Skip to comments.The Garden Wall
Posted on 10/05/2005 6:29:20 PM PDT by sionnsar
Back in 1996, when Denise and I moved from seminary in Virginia to Norman, Oklahoma, we rented a beat up old house. It was a typical 80-year-old house, a few blocks off campus, a perfect bohemian place for a library school grad-student, and a curate at the campus ministry. The entire inside of the house was painted Pepto-Bismol pink. It was a labor of ragethe last tenant had divorced, and painted the place her pinkthe color her ex couldnt abide. Before our furniture arrived, we painted and painted and paintedthree coats of quality paint to cover the pink nightmare of vengeance.
Then there was the yard. The long hedgerow that ran along the entire street side of the house stood at least twenty feet tall. And there were these horrid vines that overcame the great trees in front of the house. I couldnt stand the thought of my mother seeing that shameful jungle. So, two days before I was ordained a deacon, I was out there wrapping inch thick vines around my arms, pulling with all my weight. Yes, much to my shame, dedicated Royal Ranger and Boy Scout that I once was, it was poison ivy. I was ordained covered with a rash.
In the midst of painting and washing and cleaning and trimming, a beautiful house emerged. As I ripped and pulled weeds, beautiful gardens, long forgotten, neglected, appeared. We began to realize that this house had once been a beautiful home.
One day, as Denise and I were working, an elderly neighbor from across the street stopped by. She asked us if we were family. No, we sheepishly replied, just renters. Well, she said, some of us old neighbors have been watching you. We figured you were family because the house hadnt been sold, and you were putting so much work into it. This house used to be the most beautiful one on the block, and it used to have the most beautiful gardens. From her, we learned that the home had been the home of our landladys mother. Her bachelor uncle, now deceased, had been the gardener.
That conversation changed us. We were no longer just taking care of our place. We were blessing the neighborhood. Restoring this house and its gardens became a labor of love.
An abandoned, weed infested, garden fills the heart with sadness. Toppled walls, and broken down gates speak of heartache and loss, of the transitory nature of our work, and of the fragility of life itself. An abandoned garden makes us wonder, What happened here? What went wrong? What happened to the people who once lived here?
In the 7th century B.C., the word of the LORD came to the prophet Isaiah. That word was a kind of country song. I can hear Randy Travis singing this song-picture of an abandoned vineyard. The prophet sees what will happen to Israel, and Isaiah, by Gods Spirit, answers the question, what happened here?
Here is the thing so strange to our ears, so troubling. God the gardener removed the wall. God the vinedresser filled the vineyard with thorns, and shut off the sprinkler. What happened here? What went wrong? What happened to the people who once lived here? God looked for the vintage of justice, and found bloodshed. God listened for the song of righteousness, and only heard cries in the night.
Justice and righteousness, you cant have a garden without them. They get thrown around a lot, especially justice. What does the Bible mean when it uses the word justice, or righteousness? *
There are three parts to Biblical justice.
1) Social Justice focuses on the common good. Over and over again, matters of the common good come down to property, how to get it, how to take care of it, and what happens when you loose it. In a biblical worldview, property ownership is respected. There is a basic notion that you should reap the fruit of your hard work. Peace, or shalom, is a reality where people get to sit under their fig trees, and drink the fruit of their vines. The powerful, including the king, may not simply seize property. This is reflected in the American legal tradition in third and fourth amendmentsin the Bill of Rights. Also, provision is made to release debtors, and restore property to people who loose theirs. This is the good news, the gospel jubilee promised and commanded in Leviticus (there's gospel in Leviticus!). A just societya society of property owners, must practice mercy towards widows and orphans, to the poor, and to sojourners among us.
2) Criminal Justice: Evil is taken very seriously in the tradition. Accountability, correction, and punishment protect the integrity the image of God, of us. Here again, there are limits. Individuals arent allowed to take vengeance. Retribution must be in proportion to the crime. Its not, your life for my eye, but an eye for an eye. Also, provision is made for mercy. You can see this with the cities of refuge that are provided in cases of manslaughter. A people lacking in mercy is incapable of practicing justice.
3) Procedural Justice: The methods and systems used to judge must be clear, open, and applicable to one and all. There cannot be one process for first class citizens, and another for second or third class citizens. A just society rules by law, not patronage or graft. If anything, the Bible gives a kind of benefit of the doubt to the poor, to women, to slaves, and to sojourners.
Now, righteousness is the companion term to justice. Righteousness is the stuff justice is made of. Justice isnt built on mere human conventions. Justice is built on the revelation that the Lord Almighty is more just and merciful than we ever could be. The Lord is fairer and more generous than we ever are. Were not the measure, God is. Were not the source, God is. When a society rejects the righteousness, it is doomed.
The implications of justice and righteousness for large scaleWashingtonpolitics are obvious. But, Scripture calls us to look to our gardens, our lives. We must attend our vineyards. So, here Id like to interject something from popular culture, the Dr. Phil question, hows that working for you? Hes asking, what kind of fruit is coming from your actions? Justice is always fruitful. Just societies, at a basic level, are useful, they work. If your life isnt working, whether its at work, at home, or in a classroom, you should look at the three layers of justice: social, criminal, and procedural, and go deeper, ask the righteousness question. Are living as if God is the source and measure of justice?
Let me put some meat on these bones. With social justice, if you, as a boss, are stealing credit from your employees, at some point, the Lord will waste your company. Or with criminal justice, at least on a very small scale: if you, as a parent ignore your childrens behavior, or if your goal in discipline is just punishment, not growth, at some point, they will not honor you. Or procedural justice: If you, as a husband or a wife or a friend are always changing the rules, changing the expectations, trust, and then affection, will disappear.
Righteousness is beautiful. Honesty, graciousness, chastity, and charity are attractive. Moral loveliness has always been the greatest witness to the living God. God is calling his vineyard, us, to the usefulness of justice. God is calling his garden, us, to the beauty of righteousness. God has given us his very best in his Son. God has rained his Holy Spirit on us. Oh that our lives could be useful and beautiful gardens for God!
May God the Father, the Creator, find us rich in righteousness. May God the Son find us cultivated soil for the seed of the kingdom. May God the Holy Spirit produce in us the ripe fruit of justice.
*Gene Tucker, New Interpreters Bible vol. VI.
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