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How is our vineyard doing?

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46) provides another example of a problematic Gospel passage that begs for context. Unfortunately, the way the Orthodox Church reads this parable on the 13th Sunday of Matthew only increases the difficulty of reading this parable with an open mind.

But before we consider the difficulties of this parable, let’s look at a couple passages in the Book of Isaiah. In chapter 46 of Isaiah, God speaks to his people:

“Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob,

all the remnant of the people of Israel,

you whom I have upheld since your birth,

and have carried since you were born.

I have made you and I will carry you;

I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Some pour out gold from their bags

and weigh out silver on the scales;

they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god,

and they bow down and worship it.

They lift it to their shoulders and carry it;

they set it up in its place, and there it stands.

The difference is huge: God carries his people; but worshippers of idols have to carry their idols! But the same God who carries his people also passes judgment on his people. It is a living, unfolding relationship. It was never smooth and it is never smooth. Consider this passage from Isaiah, chapter 5:

I will sing for the one I love

a song about his vineyard:

My loved one had a vineyard

on a fertile hillside.

He dug it up and cleared it of stones

and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

and cut out a winepress as well.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

but it yielded only bad fruit.

What more could have been done for my vineyard

than I have done for it?

When I looked for good grapes,

why did it yield only bad?

Now I will tell you

what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge,

and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

and it will be trampled.

I will make it a wasteland,

neither pruned nor cultivated,

and briers and thorns will grow there.

I will command the clouds

not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty

is the nation of Israel,

and the people of Judah

are the vines he delighted in.

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;

for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

Israel’s relationship with God was never smooth; it had its ups and its downs. The parable of the wicked tenants could have been spoken by Isaiah. Note the similarities with Isaiah 5: There is a vineyard, there is blood and violence, and there is the threat of destruction. It’s God speaking with his own people! But the parable has been misused throughout the Christian era as a rejection of Jews and the replacement of Israel by the Christian Church. This has led to centuries of antisemitism, persecutions and the Holocaust. 

Isaiah and Jesus had the same message: God looks for fruit from his vineyard. Jesus in John 15 spoke of himself as the vine and we the branches; we remain in him in order to produce fruit. It is always about fruit. As it was in ancient Israel it is in the Church. 

Sometimes I wonder why Matthew includes so many attacks on the Jews in his gospel. Is it perhaps because he was a tax collector, which had made him one of the most hated people in Jewish society?

Did you notice the violent response of the listeners to Jesus’ parable? “He will put those wretches to a miserable death….” Jesus ignores their answer and he goes on to quote Psalm 118 about “the stone which the builders rejected…” The liturgical reading on the 13th Sunday of Matthew ends there, but Jesus went on with all-important context:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people (or, nation) producing the fruits of it.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them. But when they tried to arrest him, they feared the multitudes, because they held him to be a prophet.

Who are the people (the nation) that Jesus threatens will receive the kingdom? Is he threatening the Jewish people that he will take the kingdom from them and give it to gentiles and future Christians? That is the traditional church interpretation – and it has led to 2,000 years of antisemitism. But notice how the priests and the Pharisees interpreted the parable as aimed at them. And notice further that the “multitudes” of the people saw Jesus as a prophet! Before we get too puffed up that God now chooses the Christian people over the Jewish people, let’s look at more of the context in Matthew chapter 21. What came before this parable?

He went to the Temple and drove out the sellers and money-changers. He then cursed a fig tree because it had no fruit. He told the parable of two sons. And at the end of that parable he says the tax collectors – tax collectors like Matthew! – and prostitutes “are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” The parable of the wicked tenants follows immediately after that. So who are the people that the kingdom will be given to? Doesn’t Jesus give us the answer here? Tax collectors and prostitutes – in other words, sinners.

God was not looking for a new nation or a new race of people to replace the Jews. God looks for the tax collectors and prostitutes – in other words, those who are not puffed up with their own righteousness the way priests and pharisees of all stripes and all times are. God looked for fruitful living – whether from the Jews or from Christians. The criterion is always the same. The challenge for the church is the same as it was for ancient Israel: Are we producing fruits of righteousness and faith? Are we doing the will of the Lord, or are we doing our will? Is the church his vineyard, planted in the midst of the world for the blessing of all, or is it our little spiritual escape from the world? Is it a vineyard that is full of life? Or is it a vineyard that is dying because of neglect and lack of vision? Indeed, how is our vineyard doing? Is the owner still welcome here? Or have we driven him out? These are the challenges of today’s parable.

A slightly different version of the above was given as a sermon on August 26th:


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What about the Ten Commandments?

The incident of Jesus and the rich young man (or ‘ruler’ in one version) poses some questions worth discussing. The man in question asks Jesus what he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus goes on to quote five of the “Ten Commandments” that Moses received on Mount Sinai.

Here are the commandments as they are given in chapter 20 of the Book of Exodus:

And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them….

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain….

“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work….

“Honor your father and your mother….

“You shall not kill.

“You shall not commit adultery.

“You shall not steal.

“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

In responding to the young man (Matthew 19:16-19), Jesus quotes the 6-9th commandments, then the 5th commandment, and then caps it off with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” which is not one of the ten “words” (commandments) given to Moses. Where did that come from? 

In Matthew 22 we read: A lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” And here too, Jesus quoted two passages from the Books of Moses and combined them together as the sum of everything the Bible commands!

Here is what I find most interesting about the dialogue with the young man. In quoting the Ten commandments, Jesus completely ignored the first four commandments which have to do with our obligations toward God and only quoted commandments that have to do with how we relate to other people! And to cap it all off, Jesus concluded with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” – but here too he ignored the first of the two commandments that sum up all the law and the prophets: “you shall love the Lord your God”. So Jesus’ answer is completely about the man’s relationship to the neighbor! He leaves God out of the equation.

The man claims he’s okay with all those commandments, but Jesus knows better. So he throws the challenge to him: If you want to be perfect…. The young man goes away disappointed. And Jesus speaks those terrible words about how difficult it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. But is it then easier for the poor to enter heaven? Many, including myself, have often drawn that conclusion. It’s also a standard tenet of liberation theology. But perhaps it’s good to remember Dostoyevsky’s parable of the old woman and the onion that I shared in my previous post as a corrective to that simplistic idea.

Really, if you look at the actual commandments Jesus used in his response to the man, you see that money is not really the issue, but how we relate to each other. There is no point in talking about love of God if we don’t first talk about love of the neighbor. As John wrote in his first epistle:  If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother (=neighbor), he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother (=neighbor) whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:20). Our sins go beyond money. Our sins are always against the neighbor.

But let’s go back to the so-called Ten Commandments. The Book of Exodus refers to them as “words” rather than commandments; but commandments they are for our purposes. For many years now there have been constant and relentless efforts by right-wing fundamentalist Christians to have the Ten Commandments placed in public buildings, especially courthouses. The discredited extremist Roy Moore was one of the biggest promoters of that campaign. I can still remember writing a letter to the editor of our local newspaper many years ago in opposition to the efforts by Moore and others like him to display the Ten Commandments in public buildings and courthouses. I’m against all such efforts even more strongly today, as we face the relentless war for “religious freedom” being waged by the Christian Right against all other religions and anything that stands in their efforts to impose a theocracy on American society. Religious freedom for them means freedom only for their religion!

My objection to these right-wing efforts rests on those first four “words”/commandments that Moses received on Mount Sinai, and which Jesus did not invoke in his dialogue with the rich young man. Yes, the Lord is my God, but he did not bring me out of Egypt. And neither can any other American – religious or not – relate to the preamble of the Ten Commandments, unless he or she is a recent refugee from Egypt! I should have “no other gods” in my life – so I guess I’m fine with the first commandment. But in a pluralist society such as ours, what right do I have to impose that commandment on anyone else? Especially anyone who might not even know where Egypt is? (And we know how little geography is taught in American schools!)

The second commandment is about images and idolatry. This is a touchy one for us Orthodox who have images in all our churches and in our homes. We of course deny the allegation that we are breaking the Second Commandments, but the allegations are regularly made against us by Protestant fundamentalists and Evangelicals – in other words, by the same crowd that wants to impose the Ten Commandments. I wonder how much “religious freedom” we Orthodox would have in a right-wing theocracy.

And let’s carry the argument further. What is an idol anyway? When these same Christians who oppose icons and images begin their church services with the Pledge of Allegiance, are they not treating the American flag with the same respect and devotion that we Orthodox show to our icons? I’m not against the Pledge or the flag, they are part of American civil life. And if some Christians want to begin their worship services with the pledge to the flag, that is their business and their freedom to do so. But let’s not allow them to impose their narrow understanding of images and idolatry on the rest of us. So the Second Commandments is problematic in a pluralist society such as ours.

What about the Third Commandment? Oh my God, what a farce we have made of that – we “Christians” first of all, as I just did in the way I opened this sentence and the way most of us open countless sentences and exclamations. Or the way we toss out “Jesus Christ” as a swear word. We Christians treat the names of God with no respect or mindfulness; so what right do we have to impose respect for the name of God on others who do not recognize the validity of the Ten Commandments?

And finally there is the Fourth Commandment, the wonderful Fourth Commandment, loaded with such beautiful theology, even more important in our our ecologically disastrous age than it was in Moses’ time. When is the last time any of us honored the sabbath? When is the last time Roy Moore honored the sabbath? Or any of his right-wing fundamentalist cohorts?

But isn’t Sunday now the sabbath for Christians? Yes, the new Moses of Byzantium changed the sabbath to Sunday. Okay, so when is the last time you honored Sunday by not working, by not going to the Mall, by not taking your child, grandchild or niece to hockey practice, or soccer practice? Need I go on?

Do you see how hypocritical we are when we talk about the Ten Commandments? And how obscene are the efforts by a large segment of right-wing Christians to impose the Ten Commandments on our society? These same right-wing Christians constantly raise alarms about Moslems, that they are intent on imposing Sharia law on us. But they don’t see their own efforts at theocracy as the more immediate and more plausible evil.

The Ten Commandments themselves have become an idol in the hands of many Christians, so it is refreshing to consider how creatively Jesus used the Ten Commandments in his dialogue with the rich young man. Perhaps I can be excused for concluding with a couple of cartoons as a small act of deflating the idolatry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A different version of the above, without the extended reflections on the Ten Commandments, was given as a sermon on August 19th.

 


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Did Jesus Really Say…?

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading in the Orthodox Church presented some serious conundrums – serious at least to me, but perhaps not to anyone else. Here is the Gospel passage as it was read at Liturgy:

The Lord said this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the torturers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)

Did Jesus really say what Matthew wrote at the end of this passage? Did Jesus really speak that very heavy, very final threat? And is that threat consistent with the message of the parable? And is the message of the parable clear the way it was read at the Liturgy in Orthodox churches? These are my conundrums – at least for starters.

The first problem that arises from the way it was read at the Liturgy is that the context is missing! And that’s a recurring problem in the Gospel readings of our Lectionary. According to the 18th chapter of Matthew, Jesus did not utter this parable out of the blue. It was prompted by a question from his disciple Peter:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. (Matthew 18:21-22)

Note that I didn’t close the quotation, because Jesus did not stop at that point, and Matthew did not write The Lord said this parable, as our Gospel reading began yesterday. As a matter of fact, this is what Matthew wrote:

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants….”

Do you see how the parable came about? It was directly prompted by Peter’s question. Jesus immediately answered Peter’s question and immediately went on to further illustrate an answer to Peter with the parable: Therefore… Διὰ τοῦτο ὡμοιώθη….= For this reason/in this manner the kingdom of heaven may be compared….

To separate the parable from its context in Peter’s question is to do huge damage – and is a further step in making it a parable of insurmountable threat. But the first step in making it a parable of threat was taken by Matthew himself in the way he drafted this passage. The church merely took it further by removing the context and making it an absolute threat!

The only way I can make sense of this parable as written by Matthew, with its context (and not as it was read without the context!), is to assume that the threat was added by Matthew and was not spoken by Jesus. In other words, I’m saying that Matthew put the threat in Jesus’ mouth. Only a fundamentalist would be shocked by such a statement. Scholars have demonstrated beyond any doubt that the writers of the Gospels injected their own understanding in how they represented the words and actions of Jesus. That is why the four Gospels often differ and even contradict each other in many specifics. That is why John stands almost completely alone in how he represents Jesus – and is the reason why the Orthodox Church gave him, alone among the New Testament writers, the epithet “Theologian”. And even though the other three Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – share more similarities than differences – which is the reason they are called Synoptic Gospels – nevertheless, each of them chose to emphasise different aspects of the multi-dimensional impression that Jesus made to first-century Judeans and continues to make to 21st-century global citizens.

Close-up of writing in the Codex Sinaiticus (click on the image to enlarge)

Am I being anti-fundamentalist, liberal, politically correct in attributing the threat to Matthew rather than Jesus? It might not even have been Matthew; it could have been an early redactor somewhere in the Mediterranean when the Gospel began to be copied and distributed among the early churches. After all, the earliest manuscript that contains the full text of Matthew is the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which is kept secure in the British Library in London. This manuscript dates from the fourth century, about 300 years after Matthew wrote his Gospel. A lot can happen to a written text in 300 years, as the various papyrus fragments and manuscripts clearly show. (The page of Codex Sinaiticus that contains the parable can be viewed by clicking here.)

The Codex Sinaiticus on protected display at the British Library in London, England

Jesus often spoke about forgiveness – both God’s forgiveness of our sins and our need to forgive each other. But it seems that only Matthew included a statement of threat: here, in verse 35 of chapter 18; and in verse 15 of chapter 6…“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14-15) The fact that only Matthew includes such threats is one reason to believe that he put the words of the threat in Jesus’ mouth in our Gospel reading.

Furthermore, the threat is inconsistent with the message and context of the parable. Peter’s question came from a mindset of placing limits to forgiveness. “How often should I forgive, seven times?” Jesus’ answer – seventy times seven – was not meant to place a higher limit, 490 times, to forgiveness, but to eliminate the thought of limits altogether! He was telling Peter to not count the times he would forgive.

Therefore… Διὰ τοῦτο, Jesus goes on to give a parable, an illustration of what God is like and what man is like. The lord in the parable is an image of God. His forgiveness is limitless. The servant receives limitless forgiveness, but cannot reciprocate even minimal forgiveness on his fellow servant. Here lies the answer to Peter’s question. With this parable Jesus is telling Peter that the minute he starts counting how often he should forgive his brother, he comes close to resembling the servant who cannot forgive. The parable is addressed to Peter!

The parable is addressed to Peter and in response to Peter’s question. But it is also addressed to every one of us, because we all have a hard time forgiving. We find it difficult to forgive once – never mind seven times or seventy times seven! But because the parable is addressed to every one of us, removing the context of Peter’s question removes also from the discourse our own human preference for limits. And then when Matthew throws in the threat at the end we end up with a parable that is overbearingly threatening.

And here is the crux of the matter and why it is so wrong to ignore the context. Peter’s question is meant to put limits to forgiveness. The parable shows the contrast between God’s limitless forgiveness and man’s/Peter’s limited forgiveness or even complete inability to forgive. If the lord in the parable is meant to illustrate God’s limitless forgiveness, how is it logical for this lord to consign the wicked servant to total and final punishment? Why doesn’t he at least decide to forgive the wicked servant the rhetorical “seventy times seven” that Jesus spoke to Peter? How is God’s limitless forgiveness consistent with the treatment of the wicked servant and with the threat that concludes the parable?

Perhaps Jesus concluded the parable with some statement contrasting the limitless forgiveness of God and the limited forgiveness that human beings can barely manage. And perhaps Jesus rounded out his answer to Peter by encouraging Peter to act like the lord in the parable instead of the wicked servant. Because the minute you start counting, Peter, you run the risk of not forgiving at all. Perhaps Jesus concluded the parable with something like that – and something got lost in translation from Aramaic to Greek when Matthew put his Gospel together. Or, perhaps Jesus concluded the parable without any moral message to Peter. Perhaps he threw out the parable like a Zen koan; just to show two extremes and let Peter draw his own conclusion – and for us to do likewise. 

In Dostoyevsky’s great novel, The Brothers Karamazov, there is another parable about forgiveness, with a similar message about limits. This is the story of the old woman and the onion.

“Once upon a time there was a woman, and she was wicked as wicked could be, and she died. And not one good deed was left behind her. The devils took her and threw her into the lake of fire. And her guardian angel stood thinking: what good deed of hers can I remember to tell God? Then he remembered and said to God: once she pulled up an onion and gave it to a beggar woman. And God answered: take now that same onion, hold it out to her in the lake, let her take hold of it and pull, and if you pull her out of the lake, she can go to paradise. The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: here, woman, he said, take hold of it and I’ll pull. And he began pulling carefully, and had almost pulled her all of the way out, when other sinners in the lake saw her being pulled out and all began holding on to her so as to be pulled out with her. But the woman was wicked as wicked could be, and she began to kick them with her feet: ‘It’s me who’s getting pulled out, not you; it’s my onion, not yours.’ No sooner did she say it than the onion broke. And the woman fell back into the lake and is burning there to this day. And the angel wept and went away.”

The message of Dostoyevsky’s parable is different from Jesus’ parable, but the contrast is the same, between God’s limitless forgiveness and mercy and man’s selfish, limited ability to be merciful. That one onion represented the only good deed the woman had ever done in her life, and it could have been the means of saving not only her, but countless, maybe a million, others. God was allowing it. But the woman’s selfishness overcame even God’s limitless mercy. The only obstacle to God’s limitless forgiveness and mercy is man’s selfish small mindedness. The woman was so absorbed in her selfishness, she could not trust in God who held out the onion to her!

Perhaps, in the final analysis, forgiveness is about trusting God. 


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Into the Midst of Theology

Transfiguration is often connected to idea of theosis in Orthodox theology. But it’s a static conception of “theosis”: Peter wants to stay on the mountain and be wrapped in the outpouring of divine glory. But Jesus says, no, pack up and let’s go back down where real divine glory is to be found. Abide in me – Jesus is saying – and go, go Into the midst of theology, where theology is not abstract thoughts and speculations about God, but actual experience of God in the most unexpected places. And if we abide in Jesus, we don’t need a mountain, we don’t even need Moses and Elijah! But we do need Jesus – we need to listen to him and let him take us into the dangerous places where our faith and our commitment are tested. This is the message of our double Gospel reading (Matthew 17:1-9 and 17:14-23) today……

The wall icon of the Transfiguration at Holy Trinity Church, Portland ME

Peter wanted to set up tents on the mountain for Moses, Elijah and Jesus – not realising that Jesus himself has set up his tent among us: The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us – Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν (John 1:14). The people of Israel lived in tents in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Jesus invites us today to live in him, in his tent. Abide in me, he tells us. As you cross the desert places of life, abide in him.

Full sermon on audio file: