We have yards and yards of wild raspberries growing by one of my churches (actually, they’re wine berries, I’ve learned, an invasive but delicious cousin to the raspberry). It’s always a delight to come upon fruits or vegetables growing wild. Often they seem all the sweeter for being unexpected. So why would God have a problem with wild grapes?
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
The prophet Isaiah is speaking for God – that’s what prophets do, deliver a message they believe God has entrusted them to carry. He was writing in a time of impending crisis for Israel, as attempts to play off competing empires against each other were failing and yet another foreign occupation loomed. Jerusalem was threatened; Israel’s way of life and faith was in peril. Many of the prophetic writings attempt to explain how these dire times had come to pass. The prophets usually located the cause in Israel’s unfaithfulness to the One God; the charges most commonly cited were failure to honor the Law, failure to exercise economic justice and care for the poor and vulnerable, and diluting the religious tradition by mingling with people of other religions.
This is what is meant by “wild grapes,” not simply free-spirited non-conformists, but people and communities who have turned from God’s way. Isaiah asserts that the community has now turned so fully away, it stands in opposition to God – “Judge between me and my vineyard.” The God he poetically reveals is having a moment of frustration – “What more was there to do that I have not done?” and lament - “Why did it yield wild grapes?”
This is certainly a very human depiction of God, yet it invites us to imagine a process by which the incarnation of the Son came to be. Was it the plan from the “beginning of the ages,” as some scriptures say, or was it a response by a loving vine-grower unwilling to walk away when his crop came up wild? “What more was there to do?” We can imagine the next thought, “I will send my son…”
Jesus later told a parable, a midrash, or new version, of this passage, about a vineyard rented to tenants who abused their relationship with the owner, beat his representatives and finally killed his son. The grapes were still wild in his earthly sojourn. But he knew that was not the way the story ended, that the death of the son was not the last word, that Life would triumph over death, over sin, over despair.
In that Life, which we receive in baptism and renew in holy communion and prayer, we have the capacity to lose our mouth-puckering wildness, to become sweet and juicy, wine to gladden the hearts of those we meet. We can grow on the sides of paths where people will come upon us, maybe even think we’re wild. But we are God’s grapes, bearers of Life.