“I’m not angry with you. I’m just disappointed.” Perhaps no worse verdict has been rendered. Disappointment carries a tone of expectation, particularly unmet expectation. To bear another’s disappointment is an enormous weight. It is the weight of becoming small in their eyes.
The problem with expectations, however, is that they are often based in our own desires for someone or in some situation rather than reality. They are often unfair and end in disappointment. It can be a small idolatry to impose our expectations on others. A friend of mine often speaks of “managing expectations,” of learning to root desires in realistic expectations.
Here, Isaiah writes of something worse than unfair expectations. Here, Isaiah sings of his Beloved—YHWH—and his Beloved’s vineyard. By beginning with a declaration of his love for the Lord, Isaiah also inevitably pits himself against the vine in this parable. A vineyard is planted in the belief that the plants will do what they are meant to—grow and produce their fruit. The planter in this prophetic parable works as only a farmer can. He digs down, clears stones, and plants with care. He builds a watchtower and digs a winepress.
What results is a dramatic turn from the planter’s expectation. The vines do not yield fruit. Instead they produce what the NRSV translates as “wild grapes.” The Hebrew, however, describes worthless, stinking grapes. This is not merely a stubborn crop; this is not an overgrown rosebush. These vines have distorted their very nature. They have spurned the creative potential placed within them, instead opting for an anti-creation. By doing so, they have lost any possible value. The imagery of smell is an important motif in Israel’s worship. The pleasing odors of burnt sacrifices are described as rising to the nostrils of YHWH. The stench is an inversion of this image.
This is more than disappointment born of unfair expectations. This is the heartbreak born out of watching the ones you love refuse their own potential. It is the agony of love’s hopeful expectancy being trampled. It is a stark contrast to the prophet’s playful words of love-songs for a beloved. This is a song of heartbreak.
Here is a lament of the destructive force of sin. For in verse 7, the Lord reveals the turn of the parable. It is the very people called upon to render a judgement in verses 3-4. This worthless yield of grapes is the people of Israel and the city of Judah. It is as if Isaiah suddenly whips around and points at the crowds, declaring, “You have become useless by your lack of faithfulness. The stench of your sin rises before the Lord.”
Perhaps what is even more striking from this passage is the list of sins. In line with the other voices of the prophetic literature of Israel, Isaiah’s indictment cries out against injustice and violence. The subsequent verses expound on this, detailing Israel’s failure to maintain Levitical laws of land ownership, their drunkenness, and their delight at iniquity. God’s crushed expectations for the people are justice and righteousness. These are the fruit that they were created to bear.
Throughout Scripture, a persistent cry of the Lord to the people of God is to practice justice. Amos 5, Micah 6, Leviticus 19, Sabbatical laws, and Matthew 25 are just a few powerful examples. Faithfulness to God is the practice of justice born out of love for the Lord.
This is not merely idolatry, nor is this about worship of other gods. This is God’s people making a mockery of God’s redemptive calling to them. They are refusing their purpose to bless those around them by walking in the ways of YHWH. This is Christians decrying members of the KKK claiming to be followers of Christ, yet they do nothing to address systemic racial injustice, gender inequality, or poverty in their communities. This is a church which is more interested in preaching against the sins of their neighbors yet fail to provide for the needy in their community.
This is the very vines that God has cared for and cultivated offering up stinking grapes rather than bearing good fruit. As Christ preaches in the Gospel of Matthew: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:15-20).
The fruit that we, the people of God are called to is justice and righteousness. A mark and the food of holiness is participation in the means of grace, among which are service to the poor and participation in the Church. We learn justice and righteousness from the Church, from the people of God. Sometimes, we learn in the ways of the prophets, which often looks like crying out for these things, only to see wild grapes. And so, as the people of God, we must become acquainted with confession of our sins and seek God’s grace, leaning into the pruning of God’s hands. It also means that we respond to the Lord’s grace with thankfulness and responsibility. It means that we must learn to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit as we are shaped to bear good fruit.