In the 1930s, Woody Guthrie took a song by Albert Brumley and adapted it for fellow Oklahomans fleeing the “dust bowl.”
“This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue / The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door / And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore,” became “I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-ramblin’ round / I work when I can get it, I roam from town to town / The police make it hard wherever I may go / And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”
The source of the tune is unmistakable, but Guthrie’s adaptation spoke directly and in a powerful new way to the poverty and injustice of the Dirty Thirties. Thoroughly steeped in the traditions and forms of folk music, and keenly aware of current realities and struggles, Guthrie repeatedly wrote new songs with variations on familiar tunes.
I can’t help but hear Jesus as a songwriter. Mark 12:1-9 records Jesus’ “cover version” of Isaiah’s ancient “Song of the Vineyard” (Isaiah 5:1-10). More than a “cover version,” it is a bold reworking of the tradition. Much like Guthrie, Jesus transforms familiar poetry into a hard-hitting, finger-pointing song that took direct aim at a contemporary cast of characters.
Jesus appropriates Isaiah’s imagery, where “the vineyard is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting” (Isaiah 5:7), and transposes it into a new key. Jesus’ version introduces new characters—tenants, the owner’s messengers and son—and extends the plot dramatically. The result is provocative. The prophetic judgment of Israel/Judah has become a sharply focused critique of Israel’s current leadership, the tenants charged with care of the vineyard.
This is not the only way that Jesus is portrayed working with Scripture. Mark 12 goes on to describe a series of interactions and scriptural debates about hot-button issues of the day. There is much we can learn from the way Jesus reads Scripture—and his context—in many other texts.
Will we dare to sing this Jesus/Isaiah song today? How can it be voiced in light of the experience and reality of the original inhabitants—first nations—of the Canadian vineyard? How should all of the current tenants—old and new—relate to each other, and to the vineyard itself? What does the owner of the vineyard have to say about all this?
We are called to be steeped in Scripture and attentive to the realities and struggles of our context. In the words of another biblical songwriter: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Bryan Moyer Suderman (smalltallmusic.com) is a member of Mennonite Church Canada’s Church Engagement Council.