Thursday, November 17, 2011

Merit Badges

Mt. 25:14-30[1]

Most of you know that I was a Boy Scout. And many of you know that I’m an Eagle Scout. What you may not know is that I really liked the whole system of checking off requirements to advance to the next rank—from Tenderfoot to Second Class to First Class to Star to Life to Eagle. I also liked the whole aspect of earning merit badges. When you completed all the assignments, you finished the badge. And at the next Court of Honor, you got that badge and you got to wear it on your sash. It was a very satisfying thing to have a merit badge sash full of badges. When I first started out, I had three—rowing, canoeing, and swimming. I took those my first year at Summer Camp in 1972. Having a sash with only 3 merit badges made you feel kind of “naked.” So there was a subtle motivation to fill that sash up! When I finished in 1977, I had 28 merit badges.

I always liked that system—you check off requirements, and you get a reward. I’ve often thought I should have gone into the military, because at least on the surface it looks like an extension of that very structured system of merits and rewards. It seems to me that a lot of people look at the parable of the talents in our Gospel lesson for today and think that the “Kingdom of Heaven” operates like that. Now, I realize that among the parables of the kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel, this one may be the hardest to see as ironical—it is in fact talking about the opposite of what the kingdom is like. Most of us have heard the “sanitized” version of the parable—the “talents” are abilities that you’ve been given to invest on behalf of the kingdom, and if you don’t use them you lose them. But I don’t think that’s what this parable is about at all. Not at all!

In the first place, a “talent” in that day and time was an incredible fortune—the equivalent of ten to twenty years’ wages. This story should be called “The Parable of the Fortune Funds.” That puts this parable in a completely different realm of life—that of profits and margins and commissions! But more importantly, if you pay close attention to the details, this parable is about earning rewards. You get five fortune funds, you earn five more, and you get to keep all ten as a reward. You get two fortunes, you earn two more, and you get to keep all four. It’s very structured, very predictable. The rewards match the deeds; the merits match the achievements. But the down side applies to any “under-achievers.” If you’re like the servant who got one fortune and did nothing with it for fear of losing a great deal of money, then you don’t even get to keep that. And because you didn’t live up to the requirements, you get thrown out and punished.[2]

If that’s really what the “Kingdom of Heaven” is like, God looks more like a ruthless Wall Street tycoon than a loving creator and redeemer.[3] In that version of the kingdom, “to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matt. 25:29). Make no mistake, if the parable of the talents is not ironical, then the “kingdom of heaven” is about a strict system of earning rewards, and there’s not much room for grace or forgiveness or mercy.

I don’t know about you, but to me that doesn’t sound much like the God who blesses the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt. 5:3-6). It doesn’t sound much like the God who freely gives the blessings of sun and rain to all alike (Matt. 5:45). It doesn’t sound much like the God who feeds and clothes those who have little faith (Matt. 6:25-30), or the God who gives good things to those who ask like any parent does with a child (Matt. 7:7-11).[4] It doesn’t sound very much like the God who cares so much about each one of us as to keep track of the very hairs of our head (Matt. 10:30)! And it doesn’t sound like the God who seeks us out like a shepherd seeking one lost sheep because it is not God’s will that “one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matt. 18:14).

Nor does the idea of a kingdom that operates based on merit and rewards sound much like the strange kingdom Jesus talks about. In this strange kingdom, there is nothing to earn—no merits or rewards to rack up.[5] And everybody gets the same gift—God’s full and free acceptance. In this strange kingdom, the religious “under-achievers” gain entry ahead of those who think they’ve racked up more spiritual points. In this strange kingdom, God doesn’t throw people into “outer darkness,” because the only judgment is based on God’s mercy that forgives all sin and creates the possibility of new life for everyone.[6] It is a strange kingdom indeed—one that works completely contrary to the way things work in our world.

Now, what you may not know about my merit badge sash is that there are two badges missing that almost every Boy Scout everywhere always earns. I never got my Cooking and Camping merit badges! Isn’t that absurd—an Eagle Scout without Cooking and Camping merit badges! Of course, in reality I fulfilled the requirements for both of them many times over. But I was never officially awarded the badges! In our world—sometimes—when you fulfill the requirements you get the reward. When you do what is expected—sometimes—you get the “merit badge”—whatever form your “merit badge” might take. And when you collect enough badges you get to move up to the next rung of the ladder. And you keep climbing, because if you slack off, you might get bumped all the way off the ladder!

But that’s precisely the problem with that kind of system. It works for those who make it to the top; but for everyone else, it means only rejection and humiliation; "the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud" (Ps. 123:4). More importantly, if whether we “make it” or not in a spiritual sense is determined by a strict system of merit and reward, then the plain truth is that we’re all under-achievers. On our own, none of us can ever earn enough merit badges. But I think that’s Jesus’ point—the “Kingdom of Heaven” works completely differently from “The Parable of the Fortune Funds.” In this strange kingdom, there are no badges and no rewards, because everything is a gift. In the “Kingdom of Heaven,” everything depends on God’s love, which never fails, and God’s grace, which always seeks us out, and God’s mercy, which embraces us all completely.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/13/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] It seems to me that the 2011 Independent film “Margin Call” presents a contemporary real-life scenario that effectively models this dynamic of “winners” and “losers” in the financial world.

[3] In fact, Berthold Brecht, in his Threepenny Novel, has a scene in which a Bishop preaches a funeral sermon for the crew of a warship that sank because it was launched in unseaworthy condition. The Bishop uses this parable to justify the profit that the wealthy ship builders made at the expense of the crew’s lives. See U. Luz and H. Koester, Matthew 21-28, 250. They observe, “When the rapaciousness of a capitalist … become(s) a parable for the kingdom of God, … these methods and the profit motive behind them are justified … . God thus becomes a God of the rich and the clever, since he acts just like them.”

[4] See David J. Neville, “Toward a Teleology of Peace: Contesting Matthew’s Violent Eschatology,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30 (Dec 2007): 153, where he points out the tension between the violent outcomes in these end-times parables of Matthew’s Gospel and the presentation of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which he describes as “a nonviolent moral vision … grounded in the indiscriminate love of God.”

[5] Cf. Desmond and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness: And Why This Makes All the Difference, 21.

[6] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 315, 334-37. Cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 255.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Final Judgment?

Mt. 25:1-13[1]

I went to school with a guy named John. He was a troubled fellow—I never knew his whole story, but I know that he suffered. As a result John became fixated on the concept of God as an angry God, a God of judgment who punishes people, seemingly without mercy. Because he was always condemning people, my fellow students called him “John the Baptist.” I tried to be compassionate and respectful toward him, but John was convinced that just about everybody we knew would wind up in hell! I think that John’s obsession with an angry and violent God may in and of itself give us a clue what he suffered.

I’ve always been amazed when people speak with absolute certainty about what happens to us when we die—I wonder if most or all of them suffered a similar trauma. For whatever reason, there are people out there who seem to think they can describe the entire process in great detail. And depending on who’s sketching out this end-time scenario, our eternal destiny depends on having said the right words and done the right things with reference to faith in Jesus. Of course, these people are also supremely confident that they will be rewarded, because they have said the right words and done the right thing with reference to faith. And they are supremely confident that if you haven’t said the same words and done the same things then you will be rejected.

Our Gospel lesson for today raises these issues for us. In it, Jesus presents a parable about bridesmaids waiting for a bridegroom. Five of them are wise, and they bring enough oil to keep their lamps lit in case the bridegroom delays. Five of them are foolish, and they don’t think to bring extra oil. When the bridegroom arrives, the foolish bridesmaids are left behind and shut out because they didn’t have any oil. The story seems to conform to St. Matthew’s fondness for pointing out that there are some in the church who are wise and follow Jesus’ teachings and there are some who are foolish and don’t (cf. Matt. 7:21-23).[2]

But there are some problems with the parable. Although this is a parable about a wedding, there is no bride! And when the bridegroom does arrive—at midnight!—the wise bridesmaids tell the foolish ones to go out and buy oil for their lamps—at midnight! Furthermore, although the main point of the parable is that we are to keep awake because we don’t know the day or the hour (Matt. 25:13), all of the bridesmaids fell asleep! But perhaps the most important difficulty is the fact that when the foolish maids return, they cannot enter because the door is shut. That turns the idea of a wedding celebration, which is thoroughly joyful, into the threat of being excluded![3]

This seems to be consistent with St. Matthew’s idea that there are some in the community of Christ who really don’t belong there, and when the judgment is rendered, they will be exposed and shut out from the blessings of salvation. But I’m not so sure he got this idea from Jesus. In fact, this kind of thinking was prevalent in that day—it’s called “apocalyptic.” It originated in response to the trauma the Jewish people suffered at the hands of their Greek and Roman overlords. The main idea of apocalyptic is that at the end of time, God will come to vindicate the faithful by taking revenge on the rich and powerful oppressors who have tormented them. Ultimately, all those who do not belong to the people of God will be violently destroyed—either at the hands of God or at the hands of God’s people marching to victory in battle. That way of looking at things may sound familiar to you, because it’s still around today.

My problem with this is that there’s not much about that viewpoint that rings true to the message of Christ![4] Although the church has shut doors for centuries, God doesn’t shut doors. Although supposedly “righteous” people have been keeping people out since the beginning of our faith, Jesus doesn’t keep people out. It seems to me that contrary to shutting people out, Jesus occupied himself by breaking down the barriers that kept people out.[5]

Now, there’s no question that Jesus pointed to a future fulfillment of the strange kingdom that we can only glimpse here and now. And it’s also clear that Jesus warned that we would all be accountable for our actions in this life. But the biblical view of judgment is very different from what you find in apocalyptic. Biblical judgment always leads to restoration. Biblical judgment is about redeeming those who have gone astray, not punishing them. Biblical judgment is about God’s justice of mercy that forgives all sin and creates the possibility of new life for us all. [6]

No, the apocalyptic obsession with judgment and punishment are simply not God’s word to humankind. In God’s judgment, the only things that are destroyed are sin and death (1 Cor. 15:58). In God’s judgment, what is final is that God’s steadfast love endures forever (Ps. 106:1). In God’s judgment, what is final is that all things are restored by Jesus our Savior (Eph. 1:10). In God’s judgment, what is final is that every knee shall bow and every person who ever lived or ever will live will one day acknowledge God as their Savior (Isa. 45:22-23; Phil. 2:10-11). It seems to me that the only thing final about God’s judgment is that God has determined to “make everything new” (Rev. 21:5).[7] It is the promise of the fulfillment of God’s strange kingdom of justice and peace and mercy and joy and love and life.[8]

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/6/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew” New Interpreters Bible 8:449-451; cf. also U. Luz and H. Koester, Matthew 21-28, 244.

[3] Luz and Koester, Matthew 21-28, 244.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, In the End, The Beginning, 139-151.

[5] Cf. Matt. 9:10-13 (tax collectors and sinners); Matt. 15:22-28 (gentiles and women); Matt. 18:1-5 (children); Matt:21:31-32 (tax collectors and prostitutes); and Matt. 25: 34-40 (destitute, homeless, foreigners, physically disadvantaged, prisoners). Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 112-116.

[6] See especially Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God, 250-55; Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:56.

[7] Cf. Moltmann, The Coming of God, 240-46

[8] See Desmond Tutu, God Has A Dream, 122; cf. also Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 120; and Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 77, 190, 216.

Doing as We Say

Mt. 23:1-12[1]

Religion has always been connected with words. If you look at the history of religion throughout the ages and collected all the words associated with them, you would find volumes upon volumes of Scriptures of all kinds, explanations of those Scriptures, Prayers, Hymns, Chants, and Mantras. Even religions that are supposedly “wordless,” like the Tao or Zen Buddhism, have their own collections of words. We Christians may be some of the wordiest religious people in the history of the human family! If you gathered together the written deposit of all the preachers and teachers and bishops and popes throughout the centuries, it would fill a sizable library.[2] And we Presbyterians with our official books and declarations are no exception. I think it’s safe to say that where ever you find religion you’re going to find lots of words.[3]

I think, however, that words are a big part of the image problem with religion in our day and time. I’m afraid that all those religious words come across to many people as so much slick marketing. The words we religious people use make people think that this is just another way of getting money out of them or getting them to do something they really don’t want to do! We Christians say all kinds of things that sound profound and perhaps even beautiful, but at the end of the day I think many people see it all as just hollow words. After all is said and done, do all those words really make a difference in the way we live?

When you look at our gospel lesson for today, it’s far too easy to come away from it with the idea that those Jewish Scribes and Pharisees were the ultimate hypocrites. They didn’t even practice what they preached! But to do that would be to miss the fact that one of the most dangerous temptations for all of us is to use religious words to make ourselves think that we have it all down, when in reality our lives don’t come any where near to matching what we say. It’s the temptation of talking the talk without walking the walk.

If you doubt that we still face that temptation today, think about some of the Christian leaders who have been guilty of talking the talk without walking the walk. For some, what difference did all those religious words make when it came down to taking money from the millions of dollars good people contributed to the work of God? What difference did the words make when it came to abusing children who were placed in their trust? What difference did the words make when it came to using parishioners to indulge their sexual desires? And, of course, these temptations apply to all of us. It seems that one of the biggest image problems we have is that we say a lot of good things, but we don’t really do any of them.

When you look at all the ways Jesus criticized some of the Jewish leaders of his day, it seems to me that the common thread may be one of ego.[4] In all the ways that he pointed out their hypocrisy, it seems to me that where they went astray was that they used their religion to massage their own egos, to get “strokes” to make themselves feel important. The truth of the matter is that, whether we know it or not, whether we are even aware of it or not, religion has always been incredibly susceptible to being corrupted into just another way for us to feed the unhealthy pride that lurks in the corners of our insecurities. You know, that pride that tempts us to try to make ourselves look more important or more moral or simply better than others. It’s the other side of the temptation to brand others as “sinners” so that we can be “righteous.”

But when we indulge that temptation to “exalt ourselves” at the expense of others, we’re really only reinforcing our own insecurities.[5] If my sense of self depends on being better than you, then I always have to find ways of reassuring myself that I am indeed better than you. And I do mean always. And so it becomes a vicious circle—insecurity, pride, ego. It becomes something of an obsession. Or perhaps even an addiction.

The solution to that kind of obsessive religious egotism that shows itself in the unhealthy need to “exalt ourselves” over others is surprisingly simple. You just let it go. You simply stop feeding those insecurities. And the way to let it go is to embrace the central truth of the strange kingdom Jesus believed in: that God loves and accepts us—all of us.[6]

But like any unhealthy behavior, if you don’t replace it with something else, it’s incredibly difficult to break the cycle. And so the alternative is that instead of viewing others from our insecurities as the “competition,” we learn to view them from the perspective of compassion. Genuine compassion that cares whether they have everything they need today to be happy and well. Heartfelt compassion that really hopes and prays for them that they may be surrounded by God’s steadfast love that endures forever. When you look at others that way, instead of trying to “exalt yourself” above others, you can care about them enough to serve them.

That’s what true religion has always been about—whatever its name or origin or locale. All the religious words throughout the ages that have ever meant anything boil down to embracing God’s love and sharing it with others.[7] The same thing is true of the strange kingdom Jesus proclaimed: “the greatest among you will be your servant” (Matt. 23:11). It’s right and good that we use words like that to express and experience this profound aspect of human life. But at the end of the day, what it’s all about is doing the profound and beautiful things we say—putting them into action in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/30/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] And in this day and time, you can access most of it online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (, at Project Gutenberg (, or at the Vatican web site (, among others. I would think this serves as ample evidence of Paul Knitter’s comment that we Christians “talk too much”! Cf. Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, 56-57. He also mentions (ibid., 66) Thomas Aquinas’ caution that “He knows God best who acknowledges that whatever he thinks or says falls short of what God really is” (Aquinas, De Carnis 6).

[3] This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. In a Buddhist context, our words can be like fingers pointing to the moon; the challenge is not to confuse the finger with the moon. Knitter, Without Buddha, 61, says, “Fingers serve to point us in the direction of that mystery, which can be as real in our experience as it is beyond our words and understanding.”

[4] It’s important for us to heed Douglas Hare’s caution when he says that no one would deny that there were pious frauds in the Judaism of Jesus’ day, but to insist that all the Jewish leaders were pious frauds is “manifestly unjust.” Cf. Douglas A. Hare, Matthew, 263.

[5] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 186-87. He says, “it is never possible to substantiate oneself without depreciating the other.”

[6] Cf. M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” New Interpreter’s Bible 8:433. He says that Jesus points to an “alternative world” and an “alternative family” where “the approval of God removes the heavy yoke of self-justification.” Cf. also Moltmann, Church in the Power, where he observes that the compulsion to justify oneself at the expense of others can only be overcome when this “primal fear” is replaced by the “primal trust” that “Human life has eternal value because it is loved and accepted by God.” Cf. similarly, Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 136.

[7] Cf. Knitter, Without Buddha, 71, where he says that our religious symbols “are meant to change our lives, not fill our heads.” Cf. also John Caputo, On Religion, 115, 139, where he discusses the importance of “doing the truth” we believe, and “enacting” the “meaning of God.”

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Come as You Are

Matt. 22:1-14[1]

As you’ve probably figured out from my references to him in my sermons, my Grandpa played an important role in my life! One of his favorite sayings was that it didn’t matter if your clothes were new or old, if your shoes were shined you were dressed up. Some of you may remember that kind of thinking. He was pretty “old school” about things like that. And so you’ll understand why for years I always shined my dress shoes before Sunday morning church. Somewhere along the way I quit doing that—I don’t know if it was kids or career or age or all of the above. But I still do at least run a dry brush over my shoes most Sundays!

Back in the day, it was fairly clear to everybody that “clothes make the man.” Of course, that whole way of thinking came out of a male world, so it’s no surprise that the very phrase is sexist. But even in our more inclusive world, we still judge people by their clothes. A white frock coat means that you’re a medical professional, and you can answer any question about health. A badge and a gun belt mean you’re a law enforcement official and you don’t put up with any bull. A black robe and a clerical collar mean that you’re a priest or a minister, so you must be holy. You get the idea.

Even outside the professional world, clothing distinguishes us. Just ask any high school student. Local gangs have their colors, and if you happen to wear the wrong color and run into the wrong gang, you just might get beaten up—or worse. The “jock” crowd has their athletic gear on. The “preps” are wearing the most expensive clothes in school. And if you want to make a statement rejecting all these artificial distinctions, you dress all in black and you’re a “goth.” Or, if you’re a “nerd” you really don’t care what you look like because you’ve got the latest version of the Android tablet. In a very real sense, “clothing makes the person” still applies in our world.

In our gospel lesson for this week, Jesus tells a story about how “clothing makes the person.” But we have to be careful here, because this is another ironical parable. It’s a story about the way the world works, and if you want to know how the “Kingdom of Heaven” operates, you have to think the opposite.[2] In this story, a king throws a wedding feast for his son. Now, in the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day, any “king” in that neck of the woods was nothing more than a “stand-in” for Caesar. It would seem that the people he ruled knew that this man was no real king. And apparently, he wasn’t even very good at being a “stand-in” king, because when he threw a party, none of the “movers and shakers” of his kingdom would come. It would seem that they didn’t care for him very much. But the problem is that a royal wedding is very much about demonstrating the ongoing legitimacy of one’s rule. And that means that when the wedding guests refused to come, they were repudiating his rule over them. Not a very polite way to RSVP to a wedding party!

So the king responds the way any petty ruler of the day would—with force. He sends his soldiers in and they attack them and kill them and burn them out. No surprises there. But then the king does something strange—he decides to invite all the “riff-raff” to the party. After all, he’s throwing a party to celebrate his rule and it’s continuation through his son. When you throw yourself a party, and nobody shows, it’s not much of a party. So he decides to save face and fill up the banquet hall with anyone and everyone his servants could find on the streets.

Just in case you’re beginning to think this guy must not be all bad if he’s willing to throw a really inclusive party, the story includes his not-so-friendly interaction with one of the guests. When the king sees one of the people who have been whisked off the street to fill the party not dressed in the appropriate attire, he flies into a rage and throws him out. After all, perhaps the fact that he didn’t have the right wedding garment on was a blatant reminder to the king that his “guests” were really just there to make the party look like a success. And so he vents what’s left of his anger over being snubbed by the original guests on this unsuspecting fellow.[3] And the justification for his temper tantrum sounds reasonable enough: “many are called but few are chosen.”[4]

That’s the way the world in which we live works. Clothing makes the person. Appropriate attire is required; and if you’re not dressed appropriately, don’t bother showing up. Although that has eased up a bit in recent days, it’s still very much the way we live—we judge people by outward appearances. But in the strange kingdom of God that Jesus envisioned and proclaimed, there is no dress code. In this strange kingdom, everyone is welcome at the table.[5] In this strange kingdom, everyone is accepted.[6] In this strange kingdom, “all are called, all are chosen.”[7] In this strange kingdom, everyone is invited, all are welcome, and you can come to the party just as you are.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/9/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Daniel Berrigan, “A Parable For Today, If Not Tomorrow - The Parable Of The King's Banquet,” in National Catholic Reporter (May 4, 2001): 10-11. He says, “The parable of the king's banquet is brutally secular. It tells of the domestic misbehavior of the powerful and the victimizing of the powerless, of war and retaliation.” Contrast the many other commentators, exemplified by Ulrich Luz and Helmut Koester, Matthew 21-28, 57-58, who say this parable illustrates the principle that the church must prove its calling by good works.

[3] Cf. Berrigan, “Parable,” 10-11. He points out the disconnect in the king’s reaction by saying, “Imagine a homeless person in New York rounded up to appear at a wedding and then berated for not being clothed in a tuxedo!” Contrast Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2.588 (along with many others), who says, “he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”

[4] Berrigan, “Parable,” 11, says, “These are not the words of Jesus; they are the words of the worldly host and warrior, the one given to eviction and slaughter.”

[5] Cf. Mark 2:15-17; Luke 15:2; Matt. 11:19; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 112-115. He says that in these meals Jesus was “demonstrating in his own person what acceptance by the merciful God and forgiveness of sins means.”

[6] Cf. Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 153-163; Cf. also Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness, 192: “When we can accept our acceptance, the texture of life changes. The fear that has held us hostage will release its stranglehold on us.”

[7] Berrigan, “Parable,” 11.


Matt 21:33-46[1]

I find it ironic what kinds of actions we in the human family can see fit to cultivate. For example, it seems to me that we put a lot of energy and effort into taking revenge. In our world, when someone does you wrong, if you have the ability to get even, you do it, no matter what it takes. I think you could fairly say that revenge is a behavior that we have raised to the level of an art. In fact, I think you could almost say that some cultures take revenge as seriously as religion. After all, the Bible does say, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Lev. 24:20)! But “an eye for an eye” does not prescribe revenge, it limits it—essentially it says that if you take revenge for the loss of an eye, take no more than an eye in retaliation.

On the other hand, Jesus followed the tradition from the Torah that said “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself (Lev. 19:18).” That’s right—the command to love your neighbor as yourself, which Jesus identified as one of the two great commandments, is the Torah’s alternative to a life of revenge! In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples simply not to retaliate even against evildoers (Matt. 5:39)! Instead, he commanded them to love their neighbors as well as their enemies.

Okay, so far so good.

Then we come to the parable from our Gospel lesson for today. Jesus tells the story of a man who established a vineyard and leased it to tenant farmers. When it came time to collect his share of the produce, he sent his servants, but the tenants beat them and threw them out. Finally the landlord sent his son, and the tenants killed him. When Jesus asks what the owner of such a vineyard would do to the tenant farmers, the Jewish leaders answer in a way that is entirely expected—he will take his vengeance by killing them.

The problem with this lies with the way the church has traditionally interpreted parables like this one. We have tended to see them as metaphors for the way God works—the landlord is God, the vineyard is Israel, the tenants are the Jewish leaders, the servants are the prophets, and the son is Jesus the Christ. But if we read the parable that way, it makes God into an absentee landlord who makes unjust demands of those he has put in charge of his vineyard. And God doesn’t know very much about how to be an absentee landlord, because he sends his servants to collect the rent without any protection. And in the end, God acts just like the oppressive land owners of the day by taking revenge on those who oppose him.

I don’t know about you, but the image of a God of vengeance doesn’t work for me. In the first place, it’s not at all consistent with the image of God that Jesus paints, the God who is kind and generous toward the just and the unjust alike (Matt. 5:45). But perhaps most importantly, it makes Jesus essentially say to us, “don’t take revenge, because in the end God will take revenge.”[2] Some people find that idea perfectly consistent—we can’t take revenge because we don’t know the whole picture for anything or anybody. But presumably since God does, then God’s revenge will always be just. But it’s still revenge! And I just can’t buy into Jesus endorsing a God of vengeance.

So I would propose a different way to read this parable. Jesus tells a story about an absentee landlord who follows the standard customs regarding tenant farmers—customs which are incredibly unfair.[3] Essentially, he takes such a large cut of the profit as to leave the farmers who are actually working the land with barely enough to keep their families alive. As a result, the tenants rise up and determine to overthrow their tyrant of a landlord. And in response, he sends in an army and wipes them out. That’s the way the world works.[4] When someone does you wrong, if you have the ability to get even, you do it.

What then does this parable have to do with the strange kingdom we’ve been talking about the last few weeks? In a very real sense, I would say the parable illustrates the “Kingdom of Heaven” by showing the opposite way in which the world works. This world operates on the basis of do unto others as they have done unto you, just like the characters in the parable. In this world, when someone does you wrong, you get even. But the “Kingdom of Heaven” operates on a very different basis[5]—on the basis of God’s grace, God’s unconditional love, and God’s unfailing mercy. The specter of God’s vengeance doesn’t even exist in the “Kingdom of Heaven” that Jesus envisioned.

In the strange kingdom Jesus proclaimed, enemies become friends. In this strange kingdom, those who rebel may indeed find themselves broken and crushed by their defiance, but they also find that God is the one who heals the broken and lifts up those who are crushed (Ps. 145:14; 147:3). In this strange kingdom, there is no more “eye for an eye,” because operative rule is to forgive as you have been forgiven, to be merciful as you have been shown mercy. In this strange kingdom, there’s no more getting even, because that’s what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/2/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] For this viewpoint, see Barbara Reid, “Violent Endings in Matthew’s Parables and Christian Non-violence,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (2004): 252-53, 255. She admittedly does not frame it in these terms, but it’s hard not to conclude that this is essentially what she’s advocating.

[3] Cf. Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, A Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, 110, for a similar reading.

[4] Cf. Linda McKinnish Bridges, “Preaching the Parables of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel in Ordinary Time,” Review and Expositor 104 (Spring 2007):350-52. She says, “The feudal setting implodes. Nothing works; everyone loses. ...This is the domination system at its worst. This is not God's way.”

[5] I think that Jesus may have been pointing in that direction when he quotes the Scripture, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” I would suggest that Jesus was essentially rebuking the religious leaders for rejecting him as he sought to restore the people of Israel to a way of living defined by the will of God and expressed in the justice, peace and freedom of God’s realm. But he was insisting that what they had rejected would indeed become the foundation for a completely different way of living in the “Kingdom of Heaven.”