Pentecost 20A, 2002
VIOLENCE... AND THE SHUFFLING OF BOOTS
What a mess this parable is from Matthew!
The story line is full of violence carried out under extreme provocation:
and stoning servants,
then killing the land owner’s son.
And if we had continued on with the story
we would have heard the bits added by other storytellers
who seemed not to be satisfied with the Jesus open ending,
so added the bit where the owner wrecks vengeance on the tenants.
All in all, there is plenty of murder, revenge, and blood
in this ‘maybe yes, maybe no’ parable of Jesus.
Now the first thing I want to say,
and I doubt if many of you will be surprised by my claim, is
this parable can be interpreted on many levels.
Matthew, for instance, has already offered an interpretation: that of an allegory.
That is, the parable was immediately relevant for Matthew and his community
because (we reckon) they were having problems with the synagogue across the road!
They had been struggling, without success,
to position themselves as the new leaders of Israel's faith
and were being increasingly driven to the margins by resurgent Pharisaism.
So Matthew took some of the key elements of this story and applied them:
Vineyard = Israel,
God = the land owner,
Messengers/servants = the prophets,
Son = Jesus,
Son’s death = Jesus’ crucifixion.
Or we could even bring it closer to home
and spend some time reflecting on our much more subtle ways
of ‘beating up’ God's messengers
who call us to become involved in the issues of the day.
Loving is a challenge we often savage or sabotage,
whether at a personal or a community level.
But despite these options, I want to take the advise of William Bausch
and focus on the violence contained in the story.
For this is, as you sadly know, a timely topic.
Violence forms a subtext of our daily lives.
Individuals of all ages - even youngsters in primary school.
All are routinely hurting, maiming, threatening and killing one another.
It has all become so common place lately.
So much so, says Hugh Mackay, social commentator,
that the fear of violence and the concern for personal safety
has become a major preoccupation among Australians over recent years...
Especially for those in the oldest and youngest age groups.
What is behind this proliferation of violence in our world?
I want to suggest that part of it - and I stress, only part of it -
is a shocking lack of empathy
for other people,
for the victims.
An inability to feel what those who are hurt are feeling.
And many lack this ‘empathy’
because many have divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’...
a distinction that was high on Jesus’ list of what was
horribly and terribly evil in the world.
No northern and southern Irish.
No Israeli or Palestinian.
No black or white.
No straight or gay.
No ‘them’ and ‘us’.
Yet for more and more, a sense of empathy is evaporating.
With this loss comes an inability to be compassionate.
And when there is no empathy and no compassion,
there is easy violence, it seems.
And dare I say it...
Matthew’s treatment of this parable with his allegorical overlay,
has produced tragic consequences
for Jewish-Christian relationships over the centuries.
So I agree with the Jesus Seminar:
This overlay did not originate with Jesus.
This overlay is the work of the storyteller, Matthew.
Well, let me tell you another story.
A story this time which comes out of the Second World War.
The war was still in progress.
To rally the country, the leaders in Russia
decided to stage a march of 20,000 German prisoners
through the streets of Moscow.
The footpaths swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police.
The crowd was mostly women - Russian women.
Everyone of them must have had a father or a husband,
a brother or a son, killed by the Germans.
They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the parade was to come.
At last they saw it.
The generals marched at the head of the column.
Proud, their chins stuck out, lips folded.
An air of superiority about them.
The women clenched their fists.
They shouted their hate.
Then all at once something happened to the women.
They saw German soldiers thin, unshaven,
wearing dirty bloodstained bandages,
hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades.
The soldiers walked with their heads down.
The street became dead silent.
The only sound was the shuffling of boots, the thumping of crutches.
Then an elderly woman in broken-down boots pushed herself forward,
past the soldiers and police.
She went up to the column, took from inside her coat
something wrapped in a coloured handkerchief, and unfolded it.
It was a crust of black bread.
She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a German soldier,
so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet.
And then suddenly, from every side,
women were running towards the soldiers.
They pushed into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had.
The soldiers were no longer enemies.
They were people.
William Bausch, from whom I first heard this story, goes on to suggest:
“When the women saw the men hobbling through the streets, they were no longer the enemy; they were no longer those who killed their relatives. They were just victims, and the women felt for them. There was an outpouring of empathy and compassion. The violence they intended was no longer in their hearts” (Bausch 2000:205).
I reckon Jesus the storyteller would approve!
Bausch, W. J. 2000. The Word In and Out of Season. Homilies for Preachers. Reflections for Seekers. CT: Mystic. Twenty-third Publications.