The Real War

The tension that causes problems for me in Joshua is stated succinctly in the words of the people when Joshua challenges them to decide firmly whether they will serve Yahweh or other gods. The people promise to serve the God “who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.” (Josh. 24: 17) So far, so good. Yahweh is the only god I know of who is interested in delivering people out of slavery and oppression. But the people go on to praise their god for driving out the Amorites before them. Destroying enemies was the job of other deities such as the gods of the Amorites. If Yahweh really is the God who delivers the oppressed from the oppressor, than Yahweh can hardly be the god who oppresses one people for the benefit of the other. Who is the real God of Israel?

In giving us a qualitatively different view of war in Ephesians 6, St. Paul lands heavily on the side of the God who delivered the people from Egypt. Paul admonishes us to “put on the whole armor of God,” not to go out and destroy other people but to fight “the cosmic powers of this present darkness.” (Eph. 6: 12) What is this armor? What are these cosmic powers? The armor includes the “belt of truth” and “the breastplate of righteousness.” One can hardly do an effective job of invading somebody’s country with such items. Still less could we do such a thing with shoes that make us “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace .” The enemies to be fought, then, are the forces of lies and unrighteousness, the sort that are best fought with truth and righteousness. The God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt would arm us with this kind of armor for this kind of battle. Perhaps the cosmic powers should not be reduced to systemic lies and unrighteousness in human societies but it certainly includes them. That is, God would have us fight today’s systems that emulate Egypt by institutionalizing oppression for some people such as institutionalized racism in our country. The helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit would not be used for cutting up other people, but for preaching the Gospel of peace in the face of such violence. Pharaoh and Egypt understand metal swords and bombs very well. What Pharaoh and Egypt do not understand is the Word of God that is “sharper than any two-edged sword,” “a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Heb. 4: 12) It is the God of this Word whom we must choose, not the gods of the Amorites.

The enigmatic words at the end of John 6 might seem to be on a totally different subject, but they develop the same line of thought as Ephesians 6 in a distant key. Jesus’ words of eating and drinking seem pleasant until we realize Jesus is talking about offering himself as the bread and wine which is eaten and drunk. His use of the Greek word trogein has strong connotations of feeding upon, of grinding the food with one’s teeth. All of this brings to the forefront the violence involved in eating, that living things are devoured so that the one who eats can live. The Eucharistic overtones in the references to the Body and Blood of Christ also bring front and center the Paschal Mystery of Jesus who was killed on the Cross and then raised from the dead. What Jesus did on the cross was to absorb the human violence committed by Pharaoh and all others like him to open up a whole new humanity that does not need to live on such violence. The shield of faith is based on this self-giving of Jesus.

Feeding on Jesus absorbs the violence of eating in such a way that it becomes non-violent. The Eucharist redefines sacrifice from a bloody and deadly rite to a bloodless life-giving rite. Earlier in John 6, Jesus has set us up for this sort of nourishment by bringing in the Jewish teaching that the bread from heaven in the wilderness is the Torah. That is, the Word of God feeds us. We also speak of being fed when a preacher speaks the word of God in such a way that listeners feel nourished by it. The past few months I have often been reflecting on what the heavenly banquet might be like. I imagine lots of lobster and caramel cake but lobsters and plants are harmed in serving up this kind of menu and surely there is no room for the sacrifice of living creatures in heaven. But if all of us offer the substance of our personalities for the nourishment of others and receive the same from others, all modeled on Jesus’ offering the substance of his personhood to us, then that is quite a banquet indeed. Meanwhile, in this life, with the institutionalized violence surrounding us, fighting the good fight requires being strengthened by the Body and Blood of Jesus which comprise the material of the full armor of God. Jesus’ offer of himself was a challenge to his followers then and to followers today to decide whether to turn back to the gods of the Amorites, which most of the followers at that time did, or accept his offer of Life through his self-giving substance that leads us to offer our self-giving substance to others.

Transfiguration Present and to Come

The Transfiguration of Jesus is among the most inspiring and mysterious events in the New Testament. Not even exorcizing fierce demons and feeding multitudes of people could have prepared the disciples Peter, James, and John for seeing Jesus suddenly become blindingly bright. For the disciples, it was quite a “mountaintop” experience, one they wished to prolong indefinitely. We can sense the giddiness of Peter when he suggested making three booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah so that they would have places to live while staying on the mountain for some time. Of course, mountaintop experiences don’t last long and this one was over almost as soon as the disciples realized it was happening.

However, this mountaintop experience has its darker aspects as well. Moses and Elijah spoke to Jesus “of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” This departure was not a business trip or a vacation, but the painful death he was about to suffer. The disciples seemed to brush the matter off, not wanting to spoil the mountaintop experience and when Jesus told his disciples what was going to happen in Jerusalem as soon as they come down from the mountain, they brushed it off again. Like the disciples, we usually prefer not to face the darkness of pain and death until we have to.

But the darkness of pain and death is not all grim. That is precisely what the Transfiguration teaches us. The darkness is surrounded by dazzling brightness that, like the “weight of glory” Paul writes about, is beyond compare with the darkness. First, there is the true brightness with which we are all created. We do not normally perceive this brightness, but the more loving attention we give to the world and the people around us, the more of this brightness we will glimpse and the more the brightness will seep deeply into our selves. More important is the transfigured brightness that is in store for us on the other side of death when we will live with God who created us out of God’s brightness.

The transfigured light of Jesus was closely associated with his death and with us, too, it is most often glimpsed when death is close. I have just recently returned from visiting my brother who is dying. Words spoken in such a situation are weighty to an extent rarely experienced at any other time. As my brother and I shared memories, they all appeared in a new light, a transfigured light, that was palpable; I felt we were on holy ground while sitting in a room in a hospice facility.

On the mountain, the disciples heard a heavenly voice singling Jesus out for special approbation. In his second epistle, Peter says the voice called Jesus his beloved Son. In Luke, the voice says that Jesus was chosen. The two are not exact synonyms but they come close. Jesus is chosen because he is loved; Jesus is loved, therefore he is chosen. The transfigured Jesus in his turn chooses and loves each one of us by comforting us in times of pain and loss and encouraging us to yearn for the deepening light to come.

On Giving Everything

“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10: 21) These words of Jesus to the rich young man who says he wants to follow Jesus haunt us so powerfully that we all squirm and look for loopholes. Since few people have followed this advice literally, not even people who say they take the Bible literally, I guess I could say most of us have found at least one. My New Testament professor in seminary said that these words mean that we have to give up whatever it is that comes between us and the Kingdom of God That is pretty common loophole, but it also has much insight and doesn’t leave us off the hook altogether. As a Benedictine monk, I could self-righteously claim to have followed Jesus’ words since I have no legal title to anything, but the monastery I live in has possessions so I’m not so sure I follow Jesus’ words so thoroughly that I can look down on other people. On St. Benedict’s day, I think we can get a better idea of what Jesus’ words say us and how Benedict would have us understand them by looking at the other two lections for guidance.

Benedict models much of the Rule on the Bible’s Wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, often quoting or paraphrasing it, as in the admonition to apply the heart to understanding and call out for insight. (Prov. 2: 2–3) This suggests that understanding Jesus’ hard words requires commitment to know what they mean to us, no matter the cost. Speaking of cost, the Sage urges us to seek wisdom as we would for silver or hidden treasure. (Prov. 2: 4) The Sage seems to presuppose, as does Jesus, actually, that we tend to be greedy for riches and so the Sage and Jesus challenge us to desire wisdom at least as much as that. But why are silver and gold so desirable? They are desirable because they are desired. Other people want them so the rest of us want them too. Moreover, silver and gold are desired at the expense of other people. It isn’t enough to have some silver and gold; it is necessary to have more than the next person. Jesus, on the other hand, redirects us to the treasure in the field that is worth spending everything we have to obtain it. What kind of treasure is this? According to Proverbs, the treasure is “knowledge and understanding” (Prov. 2: 6). Any takers?

In writing to the Colossians, St. Paul would have us clothe ourselves with “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Col. 2: 12) As if this isn’t enough, and it isn’t, Paul goes on to tell us to bear with one another, and forgive as God forgives us. And as if that still isn’t enough, and it isn’t, Paul admonishes us to clothe ourselves with love “which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col. 3: 14) Maybe that’s enough, but clothing ourselves with love takes all that we’ve got, or the cloak of love will be threadbare and cold. In any case, clothing ourselves in love leads us to “admonish one another in all wisdom,” which we are to treasure more than silver or gold. Wisdom is shown here to be a social quest, not an individual quest. We either grow in wisdom together, or we diminish into a bunch of fools. Rather than wanting more than others have, we value the well-being of others, even if it is at the expense of ourselves. Singing spiritual songs with gratitude is something Benedict expects his monastics to do all day. The Work of God (the Divine Office) is itself a great treasure, one that should be preferred above other treasures. To top all this off, we should “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3: 17) Once again, we have to give all that we’ve got. That’s all Jesus is asking of the rich young man and that’s all Jesus is asking of us. Sorry, no loopholes here.

The Weakness of God (2)

The brief account of Jesus’ Resurrection that ends Mark’s Gospel has puzzled readers since the Gospel was written, judging by the two additions tacked on to it. Why would the inventor of the Gospel as a literary genre end the narrative with the women running from the tomb, frightened out of their wits? In a time when uncertain endings to literary works have been in vogue for over a century, we seem more able and willing to puzzle out the ending more sympathetically than earlier readers could. It also seems fitting that in another year when a pandemic has closed many churches from public worship and silenced the usual trumpets and choruses, we have a Gospel that discourages such celebrating.

In his provocative A Study in Mark, Austin Farrer suggests that the “young man” at the tomb telling the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is going before them to Galilee has a cyclical effect. Far from going in a circle, though, the return to Galilee and the beginning of Mark’s Gospel allows one to re-read everything in light of the Resurrection. With this insight, the ending isn’t quite the downer it seemed to be and maybe at least a muted trumpet can sound. It isn’t hard to see a foretaste of the Resurrection in the healing of the paralytic, one of Jesus’ earlier miracles. (Mk. 2: 1–12) The paralytic being lowered through the roof so that he can rise up on his feet, cured by Jesus, has the shape of Jesus’ descending to the grave and rising up. Many more foretastes of the Resurrection follow in subsequent healings and exorcisms with the raising of Jairus’s daughter being the climax. The two narratives of Jesus’ feeding a multitude suggest Jesus redeeming his own people and then redeeming the Gentiles, pointing to the mission that postdated the Resurrection.

This reading of the Resurrection into Mark works very well until we get roughly half way through the Gospel. This is where the power of Jesus turns into weakness, where Jesus fails to get his followers to understand him and, in the end, is nailed to the cross. Interestingly, Farrer didn’t try to read the Resurrection into the second half of the Gospel. One can see why. It’s hard to see the Resurrection in the misunderstandings and hostility that Jesus suffers. Before giving it up, though, let’s take a look to see if there are at least traces of the Resurrection in this less promising material. Since this is the point where Jesus had eschewed using authoritative power, perhaps this weakness has more to do with the Resurrection that we thought.

When Jesus predicted that he would be handed over and killed, he also said he would rise again. At the time, the disciples were too dismayed at the idea of Jesus being executed to think much about Jesus rising again. More seriously, the disciples react to Jesus’ predictions with fighting about who is the greatest. But when Jesus tells them that whoever would be first must be the servant of all (Mk. 9: 35) we have a glimpse of the resurrected life. Again, there isn’t any resurrection in the disciples’s trying to turn the children away, but we can see the resurrection when Jesus welcomes the children to come to him. We can begin to see the resurrected life as one of service in the midst of protracted misunderstandings and obtuse behavior.

What about the parable of the evil workers in the vineyard? This doesn’t look like Resurrection and it isn’t. But in the Parable, we have a distorted image of what the resurrected life should be like, where the owners and the workers all collaborate to yield a fruitful crop so that the multitudes of four and five thousand can be given food and drink. Surely there is no Resurrection when Jesus is nailed to the cross, but again, here is an inverted image of the risen life. Instead of a society uniting against a victim, as in the Passion narrative, the resurrected life is one where every individual is respected and nurtured as indispensable. And then, once again, a certain “young man” in an empty tomb sends us back to the beginning to try again.

These reflections suggest that weakness is fundamental to the resurrected life. Far from being about defeating others, it is about being defeated again and again. As we go through Mark’s story a third time, we see the acts of power and powerful admonitions to be the servant of all given out yet again to uncomprehending listeners. Perhaps we ourselves don’t understand very well and that is why we try yet again.

The Parable of the Sower (Mk. 4) is, among other things, a parable of the strengths and weaknesses of God. The Sower throws out the seed indiscriminately, not considering any place as unworthy of receiving it. For those who actually receive the seed, God can create a yield of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. What God apparently can’t do is make soil that rejects the seed yield much of anything, just as those who drive the children away or who gain up on the vineyard owner’s son don’t produce anything either.

But each time we re-live Mark’s Gospel, we can do the humble work of tilling the soil for ourselves and for others. This is what the resurrected life is about. This is a far cry from trumpets and joyous Easter hymns, but for those faced with people who act like workers in the vineyard, this can be the basis of hope. God is not finished with us yet. The risen Christ is right with us as we dig into the hard soil in ourselves and in others so that the soil will soften enough for the resurrected life to give yields of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold for everybody.

The Weakness of God (1)

Singing the part of the crowd in St. Mark’s Passion on Palm Sunday as Jesus was mocked for saving others while he could not save himself really made me think about what I was singing. If Jesus could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, then getting himself off the cross would be a cinch. And surely if Jesus was the Messiah, he could free himself of his predicament with no trouble. Such mockery hurts when one is reminded of one’s powerlessness. It hurts even more if Jesus did have the power but chose not to use it. Did Jesus have that power?

The Gospel of Mark starts out with Jesus casting out demons and curing serious illnesses right and left by exercising an authoritative power over both. At the climax of his ministry, Jesus feeds the crowds of four thousand and five thousand. Such exercises of power would suggest that Jesus did indeed have the power to bring himself down from the cross. If that is true, why did Jesus not do it? Let’s take another look at Jesus’ power.

Starting at roughly the midpoint of his Gospel, Mark switches from describing acts of authoritative power to stressing Jesus’ weakness. What kind of weakness? Not a weakness in healing or delivering or feeding, but a weakness in getting the crowds or even (or especially!) his disciples to understand what he was really about. Perhaps the acts of power were contributing to the misunderstanding. Right after Peter declared Jesus to be the Christ, Jesus explained that being the Christ meant being handed over to the chief priests and the scribes to be killed. Being the Christ meant denial of self and taking up one’s cross. This is a far cry from giving demons the boot. Jesus repeats his expectation of being handed over and killed two more times and the misunderstanding only gets worse. The disciples fight over who is the greatest and bargain for the best seats when Jesus comes into his glory. After a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus does not perform more healings and exorcisms of the type he did in Galilee. Rather, Jesus seems to be trying a more fundamental exorcism of violence through parables such as that of the evil workers in the vineyard. Far from being exorcized, the Pharisees and chief priests only strengthen their resolve to commit the violence of killing Jesus.

It isn’t long before Jesus is hanging on the cross, dying. Do those mocking him really think Jesus has the power to shrug himself off the cross and use his power to send some lightning bolts against them to teach them a lesson? That is the sort of thing a real “god” would do, isn’t it? If the mockers really thought Jesus had this power, they probably would not have been quite so bold in mocking him. They see Jesus as weak, even crying out in anguish over being forsaken, so obviously Jesus is not the Messiah, not the Son of God or anything of the sort. If anybody is mighty and powerful, it’s God. But Mark’s Gospel has shown that acts of power do not bring on the kingship of God. What about weakness, weakness even unto death on a cross? Will Jesus’ death in weakness bring anything about?

Epiphany

Epiphany traditionally celebrates the universal dimensions of the coming of the Christ Child.

One of the most universal ways God is seen is through nature. However, nature in the past has often been mistaken for God, either by natural beings being worshiped as God or by nature as a whole taken to be God.

God has also been seen through moral introspection, where the yearning of the human will towards some sense of goodness has been taken to be inspired by a Supreme Being. Unfortunately, wrong and destructive actions obscure any sense of cosmic truth.

Sacrifices were also universal in early human cultures. These sacrifices were not normally considered revelatory as far as I can tell, but they did create contact with the deities.

Suspicions that sacrificial rites might be obscuring the truth of God appeared in many cultures, not least among the Jewish people whose prophets argued that both the sacrifices and even more injustice to society’s victims hid God from view.

Then there are those four odd documents that suggest that God has appeared in the form of a human being by actually being a human being. This person was born in obscurity, was not welcomed by the people, and died an ignominious death. While alive, this person was known to suggest that God can be seen in the lost, the rejected, and the forgotten.

Immanuel—God is With Us

When the angel assured Joseph that Mary’s child was conceived from the Holy Spirit, the angel said the child’s name was to be Jesus. Matthew follows this with a quote from Isaiah’s prophecy that a young woman was about to conceive and bear a son who would be called Immanuel. (Mt. 1: 21–22; Is. 7: 14)

So it is that two names are given to the Christ Child, The name Jesus means: “Yahweh Saves.” As the angel said, the child is going to save his people from their sins. (Mt. 1: 20) The name Immanuel means “God is with us.” One name refers to what Jesus does, the other refers to what Jesus is.

Of the two names, it is Immanuel, God-is-with-us, that I want to reflect on in this Christmas reflection. There is an old theological conundrum: Would God have become incarnate if humanity had not fallen into sin? In one respect, the question is mute because humanity did fall into sin and so the Incarnation was a rescue mission. Many theologians leave it at that. But there are some theologians, who suggest that the Incarnation was not a Plan B but was Plan A all along. God was going to take on human nature no matter what. Ever since hearing this line of thought, I have been intrigued by it. I like to think that God did not need to have a desperate predicament on humanity’s part as a reason to come and be with us. Rather, God is the sort of God who wants to be with us. Period.

Let’s say there is a family that has an Aunt Polly who comes to visit from time to time. Aunt Polly is a very competent person who is always ready and willing to help out. So, if there should be any problems in the family at the time of her visit, she will help solve them or at least make them better. But does she come just because there are problems to solve? Clearly Aunt Polly comes to visit because she simply wants to be with the family. If there are no problems to work out, so much the better. If Aunt Polly is motivated by sheer fellowship to visit her family, then surely God is motivated by fellowship to come and visit God’s people. Shouldn’t we take both comfort and delight that God wants to be with us?

The name Immanuel reminds us of the ultimate aim of creation; namely fellowship with God. Redemption is the means to that end once humanity had fallen into sin. Since God was willing to die on a cross to open up the resurrected life to us, it follows that God cares about us very much. So surely God cares enough to want to be with us without needing us to go bad to get God’s attention. If God were Superman, would God have a life if all the bad guys repented?

We might think we are not worthy of God’s presence, and we aren’t, but God thinks we are. Christmas is a good time to reflect on this truth. Before Jesus does anything in particular to save us, Jesus rests in the arms of his mother and feeds at her breast. All Jesus is doing is being with us. Let us do the same and spend time just being with God.

Advent Message: 2020

Advent is the season of expectation and hope. We look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus, an event that happened in the past, to renew our hope that the presence of God among us in human form will transform our lives. The example of Jesus’ earthly life should rub off on enough people for some things to get better but every year the setbacks are discouraging. We also look forward to the consummation of God’s Kingship when setbacks will be no more and there will be no more need for hope.

Hope is a virtue needed only when the present is problematic and all the more so when the present is filled with pain and anxiety. It is when things are bad that we hope things will be better. If things get better, there is less to hope for, but more to appreciate. Appreciation, gratitude, is key here. We need to be profoundly grateful for the life Jesus led here on earth. We also need to be grateful for all the constructive work that has been done and is being done in the spirit of Christ, whether known by the doer or not.

This year, the biggest anxiety is the COVID-19 pandemic. It combines three of the traditional Advent themes: death, judgment, and hell. Death: many people die of the disease, although thankfully at a lesser rate than at the beginning of the pandemic. Hell: hopefully temporal, but the sufferings of those with serious cases is said to be excruciating. Judgment: the disease in itself is a natural event and not a divine punishment for sin. However, the poor handling of the situation by some political leaders and numerous people (albeit a minority apparently) who rebel against the discipline of social distancing that could keep other people safer casts a judgment of our character as a society. Where is heaven in all this? We can hope that heaven is comforting those who suffered and died. More important, we see glimpses of heaven in the dedication of medics and workers who give so much of themselves to make things better.

The good news is that several vaccines are apparently coming down the pipeline that should be game changers. This is situation is a parable of hope for even deeper matters. We are currently in a painful fix that asks many onerous sacrifices of us but help is on the way. Not every human crisis offers us such a specific hope as this one does at the present time. At the same time, hope for deeper things would have us all probe deeper into our willingness to make sacrifices for the well-being of others. This is the hope generated by the life of Jesus who did whatever was needed for the sake of other people. This is the hope for the Kingship of God when our hearts will be so closely intertwined with the hearts of others that we will see clearly how the interests and needs of others are our own interests and needs.

Who Owns You?

When Jesus was asked by the Pharisees and the Herodians whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, they were not really interested in resolving the question and Jesus knew it. (Mt. 22: 15–27) They were, of course, trying to trap Jesus into giving a reply that would alienate his supporters. But if Jesus didn’t exactly resolve the question, he gave a firm answer that eluded the trap. It is significant that the Pharisees and Herodians, who normally hated each other, united in the cause of discrediting Jesus, just as they would unite in having Jesus executed when their scheme of discrediting failed.

The question that the Pharisees and Herodians didn’t want answered was: Who owns you? The Jewish tradition was quite clear that it was Yahweh who claimed ownership over the entire Jewish nation, so that each individual person was owned by Yahweh. Not only that, but the prophet Isaiah also claimed Yahweh’s ownership of King Cyrus of Persia, the most powerful ruler in the known world at the time. Yahweh claimed to have anointed Cyrus “to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes.” (Is. 45: 1) Admittedly, the prophet realized that Cyrus did not know that he had been claimed by Yahweh, (Is. 45: 4) but Cyrus was nonetheless doing the work Yahweh wanted done, namely, allowing the Jews to return from the Babylonian exile. All of this might sound like a good deal for Cyrus, but not really. Cyrus seemed to think he owned all of the people in his empire, including the Jew,s and he was moving the chess pieces for the sake of his agenda, which included weakening Babylon in favor of a Jewish restoration that wouldn’t be strong enough to threaten him. But Yahweh not only claimed ownership over all of the people Cyrus thought he owned but Yahweh also claimed ownership of Cyrus himself. Cyrus, of course, hadn’t signed the dotted line on that.

The Pharisees who were questioning Jesus took a hard line on Isaiah’s perspective and insisted that they were owned by Yahweh and not the Roman Emperor who, like Cyrus, was claiming ownership over everybody in the Empire, including the Jews. The Herodians perhaps paid lip service to Yahweh’s theoretical ownership of them but in practice, they acknowledged the Emperor’s ownership while treating Yahweh like an absentee landlord. The Pharisees and Herodians were fighting each other over the allegiance of the Jewish people as a whole. Although we can assume that most of the people accepted Yahweh’s ownership rather than the Empire’s, they weren’t so sure about allowing the Pharisees to claim ownership over them. If Jesus had said unambiguously that it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, then the people who were following him would have been disillusioned in their leader and would have forsaken him. If Jesus had said unambiguously that it was not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Pharisees and Herodians could have handed him over to the Romans with a ready-made charge of treason.

As it happened, Jesus unambiguously affirmed Yahwe’s ownership of the people but in a way that took the wind out of the sails of the Pharisees and Herodians. Apparently not having a coin to produce himself, he asked the questioners to produce one. The very act of pulling out a coin with Caesar’s image on it undermined their attempt to discredit Jesus since simply having one of Caesar’s coins acknowledged the Empire’s ownership of them. Jesus’ emphasis on the word “image” is most significant here. The Jewish people could hardly help but recall that at the beginning of Genesis, Yahweh created humanity in Yahweh’s image, thus claiming total ownership of all humanity. Jesus suggests that one can give a coin with Caesar’s image back to Caesar, but as to one’s self, a self made in God’s image, that should be totally given to God.

In the opening of St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians Paul tells them that they are chosen by God. (1 Thess. 1: 4) This is a new kind of ownership, one based on divine initiative (as was the case with the Jews and Cyrus) but also based on relationship. Paul goes on to write about the Thessalonians imitating him and his fellow evangelists and, thus also imitating the Lord. (1 Thess. 1: 6) This imitation includes enduring persecution just as Paul had endured persecution in imitation of Christ who was crucified. The enthusiasm for the faith that Paul commends and celebrates gives us a picture of what it really means to be owned by God through Christ. Can we acknowledge God’s ownership of us as fervently as did Paul and the Thessalonians?

A Man, a Landowner

The Parable of the Owner of the Vineyard who hires workers throughout the day and then pays the workers who were brought in at the last hour a full day’s wages is startling. Most preachers use it to teach God’s abundant mercy and generosity and how we shouldn’t grumble like the workers who thought they should have gotten more than the agreed wage because the workers at the last hour got such a good deal.

But a few months ago I came up against a challenge to this interpretation in Reading from the Edges by Jean-Pierre Ruiz. He argues that the owner of the vineyard, far from being generous, was playing power games with the workers, particularly with his rhetorical question: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” (Mt. 20: 15) From the standpoint of someone who is vulnerable to people who have power over them, this question sounds oppressive.

Should we jettison the traditional interpretation of this parable? The best way to answer that question is to look at the character of the landowner. In the traditional interpretation, there is a tendency to assume that the landowner stands for God. If that is correct, then the matter is settled. Who can argue with God? But note that Jesus introduces the parable by saying “there was a man, a landowner.” Moreover, we have this same pattern in the surrounding parables, such as the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant and the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding, In each case, the landowner or the king is “a man.” Unfortunately, the NRSV obscures this phrasing. Matthew has gone out of his way to stress that the landowner is a man, thus questioning the likelihood that the landowner stands for God. We see the same pattern in greater intensity with the man, a king, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant who seems righteous by treating the otherwise forgiven servant harshly for being unforgiving himself, but this man, a king, in turn is vengeful and unforgiving. The man, the owner of the vineyard with the wicked tenants is also vengeful. The man, a king, in the Parable of the King’s Son’s Wedding is hot-tempered and violent with much less excuse.

The Man, a Landowner, in this parable, seems to come off better than the other landowner and the kings. He does not cheat any workers out of their pay, and seems to be generous in giving the workers at the last hour the full day’s wage. One can understand, though, the grumbling of the workers who toiled all day and were exhausted. The owner blows these workers off with a rebuke that, though a far cry from the vengefulness of the authority figures in the other parables, is insensitive. Ruiz is quick to pick up on the capriciousness of this landowner. His untactful response to the longsuffering grumbling workers reminds them that they are fully at his mercy and they have no recourse if they have any complaint of the way they are treated. Ruiz says: “the lesson is not about generosity or his magnanimity but about his own power, about their dependence on him, and about the insignificance of their own toil.” Such workers in Jesus’ time were in the same position.

Can we salvage the traditional interpretation? I think we can, to some extent at least, if we note the human distortion. The second rhetorical question of the landowner is still apt: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Again, the landowner is being insensitive and judgmental, but envy is a huge human problem. We don’t do our work as effectively as we might if we are focused on whether or not somebody else seems to get a better deal. We really need to be weaned from our envious tendencies just as we need to be weaned from our instinctive vengeful attitudes as the preceding parable reminds us. However, as the vengeful violence of the man, a king, in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is not very helpful in teaching forgiveness, the Man, a Landowner, is not helpful in healing anybody’s envy. On the contrary, the landowner uses his power to stir up envy and divide the workers against each other, a typical trick by those in power. Since the king and the landowner are humans and not God, we can see them as mirrors of us. The formerly forgiving but vengeful king spurs on the vengefulness of the affronted slaves. The power games played by the landowner lock the workers in resentment. These examples show that teaching forgiveness and weaning people from envy are undermined when people try to use strong-arming power to further these ends. We can take Jesus’ conclusion as a commentary on the landowner: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” Ruiz says “today’s immigrant laborers know more than enough about being last.” So how are they first? It is these “last” who are the first to reveal the distortions in the human mirrors. It is these last who are the first to show us our need for God’s forgiving love and generosity that our distorted humanity obscures.