Readings for 14 August 2022
Isaiah 5, 1-11
In this passage from Isaiah the people of Jerusalem are provoked into accepting judgement on themselves. The friend has done everything possible to cultivate a vineyard and would expect it to produce grapes. At that point the people of Jerusalem are called to make a judgement between the friend and the vineyard.
Finally, the friend is identified as God and the vineyard is the people of Judah. God expected justice but received bloodshed.
Fred Craddock says that Jesus is the crisis of the world and by that he does not mean an emergency but the moment of truth and decision about life.
As an image to help the understanding of that comment he suggests a gable of a house where two raindrops strike the gable and could run off either way. If instead of a gable, we think of a ridge in a mountain range the raindrops could indeed, end up oceans apart. To turn towards one person, goal or value means turning away from another.
According to the sayings in this reading God is acting through Jesus in a way that creates a crisis that produces difference even in families. Peace, in the sense of status quo, is disrupted and historically this has proven to be true.
‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’ (Luke 12:49).
Jesus then goes on to describe how even families will be divided by his call to a new way of being human. ‘The kingdom of God’ he called it.
This section of Luke’s Gospel can divide congregations whenever it is preached. Nice middle class, comfortable Christians don’t like it.
We like gentle Jesus meek and mild. We sing Jesus loves me’ and we equate love with always agreeing with each other.
So, when Jesus suggested that the fire he brings could divide the very basic structure of the human community, the family, mum, dad and the kids, it is certainly upsetting.
However, my mind is drawn to a woman I mentored in my Hamilton congregation who, evidence suggested, came from a dysfunctional middle class family and. went on to have her own dysfunctional family. Against all sorts of odds, she has qualified and works as a lawyer.
But I was concerned recently when she phoned to tell me she had set up in business on her own in a penthouse in Auckland. I needn’t have worried because ever since she achieved child visiting rights for a member of a bikie gang, gang affiliated dysfunctional parents have beaten a path to her door.
Her Presbyterian upbringing encourages her to care for the least and her training taught her to fill in legal aid forms.
But dysfunctional families are classless and the dark side of family dysfunction from all sections of society is proven by statistics from the Good Shepherd organisation. They report that the New Zealand police attend a family violence episode every four minutes.
Another organisation notes that between 2009 and 2015, there were 194 family violence deaths in New Zealand. Forget about drive by shootings most murders happen in families, so it is no wonder many police officers wear a white ribbon on their lapels.
Television recently gave us the opportunity to rewatch Whale Rider and reflect on the grandfather who drove his granddaughter to attempt suicide by ignoring her skills and leadership potential because she was a girl. Somewhere there is a message in the ironic contrast of an adult Keisha Castle-Hughes playing a tough computer savvy FBI agent in an American Crime series.
Stories do not have to be true to pass on truth, and that is something we always need to remember as we read the Bible.
Jacob and Esau is the classical biblical case of family division. In fact, the whole Abraham saga is an archetypal example of family division and dysfunction moving from one generation to the next. There is plenty of work in the Bible for social workers, child and family psychologists and even lawyers.
But, however loving or dangerous a family is and however the family is structured it helps to remember that the family unity that Jesus refers to is the patriarchal family.
The ethic of that institution often demands complete loyalty from its members but disregards the rest of humanity. That is an ethic that says that if an action benefits the family, then that action is good regardless of who else it might hurt. We have seen examples of that in family violence crimes where no family member will give evidence against the perpetrator. That cone of silence gets even tighter if a family member commits a crime against a non-family member.
Within that vision of family Jesus recognised that not everyone was going to agree with his vision of ‘the kingdom of God. Not everyone welcomes a new way of being where our greatest loyalty stretches beyond the weekly family dinner to the total family of all humanity.
But I like to think Baden Powell got it right with the promise I made on my honour at the age of eleven.
To do my best,
to do my duty to God and the Queen,
to help other people at all times
and obey the Scout Law.
That wording has changed slightly over time as we have become less jingoistic, and the strings of the British Empire have lost their grip. But it is still a promise that recognises a commitment to a wider community. A commitment to all humanity and an admission that God is the supreme parent of all humanity, and we are all brothers and sisters in the total family of all humanity. A family where we can all be inspired when our athletes step up to earn the fern but still be excited when a 35year old Jamaican mother with green and gold hair becomes a world champion for the fifth time.
Jesus seemed to recognise the challenge of the patriarchal family in a strong, long established religious tradition where new ideas were seen as wrong just because they were new.
The Gospels even gives us examples of Jesus’ call dividing families. Jesus saw two brothers James and John in the boat with their father mending their nets and he called them. ‘Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.’ (Matthew 4:22)
That was not the sort of behaviour that would be expected in a patriarchal family in Jesus’ time and was a case of ‘son against father.’ (Luke 12: 53)
Those two men were born into a fishing household and the expectation would have been that they would remain with the household and be fishermen.
But if they and other disciples remained loyal to that tradition there would have been no Jesus movement and no church.
Jesus’ understanding of God came from his scriptural heritage but his reading and interpreting of it was challenging to the established Temple practice.
My grandfather got told never to come back when he left home in England at the age of 16 and went to Canada. He did came back, but eventually brought his family to New Zealand.
So, imagine a patriarch chastising a son. ‘You want to join that band of no hopers roaming around the countryside. Look at James and John, they rushed off and joined that Jesus fellow and left their poor old dad to run the business himself. Poor old Zebedee ended up having to sell the boat that had been in the family for generations. As for James and John they are little better than beggars now so what good did it do them’.
Bryce Courtenay tells a story on a similar theme in his novel Brother Fish. A story of three people brought together by common hardship. Jack McKenzie is a harmonica player, soldier, dreamer and small-time professional fisherman from a tiny island is Bass Strait. Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan is a strong-willed woman hiding from an ambiguous past in Shanghai. Larger than life, Private Jimmy Oldcorn was once a street kid and leader of a New York gang.
Jack’s mother regards their family as not worth ‘a pinch of the proverbial’ and continually chastises him for spending so much time at the library where the Liberian, Nicole Lenoir-Jourdan is determined to teach him to read. When Jack’s father dies, he has to go to sea to support the family. But his education makes him restless, and he ends up as a prisoner in the Korean War with Jimmy Oldcorn. On his return he falls in love with a doctor’s daughter in Melbourne. Her father offers him a considerable sum of money to break of the relationship, but they defiantly marry.
The book ends with Jack and his wife along with Jimmy and Nicole running a multi-million-dollar fishing and fish export business that raised the standard of living for the island’s population. They also provide employment and business opportunity for his family and his old comrades in arms.
That story outlines and highlights the divisions caused in families when children answer a call that is beyond the expectation of their parents. The story also suggests that extraordinary opportunities present themselves and lives and communities can change when such opportunities are grasped. The Power of One is the title of Bryce Courtenay’s first novel, and that theme runs through many of his novels. The power of one is a theme that is easily identified with Jesus, the man who changed so much that his memory is still worshiped two thousand years later.
But Jesus’ message challenges the status quo and our passage looks at the division that the ‘Jesus Way’ can cause in families.
But Jesus also disrupts the church family. Just over five hundred years ago the European Church strongly controlled people’s lives. That power of the church was disrupted when Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. That caused massive division which lead to further division but also created much needed reform on both sides of the divide.
We can visualise the church as Isaiah’s vineyard planted by those first disciples of Jesus. Just as Zebedee might have expected his fishing business to carry on through James and John, those first disciples probably imagined their revised religious understanding would move from generation to generation.
But throughout history the church vineyard has grown its fair share of wild grapes. A vineyard developed that was not what Jesus and the disciples planted but what humanity has grown the church into.
But people and communities always have a choice, a decision point, and Christ is in that moment of choice.
The church, like any other human community from families, to towns, cities and nations exist in a continual watershed, a ridge on a mountain range where the raindrops begin their journey and can end up oceans apart. A change in the breeze can send raindrops tumbling into the Tasman Sea or though the braided river of Canterbury to the Pacific Ocean.
Through the call of Christ, we each have the chance to be the wind, the fiery wind of the Spirit or the gentle breeze of small decisions. Christ inspired decisions that move the flow of humanity to fruitfulness or disaster. We can encourage productive growth in the vineyard that Christ planted or be carried along in the wild disorder of the tempest of greed and self-centred disorder. I saw a picture of a bumper sticker recently that said, ‘The Christian Right is neither’.
Christ is the ridge on the mountain range that continually asks us to make decisions that may separate us from others. Christ’ decisions can be difficult and divisive but a decision for Christ can certainly move humanity to a more just and caring way of being human.
Rev Hugh Perry
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp402,403.