18 Pentecost, Proper 21 – October 4, 2020
This parable begs the question, “whose land is it, anyway?”
Culturally, in the first century, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over a portion of the crop and those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land, forcefully if necessary. Many in Jesus’ audience would have understood the experience of the farmers all too well. If they chose not to “pay” the landowner, as was the case in Jesus’ parable, the landowner would find new tenants without doubt. So, Jesus’ story highlighted the landowner’s patience in this regard.
This parable is also told in the gospels of Mark and Luke. In all three, after telling the story of violent tenant farmers, Jesus asks a question: “what will the landowner do to those tenants?”
The answer that we – and I do me “we” and not “they” – give Jesus is actually a return of violent behavior…we say “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Here’s the thing: the violent answer the audience gives, that we often give Jesus is technically the right answer, at least right according to the world. The landowner has every right to punish the tenants for their refusal to pay him his due and every right to destroy them, even put them to death, for their treatment of his servants and for their murder of his son. Yes, it is the answer Jesus’ audience expects; the answer the world demands – even now, even today.
This is not the answer Jesus gives. Parables were a way in which Jesus provided pictures, insights, and gleams of what the kingdom of God looks like. By throwing everyday events and persons together in unexpected ways, Jesus’ parables point to who God is, how God acts, and how we are expected and invited to live considering all this. So, while the answer given is the right answer according to everything we’ve learned from our life in the world, it’s not the answer God looks for. In fact, the rest of Matthew, and pretty much the whole biblical story, offers another answer that runs more like that famous line from John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life”.
We’ve experienced another rough week in our world. The debate on Tuesday evening simply solidified how sad and frankly scary our political environment is. I feel as if I keep repeating this, but I’ll say it again….we need to dig deep within ourselves and find a way to put aside our defensiveness and really listen to what others, who are living in a different political home, have to say. There are many different political causes out there right now. The sound bites we hear on the news and through social media are and have always been dangerous because the sound bite lacks the depth and reasoning behind it, behind why there is a cause to begin with. So, rather than react immediately in some form of violent words or behavior to another, let’s take the time to truly research and understand the full story behind a sound bite. You may just be surprised at what you find. You may discover yourself within the story told by another. In other words, how are we taking care of our vineyard these days?
Before we start casting shame and blame on the easy targets in this story and on those around us in our lives, we should take a long hard look at ourselves. Just how are we doing in our tending of the Kingdom of God? Perhaps we need to get our own political home in order.
As Jan Richardson shares…..Violence begins in small ways. It rarely starts as something explosive; rather, it works to find tiny openings, just enough space to wedge itself into. Violence finds its sustenance and its home in the actions that accumulate over time: impatience, indifference, working beyond our weariness, depleting our internal reserves, relying too much on ourselves, pushing anger underground, making assumptions, giving ground to prejudice, stoking resentments… So many ways we till the soil, inadvertently and otherwise, where violence can take hold.
OK…so, you may be saying…well, I don’t view myself as violent ….but sometimes, if we’re honest, we all reach a point where we think about it, or use violent language…so perhaps we might check our assumption that ‘I’m not a violent person’, and ask ourselves, How am I cultivating my vineyard these days, and what am I allowing to seep in—even stuff that seems tiny, microscopic really, but can take root over time? How is the vineyard of my soul?
Etty Hillesum, the brilliant young Jewish woman who was killed in the Holocaust and now known as the Mystic of the Holocaust, persisted in tending her soul as the world was falling apart. She understood that violence doesn’t spring forth fully formed, that it gestates in small acts and individual hearts, and that when we don’t attend to what’s going on inside us, the destructiveness within us accumulates and spills over into the world around us. Shortly after appearing at a Gestapo hall where she and other Jewish people had been summoned for questioning, Etty wrote in her journal,
“Something else about this morning: the perception, very strongly borne in, that despite all the suffering and injustice I cannot hate others. All the appalling things that happen are no mysterious threats from afar, but arise from fellow beings very close to us. That makes these happenings more familiar, then, and not so frightening. The terrifying thing is that systems grow too big for men and hold them in a satanic grip, the builders no less than the victims of the system, much as large edifices and spires, created by men’s hands, tower high above us, dominate us, yet may collapse over our heads and bury us”.
One of the practices that Etty cultivated in the midst of the Holocaust was a refusal to give in to hatred. She recognized hatred as a form of violence that would not solve the terror that the Nazis were inflicting. “I see no alternative,” she once told a friend, “each of us must turn inwards and destroy in himself all that he thinks he ought to destroy in others.”
Etty wrote in her journal, “Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
Ok..yes…It’s a challenge, this peace thing, especially since it specifically does not mean refusing to see the violence that persists in the world or pretending that it isn’t there. We’re not saying that. It doesn’t mean being spineless, doesn’t mean letting the bullies win, it doesn’t mean standing by while others are destroyed. Whatever peace doesn’t mean, we do know it includes seeking it within our own selves, cultivating it in the vineyard of our own souls, recognizing that what grows there is intertwined with what grows in the world beyond our own borders.
(based on Jan Richardson’s blog http://paintedprayerbook.com/2008/10/02/violence-in-the-vineyard/)
Jesus does not shrink from the sacrifice on the cross, he does not return with vengeance, he does not kick anyone out of the kingdom of heaven. Instead, the resurrected Jesus, having taken on the worst that our violence can inflict, comes back and instructs his disciples to take the good news of the Gospel to the very ends of the earth, promising to be with them always. Jesus is with us always.
Etty also wrote in her journal: In a time when everything was being swept away, when “the whole world is becoming a giant concentration camp,” she felt one must hold fast to what endures — the encounter with God at the depths of one’s own soul and in other people. She said: “God is not accountable to us, but we are to Him. I know what may lie in wait for us…. And yet I find life beautiful and meaningful.”
The good news means, that tragedy and death and loss and hatred are, in the end, no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace. Jesus’ deeds matter even more, as Jesus’ death and resurrection creates more possibilities than those we can see, including the possibility of peace.
So, how is your vineyard? Amen.