Shuck and Jive

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Spiral of Violence: A Sermon

Spiral of Violence
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

March 27th, 2011
Third Sunday in Lent

Gospel of Jesus 12:32-38

Jesus told this parable:

“A person owned a vineyard and rented it to some farmers, so they could work it and he could collect its crop from them. He sent his slave so the farmers would give him the vineyard’s crop. They grabbed him, beat him, and almost killed him, and the slave returned and told his master. His master said, “Perhaps he didn’t know them.” He sent another slave, and the farmers beat that one as well. Then the master sent his son and said, “Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.” Because the farmer knew that he was an heir to the vineyard, they grabbed and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”

Jesus would say,
“The Father’s imperial rule is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in.
Then he killed the powerful one.

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 51, 53. Thomas 65:1-7; 98:1-3; Mark 12:1-9; Matthew 21:33-39; Luke 20:9-15

The parable of the vineyard is found in four gospels, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and Thomas. This parable is a good illustration of how a parable of Jesus is shaped and modified by the gospel writers. After killing the son, the different gospel writers respond.

Mark’s ending:
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come in person, and do away with those farmers, and give the vineyard to someone else. Haven’t you read this scripture,

“A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone. It was the Lord’s doing and is something you admire?”

Matthew’s ending:
When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those farmers then?

They say to him, He’ll get rid of these wicked villains and lease the vineyard out to other farmers who will deliver their produce to him at the proper time.

Jesus says to them, “Haven’t you read in the scriptures, “A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone. It was the Lord’s doing and is something you admire?”

“Therefore I say to you, God’s domain will be taken away from you and given to a people that bears its fruit.”

And when the ranking priests and Pharisees heard his parable, they realized that he was talking about them. They wanted to seize him, but were afraid of the crowds, because everyone regarded him as a prophet.

Luke’s ending:
What will the owner of the vineyard do to them as a consequence? He will come in person, do away with those farmers, and give the vineyard to someone else. When they heard this, they said, “God forbid!”

But (Jesus) looked them straight in the eye and said, “What can this scripture possibly mean: A stone that the builders rejected has ended up as the keystone? Everyone who falls over that stone will be smashed to bits, and anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.
In all three gospels, this exchange is followed by the religious leaders wanting to arrest Jesus then and there.

Because of the way the gospel writers interpreted this parable, it became an allegory in which God is owner, the vineyard is Israel, the farmers are the temple authorities or religious leaders, the slaves are the prophets, and the son is Jesus.

There is another version of this parable in the Gospel of Thomas. It is for the most part the Thomas version that I printed in the bulletin. The Fellows of the Jesus Seminar determined that Thomas preserved the original parable. There is no allegory attached to the Thomas reading.

After killing the son, Thomas has Jesus say: “Anyone here with two ears had better listen.”

My rule of thumb with Jesus’ parables is that any character with authority and power such as a king, a judge, or a wealthy landowner should warrant suspicion of any attempt to equate that character with God. The gospel writers may do that and the later tradition does that, but when we get back to the figure of Jesus we find that the parables are more subversive.

My interpretation of this parable is indebted to William Herzog, Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed.

Another interesting detail that may be connected with the original telling is found in both Mark and Matthew. They begin the parable this way:
“Someone planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a winepress, built a tower, leased it out to some farmers and went abroad.”
Jesus is telling a parable to people who know all about vineyards and wealthy absentee landowners. From the people’s perspective the landowners aren’t the good guys. If Jesus’ audience is largely made up of the peasant class or 80 percent of the population, they would identify with the farmers.

Where did the landowner get the land to build his luxury vineyard? Land stayed in the family for generations. The only way you get land is to take it. Herod funded his huge building projects including the Temple by forcing peasants off their land to work for large landowners for the purpose of making cash crops. This parable of Jesus reflects this reality as a conflict between a member of the ruling class and the peasant class.

Of course the process of taking land from the poor was common before Herod. In Isaiah chapter five, there is in an interesting parallel to our parable that provides a hint of its context:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.
In Isaiah, the metaphor of wild grapes is social injustice. A few verses later we read:
Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land!
The consolidating of land is the injustice. Jesus speaks in the tradition of the prophets of social justice. The dream of these prophets was that one day everyone would sit under his or her own fig tree. The land would be returned.

In our parable, whose land is it? Does it belong to the guy who planted the vineyard or does it belong to the peasant farmer who has been displaced? We can have an opinion, but we can imagine that there would be debate. Who owns Libya? Who owns Egypt or Syria or the Gulf of Mexico? These are the conflicts of distribution of power and resources.

During times of quiet there is a tenuous balance whatever the arrangement. But in times of stress, when resources are not as easily available, the balance leads to open conflict, and even violent conflict.

Herzog suggest that this parable describes a peasant revolt. The parable codifies the “spiral of violence.” Elites expand their land at the expense of the peasants and they are kept at subsistence levels. This element of injustice, “wild grapes”, to use the metaphor from Isaiah, is embedded within the system itself. That is the first level of violence.

Herzog writes:
“The spiral begins in the everyday oppression and exploitation of the poor by the ruling elites. This violence is often covert and sanctioned by law, such as the hostile takeover of peasant land. More often than not, peasants simply adjust and adapt to these incursions by the elites in order to maintain their subsistence standard; but…even peasants have their breaking point.” Pp. 108-109.
The second level of the spiral of violence is seen in the peasants’ response to the servant. We can imagine that disputes would arise when the servants or retainers for the landowner come to collect the rent. Perhaps the rent is too much and they are pushed to the point of frustration. In the parable, the farmers beat the servant and send him away empty-handed.

The spiral of violence escalates. The landowner sends another, same thing, but the violence increases. A third they kill. Now it is getting serious. Finally, the landowner sends the son, the heir. The landowner is confident that by sending his son, the peasants will stop this revolt.

Then the master sent his son and said, “Perhaps they’ll show my son some respect.”

Respect is respect for superior firepower. The landowner means business now.

But the peasants are feeling their oats. Their revolt is getting heady. They say to themselves that if they kill the son, they will take the land back. The landowner will give up. So they do. They kill the son. The parable ends.

The first level of the spiral of violence is the violence that is embedded in the injustice, the “wild grapes” of oppression and exploitation.

The second level of the spiral of violence is the peasant revolt that leads to a climax of no return in which the son is killed.

There is a third level in the spiral of violence. That is how Jesus likely ended the parable.
What will the owner of the vineyard do?
Will he give up and let the peasants take back the land and leave his son un-avenged? Not likely.
Will he respond with crushing violence? More likely.

That is the third level of the spiral of violence. A crushing response. Herzog makes this chilling observation that in ancient societies there were many peasant revolts but there were no peasant revolutions. The powers were simply too overwhelming.

Why did Jesus tell this parable?

Before answering that, I want to talk about another parable I included in today’s reading, the Parable of the Assassin. Found only in the Gospel of Thomas, this was one of the few that while not in the canonical gospels, the seminar determined did reflect Jesus.
Jesus would say,
“The Father’s imperial rule is like a person who wanted to kill someone powerful. While still at home he drew his sword and thrust it into the wall to find out whether his hand would go in. Then he killed the powerful one.
Then there is another saying that the Fellows ruled black, but I think helps to makes sense both of the parable of the assassin and the parable of the vineyard laborers. It is found only in Luke 14:31-32
“What king would go to war against another king and not first sit down and figure out whether he would be able with ten thousand men to engage an enemy coming against him with twenty thousand? If he decided he could not, he would send an envoy to ask for terms of peace while the enemy was still a long way off.”
I think that Jesus told these parables to an audience of exploited and oppressed people to communicate a couple of things.

One: I am with you. I am on your side. So is God. The realm of God is when we have our daily bread, and the land is returned, and there is restorative justice. Blessed are you poor who are hungry now, who are oppressed now. You will be satisfied. It is clear that Jesus was an advocate for those who were oppressed by the elites whether the elites were fellow Jews, Romans, or religious leaders. He has sympathy and compassion. He is one of them.

Second: Jesus wanted to tell them to be smart and to be cool. Before you decide to take on these guys, count the cost, have a plan, and don’t underestimate your enemy. Even an assassin makes sure he can get the job done before he tries it. Even a king with an army makes sure he has enough troops first, and if not makes terms for peace. It is great and I am all for you leading a revolt against wealthy landowners and brutal dictators. But remember why they call them “brutal dictators” in the first place. Taking on the powerful head on doesn’t end well. If you act violently, what will the owner of the vineyard do?

Third: Jesus communicated something else. It isn’t in the parable itself except in the question Jesus leaves with the hearers. If not with violence, then how do we take on the “powerful one”? How do we effectively respond to injustice? How do we transform it? I think Jesus wanted to channel their righteous anger toward a third way, the way of resistance, but in a way that did not escalate the spiral of violence.

The story of Jesus that is preserved is that he did enact this third way by example. He never allowed anyone to take away his dignity even though they could harm his body. He didn’t take on violence directly. He didn’t respond to violence with violence. He was non-violent and yet was executed. But his death came to mean far more than it would have had he been a violent bandit.

Because of his non-violence, his execution exposed the injustice and raised the level of consciousness of his early followers. It has been a model for non-violent resistance ever since. This is what Ghandi and King taught and lived through their efforts to change social injustices through non-violent resistance.

This model of non-violent resistance is still in its infancy. As an infant it must be cradled, nurtured, fed, blessed, and given every opportunity to grow. This is the via tranformativa, the spiritual path of compassion and justice-making.

This past week was the 31st anniversary of the assassination of arch-bishop Oscar Romero. Two weeks before his assassination, he was asked by a Mexican reporter if he was afraid of death. This is his reply:
"I have often been threatened with death. I have to say, as a Christian, that I don't believe in death without resurrection: if they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. I tell you this without any boasting, with the greatest humility. As pastor, I am obliged, by divine command, to give my life for those I love, who are all Salvadorans, even for those who are going to assassinate me. If the threats are carried out, even now I offer my blood to God for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. Martyrdom is a grace of God I don’t think I deserve. But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, may my blood be the seed of liberty and the sign that hope will soon become reality. May my death, if accepted by God, be for the freedom of my people and as a witness to hope in the future. You can say, if they come to kill me, that I forgive and bless those who do it. Hopefully they may realise that they will be wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish."
Bishop Romero embodied the third way. We have seen the third way work. Democracy is the third way. It is the process of changing power through voting. A global emphasis on human rights and dignity is an example of the third way. The recent peaceful revolution in Egypt is an example of a non-violent third way.

The situation in Libya is a step backward. There are still third way possibilities there if there is the political will to choose peace. Non-violence is not passivity. It is resistance. It requires creativity. It requires negotiation. It requires sacrifice. What if 5,000 or 10,000 people of conscience from around the world went to Libya without weapons and simply stood arm in arm in front of Gaddafi's tanks? It will require more of the American people than sitting at home watching the bombing on television disconnected from the reality of the U.S. military fighting battles for us and in our name.

Peaceful alternatives to war are not flashy or terribly exciting, but war will not lead the world to the security we seek.

Jesus told his parables to show his friends that violence does not bring about a lasting and just peace. It only escalates it. The via transformativa, or the way of compassion, peace and justice-making is hard work, but the way of peace is the narrow road that leads to life.


Stanley Hauerwas on a Christian Response to War.
Quaker Statements on Libya.


  1. John -- thanks for taking this on. No one is asking the right questions here, including especially the U.S. media -- and unfortunately NPR's reporters are also not asking the right question. The right question is, how do we collectively (United Nations) respond non-violently to Quadaffi?

    I personally agree with Obama's decision to join the UN coalition, not to lead it.

    Until we educate ourselves religiously and politically to the extent necessary, no one is going to be willing to give up their lives for a non-violent cause.

    I agree in principle with the Quaker letters that followed your sermon, but I agree more with Hillary Clinton that we can't stand by and watch another genocide.

    I don't think Oil is the motivator for the U.S. We have no "strategic national interest" in Libya. We do have a humanitarian one, and to my mind, we need to take Quaddifi at his word, that he would indeed murder his own people.

    There is an old song: "Step by step the longest march can be won" -- participating in the collective "no fly zone" strategy is a step. Hopefully the next step will not be boots on the ground; but if it is, those boots cannot be U.S. boots. They will have to be Arab boots.

    This is turning into an essay. . . .

  2. I appreciate your comments and your encouragement to talk about these things.

    I wasn't really preaching about Libya even though it was on my mind and I used it as an illustration. I was really preaching about the attraction and excitement of violence, its deceptive quality, and its futility.

    There is a lot I want to say, but given the narrative that "violence is the only solution to stop human suffering" there is nothing I can say that doesn't sound cold or naive.

    I let it rest.