September 4, 2016: Dr. Buz Wilcoxon
As the summer winds to a close, some of us may be looking back over a summer trip that we’ve taken in the last few weeks. The traveling in the summer when kids are out of school can be a fun tradition, but things really but when things don’t go according to plan, well that’s the stuff of legend. Nobody remembers fondly those perfect pristine drives across the country, when nothing ever went wrong. No, it’s when the car breaks down on the side of the road and you have to improvise you way, that’s when the real adventure begins. No one remembers calm weekends at the lake house when nothing extraordinary happened. No, it’s when the boat sprung a leak an sunk during a fishing trip, that’s what we’ll remember for years to come. When things don’t follow the script, when the ending is unpredictable, that’s when trips become adventures.
In this congregation, we have gone on quite a journey this summer—a journey through Jesus’ parables. We began with the seemingly simple parable of the Sower, and we traveled into familiar scenes of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal son. We also sojourned into some strange parables like the Dishonest Manager and the Rich Man and Lazarus. We revisited some parables like the Pounds or the Pharisee and Tax Collector and took in the landscape from a different vantage point. Over the course of these last three months we travelled far and wide through the imaginary worlds of the parables, landscapes of faith and reversal that Jesus, the Master of Parables, speaks through the ages. These journeys give us glimpses into the kingdom of God and how radically different it is than the kingdoms of our world.
At the beginning of the summer, I shared a warning that sound biblical scholars repeat about not being too quick to jump into allegory when reading the parables. That is, don’t try to “decode” them with symbols. This person equals God. This person equals Jesus. There a number of problems with that approach. One problem is that when we do this, when we create such a code to interpret the parables then we take away the power that these stories have on their own to speak God’s word to us. Our coded interpretation becomes more important than Jesus’ original words from the scriptures. We no longer allow the narratives to move us to someplace new, because we already know where we are going to end up.
Another big problem is that when we allegorize the parables, we almost always do so in ways that are self-justifying. That is, we read into them in ways that make us the “good guys” and people different than us the “bad guys.”
And yet even with that warning, when we turn to our parable for this morning, it certainly is tempting to pull out our Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Pins and go to work. You may be so good at allegorizing, that you’ve already decoded this story while you’re sitting there. This is how many people have historically interpreted it: 1) The land owner is God. 2) The vineyard is God’s kingdom. 3) The tenants/laborers are the Jewish people of Israel. 4) the first three slaves that are sent and rejected are the Old Testament prophets. 5) The beloved Son who is killed, let’s see, who could that be? Jesus, that’s right. And 6) the others at the end of the story who will receive the vineyard once the first laborers are whipped out, that’s the Gentiles who will make up the Christian Church. In other words that’s you and me. Isn’t it amazing that when we go through that decoding process we end up with a wonderful little overly simplistic account of history–where we are the innocent good guys while our Jewish brothers and sisters are painted as greedy, evil, murderous usurpers, with promises of violence to come against them. How could such an interpretation go wrong?
Well it has of course. This way of reading the scripture has been used to justify horrific actions by Christians against Jews throughout the centuries. And in doing so, many people claiming to follow Jesus have chosen to ignore what Jesus is actually doing with this story. Instead they have used this scripture and others like it to prop up their own propaganda.
Friends, we are called to do better than that—to read deeper than that. And so, instead let us push pause on the hateful approach and see what Jesus might actually be doing with this parable and with us. First of all, notice that there is something a bit strange, maybe even ridiculous about both sides in this conflict. The mindset of the landowner is certainly odd. Think about it, if the laborers insulted and repeatedly attacked the first three guys that he sent, why in the world would he send his own son to them? Who would do that? Who would send their own offspring into a place of violence where others have already been attacked? Why does he think things will go differently this time? There is something strange going on there. Something foolish.
Then the foolishness goes up a notch with the laborers when they see the son coming and decide that they are going to kill him. They say that they want to kill him so that they can receive his inheritance. What? In what world does that make sense? How many of you have a will? If not, that’s a discussion for another day. But of those of you who do, how many of you have a clause that says, “Upon my death, all that I own will be inherited by my children…unless an angry mob kills them, in which case the murders gets everything.” Of course not. That too is foolish! Reason seems to have been abandoned by both sides in this conflict. This parable that at first seemed like a pretty typical labor dispute, has now taken a turn toward the ridiculous. What started out familiar has now begun to confuse us. That’s the way parables work. They begin with something we know, like a lost coin or a man walking down the road, and they end with something radical and unexpected.
Ending with the unexpected, that’s when the real adventure occurs, and that’s where the real power of this parable lies.
Now, at first glance this story seems to have a pretty typical ending, doesn’t it? Escalating violence has been done by one side in this conflict, and we know the way that the world works, we fully expect that the cycle of violence will continue. We know that the owner will retaliate and strike back with more death and bloodshed against those who have wronged him and his family. That’s the way it works on the school yard, and that’s the way it works in international warfare. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. Do unto others whatever evil they have first done unto you. That’s how we live in this broken and divided world of violence, and that’s how we have always lived as humans.
And that’s how the parable ends…right? Well, maybe. But when we zoom in things are so clear. Unlike all the other parables that he tells, this time, Jesus doesn’t really finish the story. Like most stories that we tell, the whole narrative is told in past tense: A man planted a vineyard. He leased it. He sent his son. They killed him. But then, for some strange reason, the very end shifts into future tense: What will the owner do? He will come and destroy those tenants. The story stalls out before it finishes. The ending of the parable is left dangling out there–not yet complete, thought certainly expected.
Now remember all that business about allegorizing parables and how problematic that can be. Well, I wonder if maybe that’s not entirely wrong to do in a few cases, if we are careful and aware of its shortcomings. Before you accuse me of flip flopping on my stance like some politician, let me explain. After spending the summer wading through Jesus’ parables there’s something we need to remember that isn’t often discussed. What Jesus says is important. But also, when he says it is important too. When in his own story does he tell each of these tales?This parable is actually the final parable that he tells in the gospel of Luke. He weaves this story after he has already entered into Jerusalem, fully aware of what awaits him, when he, like the son in the parable will be taken outside of the city and put to death. So, just before his crucifixion happens, Jesus, the Master of parables tells this final tale, which is, I believe, one of the most sophisticated narratives that he speaks in all of scripture. Jesus plays with our assumptions about what is supposed to happen. He leads his followers and his opponents and all the rest of us down the well-worn path of violence in the story. He takes us so close to the end that we can see what is supposed to happen, with the powerful father coming with death dealing ferocity to avenge his son. That’s how the story should end…right?
Only, in the events that unfold in Jerusalem, that’s not what happens at all. The Son is seized by those who hate him and deny his rule. He suffers their abuse and their shameful mockery. He is crucified, dead, and buried. And, what do we expect next? A God of wrath and vengeance. Just like in the parable, a God of who will come and smite all of his opponents? But instead, we get something we never dreamed possible. The story of the kingdom of God, does not end the way all our stories do. For on the third day God raised him again from the dead. Resurrection. New Life. New Creation. Forgiveness. Grace. Redemption. Reconciliation. None of that is what should have happened, and yet the good news beyond all believe is that this, this is how the real story really ends. We thought we knew the ending, but thanks be to God we were wrong!
When Jesus tells this parable, in the face of his enemies who will soon put him to death, it is as if he is saying, “Let me tell you a story of brokenness and violence, for this is the story of the world. Let me make sure you remember what is supposed to happen, so that you will know how different this Father and Son are from the powers of sin and death. Let me tell you this story now, on this side of the cross and empty tomb so that you will gasp and marvel at the real ending when you see it.”
So, once more this summer, I invite you to consider, where you find yourself in the parable, where you read yourself into the story. Are you like that old worn out allegory, are you the innocent good guys who get all the riches from someone else’s mistakes? If so, I’ve got to warn you, remember how the real story really ends.
Are you, like that father at the end, surrounded by grief or anger, victimization or abuse, are you contemplating your next move and wondering how hard to hit back against those who have done you wrong? If so, I’ve got to warn you, remember how the real story really ends.
Are you, like those first three slaves who are insulted and attacked just for doing their job? Are you feeling like you’re just trying to keep you head down and follow directions when all you get is a swift kick by life’s unfairness. Wondering if there’s any meaning to any of this suffering? If so, I’ve got to warn you, remember how the real story really ends.
Are you, like those tenants, short on sight and short on sharing, motivated by greed to get what belongs to someone else? Do you find yourself in a state of grasping instead of a state of gratitude? If so, I’ve got to warn you, remember how the real story really ends.
Because the real story, the most real story, the story that give all of reality its meaning and purpose, the story that defines all the rest of history, the story that transforms creation and breaks the powers of death, that story does not end like any of the others. On the third day he rose again from the dead! That story ends in good news. And we are invited to enter into that story, full of wonder, joy and praise.