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.]

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.]

On Following the God of All Victims

WilliamGuestsChurch1In our readings for today, we celebrate the Week of Christian Unity with the short narrative of Jesus calling his first disciples (Mt. 4: 18–22) and Paul’s rebuke to the Corinthians for their discord and divisiveness (1 Cor. 1: 11–13). The light in the darkness proclaimed by Isaiah (Is. 9: 2) shines brightly on the first scenario but is much obscured in the second.

The situation in Corinth is aptly described by René Girard’s term “mimetic rivalry.” That is, the rivals are mirror images of each other. It is significant that Paul does not mention any issues of disagreement, even though we know from other sources that he had issues with Cephas (Peter.) Girard has taught us that when mimetic rivalry escalates, the issues fall away and we get the chaos of rivalry for the sake of rivalry. Girard goes on to suggest that in ancient societies this chaotic rivalry repeatedly resolved itself through suddenly focusing on one victim who was put to death. Peace, for a time, followed this atrocity. Girard goes on to aver that when this same scenario was committed against Jesus of Nazareth, the truth of this collective violence was unveiled to the extent that it could never again create peace, not even for a time, as it did before. Through Christ, God has presented us with the challenge of either renouncing our participation in chaotic mimetic rivalry or participating in the total destruction of civilization. [For an introduction to René Girard see Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

When we look at the scenario in Corinth denounced in Paul, a scenario we can all recognize in our families, social groups, work places, charity organizations, and even (sometimes especially!) in our parish churches, it appears that Christianity has failed. Actually, the situation is more complicated than that. A big part of the problem is that Christianity has succeeded too well. Or perhaps we should say Christianity has succeeded in a way that threatens to make the situation worse and more dangerous.

The unveiling of collective violence by the Cross has led to an ever-accelerating increase in sympathy for victims. We see this early in Christianity through the charitable work to relieve poverty and disease with hospitals being one of the great Christian inventions. We fret, quite rightly, about serious problems with racism in contemporary America but we do well to remember that racism has been practiced by all people of all times and places and it is only in places where the Gospel has had an influence that anybody has seen racism as a problem and acted on that perception.

While to be a victim was such an unmitigated disgrace in the ancient world that one would do anything to avoid that stigma, preferably by victimizing somebody else, to be a victim has become a badge of honor. This is indeed a badge of honor for people like those who generously risked their well-being and lives during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, but it looks like shameless exploitation of real victims by those who feel victimized when called to account for injustices and crimes inflicted on others.

This division between real victims and imposters, a division that is often far from clear, is not the problem of division that concerns me during the Week of Christian Unity. The deeper problem is what I am inclined to call a chaos of victims. We have today a plethora of real, legitimate victims, even if the plight of some might seem more urgent than others. Here is the rub. Not only do we have the social chaos of those who continue to victimize others through brute force such as rape or economic exploitation, and the social chaos of many who just don’t care, we have the social chaos of advocates for victims and victims trying to ameliorate their own circumstances. Put in a nutshell: we have a chaos of mimetic rivalry between the favorite victims of some advocates against the favorite victims of other advocates. Here is the heart of the most serious divisions within Christianity in our time. This is not a chaos of those wanting or willing to hurt others; this is a chaos among those who willingly sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others.

In such a situation, it is inevitable that those of us concerned with the vulnerable and the helpless will be more sensitive to some victims more than others. This increased sensitivity to some victims can look like indifference to others and can become downright hostile in situations where equal advocacy between causes is difficult and sometimes impossible.

I am not saying this from outside the fray. I am very much inside it, very much involved in all the mimetic issues I am describing. I know that I respond to the needs of some victims more than others. The complexity of this tension among those of us who wish to help others is enough to lead to despair but we have a light in the darkness in the calling of Jesus to follow Him. Jesus is not a Messiah divided among many victims and their advocates; Jesus is a Messiah for all victims and their advocates. It is surely this call and not any intellectual or moral perspicacity of my part that makes it possible for me to even define this problem as I have. The call to discipleship is a call for repentance on many levels, ranging from our moral own violence and lassitude to the rivalry for the sake of rivalry such as at Corinth, to our rivalry over the causes of real victims. It is this very complexity that requires us to seek a conversion of society and not just our individual selves. Here is where I see the biggest challenge to Christian unity.

Sharing God’s Riches

creche1-copyLike every culture, the Jews had to face fundamental decisions as to how open or closed they would be to others. The default mechanism tends to be flight or fight. In discussing remaining social groups living close to the level of what he calls “traditional” societies, Jared Diamond observed this phenomenon. A stranger wandering into the territory of a different tribe had better come up with a common ancestor or the encounter could prove fatal.

The type of encounters with other nations has an effect on such decisions. In the case of the Jews, most encounters were bad. Slavery in Egypt was followed by both cultural and military threats from the Canaanites who tempted the Jews to forsake the God who had delivered them from Egypt. Encounters with the Assyrians and Babylonians were catastrophic. But then the Persians destroyed the Babylonian Empire and invited the Jews to return to their homeland and revive their cultural and religious traditions. It is surely no accident that the return from Babylonian exile and resettlement back in their homeland coincided with the first expressions of openness to other cultures on the part of the Jews such as we have when Isaiah proclaims: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is. 60:3) With Isaiah, we have the breakthrough insight that the God who brought them out of Egypt and then delivered them from Babylon was the God for all people and not just them. Although Adam Smith took the title of his famous book The Wealth of Nations from Isaiah 60:5: “the wealth of the nations shall come to you,” the prophet encourages a much more profound exchange than that of capital: an exchange of the riches of the Jews’ religious tradition for the riches other nations can bring to that same tradition. Unfortunately, retrenchment followed, climaxed by the expulsion of all foreign wives at about the time of the building of the second temple.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles, the other nations, was complex and tense. Their religious traditions were mostly tolerated but at times menaced by the Romans. Although some individual Gentiles became God-fearers, practicers of Jewish piety such as the Centurion who built the synagogue at Capernaum, (Lk. 7: 4-5) there were few friendly relations between Jews and Gentiles. And yet in the face of this tension, Matthew sees in the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the exchange of wealth between the two peoples.

It was for St. Paul to return the gifts to the Magi. After his dramatic conversion, he was called to preach the Good News of Jesus, a Jew, to the Gentiles. To the surprise of many Jews who followed Jesus, “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3: 6) That is, Jesus dissolved the fundamental division between Jew and Gentile when he was crucified by a collaboration between the two peoples who had suddenly come together for that brief moment. But when Jesus was raised from the dead as the forgiving victim, he bridged the gap between nations with one comprehensive act of forgiveness.

Ever since Paul’s commission, the Church has been tempted to retrench herself as the Jews did after building the second temple. This is to fall back into the default hostility to the stranger that Jared Diamond saw as part of “traditional” humanity. What the feast of Epiphany celebrates is the generosity of God who shares God’s riches with all so that all people can share this same richness with all others, not least with strangers who can then soon cease to be strangers.

On Welcoming a Thief in the Night

crucifix1A thief is not usually thought of as a good type of person and a thief in the night is worse. And yet Jesus characterizes himself as a thief when he says: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” (Mt. 24: 43) The expression that God will come like “a thief in the night” also comes up in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and 2 Peter 3:10. Since Jesus commends the dishonest steward who defrauds the master who is firing him and the unjust judge who gives the widow a fair hearing just to stop her from pestering him, it seems that Jesus has a soft spot in his heart for rogues. Maybe he was a bit of a trickster rogue himself.

But surely it isn’t good to be a thief is it? A thief is someone who takes what belongs to somebody else for personal gain at the expense of the thief’s victim. That is not good. However, before we get too self-righteous about other people who are thieves, we should pause to take note that one can steal the reputations of other people through misrepresentation and downright lying. Worse, we can steal the dignity of other people by treating them with disrespect. With these considerations, we begin to see that thieves aren’t just other people.

The context of this verse in Matthew strengthens this uncomfortable realization. Jesus refers to the Flood of Noah’s time, noting that people were going about their business as if nothing was wrong. But Genesis says that the whole society had become a flood of violence that was sweeping everybody away. The implication is that the society of Jesus’ time was likewise being swept away in a flood of violence while most people thought things were just going along normally. And what about our own time? We go about our business while reputations and human dignity are being stolen right and left by both right and left. All of us have become thieves and we will never get out of this social flood until we realize this truth.

So, is Jesus a good thief while the rest of us are bad thieves? Let’s take a look at how Jesus acts like a thief in the night. Does Jesus steal our things for personal gain? Jesus does steal everything we have but he does not steal our things for his personal gain but for our personal gain. More important, Jesus steals everything in us and about us that destroys our relationships with other people and God. That is, Jesus steals our thieving ways that we are so attached to. How else can we feel good about ourselves if we can’t steal the reputations and dignity of other people? But while a human thief leaves nothing for the thief’s victim, Jesus gives us the full richness of God, the richness bestowed on humankind at the dawn of creation.

How can we be ready for a thief like this? St. Paul tells us to “live honorably as in the day” by giving up “quarreling and jealousy.” Then, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 13: 13–14) Then, as Isaiah teaches us: beat our “swords into plowshares” and our “spears into pruning hooks.” (Is. 2: 4) Then we won’t have so much thievery and violence for Jesus to take away from us when he sneaks into our lives.

Luke tells us of a thief who became good because he repented and, in so repenting, realized that Jesus had been unjustly swept away by society’s violence. Will we choose to repent and become good thieves?