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The Salvation of Growth (Isaiah 5:1-7)

by Delores S. Williams

Delores Williams is associate professor of theology and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis. She is known especially for her articulation of womanist theology, a perspective defined in relationship with but differently from feminist and black theologies. This article appeared in the Christian Century, Oct. 10, 1990, p. 899, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

Let me sing for my beloved
a love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
He digged 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, I pray you, 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?

And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, a cry!

This poem from Isaiah, full of proper beginnings, good intentions, anger and things gone wrong, reminds me of parenting. Like the owner and his vineyard, parents are involved in molding and caring for children. Most parents provide their children with the best resources at their disposal. Whether they are below the poverty level or above it, most parents are full of good intentions for their children. Some parents think they have done special planting and pruning on fertile soil, and they expect a rich yield.

But sometimes things go wrong. The harvest is disappointing, given the care, love and support put into the growing process. The child emerges like the grapes in the poem -- unruly, bent on its own wild course. The parent, in anger, anguish and dismay, says, with T. S. Eliotís Prufrock:

"That is not what I meant at all." With a sense of being at their witsí end, some parents may resort to the actions of the planter in Isaiahís poem. They may withdraw their support from the child, "remove its hedge." They may even expel the child from their home if the situation is threatening enough to the family.

Then there are parents who ask themselves, What did we do wrong? Like Judah of Isaiahís poem, they think the situation demands that they pass judgment upon themselves. In their pain they may feel betrayed by the child and oppressed by the situation. Nevertheless, they feel guilty. It may take a lot of outside help before the parents can let go of the judging and guilt and seek help and hope for the child and for themselves.

We who grew up in the African-American community some 40 years ago know there were (and still are) things in the social "soil" beyond our little vineyards that affect how the "planted seed" grows. There were (and still are) things in the soil that disturb growth, that put the best-laid plans awry. Our parents not only had to tend their own little vineyards, they also had to attend to the larger territories to make sure the soil was conducive to growth. Our mothers and fathers, and the children when they got old enough, were involved on several fronts in order to make the social soil suitable for growth: the neighborhood, the white world that tried to put immovable stones in the soil, and the church that helped provide moral and spiritual (and often political) sustenance. Many a sapling grew to strong adulthood because of this kind of involved parenting.

The keys to the parenting some of us grew up with were involvement, on several fronts, and spirituality. In the past eight or ten years in America, we have forgotten how important it is for our children to see us and to help us be involved in tending the soil beyond our own little vineyards -- to see and help us work in the larger society to make a better and more just world for all people. This kind of involvement introduces our children to goals not inspired by the greed of our capitalist culture gone wrong.

We who are Christian parents believe that parenting is a privilege entrusted to us by God. However, it is easy to get caught up in our own pursuits (exclusive of our children) and forget that trust. It is easy to do everything for our children rather than let them at an early age become active and responsible with us in community and other involvements. While we realize that there are gains and losses to parenting even in the best situations, we also know that those who help their children value and develop spirituality at an early age provide them with resources for a productive future. Spiritual healing and development, at any age, can help people recover from things gone wrong.

As I read Isaiahís poem today I realize that the planter of the vineyard forgot to test the soil around the fertile hill. He does not see what we today are growing more and more to believe and accept: the connectedness of all things. Watchtowers are high in the air, rather disconnected. They are not good positions from which to see harmful elements spreading through the soil. This poem leads me to understand the salvation of growth much as I understand Jesusí way of bringing salvation to the people: He did not minister from an exalted station above them. Rather, like a loving, involved parent, he was involved at ground level.

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