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.]

Jesus Between the Prisoners

crossRedVeil1We rightly meditate on the sufferings of Jesus during Holy Week. But in Matthew 25, Jesus made it clear that the sufferings of others were also his sufferings. So it is also suitable to meditate on the sufferings Jesus bears with others.

There is such an epidemic of violence and oppression at this time that one hardly knows where to start. But denouncing violence and oppression in general is not helpful, so I will focus on something that I have been reflecting on lately: the US prison system.

Out of sight is out of mind for many things but it applies to the US prison system more than most. There are many who prefer it that way. Not only those who benefit from the prison system but also those who don’t want to know. I can understand not wanting to know. I would be much happier if I knew a lot less of the US prison system. The problem is, Christian charity requires knowing when people are being treated like Christ–as in Christ being brought before Caiaphas and Pilate and then nailed to the cross.

In a series of essays recently published in honor of the social activist Will D. Campbell And the Criminals with Him, and in other books I have read, the systemic horror and dehumanization of almost everybody involved in the prison system has been brought home to me. The incarcerated are vulnerable to their wardens and guards in ways that make human dignity very hard to retain. What disturbs me most is the social vengeful spirit that feeds the prison system. It is this vengeful spirit that drives the incarcerated out of sight and out of mind. There is no room for forgiveness. I don’t mean that forgiveness means letting people go free without any consequences; forgiveness means seriously rehabilitating people and giving them a chance when they are released. We forget that Christian ethics teaches that all people deserve to be treated with dignity at all times. Treating people with dignity includes making people accountable for what they do. Huge sentences without parole or reducing prisoners to one meal a day do not accomplish that.

Rather than scold ourselves for our prison system, however, I would rather spread encouragement through a story I heard at a conference over a year ago by Preston Shipp, who repented of being a prosecuting attorney in Tennessee. While he was still holding that position, he was asked by a professor he had had at Lipscomb College, to teach a course in the woman’s prison on criminal justice. This is a program where half the class consists of Lipscomb students and half the class is made up of inmates of the prison. The best and most perceptive student in the class was an inmate named Cyntoia Brown. It was a shock to Preston when he got a finalized brief on the case of Cyntoia Brown and discovered that he himself had denied the appeal without, obviously, really examining the case. (Cyntoia had murdered a man who was abusing her at the age of sixteen.) Talk about not knowing what one is doing, as Jesus said on the cross. In the book I mentioned above, we also get the story from Cyntoia’s point of view. She said that she had her own stereotypes about what a prosecuting attorney teaching the class would be like only to have those stereotypes knocked away by this highly affirming man whose teaching opened the door for her to feel human again. But then she got her copy of the brief denying the appeal of her sentence. She felt deeply betrayed and Preston hardly knew how he could face her, but he did. Yes, in the midst of this unforgiving prison system, Cyntoia forgave Preston and Preston accepted her forgiveness. Can we follow her example along with that of Christ?

A video of the incident is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=dQpQlqN8EY0

Increasing Faith in Forgiveness

mulberry_tree_by_vincent_van_goghThe disciples’ demand (not a request) that Jesus increase their faith, (Lk. 17: 5) with a hint of desperation that such a demand entails, seems to come out of nowhere when it begins the Gospel reading. So let us look at the preceding paragraph for some context.

That paragraph begins with Jesus’ ominous warning against being occasions of stumbling (scandals) for any of Jesus’ “little ones.” Unlike the parallels in the other synoptic Gospels, however, this warning is quickly followed by an admonition to rebuke those who cause stumbling but then to forgive them if they are penitent, even if it is seven times a day, which is a lot of forgiving.

So, the disciples aren’t having a problem believing in the Nicene Creed. They are having a problem accepting this demand to be forgiving on such an incredible scale. After all, if one repents seven times a day, how serious is the repentance? Forgiving like that often requires the patience of a saint and not even many of the saints I know anything about are as patient as that. The “faith” at issue here, then, seems best understood in the usual meaning in Jesus’ time which would stress fidelity to Jesus’ teachings and trust in his sanity in the face of such impossible demands. In the same fashion, we can understand “faith” as used in Habakkuk 2:4 as referring to remaining steadfast to Yahweh in the face of the human violence of social injustice in Israel and the violence of the Babylonian invaders. That is, in the face of people who cause much stumbling and need forgiveness almost nonstop.

Unlike the parallels in Matthew and Mark, faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to move this mountain, perhaps the Temple Mount and its sacrificial system, from here to there. But mulberry trees have nothing to do with sacrifice. So why a mulberry tree in this version? A mulberry tree can be nice to have around but it an be a nuisance in some circumstances. When I was growing up, we had a mulberry tree on the edge of our property. The berries were a nice treat but they also stained the driveway a deep purple. Mulberry trees also have complex root systems that spread out a large distance just under the surface and they also send sinker roots deep into the soil. This may be one of the reasons my father used a tree removal service rather than faith to move the tree off from the property.

We an see the mulberry tree as an image of the intractability of the occasions for stumbling that we encounter on a daily basis. The image also stands for the tangle of our anger and frustration over being asked to forgive those who keep making us stumble over and over again. The close coupling of Jesus’ admonitions here suggests that all of us cause others to stumble about as much as we have occasion to forgive others for making us stumble. Faith the size of a mustard seed is enough to pull us out this tangle of scandal and stumbling and yet we have trouble having as much faith as that!

A brief parable follows. We are apt to think the master treating his slaves so harshly stands for God, but Jesus is asking: Whom among you would say to his slave to come sit down for dinner after a hard days’s work? The implication is that we are the ones who would like to have the power to order people about like that. But is that faithfulness to Christ? Looks more like a cause of stumbling to me. Jesus then shifts to the perspective of the slave who must not presume to be worthy of any reward, just as slaves were so considered in his time. In a similar parable in Luke 12, Jesus says that the master is the one who will wait on those slaves who eagerly await his return. In daily life, we often feel that we are slaves of those who cause trouble and so demand much attention and energy on our part and yet are the last to express any gratitude for what we do for them. We tend to resent such slavery and take refuge in vengeful anger and maybe some grudging forgiveness that makes us feel superior. But Jesus places himself in the position of the slave to those who stumble and makes others stumble, so that is where we will find Jesus if we have the faith the size of a mustard seed.

Salvation as Communal Healing

anointingJesusFeetWe have a tendency to think of salvation as a personal matter. To some extent it is, but the way salvation is presented in scripture, it is never personal in an individualistic sense. In the case of the famous story of “The Sinful Woman,” we easily focus on the woman whose dramatic action is enough to grab our attention. However, her act is a public drama. Moreover, in very few words, Luke paints the social context of the woman’s behavior. She is a “sinful woman.” We are not told the nature of her sinfulness, so that is not relevant to what we should learn from the story. Simon, Jesus’ host at the dinner, assumes that Jesus should have known that the woman was a sinner and he should not have allowed her to anoint and dry his feet with her hair, actions that further proved the woman’s sinfulness in Simon’s mind. Simon may have been expecting Jesus to have supernatural discernment, but he may have simply expected Jesus to know who had a bad reputation and who didn’t.  In any case, it is a social judgment that has labeled this woman as sinful. That is, this woman shows all the signs of being the community scapegoat who helps everybody else feel good about themselves.

Jesus’ brief parable of the two debaters can be understood as presenting salvation in a social context. The two debtors gives us, in miniature, an image of society where everybody is in debt in the sense of being sinful, even if the sinfulness of each person is not equal. We can see this indebtedness on a horizontal level as each person has wronged somebody else. In a religious culture, such as the Jewish one, the notion of everybody being indebted to God would, of course, also come to mind. The problem with Jesus’ parable is that if we see ourselves as parts of a society full of moral debt, then scapegoating one particular sinner ceases to be viable.

Simon’s grudging answer to Jesus’ question that the one who owed more would love more suggests that Simon is beginning to see the implication of the parable and it is making him uncomfortable. Jesus’ proclamation that the woman’s sins are forgiven leads to muttering and outrage from Simon and his other guests. If the moral debt of even one person is forgiven, then how can the community have a scapegoat? Forgiving the scapegoat was totally unforgiveable! The important thing is that it was not just the woman as an individual who was offered forgiveness, but everybody in the social system. The catch was, and is for us today, that we have to renounce the “comfort” that a social scapegoat gives us before our communities can be healed. As with so many of his parables, this story in Luke leaves us hanging. Will Simon and his friends accept forgiveness, or will they remain outraged by it, thinking that they don’t need it. The same question faces us as well.

The Breath of the Trinity

Piero,_battesimo_di_cristo_04There is much theology that treats the Trinity as a mathematical game, trying to work out how three can be one and one can be three. But math, important as it is for many things, is not the way of salvation.

The Church, of course, didn’t preach the Trinity just to solve a mathematical puzzle; the Church preached the Trinity because that seemed to be the best, maybe the only way, to preach salvation. Jesus, a human being, was so god-like that his followers concluded that he wasn’t just like God but was God when, among other things, Jesus exerted divine power to walk on water and still the waves of the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus sent the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, to do the godlike things he had done. So it was that the disciples experienced three Persons acting like God in a way that only God could act. That’s why theologians have been trying to do the math ever since. We shall reflect on one of the most important of the godlike acts of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities for many things, but probably the most serious of them was claiming the power to forgive sins. He did this when the paralytic was brought down through the roof by his friends so that he might be healed, (Mk. 2:5) and he did it again when the Sinful Woman poured perfume over his feet at the house of Simon. (Lk. 7: 47) The Pharisees were incensed because Jesus, a human being, was doing what only God could do. The Gospel writers agreed that only God could forgive sins and Jesus had, in fact, done what only God could do.  Before he died, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be an Advocate who would lead them further into the truth of who Jesus was. When the risen Jesus breathed on the disciples in the upper room, he passed on to them and, through them to us, the ministry of forgiveness of sins. (Jn. 20: 22–23) Fifty days later, Peter exercised this power to forgive sins when his listeners asked him what they needed to do to be saved. (Acts 2: 38)

The Trinity, then, is not a mathematical puzzle but a story of sin and forgiveness. In spite of some outbursts of anger, Yahweh claimed to be a God who was chesed, a Hebrew word meaning full of loving kindness and mercy. The attitude of the Pharisees towards the paralytic and the Sinful Woman suggests that they thought forgiveness should stay up in the heavens where it belonged and not get mixed up with humans on the earth. In our angrier moments we tend to feel the same way. But Yahweh’s hesed did get mixed up with humanity: first in the person of Jesus and then in the disciples through the Gift of the Holy Spirit. So it is that we humans are given the Gift, not only of having our sins forgiven, but we have the Gift of forgiving the sins of other people. Note that it isn’t we who forgive, but it is God who forgives through us. That is, the divine act of forgiveness that came the earth in the person of Jesus has, like the Holy Spirit, spread throughout the whole world.

Forgiveness is the air we breathe. Unfortunately, just as we can pollute the air, we can pollute the breath of the Holy Spirit through our own wrath. But fortunately, there is no getting rid of God’s hesed. It is all around us and we can breathe it any time we wish. And when we wish it and breathe in the Spirt, we share the life of the Holy Trinity with other people and so help them share the same forgiving life.

Christian Community (2)

guestsNarthex1In essence, the kingdom Jesus encouraged his followers to enter is based on peace and forgiveness. In his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus announced that the kingdom was about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, letting the oppressed go free, and proclaiming the Lord’s favor, to use the summary Jesus draws from Isaiah in his inaugural sermon in Luke. The year of the Lord’s favor refers to the Jubilee year, the year that debts were to be forgiven. We should not forget that the petition in the Our Father about asking forgiveness of our sins is also about forgiving our debts. Letting the oppressed go free refers to God’s command to Pharaoh to let God’s people go. This command applies to all of us insofar as we keep even one person in bondage to us in any way, including emotional blackmail. Years ago, at a Benedictine abbots’ workshop, I head a series of conferences on biblical spirituality by Demetrius Dumm, a seasoned monk of St. Vincent’s Archabbey. He said with deep solemnity that he was afraid that at the Judgment, we would each be asked one question and one question only: “Did you let my people go?”

These teachings are the primary blueprint for a community based on Christ, what some call Church, but this community that Jesus clearly tried to form did not happen in his lifetime, as recounted in my earlier post. (See Christian Community (1) This suggests that, important and fundamental as Jesus teachings are, they are no enough to form a community based on these teachings. What did form such a community was Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead. But it was not just the Resurrection itself that formed the community; it was the radical preemptive forgiveness with which Jesus approached his scattered followers. If Jesus had just bashed in the heads of his persecutors, everything would have been the same and we humans would still have no alternative but to cohere through the persecution of a victim. The church was not founded on the teachings of Jesus; the Church was founded by Jesus himself acting on his teachings. In short, Jesus forgave the Church into existence.

Note that Jesus did not forgive individuals and leave them as individuals. Jesus forgave all of us as the community of humanity. Jesus could stand alone against the persecutory crowd. We cannot. Only a community gathered on a radically new principle can counteract the old human community gathered the old way. This is what St. Paul was getting at when he said we have to become members of a new humanity in Christ.

I am not talking about the church as a set of institutions with their paraphernalia of miters, Geneva gowns, pointed steeples and mega buildings. I am talking about people who consciously seek to gather in the radical forgiveness of Jesus, a gathering that precludes the persecutory mechanism as a means of binding people together. This radical act of forgiveness on the part of Jesus was made for all people at all times. This means that everybody everywhere and any time who gathers in forgiveness is within the Church regardless of what ecclesiastical cards one might or might not carry in one’s wallet. Of course, most of us gather through forgiveness some of the time at best. That means that most of us are partly in the Church and partly outside of it. The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds is about the world, the institutional church and each one of us. (See Christ  the Rejected Cornerstone among the Weeds.)

The New Testament word for Church, ekklesia, literally means “calling out of.” In this respect, everybody is in the church because everybody, without exception, is being called out of human community based on persecution and called into human community based on forgiveness. Of course, some people respond to this call and some don’t. Actually, most of us respond to the call some of the time at most. Such is the case of those of us who are members of an organized church and those who wouldn’t go through a church door under any circumstances. Not even as unifying an act as pre-emptive forgiveness by the risen Jesus can avoid causing division for the simple reason that each of us is divided by a choice we have to make day by day. There is much more to a theology of Church than this, but without the attempt to gather in the risen Jesus’ radical forgiveness there is no real church at all.

 Go to Christian Community (3)