The Sower, Vincent van Gogh
Sunday, April 26th
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 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. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.
— Matthew 21:33-45
As I have alluded to earlier in these meditations, one of the disturbing aspects of this time is the political polarization that has become more and more apparent. Jim Wallis, the provocative author and editor of Sojourners magazine, wrote a book a few years back that spoke to this emerging crisis in American life. The book’s title was worth the purchase alone – On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good. In the book Wallis cautions that trying to understand God’s side means being more reflective about ourselves and about “our side,” which we must endeavor to do if our greatest desire is to be on “God’s side.” He articulates that idea in a memorable way by saying, “What if the common good could bring us together? I always say, ‘Don’t go left, don’t go right, go deeper.’” Today’s parable pushes us to do just that.
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis wrote a profound play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, that made its debut Off-Broadway several years ago. The play revolves around the imagined trial of Judas and includes many biblical characters, as well as several religious figures from history, who come and testify for/against Judas. The story is remarkable, but just as amazing is the story behind the story.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest who agreed to be the religious consultant for the play, and he describes his experiences with that in a book called A Jesuit on Broadway. The book is a delightful behind-the-scenes depiction of the development of the play, but it is also a chronicle of the spiritual journeys and understandings of the cast.
The play was originally directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the talented actor and director who left this world too soon. Martin noted that people who worked with Hoffman were taken with his down-to-earth persona and his genius in interpreting characters and situations. A large part of this incredible insight into artistry was his ability to use a story to get his point across. Father Martin said it was amazing when Hoffman would take an actor aside and talk about a scene by telling an unrelated story, then ask the actor to describe his feelings about that story. Then Hoffman would seize upon the discovery and say, “That is my impression of the feelings of your character in this scene.”
Stories are powerful teaching tools, and no one knew that better or taught that better than Jesus. For the past several days we have found ourselves listening to his stories. And I don’t know about you, but I have discovered once again that these stories of Jesus are not gentle little stories that merely comfort and console us. Quite the contrary — these parables of Jesus tend to have a definite edge to them, one that cuts through complacent Christianity and domesticated discipleship. Today’s story is no different. In fact, its pungency should make us wince.
The story’s setting is found in Jerusalem during the days we now call Holy Week. Jesus entered Jerusalem buoyed by the enthusiasm of an adoring crowd. However, the mood shifted quite radically during this most significant week. What we find in today’s text is no serene Jesus, passively perched on the back of a donkey, serenaded by the songs of the crowd. No, this Jesus has become confrontational, moving to challenge the spiritual icons of the day, even to the extent of turning the Temple upside down and inside out.
In the context of this Gospel, Jesus has already been confronted by the sarcastic questioning of the Scribes and priests. His patience could very well be wearing thin. But instead of confronting them head-on, Jesus does what he does so well: he tells a story that is quite direct, filled with charged words that elicit not only meaning, but emotion.
For instance, when Jesus talks about a vineyard, the Jewish people of that time would have instantly thought of Isaiah’s story of the vineyard in which the vineyard represented Israel. It wouldn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to immediately recognize that this story was aimed at those who now represented Israel — the religious authorities. Apart from the political implications, in first century Palestine there were many estates owned by foreigners who leased them out to tenants for a percentage of the annual produce. (If you would like a contemporary description of this, just read John Grisham’s A Painted House, which describes his family’s life as tenant farmers.)
Being a tenant farmer wasn’t easy, and it could easily become a cauldron of anger. Economic depression combined with national unrest may well have tempted the tenant farmers to withhold rent from the absentee landlord and occasionally resort to violence. In Jesus’ story, he recounts this type of arrangement, as well as the tenants’ seething anger, as they ultimately attacked the various servants of the landowner, even killing his son.
Now, there are a couple of interesting things to note about the son. (1) First of all, the text says that the owner says, “I will send my own son,” but that is enhanced by the better Greek translations which continue, “my beloved son.” Does that terminology ring a bell? (2) What’s more, the text implies that this was his one and only son, because the rebellious tenants think that if the son is dead, they will inherit the vineyard. They must have known that there weren’t any more sons. Doesn’t it appear that the Gospel writers (and this story is one of the rare parables included by all three of the Synoptic writers) get more than just a little heavy-handed with the allegorical meaning of this parable? At any rate, the parable closes with these unsettling words, “He will come and destroy those farmers and lease the vineyard to others” . . . to “others.” Now, what makes this unsettling is that we don’t know for sure whether Jesus is speaking to us or about us . . .
Jesus’ story is a troubling one, because it holds up the distinct possibility that we may have jumped to the same conclusion as the Scribes and Pharisees, that God is on our side, when we have deliberately chosen not to do God’s bidding. Some of the most chilling words of all time are when Jesus says, “Many will call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and I will not know them.” So then, what kind of followers are we? Later on in that difficult week, Jesus gave a teaching which articulates in clear terms whether or not we are on God’s side. He sets the stage for the last judgment: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory and he will separate people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” And the judgment rests on whether we’ve fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, taken care of the sick, visited the prisons. That’s the criteria for being on God’s side. Now, where do we find ourselves today? Jesus Christ gave his life; what in the world are we giving?
During the question-and-answer time at a book signing, Jim Wallis asked a Ugandan student from Yale to discuss the concept of Ubuntu, which is their word for “the common good.” The student, named Arinaitwe, responded by using the example of a foreign anthropologist who visited Africa and set up a challenge among African children using mangoes. The anthropologist placed mangoes before them and told them: “Run towards the mangoes, and the one who gets there first and gets as many mangoes as he or she can will have the highest and biggest gift in the world.” When the anthropologist told the children to run, however, instead of competing, the children locked hands, ran towards the mangoes, surrounded them and ate the fruits together. The upset anthropologist looked at the children and told them they had failed. The children, however, replied: “When we all eat together, when we enjoy it together, then we have succeeded, we are happy…we don’t see one going without.”
God’s side requires that we look for “Ubuntu,” the common good. To do that, we must “go deeper . . .”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
One of the lessons of this difficult time is that the coronavirus does not know color, boundary or political persuasion. God would have us look at the world with those biases removed from us. Who would you consider to be your enemy/opponent? Can you be still and imagine this person from God’s perspective? Now, pray accordingly.
What are the boundaries you have made that hinder the inclusive nature of God’s Kingdom?
How might you consider a spiritual way to bring those barriers down?