Tending God’s Vineyard

Cemetary2I have discussed the Parable of the Evil Workers in the Vineyard in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire where I suggest that Jesus was warning his listeners of impending collective violence. I also have used this parable as Exhibit A for René Girard’s thesis that humans have a tendency to establish culture in the midst of social crisis through rounding on a victim who is killed or expelled. This time I want to take the parable in a different direction.

The cue for my changed direction is the end of the Parable of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5 on which Jesus’ parable is modeled. In both parables, the owner of the vineyard has taken great trouble to set up the vineyard for maximum productivity, but things still go awry. In Isaiah’s parable, there is not the cycle of violence described in Jesus’ parable, but the well-planted grapes grow wild. The owner (Yahweh) “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Is. 5: 7) Isaiah goes on make it clear that the violence he is complaining about is about those “who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!” (Is. 5: 8) We could update this verse by adding those who add company to company and conglomerate to conglomerate.

Bringing this background into Jesus’ parable prods us to understand this parable, too, as referring not only to collective violence such as that threatened against Jesus but the ongoing social violence of the religious and political leaders. Properly tending the vineyard of the Lord is about properly caring for all people in society, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. Jesus was seeing quite the opposite in his time and the Risen Christ continues to see this systemic injustice continuing unabated in our time.

The stone rejected by the builders that Psalm 118 says becomes the cornerstone is rightly taken as referring to the persecuted prophets and then to Jesus who, rejected by the builders of society, has in his Resurrection become the cornerstone of the Church. But when we take into account the concluding parable in Matthew 25, it becomes clear that what is done to “the least of the members” of God’s family is done to Jesus. That is, the weak, the vulnerable, and the poor are the stones rejected by the builders of society, the same builders who put stumbling blocks before those who try to better themselves. But in the eyes of Jesus, it is those rejected by the builders who are the true building blocks of God’s kingdom.

When Jesus asks his listeners what they think the owner of the vineyard will do, they say that the owner “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.” (Mt. 21: 41) So it is that those committing social oppression embody an unforgiving attitude. Today, we hear many of the rich and powerful demonize the poor and vulnerable for their situation, blaming the victims of their oppression.

Yet, as Raymund Schwager points out in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, the risen Christ did not come with vengeance against the evil workers in the vineyard. Instead, the risen Christ came in peace with forgiveness. Those experiencing oppression are often scandalized by the notion of forgiveness, but we see in the unforgiving attitude of the Jewish leaders who are the oppressors that forgiveness is even more scandalizing for them. We often overlook how easy it is to hold unforgiving grudges against those people whom we have wronged in some way. The reason that we blame our victims is because accepting forgiveness from the risen Christ implies acceptance of our own wrong doing. No matter how gentle the Lamb of God is, forgiveness is still an accusation, and accepting forgiveness can only be done in a spirit of penitence. Looked at this way, the gift of forgiveness is not necessarily easy to accept. Yet overcome this difficulty we must if we are to avoid the cycle of violence that the Parable of the Evil Workers warns us against.

[For quotes and references to Moving and Resting in God’s Desire and Raymund Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, see Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary Proper 22A]

[For an introduction fo René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God]

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Binding and Loosing and The Good Shepherd Revisited

WilliamGuestsChurch1I am not going to write much on this Sunday’s Gospel. I have already done that on my blog post Binding and Loosing. Instead, I am going to preach about the rest of Matthew 18 that did not make the lectionary. This context will shed light on Jesus’ words about binding and loosing which were read today.

I start with the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep and searches out the one lost sheep. We get this parable in the Year of Luke so it makes sense that we don’t get it this year. However, the contexts for this parable are very different in the two Gospels. In Luke, the parable is the first of a trilogy about God’s solicitude in searching out the lost, the other two being the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In Matthew, the context is much more complicated and disturbing.

Directly preceding this nice pastoral parable in Matthew is Jesus’ admonition to cut off our hands and feet and pluck out our eyes if any of them cause us to stumble. (Mt. 18: 8) This sounds pretty unforgiving, but let’s look at the context of these frightening words. The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18: 1) This seems to be a polite way of fighting over who is the greatest, one of the disciples’ favorite pastimes. Jesus replies by placing a small child among the disciples and telling them to be like that child and to welcome the child. Not the answer the disciples were fishing for. When Jesus warns the disciples that it is better that a millstone be fastened around their necks and they be thrown into the sea rather than cause such a child to stumble, he is warning them of the seriousness of being such a stumbling block. The same applies to cutting off hands and feet. (Paul Neuchterlein develops the relevance of Stumbling blocks on his commentary on this Gospel in his Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.)

What does this have to do with the Good Shepherd and binding and loosing? Quite a bit. When we, like the disciples, become preoccupied with who is the greatest in God’s kingdom, we are doing a lot of binding without loosing anybody. René Girard has taught us that the stumbling block, skandalon in Greek, is what rivals set before each other. That is, rivals become stumbling blocks to each other. As if that is not problem enough, the rivalry affects other people with the most vulnerable, such as the child Jesus placed before the disciples, bearing the brunt of the rivalry. The sheep that strayed has gotten lost in the shuffle. Which is to say that the lost sheep and the child placed before the disciples have been sacrificed. But what about the hands and feet Jesus would have us cut off? Isn’t that sacrificial? Yes, but with a difference. When we are engaged in rivalry and are placing a stumbling block before others, the rivalry seems as important, as self-defining, as essential to our being as our hands and feet. Jesus then suggests that it is better to enter “life” maimed or blind rather than be cast “into the eternal fire.” The thing is, it is rivalry that maims and blinds us. If we should sacrifice our rivalry, it feels like cutting off our hands and feet and plucking out our eyes. But if we do just that, we are free to walk and see. This freedom to walk and see enables us to see the little child and the lost sheep.

We are faced with the fundamental choice of sacrificing our rivalry or sacrificing other people. If we sacrifice others, we bind them and in so doing, we bind ourselves as well. So we have the power to bind or to loose. We can bind ourselves and others in rivalry, or we can loose others and ourselves by seeking the lost and welcoming the child Jesus places before us.

[For and Introduction to René Girard, see my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

Born in the Fullness of Time

MarySome people question the need to set aside a day to honor Mary, often out of fear that such a remembrance detracts from her son. The ready answer is that it is not possible to focus on Mary without focusing on her son. The title “Mother of God,” exalted as it sounds, does precisely that. Being a mother immediately puts her in relationship with her son and her son in relationship with her. Since Mary was a human mother, Jesus, born of Mary’s womb, was fully a human being. Since Christianity recognizes Jesus to be fully God as well, it follows that being the mother of the human child Jesus entails being the Mother of God.

Jesus, then, was and remains a human being and he is also the one who, as both God and a human being, brought about our salvation. Paul states the matter concretely and succinctly: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4: 4-5) Paul stresses Jesus’ humanity on three counts: 1) That Jesus came in “the fullness of time,” that is, Jesus was born at a particular time in history, 2) Jesus was born of a particular woman. 3) Jesus was born “under the law.” Being a human being necessarily entails being a part of human culture. The Jewish Law was the backbone of the culture Jesus was born into. Like any other human, Jesus was formed by the Jewish Law and it was out of this formation that he redefined the law in his teachings, especially in Matthew’s Gospel.

Sometimes we are tempted to some envious grumbling when somebody else is elevated above other humans as Mary is elevated by the numerous Marian devotions that have developed over the Christian centuries. But if we are going to honor the son of Mary, we must honor his Mother. Jesus could not have come into the world in any other way than through a particular woman, and Mary was that woman.

As it happens, Mary isn’t really raised above the rest of us human beings. Paul goes on to say that God sent his Son in the fulness of time “in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Gal. 4: 5) In the topsy-turvy world that has received God’s incarnate presence, Jesus’ mother was adopted as a daughter of God so that she could be his mother, and this so that the rest of us, too, can be adopted as God’s children. The truth of Jesus’ humanity that is verified by his particular human mother encourages us to accept the truth of our own humanity rather than try to rise above it on our own. When we honor Mary and honor her humanity, her son raises us also to her exalted level. Renouncing envy in favor of admiration leads us to become what we admire. Becoming like Mary means we become like Christ who received his formation both by his heavenly Abba and his earthly mother.

On Hearing God’s Silence in the Storm

Jesus walking on waterIt is highly significant that Elijah did not find God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but only in a “sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kg 19:12) It happens that Elijah had just run away from fire and storm when he heard this sound of silence. Since Elijah had just “won” the battle with the priests of Baal, one might have thought that God had spoken through wind and fire that time, but the result of “winning” that contest was needing to run for his life because Jezebel was out to get him. So it seems God had not spoken in the wind and fire on Mount Carmel after all. If we stop the story with the “sound of sheer silence,” we are edified, but when we read on to the words Elijah heard, we are seriously troubled. At least I am. Elijah is told to anoint Elisha to be his successor prophet. So far so good. But Elijah is also told to anoint Jehu son of Nimshi to be king of Israel. The narrative of Jehu’s cold-blooded coup d’état is chilling to say the least. (2 Kg. 9) More chilling are the words Elijah heard: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.” (1 Kg. 19: 17) After the violent rivalry between Elijah and the priests of Baal, we get the crossfire of the violent rivalry between Hazael and the House of Ahab: more storm and fire. I have a hard time hearing this storm in the “sound of sheer silence.”

We have more storms in the story of Jesus’ disciples taking a boat across the lake. As almost always with Jesus, there were some human storms. Jesus had just learned of the ignominious death of John the Baptist as a result of a sophisticated mob violence at court. Afterwards, Jesus fed a mob of people who were hungry both for food and God’s Word. Matthew doesn’t mention this mob’s attempt to take Jesus by force to make him king but one can’t help but think that Jesus went off alone to pray because he needed to center himself again on his heavenly Abba after what had just happened. I’m inclined to see in the storm at sea not only a natural phenomena but an interpersonal phenomena as well. I wrote in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: “The story of Peter walking on water — or trying to — also illustrates this aiming [to be centered on God]. (Mt. 14:28-33) The wind and the choppy waves represent our being overwhelmed by the mimetic movements that tend toward rage and persecution. When Peter looked at the waves instead of at Jesus, he started to sink. By himself, he would have sunk and drowned. By looking again at Jesus, Peter was pulled into the boat and the sea grew calm.”

[Tom and Laura Truby develop these thoughts with excellence in their sermon The Raging Storm of Our Own Making.”]

Both of these scripture readings make it dramatically clear that being truly focused on God and God’s peace beyond human understanding is very difficult. Elijah shows how it is very possible to hear the “sheer silence” and yet also “hear” the violence unfolding in his generation. That Elijah was persecuted by Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, makes it understandable that Elijah would hear, even in the “sheer silence,” his own anger and fear towards Ahab’s royal house. Likewise, the disciples in the boat on the stormy sea are so caught up both in the natural storm and the storm of their own disputatiousness that even Jesus himself appears as an object of horror rather than peace. We should take this as a warning of how our prayer in trying times can be distorted by our own anger and anxiety.

There is no simple solution I can offer for this difficulty we all face. In principle, it seems simple to say that we should turn to Jesus and stay turned to him. The problem is that this “simple” solution is difficult minute by minute, second by second. We look at the chaotic waves of the water and sink back into our fears, resentment, and rage. It is a huge help if we remain aware of this weakness and don’t mistake the storms inside ourselves for the word of God. When we fall into our rage, the storm continues, for Jesus calms the waters; he does not stir them up. It takes time and discipline to keep even enough focus on the “sheer silence” to help us see the rage we keep hearing for what it is. Imitating Peter by crying for mercy is essential as this is a cry of repentance of our violence that is the first step to living in the peace of Christ.

Jesus’ Yoke

eucharist1Jesus’ invitation to come to him with our burdens so that he can give us rest and take his easy yoke upon ourselves sounds like an irresistible blessing. But the troubling words skipped by the lectionary suggest that Jesus’ offer is highly resistible. Here, he bemoans the rejection of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Given the horrifying hardness of heart shown in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah’s destruction, it boggles the mind that Jesus thought those people might have responded better than the people of Capernaum who witnessed Jesus’ first miracles of healing.

How can Jesus’ offer to free us of our burdens be so resistible? We get some hint of this in the powerful, if dense, passage in Romans 7 where Paul cries out against the burden of sin that makes him do what he does not want to do. Most of us think the problem is that the burden of sin renders us powerless. There is something to that, especially in the case of addictions. But the deeper problem is that we have great difficulty knowing what we really desire. The French thinker René Girard has helped us greatly towards an understanding of this problem with his insight into what he called “mimetic desire.” That is, although we tend to be addicted to the illusion that our desires originate from within ourselves, Girard suggests that our desires originate from without: i.e. from other people. That is, we copy the desires of other people. Since the same is true of other people, they are imitating our desires as much as we are imitating theirs. No wonder desires are so complicated. It is telling that Paul says: “I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’” (Rom. 7: 7) Covetousness is precisely the sin most driven by mimetic desire. This phenomenon can lead to a spiral of desire that reinforces each others’ desires in love. This is what Jesus us getting at in offering to relieve us of our burdens and take his yoke upon us. But usually, we imitate each other in a downward spiral of rivalry, anger, and vengeance. In this spiral, we become more and more convinced that our anger and rage are our own even as the rage and anger of others overtakes us like a flood. When this happens, we are yoked to our rivals and they to us. This is the yoke Jesus would relieve us of.

Girard argues that a society caught in a downward spiral either implodes into mutually assured destruction (MAD) or channels its common rage against a victim who is scapegoated. The latter is the story told in the four Gospels. However, it is not only the story of the Gospels; it is the story told numerous times in the Hebrew Bible starting with the dawn of humanity. The establishment of violence as the engine of society is what Jesus was getting at when he said, in another verse not included in the lectionary: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.” (Mt. 11: 12)

Although we are prone to clinging to the illusion of our individuality, Girard has shown us that we are yoked to others through the matrix of our intertwining desires. Where we can take some responsibility for our lives is to choose how we wish to be yoked and to whom we will be yoked. In rabbinic literature, the yoke is used as an image for a Jewish student’s relationship with his or her rabbi. Jesus, as a rabbi, offers such a yoke. Being yoked to Jesus means being yoked to a Messiah who rides on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy. The Greek word translated as “gentle” is praus, the same word used in Matthew’s quote from Zechariah to describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

Jesus’ yoke may be easy but it is challenging. The temptation to give way to fear, anger, and vengeance, especially when that is all around us, is very strong, but the yoke of vengeful anger is very heavy and it entraps us in the power of sin within us that prevents us from doing what we really want to do. Escaping this trap can seem impossible. As Paul discovered, it is impossible without the grace of Christ who offers us his yoke in place of the yoke of sin. The harsh words against Capernaum and neighboring towns actually offer us hope. If Jesus could envision the possibility of Sodom and Gomorrah converting to Jesus’ yoke if they had seen the wonders done at Capernaum, although the people in these towns united to persecute Lot and his guests, surely Jesus can envision the same for our persecutory society. Can we cast the burdens of fear, anger, and vengeance on Jesus and accept the yoke he offers us, a yoke that burdens us with compassion and love?

[For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

Feed My Sheep

AndrewPreaching1In the final chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter has to answer three times that he loves Jesus and then listen to Jesus tell him three times: “Feed my sheep.” (Jn. 21: 15-17) This three-fold question and response is commonly interpreted as Peter undoing his three-fold betrayal of Jesus in the court of the high priest. I agree, but with the caveat that Peter’s betrayal goes further back. At Gethsemane, when Jesus had been seized by the temple police, Peter drew a sword and cut off the right ear of one of the high priest’s servants. This may look like loyalty to most people, but not to Jesus, who said: “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Jn. 18: 11) That is, Peter had betrayed what Jesus really lived for and was about to die for. As he had at Caesarea Philippi, Peter had acted as a “satan,” a stumbling block to Jesus’ commitment to non-violence, even at the cost of his life. In declaring his love for Jesus three times, Peter declared his love for what Jesus lived for and died for. It is with this love that Peter was told to feed his sheep.

Paul, whom we also celebrate today, is famous for his conversion experience. Like Peter, Paul had to repent of the violence he had committed in what he thought was in the service of God. The voice from Heaven on the road to Damascus told Paul that he was actually persecuting God by persecuting the followers of Jesus. After hearing this voice, Paul realized that, like his fellow Pharisees denounced by Jesus, he had been committing the social violence of heaping burdens on people and not lifting a finger to lift them. With Paul, this social violence had exploded into physical violence against those very people on whom these burdens had been imposed. (Mt. 23: 4) The voice of Heaven converted Paul into being a lifter of heavy burdens from others so that he and those he preached to could embrace the gift of forgiveness Jesus bestowed on him when he drank the cup given by his heavenly Abba and allowed his Abba to raise him from the dead.

Peter and Paul are often posed as opposites, even antagonists, but they are united in one most important thing: both ministered out of their conversion from violence to living by the free gift of God’s mercy grounded in the cross. Out of their conversions, they preached whether “the time [was] favorable or unfavorable.” (2 Tim 4: 2) In doing so, both of their lives were “poured out as a libation” (2 Tim. 4: 6) as they tended the heavenly Abba’s sheep with special care for the sick and the wounded. In the end, both were led away to where they did not wish to go (Jn. 21: 18) but ended up winning “the crown of righteousness.” (2 Tim. 4: 8) If we are to follow these two great saints, we, too, must hear the voice of Jesus warning us of the violence we commit or benefit from and be converted so that we, too, can feed Jesus’ sheep.

Living the Mystery of the Trinity

lakeGray1The Trinity is often presented as a puzzle: How can one be three and three be one? Mathematicians haven’t come up with any answers to that, so let’s treat the Trinity as a mystery to live, not a puzzle to solve. After all, it was through living the Mystery that the apostles preached a Triune God.

The mystery begins at Creation. The Breath of God breathes on the primordial waters and the Word of God calls the world into being. Then, God breathes God’s own life into the first human made out of wet clay.

Think about it a moment. Having been made out of the clay of the earth, we are each called to life by a silent voice that resonates deeply within us with God’s Desire, and the Breath of the same God enlivens us with that same Desire.

Of course, we don’t remember either the Call or the Breath. We emerge into life with forgetfulness, quickly falling prey to anger and anxiety, even though the Call and the Breath continue without ceasing. In daily life, we use memory to refer to remembering things such as appointments, how to do things, and what books we’ve read. But the great mystical writers in Christianity such as St. Augustine and St. John of the Cross use the word “memory” to refer to recollecting ourselves in the Memory of God who Calls us and Breathes in us. That is, memory, this deeper memory, is recollection in the Trinity. If we stop and think, we might hear the still small voice of this inner memory calling us and breathing in us. If we are fortunate enough to have people in our lives who take time to remember deeply, our own deeper memory is quickened.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28: 19) In itself, this admonition sounds abstract but, as St. Paul explains, the baptism of which Jesus speaks is a baptism into Jesus’ death and Resurrection. (Rom. 6) That is, we are baptized into the death of the Word that Calls us into being when the Word was killed by angry and anxious people like us and brought back to life by the quickening Breath that inspires us to understand, in the depths of our own desires, the Desire that lead the Word that calls us to do such a thing for our sakes.

Most of us don’t remember being baptized any more than we remember being created. I don’t, having been baptized as an infant. But even for those whose baptism is a memory in the lesser sense, we have to remember in the deeper sense, the mystery of our redemption in the same way that we must remember the mystery of our creation. Again, the deeper memory is grounded in the work of the Trinity in our lives. For St. Augustine, Psalm 42 points to this mystery: “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts;.” (Ps. 42: 7)

If we puzzle over the numbers, we miss the adventure of the mystery of living deeply in the memory of the Trinity calling us and breathing through us out of the depth of the Godhead. This is a mystery we need to live each day as we live in a world where so much anger and anxiety pull us towards forgetfulness. But if “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” is with all of us as St. Paul affirms in his closing words to the Corinthians, then we will “agree with one another [and] live in peace.” (2 Cor. 13: 11-13) And, we will preach this deeper memory to others by the way we live our lives.