Once upon a time there was a teacher, a guru who had many followers. They came from all over to listen, to learn wisdom and enlightenment, and to be liberated from their desires and needs. There were classes and one-on-one apprenticeships. At the end of the students’ teaching the master would send them into the world to share their learning and knowledge with others as masters in their own right. And just before they left, he would give them a gift: the mantra of life and death. Phrase by phrase he would teach them until they had learned it by heart. Then he would tell them that as long as they said this mantra faithfully, they would be blessed: that its power would give them insight and clarity and allow them to discern the truth when all around them were lies and shadows; that its power would keep them from despair and give them hope in the midst of misery and hopelessness; that its power would strengthen their faith and one day save their souls and give them everlasting life. The disciples were grateful and humbled by the gift. Then he warned them never to teach anyone else the mantra; it was for them alone, those who had been enlightened.
And so for years students finished their studies, were given the mantra, and went out into the world to share their wisdom and pray their mantra in secret.
One day a young man came to the master, ready to go into the world. He too was taught the mantra and humbled by the enormity of the gift he was given. However, when the master warned him not to share the mantra with anyone, he asked why. The master looked long and hard at him: “If you share this with others, then what it was to do for you will be handed over to them. And you will live in darkness even when the light is all around you. You will know only despair and misery of body and soul all your life. You will stumble over the truth and be confused endlessly. Worst of all, you will lose your faith, and you will lose your soul. You will be damned forever.”
The disciple turned white and shook visibly and nodded and left the master’s presence. He was troubled in spirit. Finally he decided what he had to do. He went to the nearest large city and gathered the multitudes about him, teaching and enthralling them with his stories and wisdom. Then he taught them the mantra, line by line, phrase by phrase, just as his master had taught him. There was a hush, and people left whispering the mantra to themselves.
A number of the master’s disciples were in the crowd, and they were horrified at the man’s actions. He had disobeyed the master. He had betrayed his community. He had given away the wisdom and the gift to the ignorant and the unenlightened. They immediately went back to the master and told him what had happened. They asked him, “Master, are you going to punish him for what he has done?”
The master looked at them sadly and said, “I do not have to. He will be punished terribly. He knew what his fate would be if he shared the mantra of life with those who were not enlightened. For him it has become the mantra of death. He will live in darkness and despair, without hope or knowledge of the truth. He will live isolated, alone, without comfort or faith, and he will die terribly and lose even his own soul. How could I possibly punish him? He knew what he was choosing.”
And with those words, the old master rose and gathered his few belongings and began to walk away.
“Master,” one disciple asked, “where are you going?”
And the master looked at all of them sadly and spoke, “I am going to that man who gave away my gift of the mantra of life and death.”
“Why?” they chorused.
“Because,” he said, “out of all my students, he alone learned wisdom and compassion. Now that man is my master.”
And he left them to follow the man who walked now in darkness and despair, who had chosen compassion over wisdom and knowledge.
What a marvelous story. Megan McKenna tells it in her book, Send My Roots Rain, Doubleday, 2003 (pages 18-20). In so many ways, it echoes the story of Jesus Christ, who also chose compassion, even though it led him through the darkness and despair of Gethsemane and Golgotha; though it led him through all the hatred that humans can hurl at the goodness of God; though it led him through twenty centuries of betrayal at the hands of so-called Christians.
I can’t imagine Jesus or God the Father being less compassionate than the teacher in this story? Jesus gave a parable, a parable that came straight from the biblical tradition of his own Jewish people, a parable not much different from the parables taught by Jeremiah and Amos and Isaiah and Ezekiel. He gave them a parable of disobedience and murder, the so-called Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-44). At the end of the parable, he asked those who heard the parable: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” His listeners answered, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.” Violence breeds violence. Perhaps the reason Jesus spoke this parable was to expose the violent thoughts and inclinations of those who heard the parable. For twenty centuries since those listeners heard this parable, violence continues to be the daily activity of many, both in act and in thought. We are a violent people in a violent society.
Jesus ignored the answer his listeners gave, as he so often did when he posed questions. As God said in the Book of Isaiah, My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9). Jesus had to constantly deal with people whose ways and thoughts were not his own. So he ignored the answer and instead asked them whether they had read these lines from Psalm 118:
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
Many Christians interpret this parable as a rejection of the Jews and their replacement by the Gentiles. This is what is commonly called Supersessionism, or replacement theology. Full disclosure: The parable comes in a chapter (Matthew 21) that is full of such implications. And indeed, Matthew does go on to say, “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” If Jesus said those words, then clearly he meant the replacement of Israel. But Mark (12:1-12) and Luke (20:9-19) do not have that statement. On the other hand, Mark and Luke put in the mouth of Jesus the lines about killing the tenants! So I’m not really sure who said what when I compare Matthew, Mark and Luke. So I leave that as an open question, though I prefer to think that the early Christians who put the Gospels together put those words in Jesus’ mouth. A lot of words were put into Jesus’ mouth, and a lot of words are still being put in Jesus’ mouth by those who construct a Jesus to their own liking. It’s a game practically all Christians play.
Because of my own background in science, I try to read a passage with an eye out for its internal logic. if violent rejection of Israel is the meaning of the parable, then Jesus made a mistake in quoting Psalm 118. But I don’t believe Jesus made a mistake. Psalm 118 is a psalm of victory, one of the most joyful of all the psalms. Here are some lines from it, but it’s best to read it whole. It’s beautiful.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!
Let Israel say,
“His steadfast love endures forever.”
All nations surrounded me;
in the name of the Lord I cut them off!
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
The psalm celebrates Israel’s defense against the nations. Why would Jesus quote it if he meant the violent rejection of Israel? Jesus’ teaching in its most genuinely reconstructed forms always came down to love and compassion. His bottom line was always love and compassion. The vineyard was a common symbol that the prophets used to speak of Israel – Israel as God’s beloved vineyard. The prophets used the image of vineyard to represent the shifting loyalties of ancient Israel. Isaiah chapter 5 is the classic text. Verses 1-7 are clearly discernible as the inspiration for the parable that Jesus spoke. The Pharisees and priests understood that Jesus spoke the parable against them (Matthew 21:45). So for us to interpret the parable as being a rejection of Israel is simply unacceptable.
The vineyard imagery used by the prophets begs for deeper discussion, but this post is already long enough. I will say, however, that the prophets almost always used the vineyard imagery to speak of the breakdown of social justice in their society. Isaiah 5 is a good example: For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
“God expected justice, but saw bloodshed.” Jesus himself was passionate about social justice issues, but the parable told in the three Synoptic Gospels is dissociated from the prophetic tradition and becomes a judgment on Israel amid a social context that reeks of medieval serfdom. Does this parable truly represent something that Jesus said? I’m not convinced. But then that could be my own preference for a Jesus who did not speak with words of violence and condemnation.
Is a vineyard compatible with a wall? The landowner in the parable put a wall around his vineyard. Walls are put up by humans who can only think in terms of exclusion, competition and violence. Notice that Jesus does not introduce this parable with his customary phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like….” Notice, for example, how he introduces another parable of a vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). Perhaps the Parable of the Wicked Tenants is not an image of what God does, but an image of what humans do to each other. The world of human ownership, domination and exploitation is a violent world. But the stone which the builders rejected is the stone that God now laid in the coming of Jesus. It is the cornerstone called compassion. And this is indeed the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
By quoting the psalm, Jesus is telling me, that HE is the chief cornerstone that God is now laying. Israel is not replaced by the Gentile Christians or, God forbid, the Church. No, Israel is replaced by Jesus himself. Or more accurately, Israel is fulfilled in Jesus! The Jesus of compassion, the Jesus of love, the Jesus who breaks down walls and barriers between peoples, the Jesus whose vineyard is the true all-encompassing presence of himself in the world: “I am the vine, you are the branches,” he told his disciples in John’s Gospel (15:1-5). “I came that you might have life, and have it abundantly” (see John 10:10). Life, not death; not wrath, not violence, not replacement theory, not racial superiority. Life was the purpose that Jesus came into the world. He held the secret of life and death far beyond what the teacher in the story I started with could possibly have known. That teacher himself realized that his secret was worthless without compassion, when the secret is not shared. The secret, the mystery that had been hidden before the ages, was revealed in the compassionate Jesus. No one shows and shares the wide expanse of God’s compassion the way Jesus does. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is TRULY marvelous in our eyes! We bless you from the house of the Lord!
Afterword: I preached this sermon Sunday morning, September 6th, in a slightly shorter version. The audio file of the sermon can be heard here: