October 5, 2014
Year A, Proper 22
For most of Christian history, if you wanted to be a very famous theologian, your name had to start with the letter A. There's Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas . . . Maybe early Christian Sunday schools seated children in alphabetical order, so all of these theologians were front and center from the beginning.
This week, I got to introduce students in my medieval history class to a somewhat less well-known A-named theologian: the twelfth-century Peter Abelard. He's no Aquinas or Augustine, of course—in part because some of his writings on the Trinity were condemned as heretical. To be fair, it's really hard to say anything about the Trinity without slipping into one kind of heresy or another. Yet Abelard wasn't afraid of taking a risk in order to understand the Christian faith as best anyone could. He was pretty much fearless about re-examining any Christian story or doctrine.
So I really, really wish that we could ask Abelard what he thinks about the parable in today's gospel. Today, Jesus tells us about a landowner who takes good care of his property. He plants a vineyard and digs a wine press so they can process their own produce on site. He builds a fence to protect his land, and he builds a watchtower, so he can guard it even more thoroughly. Then, he leases this land to some seemingly reliable tenants before leaving the country.
But then the landowner starts to miscalculate. He sends some of his servants to collect revenue from the tenants. The tenants beat one servant, kill one, and stone another. Instead of learning his lesson, the landowner sends an even greater number of servants, but—no surprise—the tenants treat these servants violently as well.
A more cautious landowner might have either sent in the troops or simply cut his losses. But this landowner decides to send in his son. He thinks that the tenants will treat his son with greater respect than they did his servants, but this turns out to be a serious error in judgment. The tenants believe that by killing the son, they'll finally have a chance of owning the vineyard outright. And so they kill him.
Now Jesus doesn't finish this parable himself. He asks his audience how the story should end. They say that the landowner "will put those wretches to a miserable death," and find someone else to manage his property.
And that's probably how the twelfth-century theologian Abelard would have answered. How else could we expect a landowner to act after his tenants kill his son? Surely that landowner would use his power to kick them out of his domain and condemn them to death. And, if we can expect this response from a landowner, shouldn't we also expect that God himself would disinherit and destroy anyone implicated in the death of His Son? It just makes sense.
But, as Peter Abelard would point out, the landowner's response in today's parable doesn't square with the dominant story of salvation in his time. The simple version of the story went—and often still goes—that the crucifixion of Jesus somehow makes us human beings more righteous in God's sight, and the death of Jesus satisfies God as a kind of payment for humanity's sins, or a final, fully pleasing sacrifice.
To Abelard, this story of salvation didn't make sense. To Abelard, it seemed that the death of Jesus should make humanity more guilty, not more righteous. To Abelard, it seemed that the death of Jesus should make God even angrier with us, not more pleased with us. Surely the crime of killing a sinless man was far worse than Adam and Eve's disobedience in the garden of Eden. To Abelard, it seemed as though human beings were just getting into worse and worse trouble with God for killing his Son, just like the tenants with their landlord.
Fortunately, Abelard always had a solution for his own theological dilemmas. (How handy for him!) For Abelard, redemption is not a transaction between God and humanity that reconciles our account. For Abelard, redemption is an act of God toward us that fills us with a "deeper love." The sending of Jesus to be with us, and his death at human hands, was God's fearless gift of love. And so our task is not so much to calculate and figure out how redemption works, but simply to experience the gift of God's Son binding us in deeper love to God and making us willing to do anything for God and God's people.
So let's return again to the parable in today's gospel, and listen for what it tells us of God's love, and of the way that we ought to love. In this parable, we met a landowner who was wise at setting up his property, but who is terrible at risk management.
Sometimes, like the landowner, we miscalculate. We may start out as wisely as we can, building a fence, setting up a watchtower, and tending our own vineyard. But then we expose something precious, or something of ourselves, to people we probably shouldn't have trusted. There's not always a happy ending to these stories when we take a leap of faith with our hearts, or when we send people we love out into the world.
But God's gift to us in Christ shows us that this is God's way of loving: taking a risk, exposing himself, perhaps naively assuming that the Son he sends to his people will be respected and loved. God's gift to us in Christ might not be a calculation of a debt owed, but a miscalculation of how human beings would respond to Christ's teaching and example. God took a huge gamble of love in sending us his Son.
The people listening to Jesus' parable think that the gamble didn't pay off. They expect God to respond with vengeful anger. As Abelard would point out, shouldn't God be angrier after the death of his Son?
But, as Abelard would also point out: Not if this parable is a love story. Perhaps it is only when we expect God to come to us as a debt collector that we lose our inheritance. When we're too afraid to recognize God as one who approaches us in trust to teach us the way of love, we lose our grip on the kingdom.
In the landowner's confrontation with his tenants, we have the exact opposite of an arms' race: the more violent and aggressive the tenants become, the more exposed the landowner becomes. The landowner sends more and more people who apparently can't defend themselves; and then the landowner sends the person he loves most deeply, who is an extension of himself. This story tells us something about a God who reaches out to us again and again, who sends us his own Son.
If Jesus' audience hadn't been listening with ears of fear, then the point of this parable might not have been about collecting debts, or rent, or produce. The point may have been to invite us to take bigger risks with our lives in the name of love, knowing that these risks don't always pay off, but also knowing that there's no other way to live as God's people.