When the people of God hear a teacher, a prophet, a rabbi, tell of a vineyard, they hear the story of a God who reaches into the ground and out of dust and dirt creates a humanity that will, with God, till, and plant, and harvest, drink, and celebrate, the abundance of God’s creation. The vineyard is, to the people of Israel, in image of God tending them, of them tending one another. Grapevines, unlike yearly crops like wheat, take time to root, to grow, to flourish. Vineyards flourish only where there is abundant sun and water. They are an image of peace because only where the land is unravaged by war can a vineyard grow. Only in a land where the vinedressers can live safely in their homes, get enough food and drink to thrive, where their bodies are strong and healthy, can the vines they tend thrive.
The people of Israel understand that vineyards thrive in a land that knows justice, and so knows peace.
Parables are a special kind of story, common in Jesus’ world, where two things, each unlike the other, are brought together to reveal something new.
So Jesus tells a different kind of story about the vineyard, one also familiar to his people. In this story, the vineyard is not a place of peace or justice, but of violence. This vineyard is tended not by its owners, but tenants who like sharecroppers, are dependent for their welfare on the whims of a landowner who may, or may not, pay them enough to care for their families.
Israel knows of unjust landlords, so often their own rulers. For those in Jesus’ audience who live at the mercy of such a landlord, whether it is a fellow Jew or Roman, they know the anger at injustice that too easily spills over into brutal violence. For the listening landowners and leaders, they know that they live in a world where at any moment, the oppressed can, and do, rise up with violence. And both parties, the oppressed and oppressors, those who take advantage and those who are taken advantage of, know that the only acceptable response to violence is violence.
That is the horror of this story: violence is normal. For all those listening to Jesus, including us, to know justice is to know violence.
This is our world, where justice and violence walk hand in hand. Our nation was birthed in the violent overthrow of a distant, tyrannical power. Our economy was built around the displacement, genocide, trade, and ownership of black and brown bodies. White Christians defended this ownership, with the dual swords of God’s word and the power of the state. In Oregon, we, white Christians, wrote laws that ensured only whites could plant themselves and their families in this land long enough to take root, to grow, to flourish. As Kelly Brown Douglas has so clearly demonstrated, we who are white stand our ground, confident that our land, our property, our bodies, are cherished, and black and brown bodies deserve only violence.
We think violence is so normal that we who are white almost instinctively assume that the black and brown bodies shot in their cars, on the street, surely must have done something to deserve it.
We live in a world where saying that black and brown lives matter means that white lives do not matter, because we have created that world. We have created a world infested with the lie that white lives thrive at the expense of black and brown lives. We have created a world where to know justice is to know violence.
When I preach to my congregation, I don’t remind them of our national history, I don’t recite the history of slavery and abuse of black and brown bodies. They know it already. The first black man in Portland left to lay where he fell for six hours without attention, after being shot repeatedly in the back by Portland police, is the grandson of the first woman baptized by the first black Episcopal priest in Oregon. I don’t preach to tell them about racism, I don’t call them to repent of racism.
I remind them they are loved. That God values their bodies and their lives even if their nation, their city, and their church, does not. I remind them that God sees their suffering, that God sees their despair and fear, and that God stands with them and weeps at the violence they endure.
I remind them that their righteous anger at injustice is a voice which reminds all of us that we are called to dismantle a violent and unjust world, a violent and unjust church.
This parable is everything we should all resist in our world.
We should be horrified at this story. We should be horrified at the easy violence of leaders, at the ease with which we accept violent retribution as just, at the easy way we have come to accept God as violent and God’s violence as just.
Jesus, who walks in the footsteps of the prophets of Israel, exposes our easy belief that violence is normal, that to know justice is to know violence. And like every prophet, invites us to return to God, to repair the damage, to restore justice, to live in shalom, a word that means not just the absence of violence, but wholeness and prosperity for all.
But this parable isn’t the only story, and the horror of its violence invites us to remember that God’s judgment is not condemnation, but freedom. The judgement of God is always and forever an invitation to live in a world of abounding steadfast love.
The judgement of God is to recognize retribution and injustice for what it is, destructive, and to invite us to live in a world where to know justice is to know peace.
To know justice, says Jesus, is to know peace.
In God, we are free to step out of the vicious cycle of fear and violence, and participate in a world of justice and peace. As God’s creation, made in God’s image, we are free to be like God: abounding in steadfast love, seeking the flourishing of all.
Where we are doing violence to others, stop. Where we are silent in the face of violence towards others, speak up. Where we see laws that demean, practices that destroy, change them.
Plant vineyards with God. Tend one another, prune, train, water, feed and heal.
Know justice so that we can all know peace.