Unfinished Business

A sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs 

“This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” –Deuteronomy 34:4 

“We have some unfinished business.” The thought leaves you anxious, doesn’t it? Right up there with, “We need to talk.” Nobody likes unfinished business—that breath-holding sense of incompleteness that begs for closure. In music, it’s like an unresolved dissonance or a chord that just leaves you hanging. The nature of an incomplete past is to make us gazes anxiously upon a murky future.

At the end of Deuteronomy, we have a classic case of unfinished business. Moses, after shepherding his stubborn, stiffnecked, whining people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea and through the wilderness, is brought to the tantalizing border of the Promised Land and told, this is as far as you go, friend. Thank you for your service, but you’re done now.

After all Moses did. And put up with. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Actually, we were warned that this would be the end of the line for him. We read in Exodus and in Numbers of Moses being confronted by his people, yet again, at a place that would later be called Meribah (which means, appropriately, “quarreling.”) This time it was because they were thirsty, demanding that Moses fix it. So God told Moses that if he would take his staff in hand and speak to a nearby rock, water would issue forth. So Moses picked up the staff, struck the rock twice, and water flowed. All ended well, right? Nope. Barely before anyone had gotten so much as a sip God expressed extreme displeasure at Moses for his lack of obedience, declaring that as a result, he would not see the Promised Land.

Huh? What in the world did Moses do wrong to earn such a harsh sentence?

It actually took an alert and more careful fellow reader just a few weeks ago to point out that God told Moses to speak to the rock, not strike it. When he struck it instead he was showing a lack of faith in God. And if we have learned nothing else from our reading in the Hebrew Scriptures, we have learned that God requires above all that God’s people be faithful to God.

And so, Moses, this is as far as you go.

The Israelites were not left leaderless. Joshua son of Nun had been made the successor to Moses and they would enter the Promised Land and take possession, often in ways that grieve us today and leave us wrestling with how these accounts speak to us about issues of violence and how we treat the Other in our midst. But that is looking from hindsight. From the point of view of the Israelites in the story, they faced a future filled with question marks. Where are we going? What will we find when we get there?

And this is why this story is so important just as it is, unfinished business and all. Because for those with ears to hear it speaks to our own questioning about the road ahead of us on any given day. Who am I? Where am I going? Who am I going with? What am I called to do? The future is our unfinished business and we, like the Israelites after the death of Moses, are holding our breath to know what will happen next.

So this story invites us to ponder, as individuals and as a community, both the nature of our Wilderness and the possibly mixed blessings of the journey ahead.

The most famous public reference to today’s story occurred on the evening of April 3, 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking to sanitation workers in Memphis, his words hopeful, though introspective. You should google the video of the speech and listen to that unmistakable voice:

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!” 

Dr. King was assassinated the next morning.

But his words still resonate amid the heartbreak. As he preached that night his vision of Moses gazing upon the Promised Land took on a new dimension; a Gospel dimension of Christian hope and a vision of the Beloved Community nurtured out of the wilderness. It was a vision of the Promised Land transformed into the Kingdom of God.

Matthew’s Gospel portrays Jesus as the New Moses, leading his people to the Kingdom. God’s call to the people to be faithful above all else had remained unchanged over centuries, but the landscape of the Wilderness was different—now it was a wilderness of Roman occupation and quarreling among factions of the Jewish community, as we heard last week; Sadducees, Pharisees, etc. And their quarreling has again found its focus in Jesus when a lawyer tests him: Which commandment is the greatest? Jesus’ response does two things: first, it continues to seal his reputation as one who knows his Torah inside and out—he has passed test after test from the Temple authorities, leaving them speechless every time. And this time and this is the second point, the way in which he combines the commandments, two of the most significant passages in Torah, transforms them into a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. You shall love the Lord your God,

(found in Deuteronomy) and You shall love your neighbor as yourself (found in Leviticus); these two commandments, up to this point have evolved separately into ways in which the people of Israel have distinguished themselves as a community. And by extension, they have created narrow definitions of who is Neighbor and broad categories of those who were Other.

But Jesus has combined the two commandments in such a way that they become new marching orders for the people of God. Here is what you must do: Love what God loves, (that is, everything and everyone, including taxpayers and sinners), and love how God loves it (that is, prodigiously, abundantly, and with no exceptions.) There is no room for equivocation or qualification.


And he’s not done yet. He adds, “On these two laws hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

The role of the prophets from the beginning was to critique the system; to call it to account and to repentance whenever it strayed. And Jesus’ words here point out that the interpretation of the Law is rightly challenged to refocus from time to time. As Jesus said earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, he did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Prophets are part of an ecosystem of faith that includes, God, God’s creation, and God’s call to the people to faithful obedience through the Law.

It’s an ecosystem that endures now. God calls us to faithfulness and to a faithful response to those whom God loves, in the way that God loves them. That’s our unfinished business. Like Moses, like modern prophet Dr. King, we are called to be faithful, even as we may not always be successful. But just because it’s unfinished and we can’t see the end doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the journey. Attending to the unfinished business of the Kingdom means that we keep our focus on God’s promise to what God loves, and how God loves it.

If you look in the Book of Common Prayer, on page 855 you will find the part of the Catechism that pertains to the Church. It says:

  1. What is the mission of the Church?
  2. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
  3. How does the Church pursue its mission? 
    A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
  4. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission? 
    A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

Marching orders, right there.

You know, when it comes to the unfinished business of God’s Kingdom, one of the most powerful metaphors is birth. It is a process that is profoundly uncomfortable, and yet immensely hopeful. The future is all tied up in the pain, the anxiety, the anticipation, the promise. But like Moses looking down from the mountain, we need to understand that the nature of the birthing process is that the future it holds doesn’t really belong to us. It belongs to that which is being birthed. Ultimately it will leave us behind, perhaps gazing longingly toward what is beyond our ability to see or know. What is being born belongs to its own future. Our role right now is to keep breathing, and pushing, and working and hoping. And loving. Loving what God loves, and how God loves it.

We have some unfinished business. But unlike Moses, our journey isn’t over yet. The saying goes that the God’s Dream for Creation is both already and not yet. May God give us grace to see the Kingdom where it is already among us and to let that excite and empower us for the journey ahead.









Caesar or God, the question is: can you feel the love?

The context

While it’s not absolutely essential for the understanding of Jesus’ encounter in Matthew in 22:15-22, it’s kind of interesting to engage in a little historical contextual exploration.

If you think America’s political body is fractious and fragmented then picture the state of Roman Palestine in the time of Jesus. Jewish body politic in the 1st-century shows us a nation suffering under the enormous pressures of conquest and occupation.

Five major Jewish factions contented with one another. Between them lay acute differences regarding the status and interpretation of the religious tradition. However, the main point of sharp conflict between them concerned the appropriate response to the Roman occupation. Two choices presented – collaborate or resist. Resistance involved another question: how violently?

The Sadducees, the religiously conservative, hereditary priestly caste, collaborated with the Romans in order to preserve their power base in the Temple. A functioning Temple was important for the Romans who used it as the Inland Revenue Service for their Palestinian provinces. The Sadducees lived in terror of any social unrest that might jeopardize their privilege and bring the Romans down on their priestly heads. Thus, Jesus’ power over the crowds made him a target for Sadducee enmity.

The Herodians, the aristocracy of the Hasmonean Dynasty of Herod the Great and his depraved sons provided another focus for collaboration. Herod had been the last ruler of an independent Jewish State. The Romans subdivided Israel into provinces, appointing three of Herod’s sons as puppet rulers. The Herodians were more than collaborators. Unlike the Sadducees, they were also assimilationists. They constituted a Greek-speaking, culturally cosmopolitan, designer wearing, fast living, pleasure-seeking 1st-century elite. If the Herodians had such a thing as an economic philosophy it would have resembled trickledown economics. They didn’t care about fidelity to God. As people living at the apex of the pyramid, insulated from the concerns of lesser mortals, God was simply a primitive artifact of a superstitious past. Religion could be useful but not in a way that mattered to the Herodians personally, but only as a tool for the political manipulation of the masses.

The Pharisees were the religiously progressive party, careful to oppose the occupation through keeping themselves apart from any involvement in governing. They formed the main party of political moderation. Their influence lay outside Jerusalem in the synagogues of the countryside. They promoted their progressive religious interpretation through widespread sponsorship of education. It’s interesting to speculate that a Pharisee school probably provided Jesus with his education. Staunchly opposed to the occupation, they nevertheless, firmly rejected violence as a tool of resistance.

The Zealots or Sicario were a first century equivalent to the Taliban. They engaged in widespread campaigns of assassination against Roman officials and Jewish collaborators. Committed to the violent overthrow of Rome they also violently intimidated local Jewish populations as it suited their interests.

The Essenes, the fifth faction, are known to us principally through the excavation of one of their settlements at Qumran. It’s here that archeologists unearthed the treasure trove known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes were separatist survivalists who refused to have anything to do with both the Romans as well as their fellow Jews. Hold-up in communities in isolated parts of the country – they waited for the day of God’s liberation of Israel with the coming of the Messiah.


The text

Matthew 32:15-22 paints a startling picture of Pharisees and Herodians consorting together to entrap Jesus. Matthew’s account is startling because no Pharisee would have let a Herodian’s shadow fall across his path, let alone be seen in public together. We are familiar with political necessity at times making for strange bedfellows. When Jesus asked for a coin, it would have been a Herodian who produced it. It was blasphemy for a Pharisee to possess a coin with the head of a foreign God (Caesar) imprinted on it.

The Pharisees get a bad press in the Gospels, esp. in Matthew. This is less a reflection of Jesus’ conflict with them, for in most ways Jesus’ teaching and politics were strikingly similar to that of the Pharisees. Matthew singles-out the Pharisees because in his own day the principal contention lay between his second-generation Christian Community and the emergent Rabbinic Movement of a reconstructed Judaism. Matthew projects much of his conflict with the rabbis back into the time of Jesus where he depicts a relationship of conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, who were the rabbis’ religious forebears.

The gist of this encounter between Jesus and his interlocutors relates to the thorny problem of taxation. In this context, the question concerned the dispute between Jews about whether it was breaking the Covenant with God to pay taxes to Caesar, who claimed the divine status of a god.

The Pharisees and Herodians seemed to have found common cause together in mounting a two-pronged assault on Jesus, attempting to box him in. If Jesus answered in the affirmative that it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, he committed blasphemy. If he rejected paying taxes, he committed treason. So the strategy was to flatter him with the title of teacher and watch which way he jumped.

Jesus jumps out of the trap, startlingly suggesting a separation between church and state. His answer offends both groups while depriving them of the satisfaction of hearing the jaws of their trap snap closed. Jesus’ answer thus angered the Herodians, while offending the Pharisees.

Render to Caesar the things belonging to Caesar and to God the things belonging to God seems a simple solution, but as we know all too well, one that requires a complex negotiation of dual and competing allegiances? How much is owed to Caesar and how much to God?

Applying the text in a new context

For preachers in communities where the fall pledge drive is a challenging, reoccurring, yearly tradition, Matthew’s text is a gift offered by the compilers of the lectionary. The crude interpretation of this text would lead me to say, hey folks, you pay your taxes so pay-up on your church pledge! In more authoritarian traditions some preachers even suggest that there is a rough parity between the amount of tax you pay to the government and the quota of your hard earned wealth the church has a claim on. To my mind, this is a dangerous approach because it invites people to infect their attitude towards God with the same level of resentment and cynicism they feel towards the IRS.

It’s human nature not to want to pay taxes or at least to not want to pay too much in tax. But in the US, the resentment about paying tax is unique in the Western World. Everyone assumes that current proposals for tax reform mean lower, not higher taxes, irrespective of which group becomes the main beneficiary of the reductions.

The quality of our lives is seriously impacted by the chronic underfunding of public services in the forms of roads, bridges, railways, and the national grid. Yet, at the same time, we believe we should be paying less tax. Isn’t there an inconsistency in our thinking here?

I have come to the conclusion that the deep resentment Americans feel about paying taxes is rooted in two related factors. In this last week’s E-news epistle I wrote about the discrepancy between a year-on-year rising GDP and a plummeting sense of national wellbeing. Actually, 1979 was the last year that the GDP and our sense of national wellbeing mirrored each other.

The other problem is that we feel we don’t experience any benefit from the taxes we pay. We all know that taxes pay for infrastructure, but when you live in Providence, which is a typical example in the NE Corridor, we see our taxes disappearing while the infrastructure continues to crumble around us.

I was listening to an NPR reporter asking a group of Danes why they didn’t mind paying a tax rate that seems to Americans an abuse of government. They replied, No, we don’t mind at all because look at what we get for our taxes: free healthcare, free maternity support, free childcare, free education from preschool to university graduation. I believe that if Americans experienced such benefits, they might consider a higher tax rate an acceptable price to pay for such benefits. Imagine, no childcare, no healthcare, no children’s education or college expenses. How rich would you feel then?

Ideally, our taxes should be an expression of our gratitude for living in this wonderful country. We face many real problems as we transition from the Pax Americana of the post-1945 period during which the US enjoyed the lion’s share of global prosperity. we now face a future in which we too, are subject to the whims and capriciousness of trans-global capitalism. However, the insecurity of an unpredictable future is something not to be feared but welcomed as a catalyst for unleashing new national resourcefulness and energy.

It’s important, however, that our energies are guided by sound and unchanging values and principles. Whether it be income tax or church pledge, Jesus’ words render under Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God the things which belong to God would suggest we start out from a place of gratitude for the good things we enjoy. Our lives remain incomparably rich by any measuring.

We’re all in this together. Bonds of affection tie us to one another. Be it at the level of personal, family or community relationships, together we share a common life. We’ve been reminded in this last week by George W. Bush, Barak Obama, and John McCain that our concept of nationhood and good government lie in the enduring values and ideals that have made America such a bright beacon for the world. That we fail to live up to these ideals is to be expected, but we must never retreat from them just because the going gets rocky. We have a great deal to be thankful for.

The Pharisees rightly understood that all things belong to God. Jesus was not challenging this, but asking what does it mean for all things to belong to God? God is not a tyrant busily collecting and banking our dues, muttering mine, mine, all mine. That all things to belong to God – is to recognize our debt of gratitude for life, and to express that gratitude in our own generous living.

Gratitude for life imposes the responsibilities of generous living upon us. Whether it’s in the form of taxes in our civic life or working to realize kingdom expectations in the world through our participation in the life of the Church, through both we render to God our debt of personal gratitude for the love we share in our relationships together.

Popular culture poses the question: can you feel the love? When you consider your membership of this community, can you feel the love? Underneath the fears that threaten to divide us from one another, can you sense the love? This fall, as you conduct your spiritual inventory in order to reconnect with the values that matter to you, can you feel the love? You don’t, I hear you say. Then there’s only one remedy. Act generously today, and I promise you, you’ll begin to feel love’s burn.


Idols: Exodus 32


imagesSpiritual understanding emerges over time on humanity’s long march in a relationship with God.  Judaism, and to a lesser degree Christianity both understand humanity’s relationship with God to be an evolutionary one, rooted in the events of history.

This historical understanding of God can be contrasted with the understanding of the great Eastern religions, which hold a view of God as cosmic, outside historical time and place. In this view, God is universal and unchanging.

The point here is not the complex theological question of whether God changes or is unchanging. The story keeps moving onwards. God appears to grow within an evolving relationship with humanity. With the evolution of culture our image of God, hopefully, deepens.

Loneliness and fear

The people have become frightened by Moses’ long stay on the mountain. They feel lost and bewildered without Moses and the God who accompanies him. Lost and afraid, deprived of Moses they turn to Aaron, Moses’ brother for comfort and leadership. They ask him to restore their lost sense of God’s presence.

Aaron is the priest. Priests are usually more down-to-earth than prophets. It’s not so much that they confuse the Golden Calf for the unseen God of Moses, but that the Golden Calf represents the Hebrews longing for a God who is accessible and available.  In the Golden Calf, they can see God, and they can touch God. This image is an image of God with them, a God to whom they are able to pour out their concerns, to whom they can express their fears, a God before whom they can dance and celebrate with ecstatic joy.

Exodus:32 seems to be one of those powerful cathartic moments in the history of the relationship between God and the Hebrews – a small section of humanity.

Two startling discoveries

The God of the Torah reacts when things don’t go according to plan. Exodus:32 reveals a God who, when crossed can rise to the heights of rage and threaten to obliterate Israel. This God is a passionate lover, who brooks no infidelity.  In the story of the Golden

In the story of the Golden Calf, we make two startling discoveries. The first is that God can be reasoned with. Secondly, God seems capable of learning from experience and changing his mind. Here lies a deep insight into the psychology of relationship. No real relationship can exist where either party to the relationship lacks the power to make an impact upon the other!

God’s learning?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow commenting on this aspect of the encounter on Mount Sinai says:

The ancient rabbis thought there was a relationship between the Golden Mishkan (the portable Shrine known to us as the Tent of Meeting) and the Golden Calf. The way they understand the relationship was that from watching how the people dance for the calf, God ruefully accepts that the people need a physical focus for their experience of God. So God gives them the Mishkan in place of a calf. In this approach, the story as we have it in the Torah is “out of order” — chronologically reversed. For it is the experience of the calf that convinces God to design a Mishkan. 

Rabbi Waskow ruefully notes the similarity between the golden calf and the golden altar to be placed at the center of the Tent of Meeting; both made of gold, both with horns. He says:

And the people? Dimly from the foot of the mountain, they hear the overtones, a blur: “Plenty of gold? Uh-huh. And — something about horns? — Un-huh. Must be a golden bull-calf!!” So they build it. For God as well as us, the truth is firm: What you sow, that you shall reap. Or to put it in another way: certainly earth is spirit, there needs to be a physical context for the spiritual path. (A “path” is very earthy.) https://theshalomcenter.org/content/golden-calf-golden-mishka

 Human loneliness

We also live in a time when idols abound. Since the Enlightenment, God has been in retreat from the center stage of the universe. It’s as if God, having set up the mechanism to run itself, packs a bag and goes on vacation, leaving humanity alone to strut with increasing self-importance center stage.

We are now like the Israelites at the foot of Mt Sinai, bereft of a lively sense of being in relationship with God, trying to get on with things the best way we can. Finding substitutes to fill the chasm of our loss we construct and worship our own golden calves in:

  1. The idol of scientific progress.
  2. The idol of materialism and material prosperity.
  3. The celebration of celebrity.

It’s this third idol I want to explore a little. For we have become a culture where we no longer celebrate achievement, i.e. what people do. We celebrate success, popularity, i.e. how people appear. We increasingly live into a reality that is virtual, and not real. A reality of shiny surfaces and ever-shifting perspectives, based on appearance and not substance.

Celebrity culture is always changing. As a result, our culture feeds our uncertainty and exacerbates our feelings of vulnerability. We may be popular one minute and cast down the next. Beneath the surface, our anxiety and stress keep growing. Social media only feeds our underlying anxiety captured in the title of a song- Will you still love me tomorrow?

Idols promise more than they deliver

Like the Golden Calf, our idols increasingly fail to fill the gap created by our loss of tangible relationship with God, and with one another. This causes us to plunge into even deeper despair!

The lessons of discipleship

The parables of Jesus are not morality stories but exhortations to discipleship. Through the juxtaposing of images that are at once familiar and at the same time hyperbolic, Jesus challenges us to move beyond the limits of our idols, the product of only what we are able to imagine for ourselves. The expectations of the Kingdom of God (thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven) break into our safe but lonely experience, forcing us to draw uncomfortable comparisons between what we are prepared to settle for, and what God desires for us.

The God of Moses demanded obedience. Where the God of Moses is passionate and jealous, the God of Jesus is compassionate and extravagant. The God of Jesus calls us into a relationship of discipleship in which we find the courage to live and work for more than we imagine being possible. Only discipleship leads us to the discovery that in the midst of feeling alone and lost, we are already found. As David Ewart in his weekly sermon blog Holy Textures puts it:

There may indeed be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, but the parables are more about the joy to be had on earth from hearing the good news of the extravagant God who risks all to search for each one of us personally, individually – joyfully. Our God isn’t sitting passively off somewhere in heaven waiting for someone to bring news that a sinner has repented today. Our God is actively searching for us.

My question is will we allow ourselves to be found?

Kingdom Talk and Empire Walk

A former colleague and friend from Phoenix emailed me during this last week with a desperate plea: are you preaching on Sunday? I assumed some feeling desperation at the prospect of preaching on the lessons for Sunday in the light all that’s happening in the world around us? Why did I assume so? Maybe it was because of my own sense of desperation. We both faced a similar struggle of how to cope with the demands of standing in the pulpit, which if you haven’t noticed before, stands several feet above contradiction.

As clergy, and particularly as preachers, we feel the pain and dysfunction we see in the world around us just like everyone else does. Yet, there is a keenness, a sharpness in our experience of the world in a time of crisis because we are called upon to process our own fear, our own profound disappointment at the seemingly unstoppable backward slide in civic values and shared the vision for the benefit of a wider community. This can feel a risky and exposing business, for the preacher’s processing of fear and uncertainty is always a public matter, open to community scrutiny.

Using the analogy of the grain of sand trapped in the shell of the oyster that produces the pearl, the text for the coming Sunday irritates its way through me as the days pass. How will God’s vision for humanity found Sunday-by-Sunday in the appointed Biblical passages inform the processing of my own experience?

For the pastor generally, but more specifically for the preacher whose words are weighted and measured in the responses of a community, the stressful question remains- how do we speak of the expectations of God’s kingdom in a way that does more than just appear to conscript God to our own personal worldview?

Speaking for myself, how can I as someone charged with the task of interpreting the Scriptures for a whole community do so in a manner that is respectful of difference and able to respond fruitfully to what is needed? For what is needed is always a contested subject. In any community that is not a self-selected gathering of the like-minded, its members will have a variety of needs some of which may be difficult to reconcile. Perhaps it’s an impossible ambition to bring comfort, inspiration, and challenge in equal measure? All I know is, however possible or not it may be, it is nevertheless the struggle God and the community have entrusted to me in my role as the preacher.

Jesus and the great Hebrew prophets who preceded him seem remarkably untroubled by a need to measure their words according to their likelihood of being accepted or rejected. Maybe, wanting to be liked is a relatively modern human predicament.

The prophets of Israel when not firing outright condemnations and anathemas, arrows regrettably unavailable in the Episcopal priest’s quiver, spoke through parables about the tensions between God’s kingdom and human empire. At heart, parables draw their power from juxtaposing familiar experience of everyday life with a startling and shockingly unexpected conclusion.

The phrase human empire is the code for the systemizing of power through the threat of violence.

As we have been learning through the daily Bible Challenge readings from I Samuel through to II Kings, the Hebrew prophets arose for the specific purpose of speaking kingdom truth to human empire embodied by kings who sought to free themselves from the constraint on their authority imposed by the Law.

Vineyards often feature in the construction of biblical world parables. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants begins with a deliberate echo of Isaiah’s love song parable of the vineyard in chapter 5, heard in the alternative first reading for Sunday. At the outset, Jesus evokes his hearers’ association to Isaiah’s mournful parable of lament concerning God’s response to Israel’s unfaithfulness. But have you noticed how Jesus plays fast and loose with Scripture? He uses Scripture to simply set the scene as in – here’s the story so far – before jumping onto a completely new trajectory, and taking Scripture to a new place never imagined by the original writers of a text.

Jesus uses Isaiah to simply set the scene as in – here’s the story so far – before jumping onto a completely new trajectory, and taking Scripture to a new place never imagined by the original writers of a text. In his hands, Isaiah’s parable becomes a completely new story with an unexpected conclusion.

Jesus shifts the focus from the vineyard as an identification with Israel to the tenants who farm the vineyard. Yet, his hearers’ would nevertheless have easily followed his change of tack because property disputes between tenants and landowners were the meat and drink of everyday life in a 1st-century agrarian society. Jesus redirects focus away from the vineyard itself, and onto its expropriation with violence by the aggressive tenants.  He turns the story into a self-indicting mirror’ for the religious leaders whom he accuses of opposing God [1].

From our vantage point I would suggest that the somewhat dangerous conclusion to which Jesus is moving is framed by three key questions[2]:

  1. Will we respond to God’s climactic messenger before the crisis comes?
  2. Will we acknowledge the claims of God’s story in their lives or reject his messenger in favour of their more limited and self-serving culture-shaped stories?
  3. Will we live fruitfully within the realization that the Kingdom comes with limitless grace but also with limitless demand? 

Jesus addresses the parable to the religious-political leaders of his time. My task is to identify for us the parable’s core questions, recasting them as questions to be asked of political leaders and religious opinion formers in our own time.

This parable speaks into our own time of tension between God’s kingdom and human empire. As it has always been so, today’s politicians and global capitalists, affirmed and supported by predominantly white, conservative male religious leaders are those who resort to violence to evade accountability.

Violence in this sense is not only overt physical acts although overtly physical violence seems written into the DNA of our society, as evidenced from:

  • The regular encounters between black men and an overly anxious, and militarized exercise of policing.
  • The repeated militant inspired gun slayings of which Las Vegas is only the most recent and tragic example. The subtlety of the unacknowledged and endemic violence in our society extends even to the way we refer to a perpetrator of this kind of civic violence. If white, he is usually referred to as a lone wolf, implying personal eccentricity of an extreme kind and or mental illness. This is to distinguish him from a terrorist, who is someone other than us, different from us in skin color, race, and religion.

The violence of empire is also cultural and systemic as opposed to overtly physical as in:

  • The contamination and degradation of the environment, exacerbated by the deregulation of environmental protections for the economic enrichment of global capital.
  • The exploitation of unregulated labor.
  • The lack of consumer rights when it comes to the collection, use, and sale for profit of our vital information.
  • The politically inspired generation, manipulation, and exploitation of social and cultural fear for the purpose of maintaining power.

According to the Bible, these are all imperial acts of violence.

The preceding paragraph is my attempt to transpose the core of the parable of the vineyard and the wicked tenants into our contemporary context. I am actively guided by the long Hebrew prophetic tradition, which comes into its most powerful focus in the ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is, after all, the job I am called and paid to do as preacher and religious leader. Yet, I am only the preacher and at least in my tradition, no one is compelled to agree with me.

So let me end with what I consider to be the ultimate question in this parable of Jesus and the kingdom. Transposing this parable into our modern American civic and religious context – who do you think the vineyard’s tenants are?

[1] Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: a comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus.

[2] My questions include italicized words directly drawn from Snodgrass, Ibid.

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