"God expected justice (mishpat), but saw bloodshed (mishpah);
righteousness (sedaqa), but heard a cry (seaqa)!"
Scripture - Isaiah 5:1-7
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, November 10, 2013

Jesus was a teller of parables and many of his teachings come to us in that form. Where he learned this method of teaching is unknown; few parables exist in the Old Testament. However, centuries before Jesus, Isaiah told a parable about an unproductive vineyard.

The prophet begins by speaking on behalf of his unidentified friend whose vineyard sat atop a fertile hill. The friend labored in his vineyard - digging, planting, clearing - doing everything conceivable to produce rich grapes. However, the vineyard did not yield delicious fruit. It produced only bitter grapes. Why, after such extensive attention, did it bear miserable fruit?

The setting switches to a courtroom where the prophet calls on his audience to judge between the farmer and his vineyard, to determine which party is responsible for these loathsome grapes. Was it the owner or the vineyard?

"The owner argues that he did everything necessary to promote growth, but the vineyard failed him. Assuming that his audience agrees with the evidence he presents, he proceeds to the punishment."1 The protective hedge will be removed and the vineyard will be devoured. He will break down its wall and it will be overgrown with briers and thorns. Then, as we move to the end of the parable, we learn that the vineyard is ancient Israel and the owner of the vineyard is God. The prophet indicts the people on God's behalf.

The final words of verse seven serve as the sermon title so you can see what cannot be seen in English. The Hebrew text is a play on words. God expected mishpat, but saw mishpah, (expected) sedaqa, but heard a seaqa!" That is, God "expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!"

The prophet chastises the people for failing to care for the physical and economic needs of those who were hurting. No one should go without food. No one should go without clothing. No one should go without shelter. God is passionate about the wellbeing of all and expects the people to insure that each person has the basic necessities of life. It is really quite simple: Those who have are to share with those who lack. That is justice according to God.

The following chapters spell out the looming disaster for failing to uphold justice and righteousness. The prophet does not soften the blow of what will come. He is direct and he is blunt about the punishment that will befall the nation for failing to live as God had instructed. They will be crushed by foreign powers.

Some of us remember a television ad several years ago from a campaign to discourage using drugs. A man is standing in his kitchen and he walks over to the stove and picks up an egg. He says, "This is your brain." He points to a hot skillet and says, "This is drugs." He cracks the egg into the skillet and as it begins to sizzle and pop, he says, "This is your brain on drugs."

A year or so later, another commercial came out that played off of this one. A woman held a cast iron skillet and said "This is your brain on cocaine." And she began swinging it wildly, smashing plates and bowls and everything in sight, destroying the kitchen.

Isaiah is the second commercial. Nothing subtle. He declares, "Life as you know it will be destroyed."

Theologian Marjorie Suchocki reminds us that "in the development of Israel's history, (the people's) conformity to justice became seen as the pivotal issue in the welfare of the nation...insofar as the justice of (God) was exemplified by the community - the nation prospered; insofar as the Israelites neglected (God)...the nation was besieged by political woes."2

God's love for each person is so intense that God is passionate about the wellbeing of all of us. That passionate love incites anger when innocent people are abused. Like a loving parent, who cannot bear to see her children in pain, God's heart breaks when people suffer. And God's righteous anger is kindled against those who cause suffering.

In the 21st Century, few see a nation's defeat by a foreign power as direct evidence of God's wrath. Yet while we may not be able in all cases to draw direct lines between God rewarding good and punishing evil, God has surely created the world in such a way that there are consequences to our behavior. Injustice cannot continue forever without dire results.

Isaiah's imagery of God destroying the vineyard reemerges near the end of the Book of Isaiah. In chapter 63, the prophet uses graphic imagery to describe God's wrath poured out on those who do evil. Isaiah questions God: "Why are your robes red and your garments like those who tread the wine press?"

God responds with equally potent words. "I have trodden the wine press alone...I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their juice spattered on my garments, and stained all my robes." (Isaiah 63:3)

And in the Book of Revelation, we read that when Christ returns to earth, "he will tread the wine press of the fury and the wrath of God." (19:15). From this passage, the 19th century abolitionist and poet, Julia Ward Howe, coined her phrase the "grapes of wrath" when she wrote The Battle Hymn of the Republic. In the 20th century, John Steinbeck was stymied over the title for his book until his wife suggested that he call it, The Grapes of Wrath.

Julia Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic at the beginning of the Civil War to inspire the Union forces in their fight against the Confederates, by reminding them that they were risking their lives for a righteous cause. They were fighting to break the chains of slavery. They were not being sent into harms way for mythical weapons of mass destruction, they were fighting to liberate human beings who were bought and sold as property and forced to work to the point of exhaustion to enrich those who owned them.

While the Battle Hymn of the Republic was written to inspire the Union Forces, its words were never intended to glorify war. "Mine eyes have seen the glory" - not of war - "but of the coming of the Lord." That phrase, "The coming of the Lord" refers to judgment day as described in Revelation when the righteous will be rewarded and the unjust will be punished. The intent is not marching off to any war sanctioned by the political leaders of the country, but marching for truth, marching for justice, marching for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.

~ Sing Hymn #354 "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory." ~

If that hymn is used to glorify war, its purpose is perverted. Its thrust is not about spilling blood, it is about doing what is right. It is not about destroying people, it is about delivering justice.

Prior to World War I, war was routinely glorified to encourage young men to sacrifice themselves for their country. The enemy was personified as a minion of Satan, so to battle the enemy was to be on the side of God.

However, since the brutal trench warfare of World War I that resulted in an unimaginable number of gruesome deaths, few seek to glorify war. Most recognize that it is essential to take every possible step to avoid war. However, there are times, such as when a nation is committing heinous crimes against humanity, that war becomes inevitable. To sit on the sidelines and do nothing is to aid the oppressor.

World War II was such a time. The Germans were conducting mass killings of Jews, of gays, of gypsies, and of people with mental and physical disabilities. In the name of justice, in the name of liberty and in the name of mercy, our nation went to war to stop the madness.

God yearns for the people of the world to live in peace, and Jesus called on us to become peacemakers. However, there can be no peace without justice. A just society where all have food, shelter, health care, security and opportunities for education and employment, creates a foundation on which peace may prosper.

Centuries after Isaiah, Jesus witnessed great suffering as the result of social injustice. The leaders of the people conspired with the Romans to keep the majority of the people in poverty. It appears that Jesus drew from Isaiah's parable of the unproductive vineyard and combined it with Isaiah's passages about the Suffering Servant who suffered on behalf of the people. The combination created a new parable about another vineyard. In this parable, Jesus said that the owner of the vineyard leased it to tenants and went to another country. When harvest time came, he sent his slaves to collect his produce. But the tenants seized them and beat them and cast them away. The owner sent others, but the result was the same. Finally, the owner sent his son, saying, "They will respect my son." But the tenants seized him and killed him. What then, will the owner do? He will destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. (Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19)

We embrace God's son when we follow Christ's command to love others as ourselves by treating them as we want to be treated. We kill God's son when we turn inward and become deaf to the cries of victims of injustice.

In his final sermon before he was assassinated, "I've been to the Mountaintop," the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that he had witnessed our nation awakening to the centuries of harsh discrimination that had been directed at African-Americans. He had seen the Civil Rights Bill passed and his spirits were lifting, because racism was being overcome by respect. He could see that the wheels of justice, while turning slowly, were finally turning in the right direction. And caught up in the spirit of seeing God's desire for justice breaking forth, he ended his sermon with these words: "And so I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"

That day is coming. That glorious day when justice shall prevail.


  1. Gene M. Tucker, The New Interpreters Bible, Volume 6: Isaiah, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), p.88.
  2. Marjorie Suchocki, God - Christ - Church, (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 1984), p. 165.

Prayers of the People
Rev. Thomas R. Stout

Glorious, holy, merciful, and just One, our prayers on this day begin with thanksgiving for all who have seen your justice and have sought to serve that justice in our time and in our land and in our nation. But especially are we glad on this weekend for those who have served and those who serve still in our nation's armed forces in our land in the cause of justice and peace.
God, your love, hear our prayers.

We pray too for those who have given the last full measure in service of others, whether it is in armed conflict, or in the face of natural disasters, like the one that has engulfed the Philippines, or which threatens Vietnam on this weekend.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayers.

And then we bring our prayers for those who strive too for a nuclear-free world, especially those who have met in Geneva on this weekend. And while they have not been successful, yet discussions continue. We pray as well for those who perform acts of mercy, like the inoculation the children in a land of conflict like Syria.
Lord, have mercy on your children.

And finally we pray for those who are broken in spirit, or mind, or body, or heart, uphold these people, and us as well, with your love and grace.
O Lord, make us one in you.

And now we make our many prayers one as we pray the prayer of Jesus: Our father...Amen.