In religious literature, stories are often told about would-be religious leaders undergoing questioning of varying sorts. Frequently, this comes at the time that they begin teaching, but sometimes it comes at a crucial point in their mission. The questioning, usually by the current religious authorities, is meant to prove the bona fides of the teacher, and to show that he, indeed, has the authority he claims he has to teach, that he has something new, original and revelatory to say. In Christianity, this happens when Jesus as a child talks with the elders in the temple. It also happens in his encounters with the Pharisees and scribes. It especially happens after he enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, for it is at that point that the scribes and Pharisees start questioning him with real intensity.
Where these stories about Jesus’ questioning differ, however, from similar accounts in other religions, is that in Jesus’ case, at least at the end, the authorities are not really trying to establish Jesus’ authority. They are trying to discredit it. Their questions are paradoxical, antagonistic, and not probing. They hope that by his inability to answer their very subtle and tricky questions that Jesus will show that he does not really have the religious authority that the crowds seem to want to invest in him. In short, they are hoping to show that he is a fraud. Inevitably, though, in these stories the tables get turned. In his responses, Jesus does not so much show himself more subtle than they. He does show over the course of several days, though, that, despite the authority they claim for themselves, they don’t deserve it. For example, by means of several parables, he shows that they have missed the boat on interpreting the signs of the times; they, also, have failed to live up to or even understand the Law whose authoritative interpreters they claim to be. We wryly smile when we read these encounters. The clever predators who would undo Jesus’ authority are undone, usually by their own words.
This is all very subtle. But at one point, the subtlety stops. Jesus criticizes them. At first it doesn’t seem to be direct criticism, for once again he tells a parable to make his point. But the point of this parable couldn’t be more obvious. And if anyone is so thick as not to get it, Jesus spells it out in no uncertain terms.
The parable he tells is, like the ones we read in the last two weeks, about people in a vineyard. In this case, the vineyard belongs to a landowner, who outfits it properly, and leases it to some tenants, and then leaves to go to another country. The tenants are left in charge, although it is also clear, at least to everybody but them, that they are still tenants; somebody else owns the land. But then when the landowner sends servants to collect the produce, which is the rent, the tenants beat them up, and then when another set of servants is sent, they kill them. Incredibly patient, the landowner keeps sending more servants in the hopes of getting what he is owed. Each time they get mugged. Finally, he sends his son. The tenants, however, don’t see this as an opportunity to show respect to the owner, but to hijack the property and take it over for their own once and for all. So, they kill the son. The story then ends with a rhetorical question about what the owner might do when he shows up in person. The assumed answer is that it will not turn out well at all for the tenants.
Jesus does not leave it at this. Just in case they don’t get it, he explicitly tells the Pharisees that they are the tenants and that the kingdom of God will be taken from their oversight; it will then be given to others. The breaking point of their unraiseable falling comes in their rejection of the Son of God. Which is to say, of course, Jesus himself.
Now, within historical context, what Matthew in relating Jesus’ telling of this parable is trying to do is to explain to his own local church, which was made up of Jewish Christians, how it came to be that so many Gentiles ended up within the church. The church in Matthew’s thinking is supposed to be the New Israel. But if that is so, then how did so many people of Old Israel not become citizens of the New Israel? How did Israel’s enemies, their antitypes, become the new tenants of the vineyard? Well, stories such as this one explain that it was because the old authorities didn’t respect the God of Israel, it was because they were not genuine interpreters of what God wanted, despite their claims to the contrary. It was because they didn’t read the signs of the times and it was because they hijacked what God gave them. Because of all that, God took the vineyard away and gave it to somebody else.
But as with all historical explanations, which is to say, all literal explanations, this one stays only on the surface. There is something deeper and something far more timeless here.
I have said that the vineyard was hijacked. It’s a modern idiom to be sure, but one that is pretty accurate. It is accurate not only in terms of how those who had been given charge of the community, the vineyard, tried to take it away from the owner and make it their own, it is accurate, I think, in terms of what so many in Israel must have been thinking and feeling. They had a kingdom, it was lost and they were now a vassal nation under the Roman boot. As far as they were concerned, the life that was God’s gift to them had been hijacked. Most likely, it wasn’t the scribes and the Pharisees they blamed for this, but the Romans. But it doesn’t really matter whose fault it was, life which should have been sweet, had become bitter. It had lost its sense.
That is where this parable has meaning that is farther reaching than just speaking of the relation between Jews and Gentiles in the first century. We, too, often feel like life has been hijacked, and that something, somebody is in charge who shouldn’t be. Not many months ago people were wearisomely talking constantly about “our troubled times.” Given the natural disasters, continued wars, and new, unprecedented gun violence of the last few weeks, people who used to talk that way with a grave air of moral concern, have now started to talk in far more alarmed tones about living in apocalyptic times.
Apocalyptic times are times, of course, filled with all sorts of extraordinary events. As such, our times might warrant such a description. But what really drills itself into the human spirit, and what forces talk about “apocalyptic times” is not the weather so much as the sense that things in a very cosmic way don’t make the sort of sense that they used, or that they should. We feel that whoever is in charge has gone away, and that somebody else is in charge. In the biblical world, that was no metaphor. What made for apocalyptic times was the belief that principalities and authorities that were no friends of ours had taken over, and there wasn’t a lot that human beings could do about it. They were its playthings.
Perhaps we don’t believe in cosmic principalities and authorities anymore. But I dare say that even if we don’t, we still come down to the same place as the folks in the first century, namely, that human purposes and projects don’t count for much in any obvious way, and that things are dangerous. I don’t say this just because I hear people express a lot of frustration, and because they are worried about human purposes. Something else strikes me as perhaps much more indicative.
The United States, more so than any other country that doesn’t have ongoing armed civil strife, has a lot of gun violence. We saw this last week an extraordinary example of it in Las Vegas, but beyond the enormity of that incident, it was really just one more incident out of hundreds of multiple murders each year, most of which don’t make it beyond the local news. An incident in which two or three people are killed has become pretty unremarkable.
What ought to be our reaction to such violence? I think gun regulation would seem to be the obvious thing to do. That would be rational. Yet, almost always after one of these damnable incidents, gun regulation doesn’t happen, controls are actually loosened, and people buy a lot more guns. That just seems nuts. So, to keep it rational, we blame the result on manipulation and fear-mongering, mainly through the efforts of the NRA and gun lobby. I think there is probably something to their involvement. They really don’t help. But this last week one Times columnist raised the question another way. Not so very long ago, Americans were not nearly so excited about their Second Amendment rights as they are now, nor did they possess so many guns. It wasn’t as big a deal. What has changed? Perhaps the NRA is responsible, or at least partly responsible, for this. It has aided and abetted an aura of fear. But the fact in itself is, whether or not folks have a reason to believe it, is that people do feel frightened, and that is why they are buying guns. In short, they are starting to feel like their lives are being hijacked and they are trying to gain some degree of control or are trying to maintain the illusion of being in control.
That may be so much macho-whistling in the dark, even though it is genuinely dangerous. Still, it seems to provide good evidence for thinking that people are starting to think apocalyptically. What should our reaction be? Well, we can try to argue that really things aren’t out of control; they just appear to be. A change in policy would fix that appearance. More gun control, for example. I am actually for that. Don’t ever not be reasonable, I say. But still that fails to address the deep failure of confidence that is shaking people. Reasonable policy isn’t going to happen anyhow if we believe we are threatened. So, what does work?
Well, in the Bible, while apocalyptic times are painted as times of uncertainty and anxiety, there is never any question about who is in charge and how things are going to turn out. We may blanch at the idea that the landowner is going to storm the vineyard and put the tenants to a miserable death. Okay. It may not happen that way; we hope not. But what we can never give up on, and what is the truth of that description, is that, in the end, the world will not stay hijacked. If God knows every hair on our heads, and if a swallow does not fall without God knowing it, then the God who is good will not fail to bring the world to the end he intends for it.
One well-known New Testament scholar of the last century, Rudolf Bultmann, talked about what Christianity brought to the ancient world and why it was attractive. That world, at least at the time that Christ appeared, was, he said, “a dark and noisome cave.” It was a place from which to flee, because there was nothing left for human beings here, nothing that fed the human spirit and made it feel at home in the creation it was made to dwell in. So, there were many religions that appealed to the instinct to flee. Many people who didn’t take that option simply gave in to license, figuring it didn’t make any difference anyhow. Others sought power that served only itself and that contributed to the senselessness. But Christianity did not make an appeal like any of those. Its appeal was that it never taught people to flee. It gave people a way to live in the world, crazy as it seemed. It gave them a code, a sense of goodness. It gave them hope. And it gave them a spirit that would let them embrace that way of life. How did it do those things? Because it told them in no uncertain terms that, in the end, no matter how it appeared, no matter how it looked like the world had been hijacked, that God who is good, and who loves his people, will win. The owner of the vineyard would reclaim it. Knowing that, they could go on. They could endure. They could live with sense and purpose.
Knowing something about the ancient world, I sometimes think we are about to repeat its cycles of rising and falling. We, too, live in times that often feel hijacked. That has given rise to despair and meaningless license. It has led to an idolatry of money and power, because nothing else seems to be able to give our lives meaning. It has led to violence to keep away the violence. And I have heard many good people strongly assert that “we need to do something about it.” We do. But what can you do in times that have been hijacked? We need to act like the owner of the vineyard still exists and will make things right. We need to act like the owner of the vineyard really does own the vineyard, not somebody else. Acting in those ways will let us live with sense in a world that doesn’t always seem to make sense. It might even start to give the world a sense that it didn’t seem to have before.