Updated: Jan 31
We went on a bus tour of Italy, back in 2008. While in Venice, we learned that the first artesian wells were designed there. Their incorporating sand and limestone with groundwater created pressurized water, which was continuously available, as a fountain, with water that was also purified by the sand and limestone.
In the rest of Europe, where such water purification technology hadn’t been been gained yet, the water source was mostly on the surface, like streams and ponds. Because those sources also were the places where people bathed their bodies and clothes, as well as where they deposited their sewage, the water was polluted and undrinkable, especially the further downstream one lived.
One of the solutions for having bad drinking water was to make wines. Distillation was a way to remove any impurities that fell in the rain, absorbed by grapevines. That is why so many wines come from regions of France, Italy, Spain and Germany.
On that bus tour, while driving through the Apennines Mountains of northern Italy, we were taken to a winery. The hillsides were covered with domesticated grapes, in all directions, for as far as the eye could see. It was very scenic to look at that vista. The villa that was the mansion for the family that owned the vineyard was available for weddings, and they even had a chapel for wedding ceremonies, and a local priest ready to accommodate.
Inside the winery, we saw the process for making wine. The places for the vats, where the wine aged, was kept very cool. While we were in Italy, it was suffering through a record-breaking heat wave. The place where the wine aged was a place to be physically renewed … a welcome refuge from the heat. From the aging vats, the winery tour guide led us to the store, where they provided a wine tasting and made bottles of that vineyard’s wine available for sale. As the bus driver was about to pull off and leave, we had to shout for him to wait, as one of our party had gone into the rows of grapevines to take a picture.
The rows and rows of grapevines, up close, was not where the tour had taken us; but the pure vastness of the vineyard was attractive. The dry, almost gray ground, the support posts, the thick, bark-covered vines running up the posts and green leaves flowing with tendrils along wires connecting the posts. Row after row of the same … like a pattern. It made me wonder how many people it would take to harvest all the grapes that were grown there each year.
When I read the Isaiah passage, and Psalm 80, my mind went to that visit to an Italian vineyard. My thoughts also went to Sewanee, up on the mountain while at seminary, because there is also a winery in Monteagle, TN. It is on a much smaller scale, and we never took a tour there; but I could see all the maintenance that went into producing good, drinkable wine.
Isaiah stated the facts of a good winery: It was on a fertile hill. It was dug and cleared of stones. In the holes were planted choice vines. There was a watchtower in the middle, so all the surroundings could be seen. A wine vat was constructed for aging the fruit’s juice. Isaiah then told of a vineyard not kept properly. It yielded “wild grapes.” Wild grapes are to be understood as coming from plants that have tendrils and produce something that looks like grapes, but are not. They usually grow high in trees, not being easily accessible. While having a purple color – the sign of ripeness in a good grape – they are very sour. Some wild grapes are even poisonous. Even though there are people who know how to tell the differences and how they can turn wild grapes into a variety of wine, we must understand the focus put a yield of wild grapes as being a failure. For all the work put into creating a vineyard of choice vines, to yield wild grapes means continued work was not done.
The metaphor is how God’s children are the grapes of choice vines. God planted His vineyard in Israel.
David wrote the lyrics that told of that vineyard: You have brought a vine out of Egypt You have prepared the ground for it It took root and filled the land The mountains were covered by its shadow You stretched out its tendrils to the Sea And its branches to the river David also said: O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine, preserve what your right hand has planted.
This preservation comes by tending the vines. Keeping them free of wild and domesticated animals, free from briers and thorns, and free of pretender vines that would turn choice vines into dead branches, turning the yield into wild grapes.
In the reading from the Book of Hebrews, it is easy to see that “Faith” is how one tends to God’s vineyard. Faith allowed the Red Sea to part so the choice vine could cross from Egypt to the Promised Land. The walls of Jericho can be seen as the cultivation of the land for a proper vineyard and winery, and that clearance came by Faith.
Just as the vineyards of Italy were the product of generations of people in that area of the Italian mountains, continuously tending to the vines, through good years and bad years, we read how the vineyard of Israel was tended by the judges, prophets, and kings, “through Faith.”
All of the stories of the Old Testament are examples of how those times of acts, as Faith demonstrated through earthly miracles, while commendable they only yielded temporary results. The dead branches must be cut away and thrown into a fire, just as we must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.”
Until we reach the promised reward of heaven, life is a race of endurance. We endure through acts of Faith. The promised reward is being made perfect, and Jesus is “the pioneer and perfecter of our Faith,” and how we get strength to maintain the vineyard, year after year, through years of good seasons and poor seasons.
This perfection brought on by Jesus is why he says, according to Luke, “I came to bring fire to the earth.”
David wrote in Psalm 80, “They burn it with fire like rubbish.”
Jesus said, “How I wish (that fire) were already kindled.” He saw all the dead branches yielding wild grapes as calling themselves choice vines.
Jesus asked, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” He then answered, “No.” Instead, he said he came to bring “division.” “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.”
Think about what Jesus is saying, when the vineyard metaphor is maintained.
The Temple of Jerusalem was the watchtower in the midst of Israel, the vineyard planted by God, but the people left it up to God to tend to the vines. Israel had been divided by those who wanted to take back the land that had been cleared and cultivated. It was divided by the wild boars, and the wild ox and wild sheep. The good grapes were mixed with sour grapes – wild grapes. Just as Gideon, Barak, Sampson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and other prophets had been sent to clear away the dead branches and burn them in a fire, Jesus had come to do the same thing.
The division is then said to be within the family. The family is the Church. The family is the owner of a vineyard of God.
Jesus would send out disciples to divide the family. They would ask, “Who believes Jesus is the Messiah? Who does not believe? Who has Faith enough to act and clear the dead branches so the good grapes will grow, the choice vine will continue to spread?”
Some Jewish synagogues became Christian churches, while some remained Jewish synagogues. Christian churches have since divided, as well. We are of the Episcopalian vineyard, but there are vineyards surrounding the hills of many different castles, where the family names are: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Assembly of God, Church of the Latter Day Saints, Greek Orthodox, etc., etc. Christian vines are cultivated, rows upon rows, over the hills of the world.
Each of those houses is further divided as a subset of a sect.
Imagine when a child of one Faith marries another child of a different Faith. Do the two Faiths unite and prune the dead branches together, attempting to return the vineyard to one owner – producing nothing but good grapes? Or, do they become one against the other, arguing over what kind of grape is the one God prefers? Isn’t that an act that tries to destroy the other’s vineyard? Is that not how “wild grapes” spread?
This is nothing new. Ever since God took choice vine from Egypt, it has been an exercise of endurance, just to keep the yield good. As often as the wind blows, seeds of all kinds will take root, including weeds and bad seeds, those of vines yielding wild grapes. Faith tends to the vineyard so that at any given time – the present time – the grape is good. Collectively, we act continuously from Faith, always toiling against a never-ending challenge, but the ultimate reward is not the vineyard. It is the produce the vineyard yields.
When Jesus called out the hypocrites, he was referring to the Pharisees, those who tended to the vineyard of Israel, which was then under Roman ownership. Jesus said, in essence, “You know the signs of a good harvest – the rain and the heat – from which you can gauge how profitable the wine will be.” Jesus then asked them, in essence, “If you know what conditions make for valuable wine, then how can you not see the good gardener, who comes to maintain the vineyard for the production of the best grapes possible, when he stands before you?”
Working a vineyard is a full-time job. The constant gardener has to be the owner. While it is much less work just to wait until harvest time, and then hire the lowest paid workers to reap what comes naturally – whatever the result – a few bad years in a row can mean the owner loses the vineyard.
When the vineyard has “gone to seed” and it stops producing good produce, it has to be burned clear of the bad, before a new owner can replant choice vine.