Wednesday, November 02, 2011


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.”

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