Prisoners of hope



Zechariah 9:9-12

12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore to you double.

We can take apart the grammar and poetry of this sentence. We can discuss the cultural context from which these words derive their meaning. But I want first to simply relish them. I love the unexpectedness of the phrase “prisoners of hope.”

Jesus was a master of the unexpected. The parables, so familiar to us now, are masterful at the sudden twist, the startling comparison, the shocking example. The prophets, too, are brilliant at this: Jeremiah’s underwear. Walking around the temple court wearing a yoke. Ezekiel telling a lurid tale of sexual betrayal. The scriptures are full of the shocking. And they need to be. We are such complacent, rutted people. It is not easy to make us see ourselves differently. Not easy to make us see others differently. Not easy to make us see God differently. And how hard it is to make us behave any differently!

The scriptures need to catch us up side the head. There’s no other way to get through to us.

So how many of us are prisoners of hope? How many of us are bond-servants of a wondrous promise? How many of us are truly captives to the vision of a world made whole as if it were a conquering hero returning from the battlefield with prisoner/slaves in tow?

How many of us wake up each morning and run to serve the promise of a world where peace reigns? We go to bed in despair. We wake up in fear. Hurry to work. Hurry to school. Hurry to coffee and traffic. The alarm clock makes us groan. Dinner is a chore farmed out to whatever I can pick up on the way home. We eat on the run……or we eat alone. Something frozen. Maybe cereal from a box after too much wine. There is no family at the table, no prayer of blessing, no song of joy.

We are, most of us, I suspect, captives to the pressures of daily life rather than prisoners of hope.

And the people of Judea were captives to the daily struggle and shame of a once glorious city still littered with rubble and now under Persian rule.

So the prophet points to the horizon and promises a king – a king no one believes is coming. But he will come. Hidden in a Galilean peasant. Speaking words of grace and challenge. Touching the world with healing and freeing it from evil. Enduring the shame and degradation of the cross, but leaving behind an empty tomb and a hundred and twenty prisoners of hope. They will become millions.

And shall we break off the shackles of hope for the shackles of mammon? Will we break off the ties of mercy, compassion and kindness for the sour belief that these shall not prevail? Shall we surrender to the thump of weapons as our true hope? Is it only death and taxes that are certain, not grace and life? Shall we forfeit joy?

No. I will come to the table that promises a world gathered to speak the blessing. I will sing the song, and feast the feast. And I will willingly extend my hands to the thongs of hope.

Image: By HoremWeb (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

A vine out of Egypt

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Tomb of Nakht, 15th Century BC


John 15:1-8

“I am the true vine.”

We should not miss the audacity of this claim.

For many years I have heard the “I am” statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel as rich and wonderful words of comfort and assurance: “I am the bread of life; I am the water of life; I am the way, the truth and the life.” But the more I ponder how these words sounded in first century Judea, I hear their audacity.

Israel is God’s vine. Psalm 80 says it clearly:

8 You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.

The psalmist cries out that God’s vineyard has been trampled by the empires of the world and begs for God to come to its vindication,

Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
3 Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

The poet asks the painful question

How long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
5 You have fed them with the bread of tears…

And the poet’s prayer is not without bitterness.

14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15 the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire,
they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.

What is missing from this prayer for God to come to the defense of Israel and Jerusalem is the message we hear in the prophets:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

The truth is, this starts as a salacious song. The prophet stands in the public square and begins to air the dirty laundry of his beloved friend whose ‘vineyard’ (wife) he has loved and cared for – but she has betrayed him. The song gives vent to his friend’s vengeance upon this wife who returned his love and fidelity with “wild (bitter) grapes.” Then, as the crowd in the marketplace is drawn into this tale of love, betrayal and revenge, suddenly the prophet is looking them all in the eye and declaring:

“The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the House of Israel….

This nation has betrayed its heritage as God’s vineyard. It has not born the fruit of justice and mercy that God expected from a people delivered from bondage and planted in an abundant land. With a clever play from similar sounding words that is lost in translation, the prophet declares:

He expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

Israel is God’s vineyard. And now Jesus is standing in the public square declaring that he is the true vine. Not the nation. Not the people. Not the glorious and world famous temple. Not the priesthood. Not the leadership of the land. Jesus is the true vine.


Jesus is the true vine. Jesus is the true source of life. Not wealth. Not power. Not beauty. Not fame. Not family. Not intellect. Jesus. Jesus is the faithful son, the true Israel.

And we can be grafted into him.

We are branches, branches that can be rooted into the vine. We can bear good and abundant fruit. We can be, in him, faithful Israel.

Wicked tenants


Matthew 21

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photo credit: Symposiarch

33There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.

It’s interesting to me that this story is often referred to as the parable of the wicked tenants. The tenants are certainly wicked in the eyes of the landlord, but I suspect that the peasants in the crowd, reduced to poverty through tenancy, are cheering for these daring rebels.

Some have suggested that the story is a warning by Jesus about the need for land reform. I don’t doubt that Jesus had things to say about land reform – but this is an argument about scripture rather than politics. What did God require of Israel? What fruit did God seek? What is the harvest God expects? The Torah was clear about land: it was a gift from God to a people rescued from slavery, a people without land. It was God’s land entrusted to them. It was not to be sold and acquired, but protected and preserved – and occasionally redistributed – that all might have access to life’s necessities.

Misfortunes leading to debts were not to drag a family down forever. “There will be no poor among you.”

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. I say “of course” only because of the reality of our resistance to the way of God in favor of the way of self.

The zealot answer was resistance and rebellion. It was the seizing of the temple and the burning of the debt records. (How profound is that symbolism that the temple served as the bank and kept record of debts?! Religion wedded to wealth and power rather than sharing and service.) And Rome’s answer to resistance and rebellion was crucifixion and destruction. A cycle of violence we continue to witness.

Jesus talked about forgiveness of debts, love of enemies, living the way of God. This is not land reform for the sake of land reform. This is land reform for the sake of our essential humanity, for being the reconciled and renewed sons and daughters of God. Faithful. Giving to God the fruit for which he looks.

So, like the prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells a vineyard story. Like the prophet, Jesus draws the crowd of listeners into his tale. Rebel tenants. The high priestly families that hold precisely such tenant vineyards are outraged by the behavior of these tenants. They cannot help declare that the owner will come with an army to destroy such rebels! And it’s only then, when they are fully engaged in the narrative – perhaps ready to do battle, expecting Jesus to defend the tenants – that Jesus let’s their own words condemn themselves: 41They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

To which Jesus answers, after quoting Psalm 118 about the stone the builders rejected:

43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom

The leaders of Jerusalem are the tenants. The ones in bed with Roman wealth and power. The ones who have neglected justice and mercy. The ones who built, in the name of God, a system God said they should never build.

This parable becomes dark with memory after the son, the crucified, is laid into a tomb. It morphs from parable into allegory: God is the landowner; the prophets are the servants sent to gather the “fruit”, the obedience owed to God; the rebel tenants are faithless Israel; the new tenants are the sinners and tax collectors and ultimately the gentiles who will give to God God’s due.  And the dark, dark memory of Jerusalem destroyed.

But it is not a tale of how we have gotten the vineyard. It is a tale about the consequences of not giving God what God has required of us: our love, our compassion, our generosity, our mercy, our fidelity – God’s way of sharing and service.

“Have you never read in the scripture?” Jesus asks. And it is much more than a question about that one verse where God takes the rejected stone to build his true temple.



Isaiah 5

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By Franco di filippo

1 Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:

This portion of Isaiah is referred to as the “Song of the Vineyard.” It is a brilliant piece of street preaching. It starts as a love song – perhaps, more accurately, a bawdy song – about an unfaithful wife (the “vineyard” of his friend) that is sure to grab the crowd’s attention and elicit their sympathy. Then, halfway through, the pronouns change from the third to the first person. Now it is not “he,” my friend’s wife, but “I,” my wife. And so the crowd is even more engaged, drawn into the scandal of a betrayed husband. This is the same as Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood. This is TMZ showing video of Ray Rice knocking out his wife in the elevator. This is the candidate trying to explain why he texted salacious pictures. The crowd presses in to hear more.

And then, suddenly, the prophet declares that God is the spurned husband and this people the unfaithful wife.

I wish I could preach like this.

The poetry is wonderful, unforgettable – and brutal.

We domesticate the prophet’s words by putting them in a holy book and labeling the lines with numbers, but the numbers are helpful. The second half of verse 7 is a brutal seven-word indictment that the translation can’t fully convey. Our translation has: “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The seven words break out like this:

  1. He looked
  2. for justice –
  3. And behold!
  4. Violence! (Probably ‘bloodshed’ an ‘outpouring’ of blood)
  5. For righteousness –
  6. And behold!
  7. Outcry! (The cry of the victimized)

Adding to the power of this strophe, the words ‘justice’ and ‘violence’ sound nearly identical – as do the words ‘outcry’ and ‘righteousness’. To capture this, the JPS Tanakh translates the verse as

“And He hoped for justice,
But behold, injustice;
For equity,
But behold iniquity.

So what starts as a guilty pleasure, a scandalous song, becomes a piercing, memorable, inescapable judgment.

God looked for justice from his people, and what he found was the cry of the oppressed. This is the outcry against the tyranny of Sodom and Gomorrah that leads to their destruction. This is the bitter cry of Esau when his brother’s deception is discovered. This is the cry of Israel in bondage in Egypt – a cry God heard, a cry God answered with deliverance. God brought them out from Egypt. God guided a landless people to a land. God looked for a just community – and behold, a cry!

God looked for sweet fruit and got only a bitter harvest.

And what would God say of the church?

  • I looked for fidelity, and look! Infidelity!
  • I looked for compassion, and look! Indifference!
  • I looked for generosity, and look! Hardness of heart!
  • I looked for unity, and look! Division!
  • I looked for heralds of Grace, and look! Silence!

And what would God say of the nations of the earth?

  • I looked for justice, and look! Injustice!
  • I looked for peace, and look! War!
  • I looked for equality, and look! Inequality!
  • I looked for sufficiency, and look! Poverty!
  • I looked for charity, and look! Avarice!
  • I looked for humanity, and look! Brutality!
  • I looked for liberty, and look! Bondage!
  • I looked for care of strangers, and look! Bigotry!
  • I looked for truth, and look! Falsehood!
  • I looked for Life, and look! Death!

And I suppose, given the blessing of the animals this Sunday, we should add one more:

  • I looked for care of my creation, and look! Devastation!

I can’t preach like Isaiah, but I can point to his words and hope we hear them.