Sun, Oct 08, 2017

Unintended consequences


It was the first Christmas service that I conducted after I was ordained...

and my first as the minister of a small suburban congregation.

I had been warned that quite a few of the regulars brought family...

who didn't normally attend church.

The subtext, of course, was that there were certain expectations...

not just about the service...

but especially about the sermon.

So I spent considerable time on it.

I wanted it to be good.

And I thought I had a good idea.

As a New Testament scholar who specialised in understanding the social world behind the text...

I knew about the extraordinarily high infant mortality rate in the first century--

and, hence, the incredible vulnerability of neonatal infants--

and I thought that made for an interesting theological reflection:

what does it mean for our understanding of God...

if God comes to us--

however we understand it--

as a baby under those conditions?

What does it say to us about God's vulnerability...

and God's sense of risk?

And I constructed what I thought was a beautifully crafted, almost poetic address... 

exploring those issues.

And, come Christmas morning, I rose in the pulpit to begin the sermon.

And I was only a short way into the opening--

exploring the risks and dangers of birth in the ancient world--

when I became aware of a young couple sitting with one of my regulars.

The young woman-- 

who was heavily pregnant--

was crying.

Her husband, too, looked visibly upset.

They hurriedly got up and walked out...

the large doors banging behind them.

The rest of that extended family stayed until the end...

but, at the door, the young woman's grandmother--

who was a regular attender--

explained to me, through sobs, that her grand-daughter had had two prior miscarriages...

and was quite anxious about this birth.

In the coming week, I was inundated with complaints about my 'inappropriate' sermon.

And it was some years before that extended family returned for a Christmas service.


Almost every day, in the media, we're reminded that poorly chosen words can have unintended consequences.

But so, too, can stories that we tell.

Even good and appropriate stories can have unintended consequences.


All of which brings us to this morning's parable from Matthew's Gospel.

Once again, we have the story of a wealthy landowner...

who owns a vineyard.

In this story, however, the landowner leases the vineyard to tenants...

then goes away.

At harvest time he sends servants to collect his rent--

namely, a proportion of the crop...

which, depending on the scruples of the landowner...

could be in excess of fifty percent--

but the tenants turn on them violently.

So the landowner sends more servants.

And the same thing happens.

So, then, the landowner sends his son.

But they kill him too.

On the surface, at least, the story appears to be almost allegorical.

The landowner represents God.

The vineyard represents Israel and the tenants the religious leadership.

The servants represent the prophets.

And the son, of course, represents Jesus.

And the thrust of the parable appears to be a judgment upon Israel and its leadership...

because they rejected and crucified Jesus.

Traditionally, that's how the parable has been interpreted.


But almost immediately... 

as an allegory...

the parable deconstructs itself.

Agricultural tenancy in the first century was a highly exploitative practice.

Indeed, it was intentionally exploitative.

It aimed to put the tenants into debt...

forcing them into a situation of bonded servitude.

Is that an appropriate image for God?

Surely not.

So if we can't allegorise it...

is there something in the landowner's behaviour that teaches us something about God?

Perhaps it's in the way that the landowner responds to the tenants.

After they assault and murder the first delegation of servants, the typical human response...

you would assume...

would be to send in the authorities;

or, within the context of the ancient world, to send in armed troops...

who would violently evict...

or, even, exact revenge upon the wicked tenants.

But he doesn't.

Instead, he sends another delegation. 

Tacitly, it's an invitation to respond in good faith.

When they respond with more violence...

you would assume, this time, that the landowner would act forcibly.

He still doesn't.

He still acts with patience and non-violence.


and almost idiotically--

he sends his son.

It's the last thing that you would expect him to do.

At that point, Matthew's Jesus turns to the religious leaders--

to whom he's telling the parable--

and asks them, "What will he do?"

And they respond, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death".

Even if, to this point, the landowner has been indulgently patient and merciful...

surely, not now.

Surely, now, he will respond 'appropriately'.

Surely, now, he will exact vengeance.

That, of course, would be the expected thing.

That would be the normal, human thing.


to the extent that this parable is intended as a commentary on God's relationship with humankind--

that isn't God's response to us.

When, of course, humanity put Jesus to death...

God didn't respond by killing us all.

God didn't respond with vengeance.

Rather, according to the Easter story, God raised Jesus from death as an act of forgiveness.

God raised Jesus to show us that God is other than how we suppose...

that God is not like us;

and to show us another way--

to show us what it really means to be children of God.

Indeed, like all parables... 

this one seeks to challenge our taken-for-granteds.

Almost instinctively, we expect God to be like us.

We expect God to be violent and vengeful.

We expect God to be angry and in need of appeasement.

Traditionally, that's at the heart of so much that we have been taught.

And even the author of Matthew's Gospel can't escape it.

For, as he expands upon Jesus' response to the religious leaders...

he turns the story into a pronunciation of judgment;

which is completely at odds with the whole thrust of the story itself.

The parable...

as it stands...

deconstructs the author's use of it.

And, surely, the parable deconstructs all of our theologies... 

which seek to impute any sort of judgmental or punitive tendency onto God.

If God is, in any way, like this inexplicably...


patient and peaceful landowner...

who categorically refuses to resort to violence and vengeance--

as the parable leads us to believe--

then how can God's response to us be anything other than unfailingly patient...

and resolutely non-violence?


But, even more than that...

this parable doesn't just challenge our taken-for-granteds about God;

it's also challenging our taken-for-granteds about what it means to be human.

If our natural, human response is to respond to slights with slights...

to insults with insults...

and to violence with violence...

then this parable challenges us to seek a different way.

As Martin Luther King JR reminds us:

"Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law. He knew that the old eye-for-an-eye philosophy would leave everyone blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil. He overcame evil with good...Only goodness can drive out evil and only love can conquer hate".

That, in the end, is what this parable is trying to teach us.

Sadly, it's something that we still haven't learned.


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