Last revised: October 17, 2020
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PROPER 22 (October 2-8) / Ordinary Time 27
RCL: Exod. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Phil. 3:4b-14; Matt. 21:33-46
RoCa: Isa. 5:1-7; Phil. 4:6-9; Matt. 21:33-46
Opening Comments: Elements of a New Reformation
In 2020 the Parable of the Wicked Tenants fit as a perfect time for full disclosure of the anthropology which underlies my preaching, following upon weeks of laying out the twin Christian revelation of human violence and divine nonviolence. The result is the overtly Girardian sermon, “Jesus Is Saving Us from Our Violence” (and its video version).
Exod. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
1. Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary, Ch. 4: “Reading the Ten Commandments: Torah, Interpretation, and the Name of God.” Goodhart begins by challenging the Christian notion of Old Law vs. New Law, emphasizing that the Hebraic perspective doesn’t allow such a notion. There is only one text, one Law, of preeminent importance, the Torah, full and complete in itself. He suggests that the stumbling block in Jewish Christian relations is not the Christian claim that the Messiah has come but that this Messiah has somehow displaced the “old” Law with himself, the “new” Law. The Judaic conception of Torah has the Messiah returning us to the study of the Torah, not replacing it.
From there he turns to the heart of the Torah, the Ten Commandments. And he uses them as an example of his theory of interpretation of viewing texts in two parts, the second shedding light on the first, as manifesting an endless string of two-part interpretations. There will always be a “part two” that comes to shed additional light on what has come before. Exemplary of this are the Ten Commandments, a text which is itself a list. As such, its parts build on one another: the second commandment is part two to the first commandment, the third commandment is part two to the first two commandments, and so on. The first commandment gets things started with the foundation of Torah: the law of anti-idolatry. There are to be no other gods. But the second commandment clarifies this with its prohibition against making idols out of anything in creation. Thus, the law of anti-idolatry is more than one vs. many gods, or a unity vs. a diversity, but especially an internal god vs. an external god. We come to recognize the radical otherness of the one God, the Creator who is radically different from the creation… The third commandment brings us to the issue of God’s name, as a further interpretation of Exodus 3.
Goodhart closes by allowing for a Christian interpretation of Torah that does not displace Torah. Jesus stages for us the meaning of the Torah so that we may further understand its significance. He suggests that this is a Girardian interpretation in which Jesus “shows us where our violence is going that we may give it up.”
2. James Williams, The Bible, Violence, & the Sacred, Ch. 4: “Covenant and Sacrifice.” If I may venture, I see William’s treatment of this passage as strikingly different than Goodhart’s who focuses — somewhat uncharacteristically — on the text of the Ten Commandments as a list out of its narrative context. William’s treatment deals with the commandments as very much a part of the covenant narrative. The giving of the Decalogue is seen as very much amidst the struggle against sacrifice. In fact, Moses comes back down the mountain in the middle of a sacrificial crisis. Williams lays out what is at stake with covenant from the outset: “They are impelled to imitate one another, but if the imitation goes too far and the differences melt or are destroyed, then a sacrificial crisis of huge proportions erupts — the mimetic being must have a model or rival to imitate, else he or she will be utterly lost.” …There are many other riches to mine in this chapter…
3. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, Ch. 7: “A Text in Travail” (the latter portion focuses more on “Moses and the Commandments” (excerpt), pp. 143ff.). Bailie’s approach in this chapter widens the narrative context even further. The Hebrew Scriptures are a “text in travail,” straining to more fully reveal the true God. The basic thrust is away from sacrifice, but it is also possible to move away too quickly. The story of Abraham and Isaac shows us the proper pace. The first step away from human sacrifice is animal sacrifice. To attempt moving directly to a non-blood sacrifice is probably moving too quickly. Bailie interprets the Cain and Abel story in this manner: “Cain’s ritual innovation [with the non-blood sacrifice of his crops] is too casually made.” It does not effectively play its role in stemming violence; Cain kills his brother. The story of Moses and the Ten Commandments may be similar. The move to a legal system was not yet effective in stemming the violence. The surrounding stories of Exodus show that the people of Israel continued to demand ritual sacrifice, or they lapsed into sacrificial violence against each other.
4. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning; the book opens with an analysis of mimetic desire using the Ten Commandments. There is an excerpt from the first chapter, “Scandal Must Come,” in a page on “Girard on skandalon.”
Reflections and Questions
1. Do Christians too easily fall into the disjunction between “Old” and “New” Covenants? Old and New Law? Do we too easily gloss over the continuity between Torah and Jesus? There is much truth, I think, in Goodhart’s challenges.
2. Yet, if Christians do overemphasize disjunction, is it possible to go too far in the other direction and overemphasize continuity? There is a Christian interpretation that keeps Jesus in continuity with the Torah by making him the fulfillment of it, but as its fulfillment he also somehow completes Torah. Completion implies something previously lacking. This may not be acceptable to the modern Jewish viewpoint (though it was acceptable to those Jews who did become Christians).
3. The quote I focus on from Williams captures for me an important question in Jewish-Christian dialogue: does mimetic theory ultimately require a human model to get us out of the sacrificial addiction? Can a text be adequate to the task? Or must the Word become incarnate?
4. Goodhart basically ends his analysis with the third commandment, though he points to an ongoing build-up of two-part interpretations. We could see, for example, that the sixth commandment fully reveals where idolatry leads us: violence. And the final commandment brings us to the mimetic culmination: covetousness. (A point highlighted by both Williams and Bailie.)
5. Three years ago James Williams responded: “I have just one comment about the notes for this past Sunday. I think the answer is yes, the Word has to be embodied in a person and thus imitated. That is, at the basic level of the human self our being is created by imitation, not vice-versa. And if the Word doesn’t come into the flesh in history, to be then imitated, then there is no real basis for an existence lived religiously. It might be interesting, apropos of Jewish-Christian dialogue, to ask whether Judaism has it owns forms of “incarnation,” even if the Christian doctrine is rejected. Jacob Neusner wrote something on this several years ago.”
1. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p. 130. Marr comments on this text in commenting on the day’s Gospel; see below.
Reflections and Questions
1. The Song of the Vineyard clearly sets up the Gospel lesson’s parable of the Wicked Tenants. The key verse is Isaiah 5:7: “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” Here, the problem is characterized in terms of human violence.
2. But what of the God who apparently responds with violence? Is this the God revealed in Jesus? Schwager’s interpretation (below) will lead us in another direction.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 122ff.
2. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 206-7. Marr uses Paul as an example of the new formation of self that is possible in Christ, citing this passage along the way:
If we lose our selves both by abdicating and by grasping, how do we ever have a self at all?
The only alternative to the horns of this dilemma is to receive our selves. In many ways, we receive our selves by taking in ambient desires as we grow up. But to keep from being determined by these ambient desires, we have to let go of this matrix of desires to reach a deeper level of desire, where we find ourselves called by name. This is a call we all receive by virtue of having been created by God. Isaiah says: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isa. 43:1)
This is what happened to Saul of Tarsus. He thought he knew very well who he was because he was “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phil. 3:5-7) Everything in this list is potentially good except for being a persecutor of the Church. But his being a persecutor confirms that he had a bad case of heroism as understood by Ernest Becker. He melded with the mob that stoned Stephen, tending their clothes and approving their action. But when he was knocked to the ground and heard a voice from Heaven crying to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) everything changed. Perhaps everything had started to change while he was attending the clothes of those who stoned Stephen. Sometimes the reality of collective violence breaks through to somebody who is watching it happen. Maybe some instinct caused Saul to hold back and not throw any stones himself. Saul knew the scriptures. Maybe the songs of the Suffering Servant from Isaiah came to his mind at some point. In any case, the bottom fell out of Saul’s life during his journey to Damascus. It must have been a frightful moment that felt like free fall save for the voice that was calling out to him. From that moment on, he was a strong individual known as Paul, a person completely grounded in Jesus, who had given him his real self.
In a remarkable paper, “Ego Credo,” Michel Serres probes the emergence of personal identity in St. Paul as a new thing brought into being by God. Serres argues that up to the time of Christ, most human identity was submerged within group identity. This is what one would expect in cultures grounded in sacrificial violence, where the emergence of a differing voice out of the crowd could not be tolerated. In Paul, identity becomes distinct from belonging. Paul had belonged to Pharisaic Judaism, Roman Law, and Hellenistic rational wisdom. His identity was formed by these elements until the voice called out to Saul. Then, “the good news [Paul] proclaims is incarnated and grafted in him and through him; in him, the branch of a new creature springs forth.” (Serres, 1) Right after his assertion of identity in Philippians 3 quoted above, Paul said he had come to “consider these gains as loss because of Christ.” (Phil. 3:7) That is why Paul said: “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” (Gal. 3:28) Serres explains that “for Paul, the only thing left is this ‘new creature’: I, the adoptive Son of God, through faith in Jesus Christ; I full of faith and without works, without pride; I, empty, poor, and nothing: universal.” (Serres, 2)
3. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 6, 2002 (Woodside Village Church), and sermon from October 2, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. St. Paul expresses the Christian emphasis on disjunction from our Jewish roots with some strong language against the so-called “Judaizers,” i.e., those who would require circumcision for membership in the Christian community. In terms unfriendly to Jewish-Christian dialogue, Paul says that he had to count his Pharisaic past as “crap.” (The Greek word skybala is found only here in the NT and very rarely in any other Hellenic literature; some scholars conjecture that it is a slang term for excrement.) A life of attempting to gain one’s own righteousness according to the law must be traded for a righteousness that comes through Christ. The knowledge that saves is a personal knowledge, an imitation of the model that even goes to the length of dying with him to rise again. Here again we might wonder about the need to have a text fulfilled in a person, someone who doesn’t simply proclaim non-covetousness but wholly lives it, especially in relationship to God (hence, the Trinity).
2. In reaction to his sense that his zeal for the law led him into violence, could St. Paul have over-reacted against the Law? Would this be akin to the earlier Girardian repudiation of sacrifice (cir. Things Hidden)? In later years (cf. the interview with him in The Girard Reader), Girard spoke more positively about sacrifice as something Jesus had transformed through his self-sacrifice. Alison uses language such as “subverting from within.” Could we also say that Jesus subverts the Law from within, fulfilling it by turning wholly into the law of Love — spoken of by the more mature St. Paul (Rom. 13)?
1. The this is the third of four consecutive major parables in Matthew that begin with a double designation to introduce the main character:
- 18:23: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18:23-35) (Proper 19A)
- 20:1: anthrōpō oikodespotē — “a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner (20:1-16) (Proper 20A)
- 21:33: anthrōpos ēn oikodespotēs — “There was a man, a housemaster” — Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46)
- 22:2: anthrōpō basilei — “a man, a king” — Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding (22:1-14) (Proper 23A)
Some commentators say that the use of anthropos before “king” or “housemaster” is a typical Aramaism. But what if Matthew is trying to tell us something? Very often in history an allegorical interpretation is applied to these parables in which this main character is interpreted as God. But what if Matthew is using the double designation to make sure we don’t do that? That this householder should simply be seen as a man and not as God? This would be most crucial for the fourth of these parables where the king is downright brutal and vicious (see Proper 23A). I have come to frame Matthew’s Gospel as a encounter between God’s kingdom, the “kingdom of heaven,” and human kingdoms.
2. The context of these parables begins this way:
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human [anthropon] origin?” (Matthew 21:23-25a)
In other words, the context is a controversy over authority, and Jesus himself poses the parameters in terms of a contrast between heaven and things human. I would like to suggest, then, that “a man, a householder” is meant to steer us away from seeing this character as God. On the positive side, this man is patient like God is, sending repeated delegations instead of an army, but that doesn’t make him God — especially if one supplies an ending in which the man does finally send an army when they kill his son. The Parable of the Wicked Tenants portrays a drama similar to the biblical drama of God sending the prophets and Jesus, but God supplies a decidedly different ending to the story: raising the Son to return as forgiveness, not vengeance.
3. Another crucial passage that supplies background for this parable is Matthew 11:6-15; see Advent 3A.
1. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats? pp. 139ff. In a crucial nine page segment of this groundbreaking book (the first book using mimetic theory to interpret scripture except for Girard’s own Things Hidden, which appeared in the same year, 1978), Schwager highlights the prominent role of Psalm 118:22 in the New Testament, this passage among them; see the wider section “Jesus as the Scapegoat for the World” (pp. 136-145).
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 135-136. Three weeks ago (Proper 19A) I concluded my excerpts from Schwager at a crucial part of his argument on p. 135. The continuation of that quote moves into a brilliant use of this gospel text:
The saving dimension of the Easter message, and the revelation of God contained in it, can be clarified from yet another angle. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels) a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son. This goodness, however, comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son it is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed. (In Matthew, of course, Jesus poses only the question about the action of the owner, and the hearers themselves answer that the owner will put the wretched tenants to death; 20:40-41.) But the heavenly Father in his Easter “judgment” acted differently from the master of the vineyard in the parable. Even the murder of his son did not provoke in him a reaction of vengeful retribution, but he sent the risen one back with the message “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36; see also John 20:19, 26) to those disciples who at the critical moment had allowed themselves to be drawn into the camp of the opponents of the kingdom of God. The judge’s verdict at Easter was consequently not only a retrospective confirmation of the message of Jesus, but it also contained a completely new element, namely, forgiveness of those who had rejected the offer of pure forgiveness itself and persecuted the Son. Through the Easter message of peace there came a redoubling of that readiness to forgive expressed in the message of the basileia….”
3. René Girard, Things Hidden…, Book III, Ch. 5: “Beyond Scandal” (especially the last section “The Skandalon,” pp. 416ff.). Both these sections explicate the importance of Psalm 118 in Christian interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures. It is one of the most-oft quoted passages from the Tanakh, this parable of the wicked tenants (in all three synoptic gospels) being an example. The stone which the builders reject that becomes the cornerstone is further connected with the stumbling block, or skandalon, a key notion in mimetic theory. (Note: there is an important textual variant here: some ancient authorities lack verse 44 which explicitly quotes the OT texts about a stumbling stone.)
4. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, ch. 3. Here is a brief excerpt:
The devil, or Satan, signifies rivalistic contagion, up to and including the single victim mechanism. He may be located either in the entire process or in one of its stages. Modern exegetes, not recognizing the mimetic cycle, have the impression that since the word “Satan” means so many different things, it no longer means anything. This impression is deceptive. If we take up one by one the propositions I have analyzed, we easily see that this teaching is coherent. Far from being too absurd to deserve our attention, this Gospel theme contains incomparable knowledge of human conflict and the societies that are generated by the violent resolution of such conflict. Everything I have said about Satan corresponds to what the prior analysis of scandals enables us to understand. When the trouble caused by Satan becomes too great, Satan himself becomes his own antidote of sorts: he stirs up the mimetic snowballing and then the unanimous violence that makes everything peaceful once again. The great parable of the murderous vine-growers (Matt. 21:33-41) brings out clearly the mimetic, or satanic, cycle. Each time the owner sends a messenger to the vine-growers, this message sets in motion a crisis among them, which they resolve by ganging up against the messenger and expelling him. This unanimous agreement is the height of the mimetic snowballing. Each violent expulsion is the completion of a mimetic cycle. The last messenger is the Son, expelled just like all the preceding messengers and finally murdered.
This parable confirms my definition of the Crucifixion. Jesus’ death is one example among many others of the single victim mechanism. What makes the mimetic cycle of Jesus’ suffering unique is, not the violence, but the fact that the victim is the Son of God, which is certainly the main thing from the standpoint of our redemption. However, if we neglect the anthropological substructure of the Passion, we will miss the true theology of the Incarnation, which makes little sense without this anthropological basis. The concepts of the mimetic cycle and the single victim mechanism give specific content to an idea of Simone Weil. She held that even before presenting a “theory of God,” a theology, the Gospels offer a “theory of man,” an anthropology.
Since it takes complete chaos in the community to set off the single victim mechanism, the Satan who expels and reestablishes order is really identical to the Satan who foments the disorder. Jesus’ statement “Satan expels Satan” is irreplaceable.
What is the cure-all of the prince of this world, his most clever trick, perhaps his only resource? It is the mimetic all-against-one or single victim mechanism. It is the mimetic unanimity that, at the highest pitch of disorder, brings order back into human communities. This sleight of hand remained hidden until the Jewish and Christian revelation. In fact, it has, to an extent, remained hidden after the Christian revelation up to our own time since it remains almost universally misunderstood. Thanks to this deception, human communities are indebted to Satan for the shaky relative order that they enjoy. They are thus always in his debt and cannot free themselves on their own. (pp. 43-44)
5. Matthew doesn’t use the word skandalon here, but he uses the related OT passages in verses 42, 44 since one of the best translation of skandalon is “stumbling stone.” In Matthew 11:6 Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who is not scandalized by me.” In 21:44, he basically predicts that the Jewish leaders will be scandalized by him; they will fall over him as a stumbling stone. The quote of Psalm 118 brings in the image of the stone that causes us to stumble.
As in recent weeks: See the webpage “Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon,” a basic introduction to Girard’s view of skandalon as a central term in the New Testament, deriving from Jesus himself. The page includes a link to a cataloging of those uses (note the wide variation of translation into English). The Gospel of Matthew accounts for 19 out of 34 occurrences of the noun and verb; link to a page cataloguing Matthew’s uses of skandalon and skandalizo.
6. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, pp. 118, 129-31, 135, 268-69, 276.
Jesus warned the Jewish leaders of the violence they were in danger of committing against himself in The Parable of the Evil Workers in the Vineyard, the grimmest of all Jesus’ parables. (Mt. 21:33-45) The workers covet the harvest of the vineyard for themselves and then covet the vineyard itself. They are willing to commit violence to that end and they do not shy away from violence when the opportunity comes. This parable is weighted down with much significance as the vineyard is a running image for Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible. It seems most particularly to be an allusion to Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. (Isa. 5:1-7) Both stress the care with which the vineyard is set up to give it the best potential for a good yield. In Isaiah’s song, the grapes grow wild in spite of everything. In the parable, the grapes grow well but the workers themselves are wild. Actually, Isaiah shows that the wild grapes in Isaiah refer to wild humans when he says that the vineyard stands for Israel and that God “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isa. 5:7)
After the workers have attacked the agents the owner has sent, the owner sends his own son, his own flesh and blood, believing that the workers will respect his son. But the workers realize that by sending his son, his substance, the workers have the opportunity to take the vineyard for themselves and take the owner’s substance in the bargain. If one is not willing to affirm God’s generosity, then one will take it from God by force. Not surprisingly, the chief priests and scribes were offended by this parable. These priests and scribes prove Jesus’ point by wanting to arrest him. They only hold off from doing so because they have not yet drawn the crowds over to their side. Jesus is warning them that they are in danger of following in the footsteps of Jezebel, who plotted the death of Naboth so as to deliver Naboth’s vineyard to her husband King Ahab. (1 Kings 21:1-1 6)
Jesus asks his listeners what they think will happen to the workers, and they reply 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) Jesus then quotes Psalm 118:22: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” I don’t think it is too fanciful to suggest that Matthew may have had this verse in mind when he recorded Jesus’ words about the house built on rock at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. It makes sense that the rock founded on the willingness to suffer for the sake of righteousness and forgiveness would be a rock rejected by most people. Yet Jesus was about to make that rock the cornerstone of the community he would gather after his Resurrection. This psalm verse confirms the parable’s message that an act of collective violence seems imminent. Jesus goes on to call this stone a skandalon, a stumbling block: “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” (Mt. 21:44) This refers to Isaiah’s prophecy that the Lord of Hosts will became “a stone one strikes up against,” that God will become “a rock one stumbles over.” (Isa. 8:14) Jesus is saying then, that the weak stone is stumbled over when it is rejected by those who think they are strong. (129-31)
And in the context of reflecting on hope in Jesus Christ, being offered a new future, Marr writes:
Imagine a ten-year-old son who is the future heir of a vast estate. Although he is not yet the owner of the estate, because of his status as heir, his father takes him around to begin teaching him how to run the estate: How to handle the workers, make sure the foremen order supplies at the right time, etc. This boy spends time learning these things because he is the heir.
Now let us change the story the way God changed it. Imagine being one of the workers in the vineyard of this vast estate, who is sweating profusely while a well-dressed boy coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. Imagine further being caught up in the rebellious fervor that spreads among the workers so that you go on strike and allow the grapes to grow wild. When the son, grown into a young man, comes to collect the produce, you join in the attack and kill the heir. Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow workers are brought to the magistrates, and you expect to suffer a grim fate for what you have done. To your shock, the owner of the vineyard shows up in court with the son you killed. The young man is very much alive, although the wounds inflicted on him are still bleeding. This really has you shaking in your boots. But to your further shock, the father gets out his will and announces that the vineyard was bequeathed, not only to the son but to all of the workers. More shocking still, the father and his son welcome all of you back to work in the vineyard as joint owners. As fellow heirs, you are ready to act like heirs who will work to keep the grapes from growing wild so as to produce so much wine for the wedding feast that it will never run out. So it is that hope is, in Alison’s words, “a realignment of our whole way of being towards what really is, as what really is begins to manifest itself in us.” (Alison 2015) This is not a realignment that occurs by human deviousness or ingenuity. It is a realignment brought about by God. (268-69)
7. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” wrote a brief essay on this passage in 2017, “Tending God’s Vineyard.”
8. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 86; Raising Abel, pp. 152-153.
Alison also offers a video homily for Proper 22A (Ordinary 27); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Quick recap: Jesus has come into Jerusalem, fulfilling the prophecy of the coming of a Davidic king; he has cleansed the Temple and healed some people; and a day later he comes back to the Temple where he is challenged by leaders in the Temple. They are doing their job checking on his authority — is he just another charlatan or not? Jesus’ first response is about their reaction to John the Baptist followed by the parable of the two sons. This parable follows directly after that as a continuing response to their questions about his authority as a would-be Davidic king. It’s about the coming heir of Davidic kingship. What does that look like?
Jesus structures his parable on Isaiah 5, today’s First Reading, about God’s plan for Israel going awry. The two delegations of servants are the prophets before and after the exile. But the parable also banks on agricultural knowledge of the time, especially the “law of adverse possession” that any landowner would know. If tenants could ward off attempts by the landowner for a certain number of years, they win; they get the land. (Note: Background to Alison’s reading of this parable is J. Duncan Derrett‘s Law in the New Testament, chap. 13, “The Parable of the Wicked Vinedressers,” which supports Jesus telling this parable as he does without resorting to allegory with Jewish history.)
Both backgrounds, however — whether that of Isaiah 5 or of first century agricultural for new vineyards — seem to point to the same response when Jesus asks his listeners to provide it . . . the response of vengeance. Here Jesus pauses before he offers a quite different response from Psalm 118: the stone which the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone. Jesus has come as the son to reveal a God who is not vengeful but forgiving.
9. Robert Capon, The Parables of Judgment (now bound with his other books on the parables in Kingdom, Grace, Judgment). Capon has not read mimetic theory that I’m aware of, but certainly conveys a view of judgment that goes along with what James Alison, especially, has outlined as a view of Judgment consistent with mimetic theory (in Raising Abel). Capon suggests using a principal that puts inclusion ahead of exclusion. All are included; those who end up excluded exclude themselves by insisting on playing sacrifice out to its conclusion. God’s “wrath” (cf., Rom. 1) is to let us suffer the consequences of our own mimetic rivalry. Capon begins (as does Alison) with the Johannine texts that infer that the judgers bring judgment on themselves precisely in the act of judging Jesus (cf., John 12:31-32); the basic story is that of the man born blind in John 9… Capon begins his analysis of the Parable of the Wicked Tenants by steering us away from a Jew/Gentile orientation, i.e., that Gentiles will become the new owners of the vineyard after the Jews have been thrown out. No, the OT allusions are to the vineyard being Israel, God’s beloved chosen people; the problem is not Jews, but these Jewish authorities who do not understand Jesus’ authority. (This passage begins at 21:23 where they query Jesus regarding his authority, exousia in the Greek.) But who can understand an authority that manifests itself precisely by being expelled on the basis of human authority? Who would choose as cornerstone the stone that the builders tossed aside? The problem is not Jew vs. Gentile but faith vs. unfaith in the authority of Jesus… It is worth noting, too, that Matthew’s version of this parable has the authorities providing the answer to what the owner of vineyard should do to these tenants. Mark and Luke have Jesus supply the answer of the owner’s wrath. Matthew’s Jesus gets them to say it. After all, it is their own method of expelling.
10. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from October 5, 2008 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
11. Sarah Dylan Breuer, Dylan’s Lectionary Blog, Proper 22A. During these weeks of Matthew’s “Parables of Judgment” a Girardian reading refrains from too easily seeing the landowners or kings in the parables as God. We began this theme at Proper 20A, with the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, and it will be most important next week, Proper 23A, for the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding.
This week we have corroboration from a reading like the one Dylan makes, in which the parable is read in the socio-political context that sees the owner of the vineyard in a bad light — not as God. Jesus’ parable seems so transparently an extension of Isaiah 5, but Dylan begins by reminding us that in Matthew 13 Jesus tells us that his parables are meant to confound more than to be transparent. In the socio-political context, then, wealthy landowners are part of the oppressive use of power to keep the average person down. Most of Jesus’ listeners would have sided with the tenants — at least with the economic issues if not with the murders. There are problems with Dylan’s reading around the part of Jesus’ audience that were wealthy landowners themselves, the leaders of the temple; but it is worth the time, especially in supporting the hesitancy to too easily read the landowner as God.
12. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2011, titled “The Rejected Stone“; a sermon in 2017, “Capable of Producing Fruit.”
Reflections and Questions
1. How does one preach this as a parable of judgment in light of mimetic theory? How does one contrast the two notions of authority, or exousia, here? There have been numerous approaches for me over the years that I can catalog here. In 1996 I used the hub-bub over Roberto Alomar’s spitting at an umpire as an illustration. We want a strong authority. We want a commissioner who can bring swift justice. We want to stem the tide of the “breakdown of authority” in our society. Or do we want that if our faith is in Christ Jesus? Don’t the Pharisees stand for the kind of authority we’re looking for in our own society to halt that “breakdown of authority?” I wondered in that sermon why the vineyard owner sent his son at all. Here’s just one paragraph from that sermon:
Have you ever wondered why the owner of the vineyard sent his son at all? He had two groups of servants abused and even killed. Why risk your son? I would have sent an army! Wouldn’t you? Throw those bums out! Give ’em what’s coming to them! Jesus even gets the Jewish authorities to say that. He asks them what the owner of the vineyard should do, and they give the answer that all of us would give, based on our usual way of handling authority. ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death,’ they say. Right! You don’t pussy-foot around with petty dictators. You throw them out! You give them a taste of their own medicine! But notice that Jesus never gives this answer, nor supports it. Rather, he quotes psalm 118: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.’ Yes, Lord, it is amazing. You didn’t send an army to crush the infidels; instead, you sent your son to die, and then raised him. You raised him up to new life to offer us the same new life. Help us to understand this kind of authority and power, one which gives life instead of taking it. Help us to live it.
Link to my 1996 sermon “Breakdown of Authority?”
2. Is humanity ready yet to abide by this divine authority? What would happen with the collapse of the human form of authority? Apocalypse? (Textual example: The people of Israel worshiping a golden calf while Moses is on the mountain receiving God’s alternative to worshiping golden calves.) Is it possible to be ready to live under God’s authority without faith in Jesus, the one who incarnated non-rivalrous mimetic desire that we might imitate him?
3. My 1999 sermon on these texts, “The Parable of Steadfast Love . . . Not Sacrifice,” pulled together many Girardian themes. It begins by portraying God as the owner of the vineyard with the message from the prophets against sacrifice. It makes use of Schwager’s insight that God, in Jesus Christ, most definitely did not follow of the advice of the Pharisees and slaughter all us pretenders.
4. In 2002 I had been homiletically talking about faith for a number of weeks. To me, faith should be less about believing certain things about Jesus and more being a disciple, namely, learning to live in Christ. And Christ’s faith was not about saving us from an ultimate violence of God’s, namely, eternal punishment in hell, but about saving us from our violence. In Christ, we learn that God is, in fact, wholly Love and light and completely without violence. And we are called to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We are called to persisting lives of nonviolent love in the midst of this world of violence.
How does this Parable of the Tenants match up with such a view of faith, especially its apparently violent ending? I would ask several counter questions:
- After the first set of slaves were killed, what would have been the typical human response? To send an army right away, or another delegation of folks to be killed?
- After a series of delegations sent and killed, what would have been the typical human response? To send an army to “put those wretches to a miserable death” (21:41), or to send your son?
- After the son is killed, is it significant that Jesus (in Matthew’s version) asks his listeners what they would do instead of supplying an answer himself?
- (Asking with Schwager above:) When we did kill God’s Son, what was God’s answer?
- How has the church continued to stumble and fall over the stone rejected? Do we lose God’s Kingdom, God’s culture, when we continue to fail the call of total (“perfect”) love and nonviolence?
With these questions in mind, I re-worked the 1996 sermon, using a different main illustration of the breakdown in authority: the new TV show “American Dreams,” about a family growing up in the sixties, that decade to which we often trace the ‘breakdown in authority.’ Link to my 2002 sermon “Breakdown of Authority?”
5. In 2005 the parish where I was interim has a tradition in the fall called “Loyalty Season,” in which a theme is followed for two months to weave together the anniversary of their founding with stewardship themes and a renewal of commitment to the ministry at the beginning of the school year. The theme for the day was from the Second Lesson: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). And a theme for the season came from the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, …and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19a, 20a).
With teaching and discipleship themes for the day, I focused on the interpretation that sees Jesus’ criticism as directly primarily to the teachers of their Jewish faith and not to Israel as a whole, as it is often interpreted. This parable isn’t a supercessionism of Christianity replacing Judaism but rather about the teaching of the leaders of the temple not bearing fruit in Israel. Those teachers, we are told, “realized that he was speaking about them” (Matthew 21:45b). It is their authority vs. Jesus’ authority, at issue in this entire passage, which is going to be replaced.
But my 2005 sermon, another version of “Breakdown of Authority?“, took up the risky task of questioning the teaching authority in the present day church. Has teaching in the church, over two thousand years, devolved into a situation once again where it is not bearing the fruit it should? This question is a key to my entire sense of ministry.