Hearing Jesus as songwriter

February 27, 2013 | Viewpoints | Volume 17 Issue 5
Bryan Moyer Suderman |

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.

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Thanks, Bryan. I've enjoyed the fruit I'm seeing from your intense engagement of scripture over the last years.

As someone who plays with words (and playing is one of the best ways to learn, right?) I noticed several standouts:

Tenant. Tenet. Current. Hold. There is a current (both current and timeless) and there is a holding on -- to both things and ideas. Jesus held on to something we find hard to see or believe, and let go of things we have trouble letting go of. He tore down at times we think he should have built up, he critiqued where we ignore and ignored where we critique. He saw not only the tenets and the tenants and the vineyard but the owner. Can we imitate this connection as well as actions and words? Can we connect our actions and words with His. "Come follow me" -- what is this? Possible? Yes...

1. a person who holds or possesses for a time lands, tenements, or personalty of another, usually for rent.

2. any opinion, principle, doctrine, dogma, etc. held as true by members of a profession, group, or movement.

It's easy to see and hear Jesus as the Teacher and not so easy to see and hear Jesus the Singer and Songwriter. We see texts that allude to Jesus frequenting pubs and making references to the psalms and our idea of Jesus as the Rabbouni, the renowned Teacher speaking face to face with the weeping Magdalene,in the garden adjacent to the tombs, takes over. The Magdalene is weeping because she is looking for her lord. The Teacher John calls Jesus replies that he has not taken his body (John 20:15). Scripture and songs are full of little nuances that are not immediately apparent. The Magdalene dries her tears and is satisfied with the Teacher's response. The Teacher is not the promised husbandman of Song of Songs (Song of Songs 6:1) mmm... So Is Jesus of Nazareth the Magadlene's espoused, the Rock that the builders rejected (Psalm 118:22).

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