Texts: Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19; Hebrews 11.29-12.2; Luke 12.49-56
Today's reading from the prophet Isaiah presents us with the image of God's people as a vineyard of the Lord's planting. The site of the vineyard is chosen very carefully, on the side of a hill where the grapes will get maximum sunlight. The soil is carefully turned over and all of the rocks removed. A watchtower is placed in the midst of the vineyard to ward off any who might be tempted to steal the grapes. A large wine vat is constructed, in expectation of a bumper crop of choice fruit. And the vines are tended carefully and lovingly. But the Lord is disappointed. The grapes produced are not up to scratch; they are like wild grapes, the kind which grow without discipline and are entirely unsuitable for the making of fine wine. Despite all God's tender and careful efforts, God's people were unable to become what God had hoped for.
And what were God's hopes, precisely? What fruit did God look for in these chosen people? The answer is plainly and unambiguously stated by the prophet in verse 7 of chapter 5: 'the Lord expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry of distress'. What God expects from Israel may be summed up in these two words: justice and righteousness. And this is what God expects and hopes for in us as well. We are not exempt by virtue of our distance from the events of Israel's destruction, in the context of which this sermon was first preached. No, God's hope and dream for his people remains the same: that we may be a holy nation, characterized by the qualities of justice and righteousness. In Hebrew, of course, these terms are equivalent. I have heard some preachers say that 'righteousness' refers to personal morality - things like what we do with our sexuality - while 'justice' refers to the public morality of political life. But that is to misunderstand the Hebrew mind entirely. For the Hebrew people there was no such thing as private, personal, morality. Everything a person did or thought, no matter how private, was understood to have its public and political ramifications. I think the Hebrew analysis of ethical life is still the best one. Why? Because it recognises, as modernist or neo-liberal analyses do not, that every life on this planet is connected to every other life in an intricate web of connection. So that even the smallest of actions in one part of the web has significant effects and consequences in other parts. Let me give you a relevant modern example to illustrate.
A child's sneakers wear out, and so her father goes into a local shoe shop to buy some new ones. He scouts around for some shoes which will provide both value for money and a degree of quality. Eventually he decides to buy a pair of Nike shoes. They are made of strong leather, but their price is comparable to that of less satisfactory brands. Now, modern neo-liberal ethics would say that this man has made a private choice based upon private values, these being a desire for quality balanced against the need to preserve the family budget. And, according to neo-liberal ethics, that is that. But a Hebrew ethicist, like the prophet Isaiah would disagree. He would point out that there is a bigger world to be taken into account when one purchases shoes.
You see, these Nike shoes were produced by a 16 year old girl in a factory in Fiji. For each pair of shoes she produces, she is paid the equivalent of 50c Australian. She is the only person in her family who has a job, because the traditional family land has been taken over by a multinational sugar company. Without its land, the family can no longer produce its own food, and there are not enough factory jobs to go around. So this young girl must work very long hours hunched over a sewing machine in order to earn enough money to keep the wolf from her family's door. As a result, she is suffering spinal problems. When she is unable to work, she will not be compensated for injuries sustained on the job. She will be sacked. Consider this: the pair of shoes she produces is sold in Australia for, say, $100. She is paid 50c. Where does the rest of the money go? The shoes only cost $5 to make, and another $5 to sell on the Australian market. The rest goes to Nike and their retailers in profits. The shoes are being made by a child in Fiji because it is cheaper to run a sweat-shop of slaves in Fiji than it is to produce the shoes in an Australian factory under Australian law.
A Hebrew analysis would be inclined to conclude that buying shoes is far from simple, if one is prepared to consider the ethical consequences of that action. Indeed, it may well advise that buying such shoes is wrong, on the grounds that it perpetuates an unjust and systematic abuse of our responsibility for other people. Buying these shoes supports the unscrupulous business of a company which profits from a form of child slavery. You may be interested to know, by the way, that the prominent international Aid agency, Oxfam, is currently campaigning against Nike on precisely these grounds. And so is a Uniting Church agency known as Fair Wear. I can tell you more about all that later, if you wish.
When Isaiah condemns the leaders of Israel for their lack of social responsibility, this is precisely the kind of thing he has in mind. Throughout the book which bears their name, the Isaianic prophets continually point out that Israel has ignored its covenantal obligations towards all who are poor in the land, all whose lands and livelihoods have been whittled away by unscrupulous people who happen to be more powerful and more greedy. The prophets condemn all who benefit or profit from such exploitation, and promise that God will judge them for their sins.
Now these prophets were not thanked for their message. They were not swathed in garlands and announced to the halls of power as Israel's saviours. No, many of them were persecuted, tortured or even killed for their troubles. They were the kinds of saints we hear about in the later part of our reading from Hebrews. They were saints who suffered terribly for being faithful to their vision. They imagined a world in which all could share equally in the bounty of the land, a world in which people shared with one another without concern for the health of their private profit margins, a world where people gave up fighting with one another and took to more productive tasks like tilling the land and promoting peace. Why did the prophets hang on to these visions, even when they were laughed at or persecuted? Why did they persevere in their preaching, even when the whole world thought they were mad? Because they had faith. They believed that it was God who longed for this world, and they were prepared to stake their lives on it, no matter what the consequences.
They are a great challenge to us, these prophets and saints and martyrs. When I reflect on my own life, I become aware of how soppy and sentimental my privatized kind of Christianity actually is. I mean, what effect does God's vision of a new world have on the way you live your life? How does the faith effect the decisions you make about buying food or clothes or shoes? How does it effect the way you make your career choices, or how you will spend your time? How will it effect the way you vote in the coming elections? Do you ever see a conflict between the common wisdom and your faith? Remember that Jesus talked about bringing not peace but a sword, that families will be turned against each other. Here he was talking about the way in which the vision of justice disrupts the false peace of the everyday, and calls into question the common consensus about what's important in life. The gospel of peace and justice for all is a dangerous gospel. It threatens the powerful. It threatens the rich. It threatens the common wisdom. And when people feel threatened, they look for someone to sacrifice. One of those sacrificed was Jesus. He threatened the powerful with his vision of a kingdom for the poor. And he paid the price.
Allow me to conclude with this. The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to cast off the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race before us. We need to persevere because the race is long and hard. It is relatively easy to be a pewsitter in church. It is easy to go along with the crowd. Anyone can do these things. But it's very difficult to be a genuine follower of Jesus. I, for one, find the way very difficult indeed. But I take the advice of the Hebrew epistle. I keep my eyes on Jesus, who, enraptured by the power of his vision, endured the cross and its shame and finally attained to the fulfilment of his vision through resurrection from the dead. He is the one who articulates the vision of justice for me. And he's the one I look to when things get tough. If Jesus could stick to his principles, so can I. I earnestly pray that you can too - for the sake of God, and for his vision of a world reborn to justice . . . and to peace.
This homily was first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in August 1998.
This homily was first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in August 1998.