Pentecost 18 A: Words and Deeds

Matthew 21:33-46

Las Vegas.

Dear Partner in Preaching, I will confess that I have had a very hard time getting beyond the images and sounds from the horrific shooting in Las Vegas. They have preyed upon my imagination relentlessly, and perhaps they have for you, too…and for many of our people.

Violence. More ominously, inexplicable, seemingly random violence. Which is part of what is most frightening. Not only is it becoming clear that there is no easy way to protect vulnerable crowds from gun violence, but also that we can discover no motive, which simultaneously makes this act of horrific violence more random and harder to understand and also makes us all feel more vulnerable. Who next? What next? When, not if.

The violence in Los Vegas pushed me to think about this week’s Gospel reading a little differently. It, too, is violent. The violence of the tenants, the assumed and anticipated violence of the landlord. This week’s events pushed me to focus on the answer to Jesus’ question at the end: “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  As he is referring to the tenants who beat, stoned, or killed two sets of servants who came to collect the vineyard owner’s due and then murdered outright the owner’s son and heir, the Pharisees have no difficulty in answering: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

Jesus’ next words, as recorded by Matthew, seem at first glance to confirm this instinct to respond to violence with yet more violence, as he references the Psalms (118:22) to explain how those who oppose and reject him are missing God’s plan for salvation and therefore will lose the kingdom. That shouldn’t be terribly surprising, as even a quick read of Matthew reveals a consistently harsher attitude toward Jewish religious authorities than you find in Luke or Mark. Historians have suggested that members of Matthew’s largely Jewish community, perhaps worn down by distress and danger in the wake of the destruction of the Temple, were contemplating returning to the faith of their youth and that Matthew consequently saw the Pharisees as competitors for their loyalty.

When I keep in mind that Matthew’s community was a vulnerable religious minority of the day, I can sympathize with his plight and response. But I still regret it, because when Christianity went from minority to majority religion of the Roman Empire and grew into the most powerful political and cultural force in Europe, these same verses and others like them helped to justify centuries of mistreatment of Jews by Christians. Violence yet again.

Images of the violence in Las Vegas and references to it in the parable made me, at first, despair of whether there is any alternative. And then I looked beyond the passage and thought about where Matthew’s narrative is taking us. And it, also, leads to an act of violence: Crucifixion. Of the innocent Son and heir. Just like in the parable. But then all of a sudden it’s not the same. Because rather than return violence for violence, in the cross of Jesus God absorbs our violence and responds with life, with resurrection, with Jesus triumphant over death and offering, not retribution, but peace.

Whatever we may make of the words Matthew records Jesus offering, that is, Jesus’ actual deeds are quite different. He does not shrink from the sacrifice on the cross, he does not return with vengeance, he does not kick anyone out of the kingdom of heaven. Instead, the resurrected Jesus, having taken on the worst that our violence can inflict, comes back and instructs his disciples to take the good news of the Gospel to the very ends of the earth, promising to be with them always.

And for me, this week, that good news means in part that violence does not and will not have the last word. That the only response to violence is not more violence. That tragedy and death and loss and hatred are, in the end, no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace.

We may never know what motivated the gunman in Las Vegas. And there’s a lot of work to do to take action on policies and procedures that will make our people safer from gun violence and other forms of terrorism. But in the meantime, we have the promise that even when it looks like violence is the only outcome and response possible – “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” – it’s not. Perhaps that’s all the religious authorities in the story could imagine, or maybe it was all Matthew the Evangelist could imagine. Maybe at times it’s all our leaders can imagine, and perhaps all we can imagine, too. But there is another way forward. For while Jesus’ words, Matthew’s words, and our words all matter, Jesus’ deeds matter even more, as Jesus’ death and resurrection creates more possibilities than those we can see, including the possibility of peace

  • Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:27).
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Mt. 5:9).
  • Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Rom. 12:15-18).
  • And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Mt. 28:20).

This does not erase our grief or lessen our call to act to make such atrocities less likely. But it does, in the meantime, offer us hope, and hope is the birthplace of faithful action, compassion, and resolve. So thank you for your words of both comfort and courage this week, Dear Partner. Just now, we need them both.

Yours in Christ,