Education is a good thing. Theological education is a really good thing. But I gotta be honest. I think that, sometimes, too much theological education can be damaging. Here’s what I mean by that.
Those of us who have studied theology extensively tend to be very academic in our approach to biblical texts. Or maybe it’s just me. But an overemphasis on the academic study of Holy Scripture can, I think, also cause us not to see some really beautiful things in the Scriptures or even make our faith more about reason than the staggering beauty of who God is and what He has done in and through the Son.
I say all that to say that this week’s readings, for me, became too academic initially. I began to study these texts to prepare this weekly blog. I was meditating on these texts, trying to find that thing that I could pull out of the texts to blow theological minds. I was, frankly, becoming frustrated and this was feeling like a dry exercise.
And then, thanks be to God, the Spirit opened my heart to see one thing in these readings.
I have been on a really emotional journey recently. As I have converted to the Catholic Church, I have experienced a range of emotions. And I have been grateful for the experiences! I had begun to feel numb and like I was just going through the motions. But recently, I was reading and listening to a podcast about St. Augustine.
And my heart was awakened in a wonderful way. Part of the brilliance, in my opinion, of St. Augustine was his ability to be so very emotive about the heart and its love for beauty and how that draws us to God, who is Himself beautiful and the source of all beauty.
And that’s what I see in this week’s readings.
Beauty that aches with meaning. Beauty that causes my heart to soar and weep simultaneously.
Let me explain and maybe you’ll see it as well.
Let me just say from the jump that there a many references to bearing fruit in this week’s readings. We can have that conversation if you want. I think every serious reader of Holy Scripture and every serious Christian will agree that our lives should bear the fruits of repentance (thank you, St. John the Baptist). We need to bear fruit in keeping with our profession of Jesus as the crucified and raised Messiah.
But I want us to focus on something else, aside from our obligation to bear fruit.
I want us to focus on the imagery we see in our readings.
Look at Isaiah 5:1-7. I love how the ESV translates this (vs 1-4),
“Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He 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;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men 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 looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?”
Look at this verbiage! Let me sing for my beloved…immediately we are shown the tenderness of this text. My beloved is not something you just call everyone but is a tender expression of love. And consider how the Beloved One cares for this vineyard. It sits on a fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones. He planted it with the choicest of vines, built a watchtower in it to protect it and hewed out a wine vat so that the fruit of the vineyard would be joy and gladness to the hearts of men!
Consider the loving care of the One who planted the vineyard and praise the planter for His mercy and loving care!
Look at the Psalm reading/chant for today, Psalm 80:9,12,13-16,19-20.
Here we see that the vineyard is a people. Now the loving care of the Isaiah text comes into focus. Now we see even more the tenderness of the care of the Beloved One who owns and plants the vineyard, who has transplanted it from a place of darkness and slavery to a place of freedom and plenty!
Our gospel text today is from St. Matthew’s gospel, chapter 21:33-43.
Jesus takes the Isaiah text and applies it directly to Himself (if you’ve ever wondered how to interpret OT texts in light of Jesus, read this parable). Again we see that all the activity of planting the vineyard and caring for it is at the behest of the landowner. The vines didn’t plant themselves. Rather, the owner (God the Father) in his benevolence has given life. He has chosen to plant the vines and care for them. He has sent servants (prophets) to do His bidding but the tenants that God gave the vineyard to (the people of Israel…and us) abused them. They failed to comply with the messengers sent by God.
So then, joy of all joys, mystery of mysteries, beauty of all beauty, the landowner (God) sent His Son. Did they, do we welcome the Son? Have we given Him his just dues, the respect and honor He deserves? Or have we, like the tenants of the parable, thrown Him out of a vineyard that wasn’t even ours and murdered him?
Oh Church, we need to see not only the great sadness of our texts today but the great joy and beauty as well!
In His great mercy, our Father has given us all we could dare to dream or ask for. He has given us the very vineyard of His love and care for us. He has given us the wine of salvation to drink freely of! He has cared for us, His vineyard; He has given us all that we have. And He has sent His Son for our redemption! How can we not see and taste and feel this great joy granted to us by our kind Father who has sent for us His Son, so that we may again be the fruitful vineyard of the One who planted?
Let us rejoice in the beautiful and sacrificial love of our Father who has given us the Son!
Thanks be to God!
I’ll never forget it.
My first day on campus at seminary and I was participating in what’s called matriculation. That’s a 10 dollar word to say I was registering as a new student. All these fancy words….
Anyways, I was sitting down looking at the classes I was going to be taking. I was going for an MDiv in Christian Apologetics…at least that’s what I started out to do. Anyways, I was looking at the classes and one caught my eye.
I didn’t even know how to say the word, much less know what it meant. So I asked the person assigned to help me, “Hey, what does this mean?” They chuckled in that semi-snarky superior way that makes you feel like an ignorant peasant and said, “Hermeneutics.” I said, “Yeah, I see the word but what does it mean?” They said, “It basically means how to interpret the Bible.” I said, “Then why don’t you just call it that, Biblical Interpretation?” They said, “Because it’s called hermeneutics.” I said, “Right, but if you called it something that people understood…you know what, never mind.” So I enrolled in a hermeneutics class where I was to learn how to interpret Scripture. I remember finding that curious to think that the Bible, specifically the New Testament, had been around for the better part of 2000 years and we still didn’t know how to interpret it…
The class wasn’t bad and taught me many things I did not know. One thing I remember that really stuck out to me was the statement that “a text can never mean what it’s never meant.” I wasn’t real sure what that meant and, frankly, I’m still not sure what exactly that means. I was also struck by the statement made by my professor that a text can only have one meaning. He said the author (in this case the inspired human author) meant one thing only and we must work to discover that one thing.
I found that to be a little unsatisfying, to be honest. I remember thinking that didn’t seem right somehow, that a text could only have one meaning. I remember thinking, ‘Well that’s funny because so many people seem to have so many different interpretations of what different texts mean.’
Have you run into that? It seems like some things are so widely interpreted that you have a hard time determining what it actually means. For example, the accounts in the Acts of the Apostles (the book of Acts) of the household baptisms of the Gentile converts. So I read those texts that say the person who believed and their entire household was baptized and I am quite certain it means exactly what it says; that everyone in the household was baptized, husband, wife, children, servants…you get the picture. A Baptist will read that very same text and argue that it doesn’t mean what it says; that the children weren’t baptized but only those who professed faith.
See the problem?
I had a problem. As a church planter and pastor, I was preparing sermons to feed the flock under my care. As I was preparing those sermons, I was studying the text of Holy Scripture. What wasn’t plain, I researched. That’s how you do hermeneutics, right? The problem became, for me, that different commentators had different things to say about some texts. Take the baptism narratives again, for example. Presbyterian commentators would say it’s a clear indication of paedo-baptism. A Baptist commentator would say the exact opposite.
What’s an honest pastor to do?
Did anyone agree on what Holy Scripture had to say?
Well, as a matter of fact, yes. In the historic Church, the Catholic Church, there appeared to be remarkable agreement on what Holy Scripture had to say. Now yes, there were some variances but what I found was surprising. The Church was remarkably consistent throughout the last 2000 years or so in how she interpreted Holy Scripture. She was also remarkably consistent in how the text of Holy Scripture was to be applied to our daily lives.
Caveat: I am no expert in Catholic hermeneutics. However, I have learned and am learning so here are some things I’ve learned. Historically, the Church has interpreted Holy Scripture with four basic senses, if you will, of how to interpret. They are:
Here’s the point I’m trying to make. I was greatly comforted in knowing, as a pastor and preacher, that my need to interpret biblical texts had been answered. I no longer had to struggle to know if what I was seeing in the text was “right” or “wrong.” Rather, I had the long history of the teaching of the Church to rely upon. What sweet comfort that discovery was for me as a pastor!
Maybe you struggle as well with some texts of Holy Scripture. Maybe you’re like me and wonder what in the world does some of this mean? I want you to know the peace and comfort I have found, knowing that the Church has wrestled with these very things for over two centuries now. She has much wisdom and remarkable consistency to offer us as we feed our own souls and the souls of our flock.
Mother Church has much to teach us. Let us be grateful for her. Let us be humble and accept her wisdom. Let us praise God for His kindness in giving us teachers to show us the way!