My maternal grandfather was a person of deep faith. He had to be. He made his living as a farmer.
In northeast Louisiana during the 1930’s and 40’s, the primary cash crop was cotton. My grandparents (along with their seven children) tilled, planted, tended, weeded and picked acres upon acres of the stuff — mostly without any benefit of modern farm equipment. The work was backbreaking. The hours were interminable. The family’s economic stability rose and fell with each year’s yield. One of my grandfather’s favorite quips about his work as a farmer was, “King Cotton is a despot!”
Sometimes, in spite of all of their efforts, the crop would fail in some way or another. Maybe there was too much rain — or not enough. Maybe the plants would be infected with some rare blight — or infested with some sort of insecticide-resistant bug. Maybe there was a later-than-usual frost. Maybe the seed was in some way deficient so that the expected yield never materialized.
Yet, every year, the crop was planted; the work undertaken with the expectation that a harvest would be gathered. As grandpa told me more than once, “The hardest thing to understand about farming wasn’t when there was some sort of reasonable explanation for a disappointing crop. The hardest years were when we did everything right, when all of the conditions were right, and still, for no apparent reason, the crop failed to grow into the hopes we had for it.”
Then my grandfather would pause. He’d stare out across the field of cotton that began just a few dozen yards from his front porch and stretched out toward the horizon. He’d take a deep draw of breath and say, “But we knew that sometimes you just get a bad crop…and a bad crop was no reason to quit.”
When Isaiah of Jerusalem offers his hymn to God’s faithfulness in today’s reading (Isaiah 5:1-7), he casts God in the role of a vineyard owner (a grape farmer!). In the parable, the Divine Farmer has done everything right — procured good land, cleared it of stones, installed a watchtower along with a protective hedge and planted “choice vines”, which were intended to produce the finest of grapes. But when harvest time comes there are no sweet, succulent grapes to be found on those choice vines — just wild grapes, bitter and sour. There is only one thing for the Farmer to do — let the field go fallow — tear down the hedge; give the vineyard over to the briers and thorns; trample the whole thing under foot.
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much hope in this picture. It would seem that the Divine Farmer has given up on this unfruitful vineyard. Yet, the Farmer retains possession of the land. And in retaining possession, the Farmer demonstrates that another attempt will be made. Another crop will be planted. Sweet grapes in the wine vat are just a matter of time and patience. And this Farmer has all the time, all the patience in this world (and beyond!).
Isaiah has told a story of both judgment and grace. As we’ve already noticed in our readings this Advent, these two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Quite to the contrary, judgment and grace are mutually inclusive. Isaiah can see, with prophetic insight, that the judgment coming upon the covenant people is the fruit of their rebellion against the Almighty One. Likewise, he can see that the seeds of God’s judgment, scattered upon an unfruitful vineyard, will yield a harvest of grace.
After all, a bad crop is no reason to quit.