Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Isaiah 5:1-10) transports me to the hotly contested West Bank Settlements in the land that is at once holy and wholly misunderstood by much of the world. I became more informed of the contemporary politics of the Palestinians/Israeli conflict when the play My Name is Rachel Corrie came to the area a few years ago. Rachel was an American college student who went to the Middle East as part of the International Solidarity Movement, a group working to raise awareness of the plight of Palestinians who were being forced out of their homes to make way for Israeli settlers. She was killed when she stood protesting in front of a bulldozer that didn’t stop for her as it went to raze the home of a Palestinian family. Her story became known when her diary entries became the script of a one-woman play. It is a compelling drama, putting faces on the oftentimes faceless stories of conflict we hear about day in and day out on the news. One of those stories that I heard about recently came out of Ofra, a city founded by Israeli settlers after they expanded their national borders in the 1967 war. It is just north of Ramallah, the seat of government for the Palestinian Authority. It is also home to the Tanya Winery, operated by Yoram Cohen, who bottles prize-winning kosher wines enjoyed worldwide. Yoram Cohen has invested years of his life establishing Tanya as a world-class winery. His heart and soul is in it; he is so passionate about the work that he named the winery after his daughter, and then named his other children after varieties of grapes he uses – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Cohen is also passionate about the issue of West Bank Settlements, and will argue until his face turns as blue as his grapes about the right of Israelis to occupy land previously held by Palestinians. For him, it was Palestinians who were occupying his people’s land; he proudly speaks about his ancestors pressing wine in that very location 3,000 years ago. There is obviously no easy solution to this argument and situation, but last fall diplomats tried once again to crank up the peace talks, with the idea that part of the solution would be for Israelis to trade back that land they won in the ’67 war, in exchange for peace. Here’s what I find remarkable about Yoram Cohen. As fiercely as he believes in his right to be there, and as much heart and soul as he has put into the Tanya Winery, he is prepared to give it all up for a chance at peace. If a peace deal is reached, he said in an interview, I will inevitably be one of its victims. It will be painful, but I will leave my land. He explained that while he would abandon his vineyard with a heavy heart, he believes that dialogue is always better than bloodshed.
I thought about Yoram Cohen when I read today’s passage, where the prophet Isaiah is singing a tragic love song to the Divine Winemaker. The Lord has done everything possible to produce a fine wine—planting choice vines on fertile soil, building a hedge of protection. The pit is ready for a stomping party to press the juice, but something goes wrong. God looks for basic measures of justice but finds bloodshed. God looks for right action but finds the riveting cries of the victimized. And then the complaint gets more specific, with an edge aimed squarely at expansionist policies: curses on those who add house to house and field to field. With the bitter bouquet still swirling in the air and the wild taste still in his mouth, the Lord abandons the vineyard, removing the hedge of protection and leaving it to its inevitable wasteland end.
When I consider the state of our world today, I suspect God is still looking for justice on the vine, and still finding the wild grapes of a trampled wasteland fermenting into more and more bloodshed. I picture God swirling the wine and sniffing the glass for an aroma of righteousness, but still finding a bouquet of briers scented with the bitter distress of the exploited and downtrodden. But maybe God’s thirst for righteousness started to be quenched back when the Holy Vintner put heart and soul into planting a fruitful vine, and was so passionate about the work gave it the name of the only Son, Jesus. That vine sprang up in the thorny wasteland of the world, in the midst of a world where people were greedily grabbing up land and houses and leaving the poor in distress. Into that world Jesus came producing fruits of love and justice and grace. Which is why we Christians still sip the vintage wine-blood of Jesus from holy grails in churches across the world, in hopes that we might be intoxicated by his Way. I’m reminded of a Joni Mitchell song that Rachel Corrie liked to sing when she was over there working for peace; I think it’s a good communion toast as we raise our glasses to the Prince of Peace: Oh you are in my blood like holy wine. . . I could drink a case of you, and I would still be on my feet. I raise my glass to all those Middle East diplomats who are still on their feet, who believe that dialogue is better than bloodshed. And I toast those courageous Christian peacemakers who have gone there to try and figure out what difference having Jesus in our blood might make for the displaced Palestinians and the Yoram Cohens of this world.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.