October 8, Violence, violence, everywhere

Violence, violence, everywhere

Matthew 21:33-46


It’s felt to me recently like Matthew’s Jesus is really sticking it to us again and again! As we’ve made our way through Matthew’s gospel, Sunday after Sunday we’ve had scriptures that feel like they are putting us on the hot seat.

Just in the past five weeks’ worth of sermon scripture texts, we’ve had Jesus saying to Peter (and to us as well, we can presume), “Get behind me, Satan!” and then there was the familiar Matthew 18 text about how best to deal with conflict and reconciliation, and then the call to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times, and then the parable of the “come late to the job” workers who were paid the same as those who worked all day. The all-day workers, who bitterly complained about it, were reprimanded (and of course the all-day workers are “our” people – the people privileged to have access and opportunity in the first place) and then just last week, there was rather pointed call out from Jesus for more spiritual integrity through having our actions match our words.

And then today, this scripture, this quite disturbing parable about tenants of a vineyard who decide to make a landgrab, and when the owner sends his agents to collect the rent, beat and kill them, and when he sends a second group, do this again, and then finally, when the owner sends his own son, they kill him as well.

Those listening to this horror story, when asked, recognize that the owner of the vineyard, of course, has the final say, and will in all probability have his revenge, putting to death those who killed his representatives and ultimately his son.

If nothing else, it certainly reads like a thinly veiled threat that Jesus is making against the religious establishment: Kill me (he seems to be saying) and God will kill you.

Now, I started by saying that it seems like Matthew’s Jesus is really sticking it to us, because I want to be clear: I am no more comfortable with some of these scriptures, with some of these stories, than you are! The implied threat in the story for today, for example, makes me not only uncomfortable, it clashes with the vision I have of the way God gets things done.

Sure, there are people who view all of life through a particular kind of religious lens that is tinted with violence; a view of God and a view of the world that expects that the way to get things done for the good, is to drop the hammer on those who are bad.

But there are problems with that, I think. First of all, who gets to decide about good and bad? Is it me? Is it you? Is it those in power – those who make the rules?

The religious authorities of Jesus’ day would have certainly cast themselves in the role of the good guys! They would have said, “We oppose this Jesus not because we are hateful, hard hearted, hypocritical people, but because he is dangerous, rabble-rousing, and irresponsible. If he is allowed to continue to stir up the people with his unrealistic ideals and accusatory rhetoric, he’s going to get us all killed. The Romans are in charge here, and if we push things too far – or allow anyone to push things too far – we will all suffer the consequences. Besides, he doesn’t speak for the best interests of our community, our society; we do!”

So, to them, Jesus was the bad guy! But here he is telling a story that quite obviously casts them in the role of the bad guys – as ingrates, murderers, and fools. He claims God is on his side when in fact (as they see it) God is on their side! So…God is on whose side?

That’s one question: Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? Who is cast to play the role of the murderous vineyard tenants and who is cast as the son of the owner? And who does the casting in this drama anyway?

The second question is this: Does violence (or the threat of violence) actually get the job done? That is, once you’ve figured out who the good guys are and who the bad guys are (if you think you can actually do that) is violence – the sort of violence that first the tenants and later the vineyard owner practice in the story – does this kind of violence settle things. Does the threatening nature of the story itself settle things?

There is a suggestion here in this scripture – at least it seems to me that there is the suggestion – that the bad guys might think they can get away with it, but that in the end, the bad guys will be punished and the good guys (the ones on God’s team) will emerge victorious.

And there is the suggestion as well that threats of violence are an effective way to get that job done; threats of violence, and when necessary, actual violence itself. Good will win out – that is, God, will win out – because good has the bigger hammer. Good has God on its side, and God is the biggest hammer of all.

Scripture stories like this make me wonder: Do I have it all backwards? Is my Brethren-based commitment to a Jesus who advocates for transformational non-violence naïve? Is it misplaced? Is it possible instead that while Jesus might be willing to go to the cross without fighting back, that he does so not because he is committed to the “not fighting back,” but rather because he knows that if he allows things to unfold in this way, that in the end, God will strike down those who have struck him down? That in the end, the violence will be redemptive, because the violators will be eliminated and what will happen then is that with all the bad cleared away, eradicated…then the new, good green shoots will emerge from that blackened landscape of death and suffering?

I hope that my Brethren-based commitment to a Jesus who advocates for transformational non-violence is not naïve. That it is not misplaced. But this parable sure pushes me hard to think of how I can understand such a story, how I can engage it, and still hold on to the other sorts of scriptural things I have read (and treasured) elsewhere that suggest otherwise; Jesus-stories, Gospel scriptures that suggest that violence is not redemptive, but is destructive.

But in the moment, anyway, I have to accept that just because I’d like to re-write this parable so that the tenants are misbehaving instead of murderous, and when confronted with the son, they repent rather than double-down on their violence, doesn’t mean that I can do so – or should do so.

After all, look at the world we live in. There was a mass murder in Las Vegas a week ago and while the gun-control debate always seems to get started up again when such horrific things happen, the cold hard fact is that in the wake of all that mayhem, the first and most immediate effect was for gun manufacturers’ stocks to go up on the stock market and sales of a particular type of gun modification to go up as well.

The gun manufacturers and sellers will make more money (and the gun lobby will collect more money) because that mass murder happened than they would have if it hadn’t. Why? Well we can’t go around and ask all the people who rushed out to buy stock in gun companies this past week, or who bought modification kits for rifles, or who made a contribution to gun lobby organizations, but if I had to make a guess, I’d guess that they were anticipating that there might be a renewed gun-control/gun-rights argument in this country that might in some way prevent future purchases of certain kinds of tools of violence, so they wanted to get out ahead of that possibility.

In any case, we are reminded again that we are part of a culture that believes that a ‘violence should be answered with violence’ mind-set will somehow keep us safe and free; that more access to the means of violence is what will make things right. Hear the echoes of the story in the vineyard?

Look: we are awash in violence. It is everywhere. And I am afraid that most of the time this is not only accepted as the way things are going to be, but it is embraced as the answer to our problems.  

It’s not only the doubling-down that the tenants in the vineyard do when they realize that killing the owner’s rent collectors is going to have some serious consequences. It’s the anticipated response of the vineyard owner. The tenants decided that violence is their opportunity for theft -- “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” – and the owner decides that violence is the means of justice.  

What is it about us humans that would make us think that more violence, more greed, more dehumanizing of the other, more brutality, more disrespect, more killing is the answer to our yearnings, our dreams, our anxieties, our unsettledness, our guilt, our vulnerability?  

There’s a lesson here in the parable, I’m certain. But it surely can’t be that the best way to win is to have the last (brutal) word. So then, what could it be?

As I look for my answer, I wonder if the answer may be not so much in the parable, as in part of the postscript to the parable. Jesus quotes a scripture: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” And then he reminds his listeners of this as well: that the kingdom of heaven is given to those who produce the fruits of the kingdom. 

There are two things in that. First, about the quote: “The stone that the builders rejected,” That image, that quote, is from Psalm 118: 22-23. And that Psalm (I’d like to point out) isn’t a Psalm filled with threatening language, as some are – a Psalm of warning, a Psalm about punishing enemies. No, it’s a Psalm of praise, a song of victory.

It starts like this: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! And then later in the Psalm, these words: Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

What do you make of that? Especially the beginning? O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Jesus tells this awfully violent and threatening story, right? And then he follows it with a quote from a Psalm that begins with talk about the steadfast and eternal love of God. There must be something significant in that contrast.

Might it offer to us a challenge to recognize when we’ve gone over the top? Taken things too far? Those persons who were first hearing Jesus tell this parable and the words following would have recognized the scripture reference. Was it Jesus’ way of cluing them in (and cluing us in)? Letting his listeners know that a parable can be offered as hyperbole? That there is actually something more powerful and more compelling in this world than violence on top of violence?

The second thing is the bit about the kingdom of God being given to people who produce the fruits of the kingdom. Maybe you want to take that promise in hand, as you spiritually and emotionally try to re-center in light of the events of this past week.

I told you that gun stocks went up, and I don’t know quite what to say or believe about that. But here’s what was heartening from this past week for me; not the speculations about the motives of the shooter, but the testimonies about the lives of the victims; those who produce the fruit of the kingdom. As the week went on, those were the stories I wanted to go back to – heartbreaking, but heartening descriptions of steadfastness and goodness and love. Here are a few:

Kelsey Meadows, graduated from Taft Union High School District in 2007 and served as a substitute teacher there since 2012. “Kelsey was smart, compassionate and kind. She had a sweet spirit and a love for children,” said Mary Alice Finn, principal of Taft Union High School. Fresno State University History professor Lori Clune remembers her as “a gifted teacher who demonstrated a skill and passion for her chosen profession.” 

Erick Silva, a Las Vegas native, was a security guard at the music festival. His uncle, Rob Morgan remembers Silva as someone whose life goal was to help others. He recalls him buying burgers for homeless people, treating relatives to dinner, and helping his mother pay her bills by working long shifts and holding yard sales in his free time. “He said he would never leave his mom, she would never have to worry,” said Morgan “I know that he was doing all that he could do to keep [people safe] before his life was taken,” event manager James Garrett wrote on Facebook. Silva had started working with him a few weeks prior.

Denise Cohen, was supposed to return to California High School in Ramon, Calif., where she graduated in 1977, for a reunion in mid-October. The school’s alumni association confirmed her death Tuesday on its Facebook page. “She was an amazing, vibrant, positive classmate and friend,” wrote her friend and fellow graduate Tina Lippis-Mancebo. Her son, Jeff Rees, recalls her laughter, as well as how she made people around her feel their best. “When she would take me to the movies as a kid, I was just waiting to hear her laugh because it would just crack me up,” Rees told AP. “I feel sorry for all of the people in the world who never got a chance to meet her.”

Just three out of dozens and dozens, but those are the stories that should be told. The images of goodness and steadfast love. The stories of those who bear fruit.

The parable names the broken logic of the world in which we live; but tucked there in the postscript is some else, something true: God is a God of steadfast love and the kingdom of God is not the vineyard that breeds violence; it’s the vineyard that produces fruit.

We don’t need more violence. We need more wholeness. We need more courage. We need more compassion. Look in that direction; seek to find yourself not in the stories that spin with the cycle of violence, but find yourself in the company of a God who is steadfast in love and who values the fruit of our lives.

Amen.

 

Benediction: When the world spins in the cycle of violence, may we stop, and turn, and testify to the steadfast love of God and the fruits of peace and hope. May it be so. Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

October 8, 2017