Monday, March 26, 2007

Fifth Sunday of Lent 2007

(yes, I know it's a day late, but such is life)

Thus says the Lord,
who opened a way in the sea
and a path through mighty waters,
who drew on chariot and horse to their destruction,
a whole army, men of valour;
there they lay, never to rise again;
they were crushed, snuffed out like a wick:
Cease to dwell on days gone by
and to brood over past history.
Here and now I will do a new thing;
this moment it will break from the bud.
Can you not perceive it?
I will make a way even through the wilderness
and paths in the barren desert;
the wild beasts will do me honour,
the wolf and the ostrich;
for I will provide water in the wilderness
and rivers in the barren desert
where my chosen people may drink
I have formed this people for myself
and they shall proclaim my praises--Isaiah 43:16-21, NEB

65 He said, 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 farmers knew that he was the heir to the vineyard, they grabbed him and killed him. Anyone here with two ears had better listen!

66 Jesus said, "Show me the stone that the builders rejected: that is the keystone."

The Gospel of Thomas

So, where are we in this parable? With whom do we identify? Where do we place ourselves, enter the story, find a connection? Another blunt allegory about the scribes and the Pharisees, the bogey-men of the Gospels? But I've removed that frame, by quoting the Gospel of Thomas, not the Gospel of Luke. Wo what is going on here?

Dom Crossan first identified this parable as what he called a "Parable of Action." He noted, interestingly, that it is a parable which is present in all three synoptics, and also in Thomas; and in each case, in substantially the same form. The rubrics of modern scholarship discern an original saying of Jesus here, if only because of the multiple attestations. You will say that Matthew and Luke derive this one from Mark, and they do; but the presence of verse 18 in Luke, verse 44 in Matthew 21, indicate Q also had this story. It would be coincidence indeed for Matthew and Luke to add that language independently. The most interesting point is Thomas 66, which really fits that rule of multiples by being present in a gospel wholly unrelated otherwise to the text of Mark. Later Crossan reconsidered that part of the parable and decided it wasn't related to the original; and he came up with this:

An absentee landlord sent for the rent of a vineyard leased out to tenant farmers
But they beat the servant and sent him back with nothing
The owner thought the servant might have got lost so he sent a different one
But he too was beaten and sent back without the rent

"I will send my only son,"the owner decided, "they will surely accept his authority."
"We will kill the heir," the tenants decided, "the vineyard will be ours to keep."
John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus (New York: HarperCollins 1994), p. 38

You will note, too, that this is not a "kingdom" parable. It doesn't begin with those cryptic words "The Kingdom of God is like...." This is a parable about the here and now. And note that, if it is an allegory, it is a curious one. If God is the vineyard owner, then surely this parable preaches heresy. The landowner plants the vineyard, prepares it properly in every way, then goes away. He is out of the picture, "absentee," as Crossan has it. Only Thomas seems aware of this problem, because only in that version does the landlord not "go away" for a period of time. In the Synoptics, the landlord leaves the country! And then there is the problem of the slaves. Why doesn't the landlord qua God know what will happen, or what has happened? Again, in Thomas, the slaves return to tell the landlord their story. The landlord is confused, or perhaps unsure they really meant to beat this slave, so he ends another, with the same result. Thomas closely follows the "rule of three," but without explanation as to why the landlord is so slow to pick up on the utter venality of the tenants. He finally decides the problem is one of authority, and so sends his "beloved son." In the Synoptics the slaves don't return, but are merely "sent away." Indeed, Luke reduces the number sent: after the initial three, Mark throws in an indeterminate number: "And so it was with many othersl some they beat, and others they killed." Mark 12: 5b. Matthew is likewise less than clear: "But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first, and they treated them in the same way." Matthew 21:35-36. Matthew follows the "rule of threes" beloved of oral story tellers, but he has the landlord sending groups, not individuals. Luke simplifies the story to three slaves, and finally the "beloved son," whom the Synoptics and Thomas agree, the landlord expects the tenants "will respect." And this is where we are quite sure this parable is an allegory of Jesus: because the tenants kill him, and expect they will now inherit the land.

But why? Why do they think so? What reasoning is this, that killing the heir will net them the gain they seek, full control over the property and its produce? Why except the path to gain is always seen as being paved with violence? But perhaps this isn't an allegory at all. Perhaps this is an admonition, a warning, of what the followers of Jesus, the disciples of the Christ, should expect. After all, blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. But we all know what the meek get in this life, before they come into their inheritance.

Where do we find ourselves in this parable? Where do we enter in? As the tenants, thinking we are wise to do violence in order to gain property and power, to gain security in this harshly competitive world, to assure ourselves of the benefits of our own efforts into the future, avoid the capriciousness of a landlord who might throw us out the vineyard, or demand his fair share of what is, after all, the fruit of our labor? If God is the landlord, what does it mean that God is absent? That God is so naive, so trusting? So ignorant? Is this an allegory of the kingdom, of the eschaton, when God returns to find we've mucked things up and God's patience has run out and God is angry and wreaks havoc, opens the gates of destruction, wipes the slate clean a la the Flood, and starts again with "new tenants"? Is the lesson simply that God is slow, both to anger and understanding, but when God finally figures it out, God is just like us except, you know, God? With power to unleash God's anger in ways we cannot escape?

Where do we find ourselves in this parable? Perhaps we should look for ourselves in the "beloved son." Because ours is a missionary, an evangelical, faith; and we are told to take the gospel into all the world; and what is the proclamation of that gospel, except that the basiliea tou theou is at hand, is present here and now, and God is in charge? And how do we expect the world to react to that? With gratitude that the landlord has been identified, that the one we thought absent is really present, and is in fact requiring payment? Or do we expect them to reject that message, and beat the servants, and even try to kill the beloved son? Do we identify with the slaves here, or the heir? Or with the tenants, or the landlord?

The tenants imagine they will be able to keep the vineyard. Why? Because the messengers of the basiliea are killed or beaten? We often imagine that if we punish the messenger, we will kill the message. But "Darkness cannot drive out darkness:only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." And love = vulnerability. Love equals danger, risk, loss, even unto death. We are not the landlord; but we are sent by the landlord. For millenia now, we've imagined that sending was an easy one, and the basiliea tou theou was established by the happy conjunction of church and state, or the happier separation of church and state. But the job has never been done for us. No system, no church, no hierarchy, no establishment of bishops and priests, has ever been able to do this job for us. We do not stand outside the vineyard, or the culture that teaches violence as the shortest path to one's desires and security in this life. "I tell you, make use of your ill-gotten gains to make friends for yourselves, so that when the bottom falls out there are there to welcome you into eternal dwelling places." We work out our own salvation, and when we realize that, when we realize the adventus will one day be upon us, we work out that salvation with fear and trembling. Mysterium tremendum, indeed.

Where do we enter this parable? As Christians, as disciples of the Risen One, we enter it as the slaves who are beaten, even as the beloved son who is killed. Jesus is not the only one who does the dying, here. We don't get off so easily as that. If the landlord has "gone away," it is the world which says so, not our confession. If the world thinks the landlord doesn't care anymore, it is our duty to tell them otherwise. We don't do that, of course, by purifying our churches of "deviant" priests. That is too easy. That is expecting the system to do the work for us. That is believing that, if the group is pure, then I am pure, and I need only purify the group to be pure myself. It's moral cowardice. If the world is "unchurched," then the world is in our churches; and our church is still in the world. We have expected too long that the world would be grateful for what we have to say; and we have tried too hard to make the message one the world would be grateful to receive. After all, "We believe in you!" Except we don't. We beleive in God.

And if that is more and more of a minority opinion, if it makes us more and more vulnerable to the world (even the landlord humbly submits his slaves, even his son, to the violence of the farmers), then we accept our place in this world with humility, recognizing that in order to be the cornerstone, we must first be the stone that the builders rejected. And stones do not brag, are not arrogant or boastful, do not object. They do what they must do. After all, we follow a God who says a new thing is coming, that the order of this world will be reversed: streams will flow in the desert, predator and prey alike will honor God, who will be providing water for the people. Can we do these things? What, then, do we have to brag about? What, then, can we do, but follow the orders of our master, knowing that good will finally come from what now seems to be evil?

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