Scripture for this Sunday: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Winston Churchill’s warning about “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” delivered in 1940, might well have been drawn from Jesus’ words to his followers on the road to Jerusalem. He warned of division and difficulty, with the intent to disturb his listeners into paying attention. But did Jesus intentionally bring division and conflict?
Our understanding is limited, but the division was a reality for the early followers of Christ – and many today. Alongside blood, toil, tears, and sweat, the only peace we may find is the inner peace of doing God’s will. There is a sad irony behind the words of Jesus. Those who have followed in the footsteps of the first disciples have too often taken his words to justify crusades of violence against those on the “wrong side.”
This is sad, because Jesus did not intend his words to be prescriptive – rather, descriptive of a grim reality of human nature.
Jesus brings God nearer to humanity, but we can’t presume to know Christ absolutely – our lives are meant to be like the race described by the writer of Hebrews, spent in pursuing a broader and deeper understanding of Jesus, the Christ, and through him, God. Too often we fail to do this, instead superimposing our own images onto the Jesus of scripture. But our imagination and vision is too limited for this to be effective.
Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard is tellingly accurate about human nature: although it calls for self-examination, the people represented by vines could not contemplate the idea that the vines themselves might be defective. We, too, need to consider where we might be imperfect vines.
We might start by recognising that all we are and all we have comes from God; we are leaseholders on this earth, stewards of its resources, entrusted to us for good stewardship. An individualistic culture that likes to celebrate and possess what has been earned by the “sweat of the brow” does not easily accept this. Nevertheless, God has hammered away through the ages, through prophets and through Jesus, to counter this sort of behaviour, through which we build up ourselves at the cost of others and our relationship with God.
Jesus criticised his own people for failing to read the signs of their times. What about us? Are there vineyards around us that need to be destroyed for fresh growth to occur? How is God’s work manifest among the poor, the despised, the hopeless? How is grace present in the places that most challenge us? What might the gospel mean for those who are harmed or devastated by our ways of living?
The good news, in Christian terms, is that Christ is the gardener sent to renew and replant the vineyard of Isaiah’s vision – and expand it, so that it is no longer just the vineyard of Judah, or of Israel, but of the world.
We have our own races to run – our own journeys of “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” in the name of the gospel, on the road of life’s pilgrimage. Let’s be thankful that God is equally demanding of all of us – and equally forgiving.