How God Responds to Violence – Edmonton, Vegas and the Wicked Tenants

Matthew 21:33-46

Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” (Read the whole passage)

Over the past week, we have born witness, once again to violence and tragedy in our world. Last Saturday night, in Edmonton, a police officer was hit by a car, and then stabbed. And then hours later the same attacker hit four people with a u-haul truck. Thankfully no one was killed.

But then the following night, as if on cue, another mass shooting took place in the US, this time in Las Vegas. And again, the scale of the shooting was thought to be previously unimaginable. 59 dead, over 500 hundred wounded.

And these two events, perhaps more than many of the acts of violence in the past few years, have hit closer to home. An attack on Canadian soil makes us feel vulnerable. And despite being far from here, the Las Vegas shooting has reached all the way into our community, with two of the injured victims being from our part of the world.

A because of these events, it is hard to gather around food with family and friends this Thanksgiving. Hard to know that as we eat and spend time with family, our friends and neighbours are on a long road to healing. These events make us feel more thankful and less thankful at the same time. More thankful for our own safety and the safety of our loved ones. But harder to be thankful for a world that seems to be getting more dangerous each day.

As we have worked our way though the stories of Jesus ministry and teaching this summer and fall, it has often felt like the stories we have heard have had something to say about the things happening in our world. We heard the story of Jesus and gentile woman dealing with issues race just as the protests were happening in Charlottesville. We heard a God who searches out the last, lost and least just a hurricanes were ravaging people islands, coasts and cities.

And today, as violence and tragedy is on our minds, we hear Jesus tell us a parable that deals with the topic of violence.

Jesus is still talking to the temple priests and pharisees as he was last week. Following up the conversation about where Jesus’ authority comes from, he tells the priests and pharisees a parable meant to upend their understand of authority and power.

A landowner plants a vineyard and then rents it out, while he goes off to another country. The agreement with the tenants is that they will be free work and live off the land if they send the owner a share the fruits.

But when harvest time comes, nothing is sent to the owner. So he sends some of his slaves to collect… yet when they arrive the tenants decide that they can renege on the agreement. So like a group of mafiosos, they kill one servant, stone another and beat the third to send a message.

But the landowner doesn’t give up. Being landowner in those days wasn’t simply a business opportunity. Owning land came with responsibility. The responsibility to provide for the community and people that lived near and on the land, as they were often the relatives and extended family of the landowner. If these tenants keep the harvest for themselves, a whole community could go without.

So again, the landowner sends his slaves to collect the fruits of the harvest. And again the tenants kill the slaves.

But not willing to give up on his responsibilities as a caretaker of the land and community, the landowner sends his son.

Yet, seeing the opportunity to not just hoard the harvest, but tenants see that killing the son, the heir to the land, is their opportunity to appropriate the land… to take the place of the landowner themselves.

And then Jesus cuts the story off, without finishing it. And instead asks the Pharisees and temple priests what they think the landowner would do.

Their response to Jesus is that the landowner will finally come a set things right… set things right by bringing down his full power and might on those wicked tenants, by putting them to death and renting to new less wicked and more fearful tenants who wouldn’t dare try to take what isn’t theirs.

Almost sounds like the plot to an action movie doesn’t it. A good and virtuous landowner’s son is killed by some bad dudes while the hero is far away in a another country… so now the landowner will spent two hours kicking butt with explosions and car chases to rain down righteous vengeance on these bad renters.

And isn’t that how we imagine power to look like. Power is to be the strongest and most mighty of them all, the one able to demand and take the things that truly belong to heroes, while the bad guys are the ones who just weren’t quite strong enough.

The pharisees and temple priests imagine power and strength in the same way that our world does. The strongest, the most powerful, the most god-like among us, are the ones who can strike the most fear, who are the most violent, who can control the world around them the most.

The tenants see something that they want and can take, so they use violence to do so. While the pharisees and temple priests believe that the landowner, the one who should be the most powerful will exercise that power and squash those wicked tenants like the bugs they are.

Given that the brightest religious leaders and authorities of Jesus’ believe that greater violence is the answer to violence, that greater power and might the answer to power and might, it is not hard to see 2000 years later, we hold the same idea.

It is easy to see that we too so often see violence and power and might as the solution to our problems. Whether it is gaining the upper hand in argument with a loved one at the expense of their feelings, or hoarding control and power over those we work with, or treating badly those who serve us our food, cut our hair, provide medical care, or plow our streets because we know they have to take it. We often see violence and power as answer to problems, or the easiest way raise ourselves up while pushing others down.

It is even easy to see that regardless of the particular motive of the Edmonton attacker or Vegas shooter, that our desire for power and might and control turned extreme quickly becomes tragic.

It impossible to miss the fact that this all because of original sin, the same desire of Adam and Eve to be God in God’s place.

And so when Jesus tells the Pharisees and temple priests this parable of violence and they suggest that more violence is the answer, it is hard for us to disagree.

But God disagrees.

In fact, this thinly veiled parable shows us that God the Landowner does the opposite of what we would consider god-like and powerful. God comes from the bottom. If violence were the answer, would have never sent his slaves in the first place. He would have sent soldiers from the first moment that the wicked tenants weren’t paying up. But God sends slaves, servants whose job would be to take the fruits to the harvest out of the hungry community. And when first slaves are killed, God sends more. God sends more as a sign that the importance of caring for those whom God is responsible is no joke. And when those slaves are killed, God sends the son.

And even though Jesus ends the parable there, we know the real ending.

We know that even after the son is met by the wicked tenants shouting crucify him, they nail the son to a cross. They use the power that seems the most god-like to us – death.

But God sends the son again.

And the son comes to us from the bottom. From the place that is surely the least god-like in our minds.

God sends the son to come to us from the grave.

From the place of utter weakness.

From the place where power is completely absent.

God sends the son to come up and out from the grave.

And by doing that God completely re-defines the power of violence.

God re-creates the order of the world.

God-like power is no longer the power to decide who dies.

Whether it is cutting words directed to a loved one,

Or bullets cutting down hundreds at a country music concert.

God undoes the place of violence and strength and might in the world.

God makes weakness god-like.

God makes loves god-like.

God makes grace the new reality.

And all of a sudden violence and power and might, they are not so god-like anymore. In fact, they become very human. And the thing that we thought was the solution to our problems turns out to be no solution at all.

Rather, God uses the weak waters of baptism to change us at our core.

Rather, God uses the foolish word of forgiveness and mercy to make us new.

Rather, God uses the love found in the body and blood of Christ to welcome us home.

And once again, Jesus reminds us that the power to decide who dies is a very human power.

But it is God’s power to make the dead… alive again.

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