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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