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March 28, 2004

"Living Into the Parable of Jesus' Life" - March 28, 2004

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; Luke 20:9-19

It’s sometimes said that Jesus’ parables are ways to make truth more accessible, taking complicated theological ideas and putting them in terms that anyone can understand. But in Luke 8:9-10 (and Mk 4:1-9, and Mt 13:1-9), Jesus said that he told his parables for the opposite reason, so that the crowds might not understand. It’s a very puzzling statement, to be sure. But it’s a statement that fits the reality of how puzzling the parables can be when we enter fully into them as stories.

When confronted with these puzzling parables, we are sometimes tempted to resolve the ambiguities by leaping immediately to interpret them allegorically. In an allegorical reading, we start with our expectations – with what we think we know is true.  Then we look at the parts of the story – the characters, the objects, the actions – we decide which character or object in a parable is God, which one is Jesus, and what the other things in the parable represent, and we work toward a truth that is in harmony with our expectations.

But that’s not what the parables are for. Jesus’ parables aren't there to make complicated truths simple, but to complicate what seems to us to be simply true.

The parable in today's gospel is an excellent case in point.  If we leap immediately and not very carefully to allegory, it’s a simple story.  The landowner is God. God sends messengers to people (in particular, to Israel). The people reject the messengers. God sends his son. The people kill the son. So God is going to reject Israel and choose another people. But how well does the parable really fit that interpretation?

For starters, how well does that interpretation fit Luke’s theology? One author wrote Luke and the book of Acts as a single two-volume work that scholars refer to as “Luke-Acts,” and one of the noteworthy features of Luke-Acts is how it shows a continuing and central role for Israel. Indeed, Luke-Acts tells us that the invitation extended in to Gentiles through Jesus is to join Israel, God’s people. Those of you who are familiar with the book of Acts may recall the “apostolic council” in Acts 15, where Luke specifically tells us that among the Christian leaders gathered to make important decisions there are PHARISEES.  Not former Pharisees, but Pharisees.  In Acts (23:6), Paul continues to identify himself as a Pharisee (not a former Pharisee) long after he became an apostle of Jesus. In Luke’s theology, the vineyard of Israel has not been taken away to be given to others; rather it has been opened up by Jesus to new workers called to gather in God’s abundant harvest.

More importantly, is the landowner of the parable really like the God of Israel revealed in scripture and proclaimed by Jesus? Let’s start with the literal details Luke gives us, and examine them in light of what we know about the culture that gave the story to us. The setting of the parable in today’s gospel is one that Luke features in many of his parables. It’s the estate of a wealthy landowner. The landowner does not live on the land, and doesn’t do the work of planting and harvesting. Those who do that hard work are hired laborers and sharecroppers, who have to turn over most of what they grow to the landowner, who in the words of the similar parable in Luke 19, is a hard man, reaping what he did not sow (vs. 20). This absentee landlord does not send messengers out of any great love for the people or the land, but to get the goods that sustain his life of ease in the more cosmopolitan environment of the city.

And in this morning’s parable, the farmers have had enough. The next time the landowner sends one of his lackeys to collect the rent, the farmers send him packing. I can almost hear the cheer that erupted from the audience as Jesus told this parable. Then the landowner sends another henchman to collect the rent, and the farmers again work together to send him away empty-handed. Another cheer goes up from the crowd hearing the story! And then one more person comes riding in on the dusty road from the city – the son of the landowner. The listening crowd’s anticipation grows. Why would the son – the “beloved son,” probably an only child – come, instead of a messenger? Such a thing would usually indicate that the landowner had died, and his son was coming to survey the estate he had inherited. And here comes an opportunity for the farmers. If the son dies and he does not have an heir, the land goes to those who live on it, and the farmers will be free. The farmers do what real men would be expected to do in response to years of exploitation; they rise up and kill the son.

And then comes the twist ... the landowner is not dead, and he does precisely what he would be expected to do under such circumstances: he wreaks terrible revenge, slaughtering the farmers and replacing them with others, so he can return once more to the ease of the city while others earn his bread. I think it’s safe to say that no cheers erupted from the parable’s hearers at that point. The chief priests and the scribes in the audience, who came from the social class of the rich landowner and his hirelings, weren’t cheering; Jesus has just issued a scathing critique of their dealings with their fellow Israelites. The peasant farmers in the audience aren’t cheering; they have just heard a graphic reminder of how escalating the spiral of violence will result in more violence visited upon them and their children. For the landowner’s family and for the peasants alike, standing up for themselves, as their culture expected honorable families to do, brought everyone down.

This is a sobering and challenging word to us this Lent. In what ways are we like the absentee landlord, dependent on others’ exploitation to support our lives of relative ease? How much do we consume without knowing or caring about where our clothes, our coffee, our electronics come from, or at what cost to poor people and the environments in which they live? In what ways are we like the sharecroppers, willing to do wrong to achieve what we think is right, to escalate interpersonal and international conflict in ways that will be visited upon generations to come?

And in what ways are we living into the parable of Jesus’ life, the model Jesus shows us of care for those the world disregards and disregard of the world’s standards of strength and honor? Jesus challenges us to do the unthinkable, to turn the other cheek and let others think us weak, to care as much for God’s children who make our clothes and shoes, who mine the ore for our electronics and dispose of the toxic computer monitors we toss out when we’re ready for bigger and better ones, as we do for our own children. Jesus challenges us to bless and honor the peacemakers rather than the mighty, to strive for justice and peace and the dignity of every human being above our own comfort.

We vow to do that in our Baptismal Covenant, and it’s the way of the Cross. When we say today to each child who is being baptized, to ____________________“you are sealed and marked as Christ’s own forever,” that’s the way to which we are committing our children. But this way is also the truth and the life. It is the way to truly abundant life.  For while exercise of might can bring us to the depths, it is the promise of an absolutely faithful and loving God that the lowly will be raised up; the stone deemed useless has become the keystone on which God’s kingdom is being built. That is the paradox of the Good News we celebrate today.

Thanks be to God!

March 28, 2004 in Isaiah, Justice, Lent, Matthew, Parables, Year C | Permalink

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