread and circus of single-issue reality TV politics we are easily distracted for the election cycle from the way we are adversely affected by social justice inequalities of eligibility for decent healthcare for our families, pre-K child care for working families, affordable college and tertiary education for our kids, protections in the workplace, and of course the most pressing issue of all, climate change and its adverse effects for the poorest sections of American society.

This situation is not going to change any time soon but change it must. Jesus’ warnings are timely reminders that there are always consequences not of God’s, but our choosing.

Jesus complains that we know how to predict tomorrow’s weather, yet we are blind to the signs of the times indicating longer-term direction of events. Things are not going to get much better over the short term (short term from God’s perspective not ours), for we have a lot of bitter harvest to consume first. But get better the times eventually will.  Jesus’ over-riding message that despite the present difficulties of our own disobedience, ultimately, we should not fear for it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

In the meantime, what are we do in this season of discontent – over which we have so little control?

  1. Politically, we must wake up to the distraction of single-issue politics, luring those on the right to vote against their larger self-interests, and those on the left to not bother voting at all.
  2. Spiritually, we must be more faithful in the practice of our Christian faith– attending in a disciplined way to the practice of our faith as a matter for every day and in every moment of every day.

As a spiritual leader I have little impact on the political trajectory, other than to exercise my democratic rights. But I can encourage us to go deeper spiritually. As we move towards the beginning of a new church program year, I have a number of ideas about how we can move forward together. A warning however: run for the hills now or stay tuned.

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