Proper 22 (October 2-8)
Texts: Matthew 21:33-46;
Isa 5:1-7; Phil 3:4b-14
JESUS IS SAVING US FROM OUR VIOLENCE
What Is the Sin Jesus Saves Us From?
“Jesus Saves” — that’s the simplest bumper sticker confession of our Christian faith. People these days might want more. “Saves us from what?” might be the follow-up question. How do we answer? “Saves us from death,” we might respond, and that’s big, huge. But is it enough for folks today? Is there something more before death? Is there something we need saving from now? Does salvation only come when we die?
There’s another sort of answer, then: “Jesus saves us from sin.” So then how do we begin to articulate what sin is? Is there something about Jesus dying on the cross that speaks to our sin?
Full Disclosure: Christian Anthropology Reforming My Answer to Basic Questions
I’ve raised some basic questions whose answers make a difference to the church going forward. I believe that our answers to such basic questions about salvation have quit working for the average person in the 21st Century, and that’s a big reason why the church as a whole is struggling.
So let me cut to the chase and give you the fresh answers to these questions that are helping me to renew and reform my faith. First and foremost, I believe that the biggest human sin Jesus came to save us from is violence — all the ways we are divided and broken and end up hurting and killing one another. And this violence is not just person-to-person, but also structural in forms of long-time oppression.
Violence is what the readings today are about! Quick overview: Our First Reading says that God ‘planted’ Israel expecting justice and getting bloodshed (Isa 5:7); the background to Paul’s story of his previous life as a Pharisee features religious zeal that led him to persecuting Christians (Phil 3); in our Gospel the tenants of the vineyard obviously perpetrate violence, but the answer as to what to do to them is also violent: “put the wretches to a miserable death” (Matt 21).
Saving us from violence is also why the cross and resurrection are necessary for God to establish another way that’s nonviolent, that suffers the violence. The cross represents the sin of human violence; we killed God’s Son. Easter is God’s victorious power of life in the face of our deadly violence; Jesus is raised as forgiveness to begin healing us from our violence.
The key for me has been to discover, almost thirty years ago, an anthropology by a Stanford professor named René Girard. If you go to my website you can learn more about him (girardianlectionary.net). But his name is not what’s as essential as what he has helped make more clear. In fact, he says so, too; he says he was only elaborating what Jesus came to reveal to us through his life, death, and resurrection. Girard himself describes his work as offering a theory to modern anthropologists that would never have occurred to anyone except for God’s having raised Jesus after his crucifixion.
This morning I’ll give simply the quickest of overviews. Most importantly, it’s an anthropology that gives a full explanation of human violence. It explains where our violent tendencies come from, which is the piece we won’t get into today. But then it also explains what our human solution to our own violence became. Our efforts to try to stop or contain the violence are violent themselves and become institutionalized in all our cultures. Girard calls this institutionalization the Scapegoat Mechanism. We limit violence in our communities by focusing it toward certain individuals or marginalized groups. We use a hierarchy where those at the top are in charge of the power of the sanctioned violence, and those at the bottom are its most frequent victims.
For our most ancient ancestors that’s why ritual blood sacrifice was always a part of their religion. It ritualizes heaping all the sin of violence on one person. In ancient history, blood sacrifice always began as human sacrifice, and then animals were substituted.
Ritual sacrifice seems so alien, so distant, to us. But what came after does not. Ritual sacrifice was gradually replaced by Law. As human communities became more complicated so did the sanctioned violence, forming into complex systems of law. And always backing law, of course, is the power to punish and execute — execution being a highly ritualized descendant of ritual human sacrifice.
And here’s the key for us as religious people: our justification for the sanctioned violence that we use to contain the ‘bad’ violence has always been religious. We insist that God commands us to stop the ‘bad’ people. So to begin to open our eyes and save us from this violence, from all our violence, it was necessary for Jesus himself to be executed on the cross, a victim of human systems of law. God’s raising him on Easter is the Good News that God has a Way to begin getting away from such violence without ourselves resorting to violence.
God has a brand new culture for us that does not institutionalize violence. It does not depend on a Scapegoat Mechanism but is instead built around the One we scapegoated: the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. So the New Testament thoroughly critiques both Law and sacrifice. It presents forgiveness and healing instead of only punishing; it offers us sacraments using water, wine and bread instead of blood sacrifices; it represents radical conversion of the law by seeing it as fulfilled in love; and on and on.
Does Jesus’ Parable Today Show Us a Violent or Nonviolent God?
At the center of this anthropology is a completely reformed theology. All religions at the time of Jesus saw God as justifying our human violence. Jesus as truly human came to reveal to us a God who truly is nonviolent.
Yes, I realize that the Bible shows us a violent God in many places! But my ministry has become dedicated to showing us Christians how the Bible narrates a long journey of God’s people. It’s a journey that begins with the standard violent gods of ancient peoples and then gradually arrives at the full revelation in Jesus: that God is completely nonviolent.
Let’s take a short glimpse: Today’s parable is a case in point if we let God’s revelation in Jesus show us how to read it anew. On the surface, if one takes the vineyard owner to represent God, then it seems that God in the end, “puts those wretches to a miserable death.” God appears violent.
But look more closely. Jesus is not the one who supplies that answer of putting them to death. He asks the priests and Pharisees, his cultural leaders, what they would do, and they supply the typical human answer! Put them to death! They give the only answer they know: sanctioned violence of the good guys killing the bad guys.
In the parable itself, the vineyard owner does no violence. In fact, he’s seemingly as patient as God has been with us! After the first delegation of slaves was killed, wouldn’t we have already sent the troops in to do their clean-up job? Why does the vineyard owner bother to send not only a second delegation but then also his son? Because that’s what God in fact did with us. God never puts us to death, even when we killed his Son on the cross.
Here’s the clincher: when we killed God’s Son, what did God actually do? It wasn’t the answer we would provide: put those wretches to a miserable death. No, he raised the Son, the victim of our violence, as forgiveness and as the promise to healing and new life. God took the stone which the builders of our culture rejected and used it as the cornerstone to something new: a culture based on forgiveness and healing, love and life. God begins to save us from our violence.
What Does This Mean? A Radical Shift in Culture, For One Thing
So Jesus reveals a seismic shift in theology from a violent God to a nonviolent God. The significance of saying that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human is that he also reveals a seismic shift on the anthropological side of things. Most especially, the thing hardest for us to see is the violence that we’ve sanctioned and institutionalized. We call it things like “law and order,” neglecting to see the violence. So the revelation in Christ also means a seismic shift culturally.
We see this at the end of the Gospel, both last week and this week. Jesus is trying to challenge his own cultural leaders, the priests and Pharisees, to see the cultural seismic shift. He is trying to get them to not focus so much on the sin of people like prostitutes and tax collectors but to instead see their own sin of persecuting them. They persecute instead of seeking to heal. They will fail to listen to Jesus so much that they will even turn their persecution on him, the sinless one. That’s how off-track they’ve become. God is about to take the stone they reject and turn it into the cornerstone of another way to do culture, formed around the Scapegoated One instead of blind to the Scapegoat Mechanism at the heart of human culture.
Paul dramatically tells his own story of that radical shift in today’s Second Reading. He brags about being the Pharisee’s Pharisee — a perfect leader according to the standards of human culture. But his religious zeal caused him to judge others and persecute them, so what does Paul say about his past life?: “For Christ’s sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” Wow! That’s quite a conversion!
So we need to ask ourselves: Where might we see this today as we look around? Radical shifts in our culture? I’ve mentioned Civil Rights and the Black Lives Matter movement in recent weeks. This is an example of coming to see the violence embedded in our institutions, and increasingly to see that it has been completely unjust in light of the equality between white people and people of color.
Let me quickly offer two other examples. The first is the Us-Them structuring of seeing men as superior to women. In the past seventy years we have challenged that view and strived for more equality, especially in leadership roles. This year the ELCA celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of ordaining women. For those who have been around that long, do you remember how much of a cultural shift that represented?
The second example is more uncomfortable because we are still in the middle of this cultural shift. In 2009 the ELCA opened the door for congregations to call LGBTQ pastors. Disagreement remains because some see the gay lifestyle as wrong in God’s eyes. But here is where my journey has led me. I think that science is showing us that gender identity and sexual orientation have been created much more diversely than our human cultures have ever previously allowed for — in the same way that our cultures never allowed for women to be considered as equals in God’s sight. Again, I realize that we still all don’t agree on this.
This morning I ask that we consider this question in the frame I’ve laid out for us: that Jesus came to radically challenge the Us-Them structuring of human culture that has led throughout the ages to persecution and oppression of certain peoples. Jesus came to save us from our violence, especially the institutionalized violence we have built into our cultures. Instead, God is taking the stone which the builders rejected and making it the cornerstone of a new way to form human cultures based on forgiveness and love. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer,
Racine, WI, October 4, 2020