Last week, on a lark, I scanned the airwaves, listening to memorable breakup songs. The list, the legion of artists ran the gamut from the The Four Seasons and The Platters through Marvin Gaye and Carly Simon through George Michael and Boyz II Men to Adele, Beyonce, Mariah Carey, and Eminem. What, in my estimation, makes their songs classic was, yes, they were chart-busting top 10 sellers, but more truly, their words have been used over many years by many who, stuck in the rut of long-lived relational, irresolvable impasses, sought to declare a parting of ways. Sometimes, at the zenith of frustration, folk aching to express something hard to say, by necessity, borrow from other sources.
So Jesus cribbed from Isaiah, who sang a joyous love-ballad to God’s people, metaphorically the vineyard, recounting God’s merciful favor, “clearing the ground of stones, planting choice vines, building a watchtower, hewing out a wine vat.” But, as the people bore not the fruit of the righteousness of justice, the closing words, the tune one of mournful resignation, announced a breakup of prophetic proportion: “the hedge will be removed, the wall broken down, and the vineyard being laid to waste”. Jesus, steeped in his tradition and assured his listeners would know the reference (why try to improve on perfection?), made Isaiah’s words the basis of his parable condemning the faithlessness of the leaders of the people.
Today, let us hear this song as directed to us, God’s present-day people. And let us listen especially to the cautionary lyric, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to those who produce the fruits of the kingdom” and understand that the “you” is us.
If this attempt to contemporize and apply this word, which surely, in our time, we must, is a fair interpretation, it raises a question: What do you and I set up in place of God that gets in the way of our producing fruits of the kingdom?
Although this is not language everyone does or can employ, nevertheless, I believe the question remains applicable for all. For here I define “God” as our highest value, whether a being or being itself (existence) or an idea, to whom or to which we render our faith, hope, and love.
And, at the heart of my question (What do we set up in God’s place?) rests this supposition: We, as human – complex creatures who constantly are in the process of being and becoming, who continually are learning, discerning our truths that we claim to know and that help us make sense of our lives, and who daily, among myriad, kaleidoscopic options, are called to decide what to think and plan, how to feel and act – always are pulled in different directions from the paths of our professions of belief.
To put this another way, I believe it impossible to be human without defining, with or without words, our “God”, our sovereign value, and then finding ourselves at times, acting in accord and at other times, in discord, or, at any time, both. And no matter how we define “God”, the word of judgment remains true: To live in opposition to our values is to lose the kingdom, that being whatever it is we hoped to gain. It could be a sense of our purpose or a spirit of our authenticity or an assurance of our integrity. In this light, Jesus’ parabolic love-song with its big bang of a breakup at the end calls us to a rigorous review our relationship with our “God” to determine the degree of our faithfulness.
Now, speaking always, only for myself, I follow the Jesus of the gospels who, in the living witness of his words and works, embodies unconditional love and justice. And I believe that Jesus summons me and by his Spirit strengthens me to embody love and justice in my living.
By love, I do not mean my feelings, my affections, but rather my active, benevolent willfulness and willingness to do the best for others as I know how and as others help me to see.
By justice, I follow the lead of Isaiah who contrasts the loving generosity of God who “clears the ground of stones, plants choice vines, builds a watchtower, hews out a wine vat” with the people’s selfishness that breeds inequality in the community.
By love and justice, I live to be as God, one who yearns to serve all people, loves all as I am loved unconditionally by God, seeks to be just toward all people, and respects the God-given dignity of every human being.
I am human. Thus, no better or worse than anyone else, I am subject and, at times, submissive to the vagaries of my selfish-interest, making love and justice impossible to do. All of which points to the inherent risk of naming my God, naming my values. I am obliged to uphold them. Even more, as I share them with you, I allow you to hold me accountable to uphold them. Still more, at times, given my selfishness, I admit that I cannot and, even more, confess that I will not try to do them, therefore, losing the “kingdom” of meaning, the “kingdom” of what matters, what is most important to me.
Without values, however, I am an aimless person, a shadowy soul, transparent in the worst way, for you can see through me for nothing of substance is there. So, listening to the love-song duet of Isaiah and Jesus, I claim afresh love and justice. This is my God or rather my God is love and justice.
Who or what is yours?