Let us begin today with the parts of the parable that make sense. There is a man who finds himself in possession of a piece of property that seems well-suited to growing grapes. The man, in order to maximize his profits, plants new vines, builds a fence around them for protection, hews out an on-site wine press for efficiency of production, and even builds his own watchtower. In other words, he builds the Rolls-Royce of vineyards, complete with every possible resource to insure a healthy yield of wine. This makes sense.
The man, the parable tells us, then takes his fabulous vineyard, all shiny and brand-new, leases it out and leaves. He hires tenants to tend and harvest the vines and to make him a good profit. This, too, makes sense. Remember, the man is not a vintner. He’s a landowner, and he, like many of the rich, landowning men of his day, had little interest in actually getting his hands dirty. Why be forced to live on a farm in a Podunk little Palestinian town? Why not let someone else deal with the wolves and the thieves and the water shortages while he lives the high life in the big city? So, while his are maybe not the most inspiring actions ever, they do make sense.
But then things in our story begin to go rapidly and radically awry. When the landowner sends agents back to the vineyard to collect his portion of the profits, as was surely agreed to in the renter’s agreement, the tenants lose their minds. Why should we pay him anything, they say to themselves. Contract be damned, let’s keep it all. And so they seize the landowner’s slaves and assault them. They literally kill the messenger. This makes no sense. Why the tenants decide to lash out in this way is beyond us, and well beyond the scope of this parable. The story itself gives us no clues as to why the tenants are so hostile – there are no tales of abuses by the landowner, no pitiable saga of the tenant’s son who needs an expensive operation or of the tenant’s father who lost the land to the landowner in a card game gone wrong. There is no explanation, no earthly reason for the tenants’ sudden, destructive change of heart. It makes no sense.
Just as it makes no sense that when the landowner hears what has happened and that his profits are still sitting bottled up in Podunk, Palestine, he decides to try the same exact tactic again. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on the man who casts more dear slaves unto the breech. And, when the tenants do to these slaves exactly what they did to the first three, the man makes another senseless decision. He sends his son down the deadly vineyard path, foolishly confident that the tenants will surely change their behavior when it comes to his son. What is he thinking, throwing more men, throwing his own son into this melee? And what are the tenants thinking when they take his son outside the walls and slaughter him like an animal? Do they honestly expect that the landowner will say to himself, well, these tenants really mean business; I guess I’ll just let them keep my land and my wall and my vines and my watch tower and my wine and my money. None of this makes any sense. The only thing that might make sense is how the landowner responds to the death of his son – he rides in on the waves of revenge, kills the tenants in a brutal way, rids his land of any traces of them, and starts all over again. As horrible as it is, as avoidable as it might have been, this vengeance, this retribution, makes some sort of sense.
Or does it? The truth is that the landowner’s decision to murder his own tenants only makes sense within the context of their own brutality. And the landowner’s actions only make sense to us because we live in the same context, because we, too, live in a world of overwhelming violence. Our story, too, is shaped by the exponential growth of senseless brutality, by the tragic reality that violence begets violence begets violence. The only reason that you and I are not shocked by the systematic killing of the tenants is because you and I are soaked through with the same violence that bloodies this story. We have been tossed to and fro by every wave of violence, and these days, the waves are coming so fast and furious that we find ourselves beaten and bruised and gasping for air.
For we live in a world that is drowning in violence. There is the violence of war, of genocide, of terrorism and abuse and systematic oppression. There are all types of wicked violence perpetrated against women and children. There is cruel, sweeping violence against people like the Rohingya in Myanmar, people we may have never heard of before until tales of that violence bring them into our living rooms. There can be, of course, violence even in our living rooms. There is constant violence against Creation, and then there is the violence of that same Creation, multiplied by our own hand. There is violence on our screens constantly, scenes of horrific rapes, vicious combat, and shootings of every possible variety – stylized shootings, historically-accurate shootings, serious shootings, noble shootings, graphic shootings, supernatural shootings, funny shootings – thousands upon thousands of shootings. There is violence on our streets constantly – hundreds of shootings in this city alone. There is violence that is born of greed or revenge or hatred, and then there is violence that seems to have no motivation at all except to see how many innocent people can be shot from a high-rise hotel room at one time.
And there is the violence in our speech, the daggers that are thrown with such constancy and volume that everyone is sure to get hit at one point or another. There is violence in every single aspect of our public discourse – insults, name-calling, threats, virtual slaps across the face – violence all the way from the tweets that come out of the White House down to the tweets with which we respond from our own houses. There is new violence of misogyny and prejudice, and old violence that bleeds afresh when the perpetrators of such violence make claims that “it was just a different time back then.” And there is violence in the Church, with abuse and cover-ups and cut-offs and schism and slaps on the wrist and just this week, slashing criticism from ultra-conservatives when our Presiding Bishop was asked to offer a prayer at the primates’ conference on the day after the Las Vegas shooting. There is so much violence running rampant in the world; most certainly, if we are honest with ourselves, there is violence in our own hearts. There is really no need for God to destroy this vineyard; we are doing a fine job of it ourselves.
The problem of this isn’t that we can’t live this way – we obviously can, and, as a society, choose to live this way year after year, at least those of us who do not become victims of violence ourselves. The problem is when we start to live as if this violence makes sense, as if this is just the way things work in our story. This cannot be. Violence cannot be at the heart of our story, because violence is incompatible with the kingdom of God. Violence shuts down the work of the vineyard. Violence tears through our world, leaving no time, no energy, no safety to plant and nurture and harvest the fruits of the kingdom. Violence never grows anything; it always rips out at the root. Violence destroys our sense of compassion and ability to care for our neighbor, because violence is about needing to win and never about those in need. It distracts and destroys and then opens the floodgates for all of its dark, devastating cousins – fear, blame, hatred, protectionism, and hardness of heart.
But fear not, my brothers and sisters. We are not doomed to live the life of a tenant, perpetuating the cycle of violence until kingdom come. We are not cursed; we are called, and we are commanded. Love one another as I have loved you. Take up your cross and follow me. Proclaim the Gospel. It is impossible to do any of this and perpetrate violence at the same time. It is impossible to lash out in violence when you are carrying your cross. It is impossible to hurl verbal daggers when you are proclaiming the Gospel. It is impossible to harvest hatred, discord, doubt and despair when you are sowing love, union, faith, and hope. No, you and I are far from cursed. We are commanded, and we are called. We are called to be instruments of peace, conduits of God’s own Grace, bringing violence to its knees in this world with each small act of self-giving love. We are called to plant and tend the seeds of peace, to grow the peace that is already here, the peace of God, which passes all understanding but is the only thing that makes sense. So go, you beloved children of God, go into all the world as perpetrators of peace. Go into your corner of the vineyard and change the story. And may the peace of Christ be always with you.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
8 October 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia