We Christians talk a lot about love. We love to quote John 3:16, “For God so loved the world.” We make t-shirts and bumper stickers of 1 John 4:8, “God is love.” We teach our children to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” and “Jesus loves the little children of the world.” The love of God, and of Christ Jesus, is the center and the foundation of our faith.
Isaiah 5:1-7 begins, “Let me sing for my loved one a love song for his vineyard.” It may seem strange to us for a love song to have a vineyard as its theme. But in ancient Israel, love songs used vineyards as scenes for romance, and vines and grapes as symbols of love and fruitfulness.
So, in the Song of Songs 7:11-12, the beloved calls to her lover :
Come, my love:
Let’s go out to the field
and rest all night among the flowering henna.
Let’s set out early for the vineyards.
We will see if the vines have budded
and the blossoms opened,
see if the pomegranates have bloomed.
There I’ll give my loving to you.
The Bible often describes Israel, God’s beloved, as a vine or a vineyard:
They will again live beneath my shadow,
they will flourish like a garden;
they will blossom like the vine,
their fragrance will be like the wine of Lebanon (Hosea 14:7).
When Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (John 15:5), he plays on this image of connection and belonging, of fruitfulness and love.
Still, the poem that follows in Isaiah 5 doesn’t sound much like a love song! The beloved declares that he planted his vineyard on a fertile hill, tilling the soil, lovingly tending the vines, protecting them with a hedge and a watchtower, doing everything necessary for it to bear sweet, succulent grapes for the finest wine. But when harvest time came, he found instead shriveled, sour, worthless, wild grapes (NRSV; the CEB has “rotten grapes”!).
What is to be done? The beloved says,
Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge,
so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls,
so it will be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a ruin;
it won’t be pruned or hoed,
and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it (Isa 5:5-6).
This is particularly ominous given what the prophet now says about the vineyard, and its Planter:
The vineyard of the LORD of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Isa 5:7).
Likewise, in Luke 12:49-53, Jesus seems neither loving, nor lovely:
I came to cast fire upon the earth. How I wish that it was already ablaze! I have a baptism I must experience. How I am distressed until it’s completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division. From now on, a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three. Father will square off against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
This doesn’t sound much like the Jesus of our childhood songs!
Friends, God is love, and Jesus is the ultimate demonstration of God’s love (see Romans 5:8). Our problem lies not with our understanding of God, but with what we think love means.
My favorite movie is a romantic fable called “Moonstruck,” written by John Patrick Shanley, starring Cher and Nicolas Cage. The key scene in this wonderful film comes when the baker Ronny Cammarari at last declares his love for spinster accountant Loretta Castorini (who is already engaged, albeit lovelessly, to his brother Johnny!).
Loretta, I love you. Not. . . not like they told you love is, and I didn’t know this either. But love don’t make things nice. It ruins everything, it breaks your heart, it makes things a mess!
I confess that, far more often than I care to admit, when I say “God is love,” what I really mean is “God is nice”—God is innocuous, God is inoffensive, God will never challenge me or threaten me. But that is not love! Ronnie Cammarari is right: “Love don’t make things nice”! Love ruins everything, because love means commitment. Love forces difficult choices—and so may well immerse us in conflict.
We sometimes speak as though God’s justice is separate from God’s love–indeed opposed to God’s love. We may even separate a “New Testament” god of love from an “Old Testament” god of wrath and judgement. But friends, we do not have two gods: we only have the One, whose love and justice are also one. God is a God of wrath because God is a God of love. God’s wrath is directed against cruelty and injustice because God loves justice. God’s wrath is directed against oppression because God loves the oppressed.
Christian writer Rob Bell puts this quite plainly:
When we hear people saying that they can’t believe in a God who gets angry—yes, they can. How should God react to a child being forced into prostitution? How should God feel about a country starving while warlords hoard the food supply? What kind of God wouldn’t get angry at a financial scheme that robs thousands of people of their life savings? (Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived [New York: HarperOne, 2011], 38).
Where would such a God have us stand today? It is not a hard question to answer. We need only look to where, and with whom, Jesus stood. Two chapters before the disturbing Gospel text we are addressing, Jesus sets forth the two greatest commandments (Luke 10:25-28):
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind [quoted from Deut 6:5], and love your neighbor as yourself [quoted from Lev 19:18].
Some interpreters have proposed that “Love your neighbor” is an in-house commandment: that in Leviticus, “your neighbor” means “your fellow Israelite;” in the early church, it means “your fellow Christian.” Presumably, then, for me, “your neighbor” means “someone like me.”
But Leviticus 19:33-34 demonstrates that this is far too narrow a reading. Here, love is commanded toward “immigrants” who “live in your land with you.” The Hebrew term rendered “immigrant” in the CEB is ger–that is, a person of foreign birth, living within the borders of Israel but without land or legal status (NRSV has “alien”). A special command is needed to insure justice for the ger, as it is for widows and orphans, often mentioned in the same contexts (for example, see Exod 22:21-24; Deut 10:18-19). Leviticus 19:33-34 commands love for the ger in the same language Lev 19:18 uses for the neighbor: “You must love them as yourself.” In fact this passage says, the ger “must be treated as if they were one of your citizens.”
We could perhaps say that these words of Scripture address the church, not the state; and that national policy needs to be mindful of the security of our borders. But for the church, and for all of us who would follow Christ, there is no passing this particular buck. If we want to be followers of Jesus, he has commanded us to love our neighbors—including immigrants and refugees—as we love ourselves.
In his love poem, Isaiah condemns his own people–God’s own people–for their violence and injustice, and declares that judgment is coming. So Jesus warns his own generation that they should not be surprised by God’s judgment (Luke 12:54-56).
In Palestine, then as now, the weather depends on which way the wind is blowing. West winds off the Mediterranean bring cool, moist air, and rain. But out of the desert to the southeast come hot, dry winds–which sometimes bring the dreaded dust storms called Khamsin, which desiccate and destroy.
Jesus says, “You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?” How can you say that you do not know what God wants or expects of us? How can you be surprised at the word that judgment is coming?
Friends, God IS love. But Ronnie Cammareri was right: “Love don’t make things nice.” To live in God’s love is to love what, and who, and how God loves: to care passionately for those for whom God cares, passionately. That may well mean confrontation and conflict, in our communities, in our churches–even, as Jesus sadly states, in our own homes. Jesus came to set fire on the earth–the fire of God’s love and justice! May that flame catch in our land, and in our hearts. May God’s love fill us with the passion for justice of our Lord Jesus Christ.
AFTERWORD: Thanks to the people of Clinton PCUSA, who invited me to worship with them Sunday and share this message.