Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 3:10-21; Matthew 21:33-43
Perhaps in these days, as the leadership of this country debates war with Iraq, we become sensitized to the violence in Scripture. This particular parable, in which vineyard tenants resist both inspections of their stockpiles and any accountability to those outside in an escalating cycle of violence, certainly sets off troubling and discordant and even distracting echoes today. It troubled the Early Church, who allegorized it to provided reassurance in light of two shattering events: Jesus’ rejection by his own people and the destruction of Jerusalem forty years after his death. Both these catastrophes demolished any coherent sense of God’s consolation of Israel in Jesus. The quotation from Psalm 118—“the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”— no longer usable in Temple ritual, became one of the essential building blocks of the apostolic proclamation. “This is,” his followers said, “exactly what happened to Jesus: he was rejected and now reigns as Risen Lord.”
However, Matthew’s version of the parable is surprisingly open-ended. The story tells neither the owner’s vengeance nor the reversal of the rejected. The only events are the deadly short-sighted provocative reactions of the tenants. Jesus does not finish the story, but asks his listeners what they think the owner will do. Seen in a competitive way, in which only one perspective can be right, doom is certain and further violence inescapable. It is hard to imagine that his listeners did not remember Isaiah’s story, which we also heard today, of a vineyard that yielded, not grapes, but sour small wild fruit, not wine, but bloodshed, not justice, but cries of alarm and anger. They must have felt trapped by Jesus’ story, even without allegorical overlay, and enraged.
How different this debate over war in our own day, when no consent to a joint standard of moral governance seems to exist. Standing within a clear stream of tradition, religious leaders have insisted that their faithfulness requires them to say that one must exhaust all possible non-violent means to resolve a conflict before turning to violence. The reports are that their statements remain unanswered by the White House. In the week that just ended, the House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church sent a statement to Congress urging that “restraint and the on-going commitment to international cooperation are the means towards the peace that we all desire.” Of course, we know Episcopal bishops tend to be ignored by their own, how much more then by Congress! How convenient to insist on the separation of Church and State!
I understand little of international bluffing games and have no internal information at all, but I cannot believe that I misunderstand two substantial dangers in our present course: an external impatience with the international rule of law and its concomitant importance of acting jointly with other nations and with our allies on the one hand, and on the other, an internal determination to consolidate executive power at the expense of the American people and their liberties. We are trampling our country’s sources of strength and pride, the very things we might hope give us authority to rebuild this terror-stricken world.
Yet, even as I say these things, which are legitimate enough as political debate, I believe that I am not yet as a priest at the heart of the matter, not yet faithful to you here. Let’s look at the parable again. What is its answer to violence? What is the vision so dangerous it cost Jesus his life?
The parable ends with no hint of what the vineyard owner will do. He has sent increasingly more significant embassies; all have been rejected. Will he come himself? All we know of the owner is that every one of his waves of approach so far has been non-violent. We might say that Jesus asks what the owner will do so he can locate his listeners and have them identify themselves.
The listeners answer that he will respond with violence, and we learn two things. First, we realize that they identify with the tenants and are in the world as the tenants are in the world: if you get hold of something, clutch it; if something is in your way, trample it; if something is perceived as a threat, kill it. Second, we realize that they have not grasped the nature of the owner at all, who, rather than retaliate in kind, has sent emissaries of ever increasing value, reinforcing both his respect and the solemnity of their contract—and the owner’s every approach has been one of peace.
The chief priests and Pharisees give the condemning answer that lets Jesus say, “you have chosen”—and this also means the choice of violence perpetuates violence. Whether or not the parable is an allegory of Jerusalem or the Temple or the Jewish religious establishment, which was destroyed with violence, Jesus’ reply holds true: if you think violence is the solution, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you, because violence is not one of the fruits of the kingdom. If even violence causes us to lose the Reign of God, then unilateral preemptive strikes are out of the question for Christians. Any subtle argument to accommodate and justify attacks has far more to do with the seduction of power than with our obedience to the authority of God.
This is the unpopular truth of the Christian position. Some are likely to rise up at its offense to common sense. So I will speak our spiritual life rather than politics for the rest of this sermon. I have been reading books by James Alison recently, who has elaborated on Rene Girard’s work on the scapegoat. In Girard’s thought, social survival depends on identifying and destroying a victim, whose death redirects, even displaces, the tensions of that society, and thus allows the society to survive—at least until the society’s internal mutual hatreds build up again and another distracting but relieving expulsion occurs.
Jesus’ listeners fall right in with this: someone must be blamed and then expelled to resolve the crisis. They do their best to show that they are on the owner’s side by defending the owner’s interests and demanding the punishment of those who failed to respect him. All Jesus does is reflect back to them their violent choice. He himself was picked and crucified as the victim whose death could defer a little longer the mounting hatred between Jerusalem and Rome.
Had his death been all, it would have been another dismal instance of this human preference. Instead, God restores Jesus through the Resurrection. The chosen victim returns, and by returning makes it clear that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to God’s self. The mechanism of expulsion is shown not to be a divine dispensation at all, since it is repudiated by the Resurrection, but a mendacious and deadly human bargain. The scapegoat transaction is meant to free us from seeing our guilt, by proclaiming a scapegoat guilty and destroying it. Yet what we see is our guilt: we choose accusation rather than conversation, violence rather than justice, and murder rather than the self-knowledge that would lead us to change. In the Resurrection, the victim returns to show the expulsion for what it is and to show that it has failed. We cannot clear ourselves by smearing another; we cannot bargain with death to extend our life.
And yet Dr. Alison gives all this one further turn. Because God has absorbed the violence, not denied it, but emptied it of its potency and its necessity in the Resurrection, we no longer need to resort to that solution. In fact, if we believe in the Resurrection, we no longer can resort to it, because it is clear that those expelled are held in God, that death is no inhibitor of God, that we cannot place anything outside the reach of God. The purifying work, then, according to Dr. Alison, is within us: to realize that we are called to a life without smoldering resentments that we fan into flame. If there is no longer any expulsion possible, and since we see that our expulsions were only our refusal to know our own guilt and shame, resentment of others is shown to be nothing more than a further attempt to attribute blame and to drive away. To learn to look at others without resentment is to learn to live in the Resurrection.
We cannot learn this, of course, unless we have gone through our own death, unless we have seen what it is to die and to know that we live beyond it. This is the blessing hidden in collapse. If you think your power is primarily engaged with holding onto your life, that your life truly is in your hands, if you think your life is about that power—and I believe most of us move through the day with this sense that our life is ours to manage and defend, which is the paranoiac but familiar posture of the ego—then any perceived threat must be responded to with negotiation or deception or retreat or rage. But as soon as we realize that what sustains us is beyond our control, that influence is never a possession but a participation, that we hold our life as the tenants of our history and our culture and our biology—we are trustees of our circumstances rather than owners—that history and culture and biology hold the deed to our life and we can do nothing but what falls within their territory, and at the end return everything to them, then that awareness is a momentary opening in the Red Sea of delusion that surrounds you, and you might dash for freedom in God’s grace.
Add to this that our life—our energy and awareness, our subjectivity, molded by our history and culture and biology—our life also is held in trust. We owe our life back to God, and no life is ours to do with as we will, since every person is a fellow tenant, with as fragile a hold and as extensive an account. Then, in that collapse of our sense of self-possession, which is always also a sense of isolation, which is always then the grief and fear of us children alone in the dark, at that moment of dereliction, once our trembling stops, we might begin to sense the still arms that undergird us. This dark is no place for resentment and accusation, because these hidden arms are the taproot of hope.
We might yet, in our horror of our true dependence and contingency, lash out and even destroy our self—Hell is always a possibility. Yet our comfort is that we are not alone, that the owner himself has held a vineyard in tenancy and knows what that is like, and is already there waiting for us. Once Hell is harrowed, Adam and Eve walk free, shown the Way by the One who died and rose again. If death is overcome, what do we have left to fear? And if our fear is drained away, what is there to resent? And if our resentment falls from our eyes like blinding cataracts, whom do we see that we must still attack?
We recoil from dismantling the structures of blame, because that would leave us disoriented and vulnerable. However, brothers and sisters, believe me, we are more in need of what we cannot conceive than we realize. We are more in need of what we cannot believe than we know. Only when the compassion arising out of our sense of shared creatureliness washes over us with a shudder that is in reality the death-throes of our insistence on the rightness of our cause will we have hope. But this death, overwhelming the tenants with the mercy of the truth of their dependence on the owner, is to be prayed for, so a “faith beyond resentment” can grow in us, until the day we no longer inhabit faith, but rejoice in what will be unmediated as it is now unalienable, delighting in the unending life of the Eternal Source, the Only-begotten Word, and the Life-giving Spirit, One God, whom we praise this day as we hope to for all eternity. </P