[On Matt. 23:37-39]
Following the Hebrew prophets’ focus on Jerusalem, Jesus addresses the city with uncommon intimacy. The image he uses to circumscribe his relationship to the city is profoundly domestic: “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Mt. 23:37b). Jesus speaks with a familiarity and devotion parallel to that which Wendell Berry exudes for his home state Kentucky. This devotion is amplified by reference to Isaiah’s “love-song for [the beloved’s] 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;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there for me to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
This image expands Matthew’s from the domestic into the agricultural realm. God is here concerned with Jerusalem’s fruit-bearing. It is an activity he is deeply invested in. Will Jerusalem produce cultural fruit that displays God’s mark and proclaims his lordship? Or will it yield only “wild grapes,” a clear indication than the vines God had planted were cross-pollinated with an exotic species?
Alas, “you were not willing!” declares Jesus. The image of happy domesticity is replaced by its direct antithesis, social barrenness: “See, your house is left to you, desolate” (Mt. 23:38). One may easily read in these lines a foreshadowing of the “unsettlement” decried by contemporary agrarian writers. Isaiah’s picture of barrenness is clearly linked:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone
in the midst of the land!
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
Jesus tenders God’s pathos toward Jerusalem. This pathos contains irrevocable devotion—of the type Berry and Deneen advocate—but it also conveys furious criticism. Isaiah follows his “love-song” with a prediction of Jerusalem’s decimation by a foreign army; the reason cited is that the people of Jerusalem have “rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, / and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel” (5:24b).
A culture is a community’s “pleasant planting” (Isa. 5:7). It demands careful attention and skillful hands to ensure a good crop. As I showed in the cultural theories above, a good crop entails human flourishing. When a culture yields that which is not only environmentally but also socially destructive, it warrants severe criticism of the sort illustrated by Jesus and Isaiah. Yet this criticism, to be effectual, must flow from affection. It will not renew American culture for distant Muslim pundits to decry it; renewal will only come from within. To alter Berry’s statement (“an adequate local culture keeps work within the reach of love”): an adequate local culture keeps critique within the reach of love.