Violence ≠ Norm : October 8, 2017

October 8, 2017

Year A, Pentecost 18                                              
Matthew 21:33-46                                                                             

            This has never been one of my favorite Gospel readings.  I am not sure I know anyone who likes this reading.  For me, it’s the violence.  We all know that there is violence in the Bible, but most of us assume that the violence is limited to the Old Testament.  But as we know far too well, violence is part of our world. That does not mean it is a good part of our world, but it is there—now– just as it was 2000 years ago.  Jesus was never one to shy away from uncomfortable topics. 

            In preaching we are told never to allegorize the parables.  In other words, we should not simplify them by turning them into morality stories where everything symbolizes somethings else.  Usually it is not that cut and dry.  However for this parable, it is a little more cut and dry because the story is a reference to the words of Isaiah where he talked about a vineyard and said: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel…”  The land owner in the story is God and the land that others are caring for is not just the land of Israel, but the people of Israel, the people of God.  That is the only part of the parable that is defined in Isaiah, but that is a pretty big part.  Most people have inferred that the tenants who treated the owner’s servants poorly represented the religious leaders of the time.  People have assumed this because of the way that the Pharisees and the Chief Priests reacted.  The text says that they realized it was about them and wanted to arrest Jesus because of that.  But Jesus never says that directly.[1] 

            One of confusing things about this parable is the actions of the owner.  The beginning of the story makes sense.  He prepares the land and equips it with everything that is needed for a good harvest.  It was not uncommon for a business man to own land and lease it to someone else. The expectation was that in exchange for allowing the people to harvest his land, they would give him a percentage of either the profit or the harvest itself.  In this case, the owner was collecting a portion of the produce.   To do so, he sent servants out to collect the produce.  So far, everything is making sense.  Then the tenants kill one servant and injure the two others.  This is a violent reaction, but not unprecedented.  These tenants were clearly abusing the owner and his servants by doing this. 

One would expect the owner to react just as severely.  He could take a chance and send more servants, but this time send them heavily armed.  More likely it would have been wise to send members of the army to arrest those corrupt tenants.  He did neither of those things.  He sent more people assuming that the tenants would have gotten over their violent tendencies.  However, this new group of servants were treated the same way as the first group. By now, several of his servants were dead and the rest were injured. It seems like this would be the time to send in the big guns…the cavalry.  These tenants were clearly not going to have a change of heart.  Yet this is where things get a little crazy.  The owner sends his son.  His son. One person. He assumes that by putting trust in these tenants, they would see what a caring owner he is. They would repent and treat the son better than the others he sent.   But they don’t. They kill the son. 

            At this point in the story, Jesus turns to the crowd and he asks them what they think the owner will do next.  They respond in the most practical and reasonable way.  The owner will kill those horrible wretches and give someone else the land.  In responding this way, the people in the crowd showed their limitations.  Their response was violence because that was all they knew.  If someone kills someone, they get killed.  That is fair and just. But that is not how the owner operates.  That is not how God operates.  God gave humans everything we could possibly need. When God asked something in return (obedience, love and loyalty) humans refused.  So God sent the prophets, people of wisdom, strength and faith. Most were killed and all were treated with cruelty.  Then God sent his son hoping that people would learn from his son, come to understand God in a new way.  Some did, but the vast majority did not.  God’s son was beaten and killed. 

How did God respond to this ultimate betrayal?  Did he avenge the death of his son? Did he strike down all the people who had rejected him, accused him, ignored him, beaten him and ultimately killed him? That would have been the fair thing to do. That would have been the just thing to do.  He didn’t.  He raised Jesus from the dead and he sent him back to the same people who rejected him. 

While we know the end of this story, let’s assume for a minute that we do not know the end.  Sending Jesus back again seems like a really bad idea to me.  God had already given the people many chances.  He had been more than fair.  Why send his son back?  Because it was about more than being fair. It’s about how God loves God’s people—how God loves us.  God does not love us in the ways that make any sense. He gives us countless chances to reform, countless chances to respond to cruelty and hate not with violence, but with forgiveness and love. 

            It’s true that it made a huge difference when God sent Jesus back from the dead.  For those who had believed, their faith was renewed.  For those who doubted, they came to believe.   No one tried to kill Jesus again, at least not that we know of.  Thus, it would seem that this final desperate attempt was successful.  Or was it?  Yes, a church was created.  Christianity was spread across the world and continues to thrive in many places. Yet, Christians continue to be persecuted in some places. People doing the work of God are still killed.  The problem is even more complex and pervasive than that.  Even as Christians, as followers of Christ, we continue to turn from him again and again.  We don’t kill the son, but it seems at times like we try. 

            God gave his son.  While Jesus ascended, we still have him. We have that gift that God foolishly bestowed on us so many years ago.  We have the gift of a love that has no limit.  With that gift comes a responsibility, like discovering ways to respond to injustice without resorting to violence.  I cannot tell you exactly how to do it. I have some ideas, but I am not sure of anything.  What I know is that what we are doing is not working. The crowd responded to Jesus in the only way they knew– violence.[2]  That was not Jesus’ response.  As Christians, we have been taught something different. The norm can no longer be death and destruction.

 By the time a child turns 18, they will have seen an average of 16,000 murders on television and over 200,000 acts of violence. It’s the default. It’s the norm. Many people have said that when they heard about the shooting in Las Vegas, they felt numb.  Oh, another shooting.  We have gone numb.  That is not what Jesus wanted.  That I know for sure.

            Perhaps what we can do, what we can start to do, is shift our thinking so that violence does not have to be the default.  We can look at creative options.  I know that sometimes violence has to happen.  I am not a pacifist.  I know that I live in a country that is safer than most partly because we have the strength to respond to violence.   But that does not have to be the only way.  As I considered how we could shift our thinking, our baseline, I looked at the first reading.  It’s the 10 commandments.  If we followed those 10 commandments, there would be peace in this world.  Take your bulletin home.  Read those commandments every day this week, even before you look at the news.  Start imagining what the world would look like if we actually followed God’s guidance.  If we can spend more time thinking and praying on those things, then that will be our default.  Let God’s love and grace be the way we start our day. We can change the norm.

[1] This is mostly likely what Matthew was saying, but this was partially due to the fact that the church was facing persecution from the Jews at the time.  Unfortunately texts like this have fueled anti-Semitism over the last 2000 years.
[2] I am not saying Jews only knew violence.  With the Roman occupation, and some of the laws of the Torah, violence was often uses as a form of punishment.  Jesus taught something different.