Trouble in the vineyard


When opponents called Jesus a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners,” they surely got the first half of that accusation wrong. But food, wine and amiable company are everywhere in the life and teaching of Jesus. He even provided wine for a wedding at Cana when guests already were well lubricated.

Wine was so plentiful in ancient Canaan that Egyptians said it was “more abundant than water.” When Moses sent Israelite spies to reconnoiter the land, they returned with . . . a giant cluster of grapes! Wine enhanced meals, disinfected wounds, dyed clothing, fostered health. Though surely rejecting excess, Paul told Timothy to “take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23).

These biblical allusions come to mind at Nazareth when I visit a recently restored ancient vineyard complete with stone watchtower and wine press cut into bedrock. Ripening grapes hang on manicured vines, some suspended by twine. I hear Isaiah sing,

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes (Isaiah 5:1-2)

Isaiah explains that the vineyard is the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. From them God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Isaiah assails gentrification and lack of concern for people with less privilege: “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you!” Judgment is coming, when many “large and beautiful houses” of the rich will be made desolate.

I remember that my wife and I are in the midst of renovating parts of our house! Is Isaiah’s message for us, too? Is the prophet speaking to our country, where walls of prejudice are going up at the edge of the vineyard? Does the lying doublespeak of our national leaders fit Isaiah’s indictment of those “who call evil good, and good evil?”

Good vineyards have watchtowers and walls, and so does my own country. But when these normal structures of society get warped by racism and indifference to other peoples, God takes notice. Speaking of ancient Israel and Judah as a vineyard, God says, “I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled.”

These phrases ferment in my soul as I study Isaiah 5. Mixed in with words of an angry prophet I find a way forward: “The Lord of hosts is exalted by justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy by righteousness.” Act justly!

In John 15 Jesus teaches the first steps toward right living: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower . . . Just as the branch cannot cannot bear fruit by itself . . . neither can you unless you abide in me.” Connection to Jesus nurtures us to bear fruit of justice, holiness and peace.

© 2019  J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************************************************

Join me for a Journey of Hope tour to Jordan, Palestine and Israel on June 10-20, 2020. See  // 

In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the place at the Jordan River where God parted the waters, and Machaerus Fortress where John the Baptist faced execution. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the setting of Jesus’ childhood in a replica of first-century Nazareth. We’ll also sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the holy city itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation, including justice for Israel and Palestine, as we travel and worship together.

You can arrange with TourMagination to pair this tour with Christ at the Checkpoint conference in Bethlehem ( I plan to attend; see ) or a stop in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play (see ).

2 Comments Add yours

  1. marianbeaman says:

    The photos are lovely even though the biblical message contains a warning even for our age.

    Right now I am on a book tour with Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl here in Lancaster County. This evening I’m presenting at Landis Homes where I may see your mother and others from Bossler Mennonite.


  2. Congratulations on publishing your book! I hope you got to see my parents and others from Bossler church–they can fact-check your writing 🙂


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