The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (email@example.com) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.
INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Ordinary 20 - Proper 15 - Year C
ISAIAH 5:1-7 Israel and Judah, the northern and southern
kingdoms resulting from the breakup of the united kingdom of David and
Solomon, were being threatened by advancing Assyrian armies circa 722 BC.
Isaiah saw this threat as God's judgment for the injustice and apostasy of
God's people. This lyrical poem describes them as a vineyard that failed
to produce good fruit and so had to be destroyed.
PSALM 80:1-2,8-19 This prayer pleads for God to save Israel from
destruction as a shepherd protects his sheep. Then Israel is likened to a
vine that had been brought from Egypt, prospered in a new land, but now was
HEBREWS 11:29-12:2 This passage recalls more of Israel's religious
heroes and describes how they suffered because of their faith. Then it
gives the reason for this recital of their heroic endurance. We too may
join them in following the example of the greatest of all, Jesus, who
suffered death on the cross and now reigns with God.
LUKE 12:49-56 This apocalyptic vision of conflict about what
Jesus means presents us with a picture of what may have actually happened
in the community for which Luke was writing his gospel in the second last
decade of the 1st century. Confronted by Jews who had expelled all
Christians from their synagogues and threatened with persecution by the
Romans, it would have been natural for them to seek a deeper understanding
of what was happening to them in the traditions about Jesus' teachings. No
one can tell how much of these words were actually spoken by Jesus or
created by Luke for his audience.
NOTE: There are two alternative lessons from the OT and Psalms.
The analysis of these passages follow those of the regular RCL
ISAIAH 5:1-7 Not long ago I drove through the rich vineyard countryside
below the Niagara escarpment on the south side of Lake Ontario. The
vineyards are in beautiful condition. The weather has been good. The
farmers are expecting a bumper crop to deliver to the wineries. Every mile
along the road has its wineries, some large, some small. Many of the
larger ones draw bus loads of visitors in season to tour their facilities,
taste their products and purchase their winter supply. Niagara ice wine,
made from grapes allowed to freeze hard on the vines, is becoming famous
around the world for its special flavor.
In "The Interpreter's Bible"(vol. 5, p.196) the late Professor R.B.Y.Scott
called this "Song of the Vineyard" unique among prophetic canon. His
exegetical comments give rise to an imaginative scene as one might have
seen in Jerusalem circa 725 BCE:
A huge multitude had gathered in the temple precincts to celebrate the
Feast of Tabernacles. This vintage festival of thanksgiving was a time of
song when small groups and solo voices filled the air with singing in the
informal environment as people waited for the temple sacrifices to begin.
Some may even have been a little inebriated from sampling too much of the
early vintage. Tolerance for such frivolity did not dull the expectation
of the crowd for a great celebration. This year's crop from Israel's
vineyards had indeed been good.
The prophet Isaiah seized the opportunity to imitate one of the popular
vintage songs with a different message. Perhaps because he was a priest
and distinctively dressed, he caused something of a stir as people rushed
to hear this new voice. His presence as well as the timbre of his voice
beguiled many to listen carefully.
The opening lines of his song (vss.1-2) described the typical undertakings
of the vine grower, the preparations he made and the failure he
encountered. Many in the audience would have been familiar such an
experience. As they listened to his next lines, (vss. 3-4) they empathized
with the depth of his tragedy. In a year when so many had reaped an
abundant harvest, the vine stock he had planted had yielded only wild
Suddenly the meter of the song changed. In short abrupt words the
vintner's anger burst forth. His disappointment had turned to fury. He
will devastate the vineyard that failed so miserably (vss. 5-6.) Knowingly,
many agreed with his decision. It was the only thing to do.
Then suddenly, the prophet uttered the real meaning of his song (vs.7).
The vineyard was a metaphor for Yahweh's covenant people; and the
devastation to come Yahweh's was judgment against them for their rebellion
against the sacred covenant.
One can imagine the shock that swept through the crowd as the prophet
stared at them, meeting eye after eye until heads turned away in dismay and
shame as he pressed home his powerful condemnation.
PSALM 80:1-2,8-19 This lament offers a prayer for deliverance using
similar imagery from Israel's vineyards. The metaphor occurs in prophetic
oracles other than that of Isaiah and in the Gospels as well. (See
Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 17:1-10; Hosea 10:1; Matthew 21:33-42; John 15:1-8)
Here it is used as a synonym for the Israelites in general. Or, if the
tribal names of vss.1-2 are considered in addition to such geographical
features as the cedars and "the River," probably the Euphrates (vss.10-11),
the Northern Kingdom in particular is intended.
These geographical references represent the imagined boundaries of the
Davidic kingdom to an extent which the great king never achieved. Vs. 8
refers to the vine being brought out of Egypt which is a metaphor for the
Exodus. Thus the poet uses imagery to express the intended glory of
Yahweh's people in the Promised Land.
Vss.12-13 constitute a reality check. The walls have been broken down and
wild animals now feed in the vineyard. The threat of invaders was by no
means imagined. After Solomon's death, the Northern Kingdom never enjoyed
much security. The specific period referred to from the 10th to the 8th
centuries BCE cannot be identified.
Vs. 17 personifies the nation as a human being. Some older versions,
including the KJV and the RSV, retain the phrase "the son of man" which
some regard as a messianic interpretation not intended by the psalmist.
The lament ends as usual with a vow in vs.18-19. "Never again!" is a
phrase often used by religious devotees when repenting their
transgressions. Its sincerity has to be measured by the behavioral change
that follows, not the beauty or sanctity of the prayer.
HEBREWS 11:29-12:2 Like a prosecutor in a law court, the author presents
the case for faith with a powerful list of witnesses in this second half of
the Hebrews 11. The roll call of heroes and heroines of faith cover the
history of Israel from the Exodus to the tribulations of the Hasmonean
period between the OT and NT. It points to the historical reality that
faith alone enabled Israel to survive through those centuries. Surely this
is not surprising to us who have experienced similar "end of the century of
The implications of this long citation of faithfulness in the face of
unparalleled oppression come to the fore in the conclusion of the passage
in 12:1-2, which William Barclay describes as "a well-nigh perfect summary
of the Christian life." He elaborates by showing that this life has a goal,
an inspiration, a handicap, a means, an example and a presence. (See
"Daily Bible Readings: The Letter to the Hebrews." Edinburgh: St. Andrew
Press. Pp. 194-197) The metaphor of a long-distance race carries the
message to its conclusion. The goal which brings joy in its achievement,
however, is not to win a race, but to have direct access to God through
An interesting feature of this conclusion is that the author uses only the
simple human name of Jesus, not the theological names of Christ or Son of
God, or his designation as "the great high priest." It is the human
experience of Jesus, and in particular his endurance of the cross, which
fits our need for an example to follow as "the pioneer and perfecter of our
faith." The Christian life is not a 100-metre dash, but an exhausting
If, as many commentators believe, The Letter to the Hebrews was addressed
to a church facing imminent persecution and possible martyrdom, we need
nothing less than faithfulness that endures unto death. This spiritual
insight may mean nothing now to Christians in the so-called "First World."
African and Asian Christians have a different story to tell. We may yet
need their testimony as militarism, tribalism and terrorism, the aftermath
of racist colonialism, take their toll in the 21st century.
LUKE 12:49-56 The question arises immediately as to whether or not Jesus
actually spoke in these terms. The ideas resemble much Jewish eschatology
of the time. Luke's eschatology tended to emphasize a delay in the
Parousia, but this passage has a much greater sense of immediacy about it.
Is Luke here thinking ahead to Jesus' Gethsemane experience (22:39-46) and
thereby presenting his readers fifty years later with a similar warning of
severe trials to come? Furthermore, is it not also true that Christian
faith and behavior do at times create conflict such as this passage
Luke has drawn together several sayings from Q which Matthew distributes
elsewhere. (Cf. Matthew 10:34-36; 16:1-2) So there must have been a
certain collective memory of Jesus' teaching that the end of the age would
involve harsh judgment and division. Were Jesus and Luke not being as
realistic as any observant person should have been, given the tenuous state
of affairs at the time when they lived?
John Dominic Crossan presents a novel approach in limiting the actual words
of Jesus to the aphorism about a divided household. He notes that the
division is not dependent on faith in the reign of God or on Jesus himself.
He also points to the emphasis on generations rather than gender. He
suggests that the reign of God's love tears families apart along the axis
of power, particularly power that is abused as parental power has often
Another progressive scholar, Bruce Chilton, frequently presents Jesus as
very abrasive in his teaching style. If this is what the anticipated
messianic kingdom would be like, this teaching would inevitably raise
considerable controversy in his audience. Ever ready for an argument on
some fine point of the Torah or its implications for daily life, the Jews
were notorious for the fervor with which they debated and re-debated each
issue a new rabbi defined.
On the other hand, we have to deal with the incredulity of the modern
western mind. Eschatology is as far from our concerns as the Middle
Eastern terrorism and African tribal conflicts during our August vacation.
How do we interpret these strange words for those who meet us in the
comfortable pews week by week but who underneath their facade of
sophistication have real anxieties about the future? Perhaps the answer
lies in the phrase that ends this passage, "to interpret the present time,"
(cf. NEB "this fateful hour") as Jesus and Luke did in their time. Is God
not saying something to us in the events of our own time?
In 1949 when Mao Ze-Dong had led the Communists in triumph into Beijing,
the late Professor J.S. Thomson said to a class discussing what the meaning
of that event might be, "Who knows what will happen if the Chinese people
decide to move?" More than fifty years later, one in every five persons on
this planet is Chinese. Is this what President George W. Bush has in mind
when he uses the phrase "some rogue nation" or describes the threat for
which he wants the American military to be armed with dazzling new weapons
in space? Is divine sovereignty not the essential point of this passage?
"We are not alone. We live in God's world."
JEREMIAH 23:23-29 It remains a mystery why the reading has been
terminated at vs. 29 rather than At the natural end of the oracle and
chapter (vs. 40) or at the end of a paragraph (vs. 32) in the NRSV. The
whole passage conveys Jeremiah's to fierce tone of divine condemnation
against the many false prophets of his time.
The burden of Jeremiah's message is that these false prophets have
completely misunderstood who Yahweh really is. Yahweh is not some
neighbourhood deity who reigns over a small hilltop sanctuary or one sends
propitious dreams promising good favour. Instead, the word of Yahweh to
the true prophet is as different as wheat from straw (vs. 28c). The dreams
of the false prophets lead people astray, providing no benefit for them.
Reading this passage recalls the plethora of television and radio
evangelists and prophets one can tune in to almost any day of the week.
Their broadcasts outnumber those of more careful and helpful analysts and
religious commentators many times over. Their message has more to do with
a political agenda or making a profit from their audience than proclaiming
the good news of God's love in Christ.
PSALM 82 The emphasis on social justice rooted in the prophetic awareness
of a just and righteous God manifests itself in this short poem. But these
few verses depict an unusual scene.
Like the introduction to the Book of Job (Job 1:6), vs. 1 portrays a
heavenly council over which Yahweh presides. Yahweh addresses the
assembled "gods" or "children of the Most High." This phrase appears only
in Job and Genesis 6:2, 4. They seem to be heavenly beings exercising some
authority on earth. Yahweh excoriates them for aiding and abetting
injustice among the people by favouring the wicked. They have failed to do
due diligence in helping the poor and weak who have no knowledge or
understanding. Failure to do what is required will bring death to these
"children of the Most High."
The psalm ends with a prophetic call for Yahweh to judge the earth over
which Yahweh alone reigns.
copyright - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.