We are in the middle of a run of stories by Jesus. The lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow across the year, is taking us Sunday by Sunday through the Gospel of Matthew as Jesus tells us one parable or one folk tale after another.
On September 13th (and I’m identifying each of Jesus’ stories by the titles that they are traditionally given) we heard the story called The Unforgiving Servant. On the 20th followed The Generous Vineyard Owner. September 27th gave us the tale of The Two Sons. Today we hear about The Wicked Tenants. And next week we’ll hear the story of The King’s Son’s Wedding.
These run of stories feature themes such as power, duty, obedience and disobedience, reversal of expectation, violence or even revenge. Maybe most of all, they feature the themes of forgiveness, of love, of new life.
And four of the five of stories begin in a way that gets totally lost in almost every English translation. In the original Greek, four of the five begin with a double identification of the first character whom we meet. (I’m drawing here, and throughout this sermon, on the wonderful scholarship of Paul Nuechterlein and Andrew Marr.)
The Unforgiving Servant tells us of a man, a king.
The Generous Vineyard Owner speaks of a man, a housemaster (or a landowner).
The Wicked Tenants, today, is the same: There was a man, a housemaster.
And next week, in The King’s Son’s Wedding, we’ll hear of a man, a king.
Do these double identifiers mean anything? Possibly not. Clearly most translators think that they don’t, as witnessed by their choice to collapse the double identifiers into a single one so that today, for instance, we simply here there was a landowner. And the translators may well be right, this may just be a manner of talking in Greek and, before that, in the Aramaic that Jesus and his friends spoke. Certainly, English is full of double phrases that add little or no meaning: An added bonus is the same thing as a bonus; a free gift is the same thing as a gift; twelve midnight, it turns out, is midnight.
But I wonder. There is so little superfluous information in scripture. A modern book will tell you how tall someone is and what they are wearing and what the weather is like because these things help you to envision the scene. Scripture generally doesn’t do that. If scripture tells you about these things it’s because the story won’t make sense without them: we hear about height when Zacchaeus meets Jesus because otherwise we won’t understand why Zacchaeus is climbing the tree; we hear about clothing in the story of Joseph because otherwise we won’t get the fullness of his brothers’ jealousy; we hear about weather in the calming of the storm because without it we won’t understand the danger that the disciples face.
There was a man, a landowner.
Why does Jesus give us this double identification?
Here’s a guess.
There is a long history or habit of reading the stories of Jesus as though they were straight-up allegories. This habit might be particularly intense in the time in which we now live. This way of looking at scripture is to understand it as something like a puzzle which it’s our job to decode. In the case of a parable, it’s our job to figure out which characters represent which people. Which characters are the stand ins for the Roman occupiers? Who are the stand ins for the religious authorities? Who is the stand in for God?
And to be clear, this reading isn’t wrong. I read the story of The Unforgiving Servant exactly this way a few weeks ago. But what it isn’t and mustn’t be is the only way of reading Jesus’ stories, the final way of reading Jesus’ stories. To do so to reduce them to a riddle with which, once solved, you need no longer wrestle. I have that parable figured out: check! No! The parables have a surplus of meanings. If we approach them with curiosity, they will always be new to us.
I want to suggest that the most common allegorical reading of the series of tales that we have been hearing is to cast the person with power in the stories – the king, the landowner, the housemaster – as God.
What if Jesus is cautioning us against that through his double identification?
There was a man, a landowner.
In other words, Jesus says, there was a landowner, and that landowner was a human being. Not God!
Let’s listen to the parable again.
Once upon a time there was a landowner. A landowner who, in case you were wondering, was a human being. This landowner made a vineyard. And boy, it was nice. There was a tasting room and everything. But business took the landowner to another country. And so he leased the vineyard to some tenants.
The tenants did not turn out to be awesome.
They didn’t pay their rent. And when the landowner sent his employees to collect, the tenants beat and killed the employees. The landowner sent more employees. And the tenants did the same thing. And so the landowner said: I know! I’ll send my son. They will be sure to respect my son. And so the landowner sent his only child.
But the tenants murdered him too.
And Jesus as he often does, ends the parable with a question. A question for everyone listening, a question you and me:
What will the landowner do to those tenants?
And his audience answers:
The landowner will come with an army and put the tenants to the worst death you can imagine.
Which is such a reasonable answer. The landowner gave these guys chance after chance. One envoy. A second envoy. His own son. Three strikes and you’re out. Violence is exactly what a reasonable person would reach for in a situation like this one.
And if God is the landowner, then we have just learned something about God. God is generous, maybe even generous to a fault – sending his son might have been a little reckless. But in the end if we cross God enough times: look out. God will crush us.
What do we think about that?
Here’s what I’d like us to notice. I’d like us to notice how this story about a man, a landowner contrasts with the story of the Bible and, in particular, with the story of Jesus.
God sends the prophets. And they are greeted with contempt and violence. God sends John the Baptist. And John is greeted with contempt and violence. God sends God’s only son, our Lord and Saviour Jesus. And Jesus is greeted with contempt and violence. Jesus is murdered by the state. But the one whom Jesus calls Father raises Jesus from the dead.
And what happens then?
Well, Jesus tortures and kills everyone who was ever mean to him, right? That’s how the story ends. Isn’t it?
I can’t see you through the screen, but I trust that you are shaking your heads right now.
That isn’t how the story ends.
In the resurrection, what Jesus does is what he did in his earthly life. He tells stories, he teaches, he feeds people.
In the resurrection, the violence of empire is defeated. Empire does its worst, and the power of God turns out to be greater. Greater in the sense that even death cannot hold back Jesus, cannot hold back God. And greater in the sense that God reveals the futility and brokenness of the state’s violence by refusing to participate in it. For Jesus to come back and kill everyone would, in a real way, be a vindication of empire – it would be an announcement that empire’s philosophy, empire’s way of being was right the whole time. You will know who is right, you will know who the winner is because their violence is greatest.
And God says: No. God says what one of his prophets, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King would famously said all those years later. You will see these words on lawn signs across Portland:
Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.
One there was a man, a landowner. And he behaved the way that human beings so often do. He responded to violence with violence. But not God. God responds to violence with resurrection.