Today’s author is Prince of Peace member, Carol Swanson.

Photo by Sven Wilhelm on Unsplash

If you were asked what is your favorite parable, what would your answer be?  I think I can safely bet it isn’t the “Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” It’s an uncomfortable story, a disturbing story, that Jesus told the priests, scribes and elders who questioned his authority.  

“A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; and this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (Mark 12:1-9)

As the story begins, like many, I’m tempted to picture the man planting the vineyard in the role of God. Afterall, a man planting a vineyard is a repeated metaphor for God and Israel in scripture (see Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80:8-15). But as the story progresses, I become very uncomfortable with the man in that role. He is an absentee landlord who repeatedly sends slaves into a situation where they are badly hurt or killed to get his share. And he then sends his “beloved son” who is also killed by the tenants hoping to become the heirs. Jesus asks what will this vineyard owner do? And then answers, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”  Hmm. The tenants are violent.  And this God is violent, vengeful.

I think of Jesus as being nonviolent in his healing and teaching about community, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  Would Jesus answer that God would come in violence to wipe out the tenants? Or is there another way to look at the parable?

 If we take God out of the parable, and the man is just a man and the vineyard is just a vineyard, we may have a story of the domination system that Israel lived under.  The Roman Empire used the Temple leaders to control the people. The tenants could have reason to rebel and decide to rise up in violence.  But they cannot win against the Empire. Violence begets violence. Is Jesus warning us about what happens when we turn to violent solutions?

In her book, The Gospel of Mark, A Beginner’s Guide to the GOOD NEWS, A J Levine also cautions us against only seeing the landowner as representing God. The repeated cycle of violence is distressing. She writes, “At this point in the parable, I want the owner to stop sending enslaved representatives; I want the tenants to stop torturing and killing. The situation reminds me of war: generals keep sending troops, the opponent keeps killing the troops, repeat. What happened to negotiation? What happened to alliances between the enslaved and the tenants? Why not have the generals put their own lives on the line rather than send representatives.?” (102) 

Jesus told provocative parables to make us think, to lead to new conversations. The more you think about them, the more you might see.  Levine encourages us to ask what would be some alternatives in the story?  What could the landlord have done differently? Or the slaves and tenants? What about negotiations or alliances?  Maybe we can find “the steps that could have been taken to prevent the escalation of violence.” (105)  Can we find nonviolent solutions?

Also, the timing of this parable makes us think. Jesus tells it two days after having arrived in Jerusalem, riding on a donkey (not a warrior king’s steed). The parable speaks of “the beloved son,” echoing God’s declarations at his baptism and at the transfiguration. Levine writes, “The term for ‘beloved,’ agapétos, comes from agapé, a term often associated with divine love. The absurdity of sending the Son (capital S) when the enslaved emissaries are abused only makes sense if we think of all these brutalized messengers as indicative of God’s consistent outreach and so, mercy. Even here I find myself frustrated: rather than continually send prophets, only to have them ignored if not worse, I’d prefer a direct divine intervention.” (102-103)

I want to believe in a nonviolent God and follow the nonviolent Jesus.  At times that may seem foolish, maybe impossible, certainly heart-rending.  I have to hope.

At tonight’s Lenten service, we will hear a reading of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s.  About four years ago I read Resistance Women, by Jennifer Chiaverini, after having read about it in the St. Paul paper. A graduate student in Madison, WI, Mildred Fish met and married a German economist, Arvid Harnack, in 1929. They returned to his home Germany where they eventually got involved in the resistance against Hitler. Readers learn that Arvid was a cousin of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And like Bonhoeffer, they eventually got caught. The newspaper article tells briefly what happened:

“After several years of conveying important information about the Third Reich, their code was broken and they were arrested. Arvid was hanged and Mildred was sentenced to four years in prison. But Hitler intervened and ordered her death, making her the only American woman whose execution was personally ordered by the Fuhrer. She died Feb. 16, 1943, proclaiming her love for Germany….  She is celebrated in Wisconsin schools each September 16.”

What really got to me when I read the book (and tears come again) was Mildred’s last day in prison. A pastor came and spent some time with her. She told the pastor she prayed “to the power of love.” He left her an orange and a Bible and promised to return at the appointed time. Chiaverini writes,

“She peeled the orange slowly, reluctant to spoil its beauty, and ate it, savoring its sweetness. …Alone once more, grieving for her lost love, for her own too swiftly passing life, she opened the Bible the minster had given her and turned to 1 Corinthians 13.If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal,’ she softly read aloud the familiar verses. ‘If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’” (567-568)

God of Love, we pray for everyone in this world who is struggling with violence, especially for those in Gaza and the Ukraine.  May your presence be known by them and by us. Your comfort and your wisdom.  Empower us with your love and lead us to paths of nonviolent solutions.  Amen.

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