June 5, 2016

Gospel of Jesus 12:32-38

Jesus told this parable:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, “Perhaps he didn’t know them.” He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, “Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.” Because the farmer knew that he was an heir to the vineyard, they grabbed and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”

Jesus would say,
“The realm of God is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in.
Then he killed the powerful one.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 51, 53. Thomas 65:1-7; 98:1-3; Mark 12:1-9; Matthew 21:33-39; Luke 20:9-15


The parable of the vineyard is found in four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. Because of the way the gospel writers interpreted this parable, it became an allegory in which God is owner, the vineyard is Israel, the farmers are the temple authorities or religious leaders, the slaves are the prophets, and the son is Jesus.

There is another version of this parable in the Gospel of Thomas. This is the version that was read a few minutes ago. The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar determined that the Thomas version was closest to the original parable. There is no allegory attached to the Thomas reading.

In the original version, the parable ends with a question:

“What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”

Thomas has Jesus finish with the familiar formula:

“Anyone here with two ears had better listen.”

My rule of thumb with Jesus’ parables is that any character with authority and power such as a king, a judge, or a wealthy landowner should warrant suspicion of any attempt to equate that character with God. The gospel writers may do that and the later interpretative tradition does that, but when we get back to the figure of Jesus we find that the parables are more subversive.

I find that many of the parables of Jesus, at least as told by Jesus, were not theological allegories, as much as practical wisdom to those who suffered from injustice.

My interpretation of this parable is indebted to William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Another interesting detail that may be connected with the original telling is found in both Mark and Matthew. Each gospel writer begins the parable in this way:

“Someone planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a winepress, built a tower, leased it out to some farmers and went abroad.”

Jesus is telling a parable to people who know all about vineyards and wealthy absentee landowners. From the people’s perspective the landowners aren’t the good guys. If Jesus’ audience is largely made up of the peasant class or 80 percent of the population, they would identify with the farmers.

Where did the landowner get the land to build his luxury vineyard? Land stayed in the family for generations. The only way you get land is to take it. Herod funded his huge building projects including the Temple by forcing peasants off their land to work for large landowners for the purpose of making cash crops. This parable of Jesus reflects this reality as a conflict between a member of the ruling class and the peasant class.

Of course the process of taking land from the poor was common before Herod. In Isaiah chapter five, there is in an interesting parallel to our parable that provides a hint of its context:

My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

In Isaiah, the metaphor of wild grapes is social injustice. A few verses later we read:

Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!

The consolidating of land is the injustice. Jesus speaks in the tradition of the prophets of social justice. The dream of these prophets was that one day everyone would sit under his or her own fig tree. The land would be returned.

In our parable, an important question is, “Whose land is it?” Does it belong to the guy who planted the vineyard or does it belong to the peasant farmer who has been displaced? We can have an opinion, but we can imagine that there would be debate. Who owns Israel/Palestine today? Who owns Egypt or Syria or the Gulf of Mexico? Who owns the Oregon coast? Who owns the Columbia River? Who owns the trees, the birds, water, air, soil, seed? Who owns the carbon beneath the ground?

A few weeks ago, I included this poem in the bulletin by Ernesto Cardenal. It is called Unrighteous Mammon.

In respect of riches, then, just or unjust,
of goods be they ill-gotten or well-gotten:
All riches are unjust.
All goods,
If not by you, by others.
Your title deeds may be in order. But
did you buy your land from its true owner?
And he from its true owner? And the latter…?
Though your title go back to the grant of a king
the land ever the king’s?
Has no one ever been deprived of it?
And the money you receive legitimately now
from client or Bank or National Funds
or from the U.S. Treasury,
was it ill-gotten at no point? Yet
do not think that in the Perfect Communist State
Christ’s parables will have lost relevance
or Luke 16:9 have lost validity
and riches be no longer UNJUST
or that you will no longer have a duty to distribute riches!

What do we think, we humans? When considering the scale of a 4.5 billion year old Earth in the midst of a universe three times older than that, that we little ants who have been here for but a micro-second can think we own any of it. The hubris is comical if it weren’t so tragic.

Yet those with power and creative deviousness get their retainers, the political representatives, to pass law after law to put air, water, land and life itself on the balance sheet of a corporation. If there is a text that transcends time it would be these words from Isaiah:

Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!

Don’t ever think for a minute that the God envisioned in the Bible favors any group of people whether that group be of a certain ethnicity or religion or social status. The Biblical vision, both testaments and the Qur’anic vision is not one of a particular people having a divine right to land or to any of Earth’s bounty.

The Biblical vision is that human beings have the privilege of being stewards of justice.

I feel that I need to say something on behalf of our graduates.

I won’t tell you to follow your dreams or any other such hogwash.

I will make that previous point again: In the end you have a right to absolutely nothing. The universe owes you nothing. You do, however, have the privilege due to the amazing cosmic lottery that allowed for your improbable existence, to be a steward of justice.

The second bit of wisdom is that nothing is as straightforward as it seems. Look deeper. Doubt everything. In response to everyone’s truth claim: follow the money. Ask, “Whose interest is served?” Then, as a steward of justice, devote your life to transform those small interests into the interests of all.

You could do worse with your life.

There is a context to this parable. A matrix. That matrix is of the injustice of land acquisition. It is not a straightforward business transaction of a landowner leaving the vineyard to the farmers and returning for an agreed upon share. That is what it looks like and thus the tenants are labeled “wicked.”

Looking deeper, this parable describes a peasant revolt. The parable codifies the “spiral of violence.” Elites expand their land at the expense of the peasants who are kept at subsistence levels. This element of injustice, “wild grapes”, to use the metaphor from Isaiah, is embedded within the system itself.

That is the first level of violence.

Herzog writes:

“The spiral begins in the everyday oppression and exploitation of the poor by the ruling elites. This violence is often covert and sanctioned by law, such as the hostile takeover of peasant land. More often than not, peasants simply adjust and adapt to these incursions by the elites in order to maintain their subsistence standard; but…even peasants have their breaking point.” Pp. 108-109.

The second level of the spiral of violence is seen in the peasants’ response to the servant. We can imagine that disputes would arise when the servants or retainers for the landowner come to collect the rent. Perhaps the rent is too much and they are pushed to the point of frustration. In the parable, the farmers beat the servant and send him away empty-handed.

The spiral of violence escalates. The landowner sends another, same thing, but the violence increases. Now it is getting serious. Finally, the landowner sends the son, the heir. The landowner is confident that by sending his son, the peasants will stop this revolt.

Then the master sent his son and said, “Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.”

Respect is respect for superior firepower. The landowner means business now.

But the peasants are feeling their oats. Their revolt is getting heady. They say to themselves that if they kill the son, they will take the land back. The landowner will give up. So they do. They kill the son. The parable ends.

The first level of the spiral of violence is the violence that is embedded in the injustice, the “wild grapes” of oppression and exploitation.

The second level of the spiral of violence is the peasant revolt that leads to a climax in which the son is killed.

Jesus ends the parable by asking:

What will the owner of the vineyard do?

Will he give up and let the peasants take back the land and leave his son un-avenged? Not likely.

Will he respond with crushing violence? More likely.

That is the third level of the spiral of violence. A crushing response. Herzog makes this chilling observation that in

“…ancient societies there were many peasant revolts but there were no peasant revolutions.”

The powers were simply too overwhelming.

So why did Jesus tell this parable?

Before answering that, I want to talk about another parable of Jesus. This one is less familiar. It is found only in the Gospel of Thomas. It is called the Parable of the Assassin.

Jesus would say,

“The Realm of God is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.”

Then there is another saying that may or may not go back to Jesus but I think helps to makes sense both of the parable of the assassin and the parable of the vineyard laborers. It is found only in Luke 14:31-32

“What king would go to war against another king and not first sit down and figure out whether he would be able with ten thousand men to engage an enemy coming against him with twenty thousand? If he decided he could not, he would send an envoy to ask for terms of peace while the enemy was still a long way off.”

Why did Jesus tell this parable?

One more illustration before we get to that question.

I highly recommend the documentary, Eyes on the Prize. It is a documentary series about the Civil Rights movement. This parable of Jesus, especially his last line,

“What will the owner of the vineyard do?”

reminds me of a scene in the documentary in which Andrew Young describes the aftermath to Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday is the name given to the brutal police response to the march to Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The marchers, women, children, young boys, unarmed, were met by the police in riot gear on horses. Andrew Young and the other leaders thought that they would meet the police, perhaps some would be arrested, and would turn around.

They underestimated the brutality of racism. Tear gas, beating with clubs, chasing the marchers down on horseback. Fifty people were sent to the hospital. After this attack by the police, Andrew Young talks about what happened next at the church.

Well, basically we… we trained people to think rather than react, ah, and the women and children, see there really weren’t many big, burly able-bodied men. They were mostly young boys, and… and ah, there was, there was… well, the odds were so out… out of matched? You know, I think if there had been any black man with a machine gun, then he might have done something, but blacks had no available arms, and here were people who were well-armed, and we always trained people that the one thing that the police could not deal with was non-violence. That they could deal with violence and that all you had to do was for one person to fire a shot, and that gave them an excuse to mow down hundreds of people. And we were very pragmatic and practical about it, and we explain violence in the kind of situation in which we lived, as suicidal. And that it required, I think the term that Bevel used to use, was a kind of revolutionary patience, ah, that you know, that you just didn’t respond. Occasionally people would, you know, jump up and want to talk bad, and there were people who came back to the church and started talking about going to get their guns. You had to talk them down, ah and you had to talk them down by simply asking questions, “What kind of gun you got, .32, .38? You know, how’s that going to hold up against the automatic rifles and the 12-gauge… you know 10-gauge shotguns that they’ve got? And how many have you got? There are at least 200 shotguns out there with buckshot in them. You ever see buckshot? You ever see what buckshot does to a deer?” You know, and most of them had. And you make people think about the specifics of violence, and then they realize how suicidal and nonsensical it is.

Andrew Young, talking about the pragmatics of violence and non-violence.

I am speculating now, but I see this parable like that, like Andrew Young’s speech to the young men who wanted to get their guns. You can imagine as Jesus is telling the parable about the farmers beating up the landowner’s retainer, the audience is affirming it. As it escalates, more slaves beaten. Even the son, killed.

The crowd gets excited.

“Yes, yes, time for a revolution!”

Then Jesus, I imagine, after a long pause, ends his parable with a question:

Now what do you think the vineyard owner will do?

In other words,

“Have you thought this through?”

I think that Jesus told these parables to an audience of exploited and oppressed people to communicate a few things.

One: I am with you. I am on your side. The realm of God is when we have our daily bread, and the land is returned, and there is restorative justice. Blessed are you poor who are hungry now, who are oppressed now. You will be satisfied. It is clear that Jesus was an advocate for those who were oppressed by the elites whether the elites were fellow Jews, Romans, or religious leaders. He has sympathy and compassion. He is one of them.

Second: Jesus wanted to tell them to be smart and to be cool. Before you decide to take on these guys, count the cost, have a plan, and don’t underestimate your enemy. Even an assassin makes sure he can get the job done before he tries it. Even a king with an army makes sure he has enough troops first, and if not makes terms for peace. It is great and I am all for you leading a revolt against wealthy landowners and brutal dictators. But remember why they call them “brutal dictators” in the first place. Taking on the powerful head on doesn’t end well. If you act violently, what will the owner of the vineyard do?

Third: Jesus communicated something else. It isn’t in the parable itself except in the question Jesus leaves with the hearers. If not with violence, then how do we take on the “powerful one”? How do we effectively respond to injustice? How do we transform it? I think Jesus wanted to channel their righteous anger toward a third way, the way of resistance, but in a way that did not escalate the spiral of violence.

The story of Jesus that is preserved is that he did enact this third way by example. He never allowed anyone to take away his dignity even though they could harm his body. He didn’t take on violence directly. He didn’t respond to violence with violence. He was non-violent and yet was executed. But his death came to mean far more than it would have had he been a violent bandit.

Because of his non-violence, his execution exposed the injustice and raised the level of consciousness of his early followers. It has been a model for non-violent resistance ever since. This is what Ghandi and King taught and lived through their efforts to change social injustices through non-violent resistance.

This model of non-violent resistance is still in its infancy. As an infant it must be cradled, nurtured, fed, blessed, and given every opportunity to grow. This is the via tranformativa, the spiritual path of compassion and justice-making.

I was speaking with Krista Tippett who hosts the NPR show On Being. We were discussing her book Becoming Wise and her chapter on love. She used the term “muscular love.” We were discussing Jesus’ command to love enemies and she said,

“I don’t think we have even tried that. And if it is something possible it will have to be something muscular and resilient.”

She went on to say that the church left the public life in the early part of the 20th century and then reinserted itself in the latter part of the 20th century. But it used its public voice on issues, specific issues, trying to squeeze into a particular political box. She said,

“What if when Christian voices had reinserted themselves into American political life that it had been done in such a way that we all would have learned what love of enemy could look like in public life and in politics.”

What if? Love of enemies. Non-violent resistance. I think Jesus modeled it.

Jesus told his parables to show his friends that violence does not bring about a lasting and just peace, whether done by empire or by peasants. It only escalates it. Peaceful alternatives to war and to violence are not flashy or terribly exciting, but war and violence will not lead the world to the security we seek.

For our graduates, I have one more thing. Not wisdom or advice, but a request. I hope you won’t consider graduation as a graduation from church or from communities of conscience. Humanity needs you to call back this institution to its purpose: to be the voice, the brain, the hands, and the feet of  love of enemies.