My sister knew every line by heart. My Uncle Eddie had a knack for making up Dr. Seuss rhymes off the top of his head, and he would try to slip them in, when he was at our house and Nancy would ask him to read one of those books.
But you couldn’t fool Nanci. The words formed a pattern in her head, and she could recognize any deviation from the pattern.
This is just one example of how, even at the age of four, we get many patterns laid down in our head and we become creatures of patterns and habits.
The Bible teaches us important things about the patterns of God’s judgment and God’s grace. The “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah and Jesus’ parable of vineyard tenants are, both, about patterns of judgment and grace.
We need to know about both God’s judgment and God’s grace, even as Christians. Christians are correct when they talk about being under God’s grace and not his judgment. But this is how it is.
Grace is God’s unconditional love. That love is always unconditional, but Christians may build poorly on that foundation of unconditional love. We can build ungracious patterns into our lives upon the grace of God, and nothing that is ungracious will last. We will live forever in the grace of God, but we cannot keep anything we build ungraciously, unlovingly, or unfaithfully. Those things will be taken away and lost. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15 & 4:1-5; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10)
We need to know about both the judgment of God and the grace of God. Jesus, the way he elaborates on Isaiah’s song of the vineyard, shows us that things such as God’s judgment and God’s grace are not arbitrary. They are not shallow, or petty, or picky, or mean-spirited, or narrow-minded. There is no trick and no loophole about them.
The grace and the judgment of God both come from God’s love. Grace and judgment are both bold and clear patterns of how a wise and perfect love will respond to ungracious patterns in our lives.
Jesus tells the story in such a way that we see the patterns in God and in ourselves. The patterns are in the repetition of behavior. God’s pattern is to show himself to be more and more gracious and forgiving. The pattern of the tenants is to show themselves more and more resistant and rebellious. The pattern of the tenants is a warning to us, just as much as God’s pattern is an assurance to us.
I remember once, when I was a kid, that my Uncle Eddie (again) was playing catch with me and trying to give me some pointers on how to throw well, and I was in a deviant mood, and I deliberately messed up more, because (for some strange reason, at the time) I thought it was funny, and I suppose I was testing him.
After a while, my uncle gave up on me, and that wasn’t fun any more. But it wasn’t any more than what I deserved. In that game of catch, my uncle was very gracious, but I was not.
That was only a game of catch. Life is much more serious than that. And the grace of God in our lives, and our playing with ungracious living, is much, much more serious.
The fruit of the vineyard, that the Lord came to find was justice and righteousness. Now the vineyard stands for God’s people. God’s vineyard consists of the people who have heard his call; who have learned of his love.
No one gets into that vineyard by performing at a certain level of justice and righteousness. We are planted in God’s vineyard, in God’s fellowship, by his love, but God’s love always bears fruit when it is thankfully received.
Justice and righteousness are the fruit of our relations with others. They have to do with how we live in this world. They have to do with the part we play in the big, wide world that gets in the news. Justice and righteousness have to do with how we relate to issues in our society. They have to do with how we live with the issues in our community and the people who are part of our community. Justice and righteousness have to do with how we live with our families, and with our neighbors.
Justice has to do with making things right between other people, with making good things happen between others, or with stopping certain things from happening between others. Righteousness has to do with the rightness of the way we live toward others and toward God.
When you walk through a vineyard, as the grapes grow close to harvest, and the bunches are hot in the late summer, or the early autumn, sun; then the very air in the vineyard is sweet. That is a righteous aroma. There is joy and pleasure in bearing fruit.
But we form unjust and unrighteous patterns. There was a mother driving her kindergarten aged child in a crowded city. As the mother struggled with the traffic her child asked, “Mommy, how come it’s only when daddy drives that the idiots come out?” The father and mother had different patterns of dealing with traffic.
We form patterns.
The tenants of the vineyard would not turn over the owner’s share of the harvest because they did not accept his ownership of the vineyard. They did not accept their own promises and commitments to the owner.
We form patterns that deny God’s ownership of us. We form patterns of anger, and grudges. We act out old conflicts that have nothing to do with the present. We act out negativity. We do not see each other as beloved children of God. We think about what others owe us instead of owing others a debt of love.
As Christians, and as a church, we may stop living as if we had confidence in God to care for us. We may put our desire to protect ourselves, or justify ourselves above God’s call to forgive, and to reach out to others in humble, self-forgetting ways.
The problem with patterns and habits is that they tend to build on themselves. The good patterns get stronger and the bad patterns get harder.
The repetitions in the story tell us that God speak to us over and over and over again, in many ways (just as he sent many prophets to the people of Israel). God speaks over and over in an effort to remind us of the claim his love has over us. God speaks in order to break our struggle to own ourselves.
God speaks in his word, and in prayer, and in our worship and fellowship together. God speaks his word to us in the look in someone’s eyes, and in the patience of a Christian who really is Christian through and through.
Our owner says “What shall I do?” and then God reaches into the strength of his pattern of grace; and God shows us his Son, Jesus. God claims us with Jesus.
There are Christians, there are people who belong to God, who will not be owned by God, except on their own conditions, or on their own reservations. Each of us has issues like this. There are Christians who can look at Christ on the cross and say, “Yes, but I will not forgive so-and-so. Yes, but I will not show I am wrong by showing signs of change. Yes, but I will not confess. I will not admit. Yes, but I will not say I am sorry.”
The Lord’s pattern of grace is strong and he is absolutely committed to us. But the Lord, because he is love and grace, will not let a contrary pattern come into his work. He will not let anything unloving or ungracious stand.
Here comes Jesus, up the road to that piece of ground we will not yield. God comes in his Son to humble our resistance and claim our love, deeper than we’ve ever let him before. He comes with no weapon but nails in his hands and feet, and a wound in his side. He comes with no weapon but the cross.
When we truly see him as he is, coming down that road to us, we judge ourselves. The pattern in his cross reveals the pattern in our own lives, for good or bad. It is nothing but his grace that has done it. The contrast between what he is and what we are judges us.
But he does this in grace. This is our opportunity. This is what he offers when he asks himself what he will do.” He offers us Jesus. When we really see Jesus, it is for us to ask, “What will we do?”