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Vineyards, Violence, and Verbatim

Confession time:  I don’t like commentaries.

I like them fine for bible studies, and leading discussions.  I find them edifying when doing close readings.  But commentaries for preaching do not help me in my ‘process’ (imagine me wearing a beret, flipping my hair, and saying this with an overly dramatic flourish as befits an artiste.)

So, there are very few resources I lean on week in and week out when I’m writing a sermon.  However, this week I really leaned on ‘Left Behind and Loving It‘– a blog that offers a word-for-word literal dissection of the Koine Greek gospel text, along with some basic historical perspective.  There has not been a week that I’ve read his blog that it has not helped me in some way, so my sincerest thanks–especially for the inspiration for this sermon, in the wake of Las Vegas.

 

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

October 6, 2017

Ordinary Time, Proper  http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com/2014/09/resurrection-return-of-rejected.html

Matthew 21:33-46

 

Today is all about vineyards.  Isaiah and Jesus both tell us entertaining stories about vineyards that go bad, which sounds like an entertaining reality show on Bravo, that probably features catfights or something similar.

Isaiah’s vineyard has a loving owner–who comes to the land, plants it, tends it, builds a wall, and cares for it, only to have the vines spoil for an unknown reason, and the grapes turn sour.  

Jesus, in turn, reinterprets the parable in his conversation with the Pharisees and religious leaders, but changes a couple of important things.  In Jesus’s telling, the landowner–which is a Greek word that is literally ‘house despot’, and we should pull that back into circulation–the landowner gives the tending of the vineyard to some…odd people.

This band of tenant farmers tend the land, and succeed in farming it, but when the landowner sends servants to collect the grapes, the tenants decide to run them off with violence.  Ok, thinks the landowner, I’ll send my son.  They’ll have to respect him.  That also doesn’t work.  The tenants take the son and kill him.  So Jesus asks the leaders what the landowner should do about the tenant farmers?

They get right into the spirit of the thing–HE SHOULD KILL THEM.  KILL THEM ALL.  The evil ones should die evilly.  In the greek.  They proclaim.  But that doesn’t seem to be the right answer.

We should perhaps stop here and point out that this, like all parables, is weird.  And unlike most parables, it’s violent and bloody,  No nice farmers or happy widows to be found in here.  So it’s not really what we’re used to.  But for the Pharisees and leaders, they would be somewhat familiar with this story–after all, they knew Isaiah’s story well.  They knew the idea of Israel’s sinfulness being punished, and eventually being restored to wholeness and fruitfulness.  

One of the persistent ideas throughout the prophets, including Isaiah, is that whenever Israel messed up, God would send an invading empire to take over for a bit, until Israel got back on track.  Once that happened, the empire, in turn, would overstep in some way, and God would rescue Israel and all would be well again.  It was the circle of life, Ancient Israel style.  

Think of Egypt:  initially, the way the Israelites come to Egypt is through Joseph, when his brothers mess up, and sell him into slavery.  Whoops.  That leads to a famine, and Joseph, now the Pharoah’s number 2, is able to keep his family safe in Egypt.  It’s great.  However, years pass, and eventually a Pharoah comes to power who becomes afraid of all the Israelites in Egypt, and enslaves them.  This sets into motion God’s salvation through Moses and the Exodus.  It’s the cycle:  Israel messes up: empire steps in: empire oversteps: God rescues.  

So it’s logical to think that when they heard the story, the religious leaders assumed that they were safe in assuming that God was about to step in again and toss out the evil tenants.  Clearly the evil tenants were Rome!  Rome had overstepped!  God was coming to save them! This story was great!  

But no.  

And the way you know this isn’t right is the tenants’ thinking when the son shows up.  “We can kill him and keep his inheritance for ourselves.”  That doesn’t make sense.  Inheritance doesn’t work like that.  The tenants are wrong; but by then, they’re in a cycle of violence that they can’t break out of, and it’s easier to kill the son than to do anything else.

That sort of thinking isn’t God’s way of doing things.  

That sort of thinking is an empire’s way of doing things.  Specifically, that’s Rome’s way of doing things.  

Empires, after all, come in and kill people.  They reward violence with more violence.  If you rise up against an empire, then you receive violence in return.  That’s the way they work.  

In general, that’s the way the systems, the powers and principalities of the world work.  It’s the rationale of an eye for an eye, writ large.  How do we deal with violence?  More violence.  What happens if someone attacks us?  We hit back.  How should we solve the problem of mass shootings? More guns on the streets.  In this vineyard, power is only displayed and known through might.  It is the world of the tenants.

But Jesus points out the problem with that–it never stops.  There’s no end.  While the leaders might be excited to see another overthrow of an empire, it will only usher in another one down the line.  Ultimately, the cycle of violence does not solve the problem.  It feels good in the moment; it always appears like the right side has triumphed.  But all it does is delay the next step.  

What stops the cycle is not further violence; is not the landowner coming in to kill all the tenants.  What stops the cycle is resurrection.  It is when we trust God enough to give up violence, and believe that God can save us from the ways of empire, that God can give us a new way.  When we give up our need to avenge ourselves, and put our faith in God’s ability to resurrect even the worst and most violent of circumstances and people.  

Jesus points out that the only thing that breaks open the cycle of violence that the world is trapped in is the resurrection of God–God’s ability to recreate the world and the creatures within it.  And that requires immense trust on our part.  

Because for us, nothing feels as secure as violence.  Nothing feels as steady as returning tit for tat.  It is literally the only way we know.  But Jesus reminds us that it is a false idol.  It never gets us the peace we long for.  The tenants, no matter who they killed, no matter how much blood they shed, would never inherit the land.  Nothing would get them that.  No violence ever gets us what it promises.  No violence ever gets us safety.  Not forever.  Violence can’t deliver that–it lies.

The only safety to be found is through faith in God.  Not in might, not in strength, and not in accruing more weapons.  Safety can only be found through trusting in God’s power to work resurrection in our violent places, and getting out of the way of that work.  

Peace which passes all understanding is the final thing we say every Sunday in this liturgy.  We commit ourselves to this peace of God which goes beyond our abilities to harness, beyond our knowledge and our capacity to achieve.  This peace that we cannot reach with weapons or might–this is what we ask God for in a final act each week, and what we vow to live in.  Peace that requires such faith that it passes understanding in such a violent world.  

It requires a lot to turn away from the violence of the tenants–this way of life that the world promises will yield safety. It requires a leap of faith that feels terrifying.  But Christ has gone this way before us.  God waits ahead to guide us.  And the peace that passes understanding is ours as we go.  

Amen.

 

 

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About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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