From the Prophet Isaiah:
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 65:21-22 (NRSV) – November 23, 2013.)
This part of Isaiah was written shortly after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, which Cyrus of Persia had allowed in the middle of the 6th Century BCE. Isaiah (on God’s behalf) was promising two things with these images of laborers enjoying the fruits of their own efforts: first, that the people would no longer be (if not slaves) subjugated workers of foreign (or domestic) overlords and, second, that there would be peace. Israel’s and Judah’s history had been one of regular (if not constant) upheaval with invaders coming in and taking control of the vineyards and seizing the people’s lands and homes: the simple planting of vineyards with an expectation of enjoying the crop was a metaphor of peace and security.
As I read the words this morning in our modern context, I thought how inappropriate a metaphor this is for us. We no longer live in a world where enjoying the fruits of one’s own labor is the norm. We live in a world dominated by an economic system in which those who tend the vines and harvest the grapes are not those who enjoy the crop, those who build the houses are not those who will ultimately live in them; indeed, they are several levels of “production” and “marketing” away from those who do. The metaphorical vineyard workers and home builders of our society have no personal or emotional connection to the crops and the buildings; they work for a paycheck which, one hopes, will enable them to purchase other crops harvested by other workers and to live in other homes built by other builders.
Not that there is anything wrong with that system, so long as it is fairly administered. Fairness, justice, and peace are, after all, what this prophecy is really addressing. Any economic system that produces those fruits lives up to the biblical standard. But it takes laws and regulations (and law enforcement systems and regulatory agencies) to assure that human beings and their economies behave in such ways. Left to our own devices, we humans seldom do so, as the historical record makes painfully clear.
As so often happens, I could not help but think of two recent news reports when confronted with this witness of scripture, reports that clearly demonstrate the need for such laws and the need for vigilance by those (like me) who would insist that they are needed. The first was the news that a congress woman from another state has introduced a bill to abolish, as a matter of federal law, the requirement of overtime pay for those whose employers demand they work in excess of 40 hours per week. The second was a report yesterday that British authorities had found and freed three women who had been kept as domestic slaves (in London, for heaven’s sake!) for thirty years!
We are so far from the biblical standard of fairness and justice for laborers! So far! And at times we seem to be slipping further way. The prophecy promises that the time will come when workers will know justice and peace; present-day news reports show that that time hasn’t come yet.
Another prophet once asked “What does the Lord require of you?” and then answered his own question: “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Only when each person and the whole of society (through its laws, regulations, and law enforcement) does so can we be assured that workers will build houses and inhabit them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.