Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hello, My Name is...Wicked Tenant

Not that long ago, I reflected in this space that I enjoy challenging passages that defy easy interpretation. Well, today’s parable in the gospel lesson (Mark 11:27-12:12) is so tough than any pleasure I exact from it only comes with masochistic pain. I’m confused, and I’m not sure there’s any easy way out.

Well, actually, there is an easy way, but it’s the way that the anti-Semitic face of Christianity took for centuries and so is utterly unacceptable. In the parable, the landowner takes great care in preparing his vineyard before leasing his property out to some tenants. When the time of the harvest comes, the landowner sends a servant to collect the appointed portion of the harvest, but the tenants beat him and send him away empty handed. The owner tries again, but the second servant is wounded in the head. A third time, the owner sends a hired-hand to collect his due, but this time the tenants kill him. “And so [it was] with many others, some they beat and some they killed.”

At last the owner sent his own beloved son, thinking that the tenants would respect his heir, but, of course, they beat and kill him, thinking that they will gain the inheritance for themselves. “What will the owner of the vineyard do,” Jesus asks his audience? “He will come and destroy the tenants, and give the vineyard to others.” And so, as the reprehensible allegory goes, God sent to his chosen people Israel prophet after prophet, teacher after teacher, one anointed leader after another until, at last, he sent them his own son, whom they [eventually] rejected and killed. Naturally, since Israel has rejected God’s son, God will destroy them, take away from them the vineyard, and give it to someone else…like the Gentiles. (Hooray for us!) Wrong.

That can’t be right. God doesn’t choose his beloved people and then reject them no matter how many times the turn away. That’s the most consistent theme in all of scripture—God’s consistent love and mercy despite his people’s stubborn sinfulness. No, the way to sort through this parable isn’t as easy (or ugly) as that. I think that there’s a better way, and it hinges on the tenants evil plot.

Who is it that defined insanity as performing the same act repeatedly and expecting different results? Einstein, supposedly. Yet God is foolish enough to send one servant after another—even sending his own son—even though his people keep beating or killing them. That’s extravagant, ridiculous, foolish, insane love. But the tenants’ response is also foolish. They convince themselves that if they kill the owner’s son they will get to keep the inheritance (vineyard) for themselves. But that was never going to work. As crazy as God’s love might seem, God doesn’t work that way, and neither, of course, does the world. One doesn’t get to kill the heir and keep the inheritance for one’s self.

Yet that’s exactly what we try to do every single day when faced with the extravagant foolishness of God’s love. God reaches down to us time after time with expressions of endless love and mercy, and, when we encounter those moments of generosity, we respond by killing the gesture. We murder God’s infinite goodness and love over and over again. We can’t handle love that big. We’d rather put it in a box and try to keep it for ourselves. We refuse to let God be as foolishly merciful as he is, and so we try to steal the inheritance that was already given to us and keep it only for ourselves.

How many times a day do we look at someone in judgment? We might not always put words to the feeling, but how often do we react to someone or something as if they didn’t belong in God’s kingdom? How many people do I feel better than? How many people would I prefer to leave out in the cold? And when I do that, when I look at God’s foolish love and think it can only be for me, I’ve already murdered God’s son, foolishly thinking I could keep his love all to myself.

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