October 5, 2008
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
A few weeks ago, I quoted Cynthia Bourgeault’s wonderful book, Wisdom Jesus. In that book, she said, parables are “supposed to challenge you; [they’re] supposed to make you angry—and [they’re] supposed to make you look at yourself more closely.”
Well, this morning we definitely have one of those parables that challenges us, that makes us a bit angry and that definitely forces us to look more closely at ourselves. Let’s face it, it’s a violent story we hear Jesus tells us today. These bad tenants are so devious they are willing to kill to get what they want. And in the end, their violence is turned back upon them.
It’s not a warm, fuzzy story that we can take with us and hold close to our hearts. The Church over the years has certainly struggled with this parable because it can be so challenging. At face value, the story can probably be pretty easily interpreted in this way: The Vineyard owner of course symbolic of God. The Vineyard owner’s son of Jesus. And the workers in the vineyard who kill the son are symbolic of the religious leaders who will kill Jesus.
From this view, we can see the story as a prediction of Jesus’ murder. But there is another interpretation of this story that isn’t so neat and clean and finely put-together. It is in fact an uncomfortable interpretation of this parable. As we hear it, we do find ourselves shaken a bit. It isn’t a story that we want to emulate. I HOPE none of us want to emulate it. But again, Jesus twists this story around for us. The ones we no doubt find ourselves relating to are not the Vineyard owner or the Vineyard owner’s son, but, in fact, the vineyard workers. We relate to them not because we have murderous intentions n our heart. Not because we inherently bad. But because we sometimes can be just as resolute. We sometimes will stop at nothing to get what we want. We are sometimes so full of zeal for something that we ride roughshod over others. And when we do so, we find ourselves not bringing the Kingdom of God about in our midst.
Zeal can be a good thing. We should be full of zeal for God and God’s Kingdom. We too should stop at nothing to gain the Kingdom of God. But zeal taken too far undoes the good we hoped to bring about.
The most frightening aspect of our Gospel story is the fact that Jesus tells us that the kingdom can be taken away from us. It can be given to others. Our zeal for the kingdom has a lot to do with what we gain and what we lose. Our zeal to make this kingdom a reality in our world is what makes the changes in this world.
At the same time, zeal can be a very slippery slope. It can also make us zealots. It can make us fanatics. And this world is too full of fanatics. This world is too full of people who have taken their religion so seriously that they have actually lost touch with it.
This story we hear from Jesus today tell teaches us a lesson about taking our zeal too far. If we become violent in our zeal, we need to expect violence in return. And certainly this is probably the most difficult part of this parable for most of us. For those of us who consider ourselves peace-loving, nonviolent Christians, we cringe when we hear stories of violence in the scriptures. But violence like the kind we hear in today’s parable, or anywhere else in scriptures should not just be thrown out because we find it uncomfortable. It should not be discarded as useless just because we are made uncomfortable by it. If we look at the kind of violence we find in the Scriptures and use it metaphorically, it could actually be quite useful for us. If we take some of those stories metaphorically, they actually speak to us on a deeper level.
A perfect example of this is the biblical concept of herem. I love preaching about herem, because in so many ways it still speaks to us in our own day. When I speak of herem, I am not talking about the Muslim concept of multiple wives. Herem is actually a Hebrew word for “holy slaughter.” And we find it in the book of Joshua.
In Joshua, we find the Israelites about to cross the Jordan River into the land promised to them by God. There is one huge problem however. The land of milk and honey, the land promised to them and their parents is already occupied. It is occupied by cities full of people. As the Israelites cross the Jordan, God commands them to do something we find frightening and abhorrent. God commands the Israelites to go in the land and to kill everything. God commands them to kill every man, woman, child and animal. In one translation of the story, God commands the Israelites to even drive their swords through the stomachs of pregnant women. It is horrendous and terrible to even think of a God commanding such a thing. But before we judge the story too harshly, we must first put it within its context.
The Israelites lived in a violent time—a time even more violent than our own. Violence was sometimes the only way one could precede. Violence was sometimes the only way one could succeed. Second of all, we need to remember that the Israelites were a spiritually weak people for the most part. Constantly, they strayed from God. Over and over again, despite the miracles, despite the fact that God spoke in a very clear and potent way to them, they strayed constantly into idolatry.
Now they were about to enter into a land full of idolatry. And when comparing the strictness of the God of the Israelites with the lackadaisical and sensual religion of the Canaanites, it was easy to see that the Israelites could very easily have been led astray.
At first the Israelites did as God commanded. They wrought herem upon the Canaanites with zeal. They slaughtered the men, the women, the children and the animals. But eventually, they disobeyed. Some of the men were led astray by the Canaanite women whom they spared and soon idolatry again plagued the Israelites.
On the surface, it is a horrible story. And if we were to take the story literally, then, we could argue that it is acceptable to wreak violence on those that don’t believe the way we do. Or, conversely, we could simply choose to ignore this aspect of Israel’s history and chalk it up as yet another example of what a cruel, vengeful God can do. But we can also do something else with stories such as this. We can use them for our own benefit.
Metaphorically, we can use the concept of herem. We can take the concept of herem and apply it not to people in our lives, but to all those other things that creep into our lives and lead us stray from God. For us, a metaphorical herem means not letting anything get between us and God. It means rooting out and destroying whatever comes between God and us. It means not allowing anything whatsoever to come between God and you.
It doesn’t mean violently killing people for us. But it does mean destroying the idols of our own life. It means even destroying the idols we created of ourselves if need be. And when we look at it from this perspective, herem can actually be a helpful thing in our own spiritual life.
The same can be said of some of the unpopular translation of the parable of the vineyard workers. Our zeal for the kingdom of God should drive us. It should move and motivate us. We should be empowered to bring the Kingdom into our midst. But it should not make us into the bad vineyard workers. It should not make into the chief priests and Pharisees who knew, full well, that they were the bad vineyard workers.
A story like this helps us to keep our zeal centered perfectly on God. It prevents us from becoming mindless zealots. What does it allow and commend is passion. What it does tell us that we should be excited for the Kingdom.
True zeal makes us uncomfortable, yes. It makes us restless. It frustrates us. True zeal energizes us and makes us want to work until we catch a glimpse of that Kingdom in our midst. This is what Jesus is telling us again and again. He is telling us in these parables that make us uncomfortable that the Kingdom of God isn’t just some sweet, cloud-filled place in the next world.
The Kingdom of God is right here, in our midst. And the foundation of that kingdom, the gateway of that Kingdom, the conduit of that Kingdom is always love. Love of God, love of neighbor, healthy love of self. This is what Jesus preached. As Cynthia Bourgeault writes elsewhere in her latest book, “Jesus’ path was…a radically unmanageable simplicity—nothing held back, nothing held onto.”
That is the path Jesus is leading us on. This is the path we walk as we follow after him. And it is a path on which we should be overjoyed to be walking.
So, follow this path of Jesus with true and holy zeal. So, so with love in your heart and in your actions. And as we do, we will echo the words we heard in Psalm 118, quoted in today’s Gospel:
“This is what the Lord’s doing; it is amazing in our eyes.”