Violence in the vineyard

Five years ago, it was in December, a young man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and killed twenty children and six adults. It broke our hearts. We had no words for the pain and grief that gripped our hearts. They were so young, only six or seven years old. We had no words, but I remember many of us still had some hope that perhaps semi-automatic weapons would be taken off the market or that use of large capacity clips would be limited to the military. For twenty-six weeks, every Sunday, we lit a candle and remembered one of the victims, spoke their names in God’s house, so our hearts’ attention wouldn’t just be a reflection of the news cycle. But nothing happened with regard to the country’s gun laws. Last summer, a gunman killed 49 people and injured 58 in an Orlando nightclub, making it the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But nothing happened, and the sad record lasted only a year. On Monday in Las Vegas, a gunman killed 58 people and injured more than 500. I want to say, I can’t believe it, but I can. I have witnessed it again and again: the heart-breaking news, followed by hollow statements that “now is not the time to talk about gun control measures,” followed by inaction and the next outrage pushing the topic from the headlines. I expect we will soon have to thank the NRA for letting our lawmakers ban open sale of bump stocks that allow a semi-automatic weapon to fire at nearly the rate of a machine gun.[1]

Every day this past week, the words kept playing in my head, though I could only whisper them,

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

And when I whisper, “lead me on, lead me home” I don’t mean just me, but all of us in this very troubled country, in this very troubled world. The violence, the fear, the deluge of devastating news are draining our souls, and we crave the life-giving spirit of God to fill us anew.

The gospel reading for this Sunday doesn’t look like the place to go at first or even at second glance. Matthew has painted a scene of growing tension between Jesus and the religious leadership in Jerusalem. Jesus has just told them that tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom of God ahead of them because tax collectors and prostitutes understand the meaning of repentance. And now he says, “Listen to another parable,” and he tells them the story of a landowner who planted a vineyard. It’s a story they know from Isaiah, except that Jesus adds a twist by adding tenants.

In Isaiah’s vineyard song, the landowner’s frustration grew because the choice vines he had carefully planted and maintained didn’t produce the kind of fruit he expected. Instead of justice, Israel produced bloodshed, instead of righteousness, the cries of the poor. Isaiah’s vineyard song was a love song turned into an angry lament of disappointed hope, with the careful, creative actions of digging, planting and building being replaced by the destructive actions of devouring, trampling, and laying waste.

In Jesus’ version of the old story, the owner leased the vineyard to tenants. And when it was time to gather the fruit, and he sent his slaves to collect his produce, violence erupted. The tenants seized the slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Just about everybody in Jesus’ audience knows that he is talking about the prophets who came looking for the fruit of righteousness among God’s people. The chief priests and elders are familiar with words like these by the prophet Jeremiah,

From the day that your ancestors came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day; yet they did not listen to me, or pay attention, but they stiffened their necks. They did worse than their ancestors did.[2]

The owner in Jesus’ parable sent other slaves, more than the first, and the tenants treated them the same. It is the old story of the people and their leaders refusing to heed the warnings of the prophets and repent. Finally the owner sent his son – and here the story becomes transparent as an allegory of Jesus’ own fate in Jerusalem. The son is thrown out and killed by the tenants who imagine themselves as future owners of the vineyard.

This is where Jesus steps out of the story and asks the temple leaders, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And without missing a beat, they respond, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” Violence is woven into the fabric of this little story, turn by turn, as it is woven into the fabric of history.

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” the leaders reply with firm conviction, with the ancient logic of violence against violence, woven into the fabric of human history, turn by turn, ever since Adam and Eve left God’s garden, where they were meant to be tenants to till it and keep it.

When Matthew told this story, the fledgling Christian community was beginning to separate from mainstream Jewish life. In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans, both groups tried to make sense of the traumatic experience, and Matthew saw the violent devastation as divine punishment for the temple leadership’s role in Jesus’ death – and that perspective colored how he told the stories of Jesus’ conflict with the leaders. Some of the scenes, including this one, sound like he’s not only talking about Jesus’ debates with the chief priests and elders, but just as much about the tensions between his own small Christian community and the Pharisees who tried to rebuild Jewish life after the loss of the temple. They were separating, and we don’t tell our best stories about each other when we are going through a separation.

Matthew has Jesus tell the chief priests and Pharisees, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” and the people he appears to have in mind are the believers in his small Christian community, made up of Jews and Gentiles. He seems to relish the moment when Jesus tells the leaders who saw themselves as having a God-given right to enter the kingdom of God that tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom ahead of them. And he seems to relish even more when Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that any prerogative they thought they had to inherit the kingdom would be taken away from them and given to a people that actually produces the fruits of God’s reign. That was an empowering thought for a small community of Jesus followers who suffered hardship, rejection and perhaps even persecution by the majority but when the Christian movement went from underdog to most-favored-cult status in the Empire, these words took on a very different flavor. Now they began to be heard as saying, “The kingdom of God has been taken away from the Jews and given to the church.” And that kind of thinking, the idea that the church had succeeded and replaced Israel as the people of God, led to centuries of violence against Jews, all the way to the Nazi extermination camps and the fruit of terror, death and ashes.

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” the leaders replied, perhaps because they couldn’t imagine any other response, just like we often cannot imagine a different response in a society saturated with violence.

But there is a way that leads out of the trap. The most interesting character in this parable is the owner of the vineyard. He doesn’t say much; his only line is, “They will respect my son.” But the tenants didn’t; we didn’t. For as long as we can remember, we have looked for ways not to be God’ tenants with sacred responsibilities toward the land, its owner, and toward our fellow tenants, but rather to be owners ourselves.

The parable ends with the death of the son, and then the Son asks us who have heard him tell it, to imagine what the owner of the vineyard might do. But the owner is free to write his own ending. And he has done so by raising Jesus from the dead. God’s response to our violence is not more violence overwhelming and inescapable violence, imagined to forever put an end to all violence but life; God’s response to our violence is life in the distinct shape of Jesus. God invites us to follow the path of repentance. God invites all whose hearts thirst for God’s life-giving spirit to follow Jesus.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, he has told us, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.[3]

Take my hand, precious Lord, take us home.



[2] Jeremiah 7:25-26; see also 1 Kings 19:10; Nehemiah 9:26.

[3] Matthew 5:3,5.

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