My beloved had a vineyard

Il faut cultiver notre jardin. This famous conclusion to Voltaire's great work of intellectual satire, ‘Candide’, speaks to us about our relation to the conditions which we face. “To cultivate our garden” really means to do the best you can in the situation in which you find yourself to make things better. Satire seeks amendment; in short to make things better in the realm of morals and manners. The idea of cultivation has to do with civilisation and, particularly with the idea of honouring and respecting nature. Cultivating is about working with nature but without destroying it. In other words, it speaks to the idea of respect and honour towards nature which stands in complete contrast to the culture of exploitation and the destruction of nature in our own times and of ourselves. God “looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes”.
Isaiah’s great love song complements Paul’s great hymn of love in 1st Corinthians. “Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard” (Is. 5. 1). The vineyard is an image of creation, and, more particularly, an image of Israel. In other words, we cannot think about creation or nature without thinking about ourselves and about how we engage the world.
The idea of the vineyard offers a positive image about the nature of our labours. Our labour is not simply a curse, bearing “the burden and heat of the day” and working “in the sweat of our face” for bread. Rather it is about respect for three things: for creation itself, for one another as fellow-workers, and for God, the Lord of the vineyard of creation and of ourselves who are made in his image. The image of the vineyard recalls the pageant of creation in Genesis and the place of our humanity in the order of creation. One of the mistaken ideas, promoted by Lynn White’s 1967 paper, ‘The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, is that Christianity teaches that “nature has no reason for existence save to serve man”. This is simply not true and obscures the far more interesting development, well documented by Peter Harrison in his ‘The Territories of Science and Religion’ (2015), which chronicles the profound shifts in terminology from natural philosophy’s interest in understanding nature to ‘science’, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in its interest in changing nature under the ideology of progress. As Karl Marx put it, the point is not to understand the world but to change it. We are, perhaps, now far more aware of the problems belonging to our technocratic domination and destruction of nature precisely on the basis of that assumption.
That God gives to our humanity “dominion” over the natural world does not mean and cannot mean in the context of Genesis the power to manipulate and destroy, to exploit and use the natural world. It can only mean to act in accord with the Dominus, the Lord, in his care and respect for the goodness of all created things; in short, an honouring of nature as having intrinsic truth and meaning. We cannot not leave a mark on nature; the question is always what kind of mark.
The current term for our ‘age’ is the Anthropocene which clearly puts our humanity, anthropos, at the centre of things, and mostly in negative terms. But this is what Isaiah was getting at long ago in this remarkable passage. God looks to the vineyard, to us in creation, to yield grapes, the good fruit of honest lives, we might say, but instead it yielded wild grapes, the dismal fruits of injustice and sin, of disorder and disarray. “When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” The song is God’s lament for our failure to honour ourselves and the created order as the visible expression of God’s will and purpose. The lament seeks to recall us to justice and to thoughtful reflection over and against the misuse and abuse of the world and one another. “He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold a cry!”
Voltaire and Jonathan Swift, two great 18th century satirists, were fully aware of the problems of progress and human injustice. They recognised that just because we want to make things better doesn’t mean that we always do; we often make things worse. Things are not always getting better. Yet our labours in the vineyard seek to make things better and imply a commitment to justice. Both Isaiah and Paul see our labours as labours of love. Love seeks the good of others, a motion towards the other not as enemy but as friend, as neighbour. It means a different relation to nature than mere dominance in the modern sense of conquest and control which results in the grotesque forms of inequality and injustice in our global world. Peter Goodman’s recent book, ‘Davos Man: How Billionaires Devoured the World’ (2022) is a telling indictment of our times. The billionaires increased their wealth during COVID-19 by $ 3.9 trillion! Clearly we are not all in this together in the same way.
Isaiah explicitly mentions justice, the greatest of the four cardinal virtues along with temperance, courage, and prudence. The virtues, classically speaking, are qualities of human excellence. They speak to the whole issue of character and about how we face things, especially difficult and challenging things. Both Isaiah and Paul speak of love. Paul in his great hymn to love identifies what become the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. Charity means love; the greatest of the three, and itself a higher form of justice, namely, the justice of God in his love for us and for his creation.
The image of ourselves as the vineyard of creation counters the problems of our technocratic domination of nature which in turn enslaves us. Against the fears and anxieties of our current divisions and animosities, the image recalls us to a larger view of respect and care. Such is the love which endures, the love which returns us to the primacy of the ethical. Love here is the motion of God’s love in us which moves us in love towards the good of one another as grounded in God.
It is good to be able to be back in Chapel which began this week on Tuesday with the Grade 10 students. If nothing else, it simply provides another way of thinking about how we face our current challenges. Will it be in fear and anger, or will it be in love? Isaiah and Paul remind us of the divine love which seeks our good.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy

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King’s-Edgehill School is located in Mi'kma'ki, the unceded ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaq People.