Sermons

pastorEric aug2014Sermon for 18th Pentecost

Christianity & Non-violence
By The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer -
 

Today’s Gospel lesson is a not-so-well known parable of Jesus, let’s call it the parable of the landowner and his evil tenants.

 

What is going on in this parable? Well, the story itself is pretty straight-forward – A wealthy landowner, a first century developer, constructs a well-appointed vineyard – grapes, fencing, a press to make wine, and even a guard tower. He puts his fine vineyard up for rent, obtains some tenants and leaves the area, probably to develop another project somewhere else. Some months later, when it is time to obtain his rent, part of the grape harvest or wine made, the landowner sends his servants to collect from his tenants. Instead of handing over the rent, the grapes or wine due to the owner, the tenants kill the owner’s servants. So, the owner sends more servants to collect his due and the tenants kill them also. Finally, the owner tells his son to go and clean up this mess and you know what happens? The tenants kill the owner’s son also, thinking, in a most convoluted way, that somehow by killing the owner’s son, the owner will let them alone and they can assume control of the vineyard as if it belonged to them!

 

That’s as far as Jesus goes with this parable. Before he tells his listeners what happens next, he asks them what should happen next. His listeners give the obvious answer: the evil tenants deserve capital punishment and new tenants should be found.

 

Scholars tell us what is pretty obvious – this is a “got-cha” parable by Jesus. His listeners, the Pharisees, easily see that Jesus is talking about them and their rejection of both the Prophets of old, the landowner’s, God’s, servants, and their rejection of Jesus, the landowner’s, God’s, son! Got-cha!

 

We are not surprised that this revelation does not make the Pharisees happy. They want to grab Jesus and kill him on the spot, but Jesus is too popular with the common people to do this. So, they step back and watch and wait for a more appropriate time to take care of Jesus. And we, as post-Easter listeners, we know how this parable-come-to-life will come out.

 

Through the years, this parable has been interpreted in several ways. One way to look at it is to see it as a story of who are God’s chosen people. This interpretation says that the Jews had their chance and rejected Jesus, making Christians God’s new chosen people. Such an interpretation was important in the time of the Gospel writers because the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and Christianity was just beginning to grow beyond the confines of Judaism.

 

Like some similar verses in the Bible, this text has also been used as an excuse to persecute the Jewish people – they had their chance, they missed it, they killed Jesus, now they deserve to be killed. So many evils have been done to Jewish people with this sort of wrong-thinking and grossly off-kilter interpretation over the years, down to the Holocaust of the first half of the 20th Century.

 

Three years ago, when I last preached on this Gospel lesson, I shared my belief that the most important interpretation for this parable is the issue of who owns the Vineyard. Jesus is telling us that God, not us, but God is the owner of this earth. We are but stewards, temporary residents, tenants, of the gifts that God has given us.

 

I still believe that this is, primarily, a stewardship story, a story of how we, you and I, are stewards, temporary tenants, of the many gifts God has given us. Jesus is telling us, again, that all that we have belongs not to us, but to God. Jesus is telling us to live our lives, whether we are earthly rich or poor, Jesus is telling us to live our lives as tenants here on earth, stewards of God’s great gifts – family, home, job, school, retirement – life itself. And that, of course, directly relates to the stewardship, the sharing, of God’s financial gifts. It is NOT “our money” with a portion to be shared with our church and other people. Everything is God’s and we are but temporary tenants, able to use these gifts on earth for a time. And, of course, it also relates to our care for the earth, how as temporary residents of this planet we are to care for it in any and every way we can.

 

I stand by that interpretation, but the events of this past week and our current Sunday morning study of Martin Luther’s Small Catechism have led me to another interpretation – this text is a call for Christian non-violence or, stated even stronger, this text is a call for Christians to reject violence in any and all situations.

 

In our study of the Small Catechism, we have been looking at the 10 Commandments. In the past two weeks we looked at the 5th Commandment, “You shall not murder.”

 

That’s a pretty straight-forward commandment – do not kill anyone. I have never murdered anyone, so I think I have a pass on this one.

 

But Luther disagrees and turns this commandment on its head, so to speak, in his explanation when he says “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”

 

Luther teaches that it is not just the condemnation of killing and not even just the admonition to do no harm to others, but also the command to help and support others in all of life’s needs!

 

And one major way to do this that I believe is even more important this week as we try to understand another mass shooting by a domestic terrorist, one major way we can respond is Jesus’ and Luther’s call to reject violence.

 

Think of this for a minute – God allowed his son to be killed in the most violent way imaginable for people of Jesus’ day, slow execution in public on a cross. Nails in hands and feet, blood and suffocation, all in public. All allowed by God for our salvation and, I believe, to make the important point that violence is not, is never, the answer.

 

As Jesus hung on the cross, what did he say about those who were killing him? Did he say they were “pure evil” or “should be blown off the face of the earth,” both comments he would have been justified in making? No, Jesus said to his murderers, “I forgive you” and to a convicted criminal, “today you will join me in heaven.”

 


Let that sink in a minute, Jesus does not shrink from the sacrifice on the cross, he does not return with vengeance, he does not kick anyone out of the kingdom of heaven. Instead, Jesus, having taken on the worst that our violence can inflict, comes back and instructs his disciples to take the good news of the Gospel to the very ends of the earth, promising to be with them always.

 


I hope and pray the events of this past week rekindle the call for new action on sensible gun regulations – the overwhelming majority of Americans favor gun restrictions for mentally ill people, for example. I hope the events of this past week rekindle the call for more funding to help the mentally ill. And I also hope they encourage us to look at the culture of violence all around us, from our President down to you and to me. To reject violence in rhetoric, film and television and video games, to reject violence in our homes and our hearts.

 

It is time to reject violence in all forms and look into our hearts for more love and compassion. Not “blow them away” but forgive.

 

Again and again as Luther interprets the commandments, Luther calls for positive action – not just no murder, but help and support for neighbor, not just no lying, but speaking well of our neighbors and seeing everyone in the best possible light.

 

As the events of this past week show once again, weapons and violence lead to more violence. The cross leads to peace and forgiveness and love. And this is not “cheap grace” as World War II martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, but difficult grace. The cross of Jesus, the cross of forgiveness and love is never easy and it is especially difficult in the face of terrible tragedy, but it is the way of Jesus in the face of every day.
In the cross of Jesus God absorbs our violence and responds with life, with resurrection, with Jesus triumphant over death and offering, not retribution, but peace.

 


Not violence but peace. Not hate but love. Not retribution but forgiveness. Not because violence, hate and retribution are forbidden, but because peace, love and forgiveness are the way of Jesus and the gateway, our gateway, to God’s love for us all.

 

Amen.

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Oct 8, 2017


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