Sermon preached by Emily Kempson
One month ago, I was sitting on a front porch in Virginia on a beautiful crisp fall day, drinking iced tea and catching up with an old friend. Elaine and I were chatting, swapping stories of recent life events, when she told me something that has stuck with me to this day.
“If we really believe in the resurrection,’ She explained, ‘then we know that life always follows death. So when I have to confront death, I also look for where new life will come from.” She made me think, when we come up against death, injustice, cruelty, or the like, we must confront and name it for what it is, but at the same time, we should look out for where, life, goodness, and love might break in.
That’s a powerful sentiment in its own right, But Elaine’s comments still ring in my hear for a different reason. You see, the recent personal life events she was telling me about were also international news.
Elaine Thomas is an Episcopal priest in Charlottesville, Virginia, a sleepy University town, not unlike Cambridge except the buildings are younger and the rolling hills are more reminiscent of Oxfordshire than the fens. I lived there some years ago as an undergraduate, but Elaine was there in mid-August when a rally of white supremacists and other members of the alt-right descended on the town.
They were protesting against the removal of a statue memorializing Robert E. Lee, a Confederate General who lead hundreds of thousands of white Americans to death in a war meant to keep over 3.7 million African-Americans enslaved. In the daylight, the protestors carried confederate flags and swastikas. At night, they carried torches to the heart of the University of Virginia, chanting the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us.” At the rally, independent militias with military grade weapons protected them in the name of ‘freedom of speech.’
Like many of you, I had read about the events in the news, but my friend Elaine was there in person. When townies, students, and faculty gathered to form counter-protests against racism, she was with them. At one point 30 members of clergy clasped arms and sang “This little light of mine” while 20 feet away, white nationalists hollered back “Our blood, our soil” [Washington Post]. Before noon, violence had broken out in Charlottesville and police stepped in to disband the rally. One white-nationalist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing a young woman and injuring 19 others.
Elaine was telling me her experience of these days, when she said “life always follows death. So when I have to confront death, I look for where new life will come from.”
Sometimes confronting death looks like Charlottesville in August: The evil sentiments are easy to recognize; confronting it is as straight forward as walking down your local street; and the dangers are immediate and real. But much more often, evil is subtly inflected through good things, confronting it demands careful continual attention, and the dangers are more like a slow poison than outright violence.
It is tempting to ignore these subtle evils, especially in our age of light-speed internet, when we constantly learn of fresh tragedies, horrors, and cruelty. It is easy to shake our heads at far flung places, while overlooking the faults in ourselves, our communities, and nations. Nor should the church, our painfully imperfect community of faith, be exempt from such a critical eye; It is our responsibility as Christians, to find the parts of our tradition which have been twisted for evil, to uncover how they went wrong, and then set them right and guard against future corruptions by such slow poison.
It is likely that some of you saw the stains of one such poison on the picture painted by today’s gospel reading. The parable of the Wicked Tenants, as it is often called, has been put to nefarious purposes. When the landowner leaves tenants to look after his vineyard, and then they proceed to persecute his servants and ultimately his son, some have read the tenants as representing all Jewish people (and all subsequent Jews!) rejecting and killing Christ the Son of God; when it is said “those wretches will be put to a miserable death” some have taken this as God in turn rejecting “the Jews” for rejecting Him and punishing them with justifiable persecution for the rest of history. We will see that this sinister reading collapses under critical scrutiny, and even more so in the light of Christ’s teachings. But first, we must reckon with the death-dealing reality; the parable of the wicked tenants is one of those biblical passages frequently co-opted to support anti-Semitism and to discourage Christians from objecting to violence against Jewish people. Our Bible studies have more in common with Charlottesville than we’d like to think. It is our duty as Christians, commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, to stop the perpetuation of these interpretations. Today, taking my friend’s advice, we must both confront death and look for life in how we read the Gospel.
Needless to say, anti-Semitism is a force of evil and death in the world. Its 20th century form combined age-old anti-Jewish sentiment with modern race theory, technology, and nationalism for an especially toxic concoction. There were many non-religious contributing factors to the concentration camps of World War II, but elements of Christianity undeniably played a roll.
Rabbi Michael J. Cook of Hebrew Union College has identified 10 themes often attributed to the New Testament which post-holocaust Jews find especially disconcerting. In essence, these reduce to the idea that the Jewish people as a whole have rejected Jesus and killed Christ, and in response God has rejected the Jews and replaced them with Christians as His chosen people. The idea that Christians have supplanted or superseded Jews is often called “supercessionism.” “The Jews”, in this case, tends to be a sloppy category, lumping together people spanning millennia and continents, from ancient Israel to the present day, without differentiation.
Fortunately, none of the 10 disconcerting themes are necessary conclusions from Biblical texts. Nevertheless, they have circulated in various forms for centuries, and, like a bad lie, repetition will give anything a ring of truth. If we aren’t careful, we could think an interpretation is sensible when all it really is, is familiar; we may miss that these readings don’t fit well with the text itself or its historical context or Christian teachings.
Not even commentaries from well-respected publishers are immune from this danger. One 2015 commentary on Matthew in our own University Library practically quotes from Rabbi Cook’s list; saying “This is the very message the Gospels depict: Jesus came to save the Jews and they rejected him … Increasingly frustrated and angry, Jesus has no sympathy for Jews who do not accept his teachings, but he is full of compassion for Gentiles. The Jews have not only been displaced, they have been replaced.” That commentary is a slow poison.
When we run into passages that suggest Christ-Killer or supercessionist themes, we must remember this: what Christ says of people is also true of Biblical interpretations; you know them by their fruits. If an interpretation leads to evil and death, that is a strong sign it is a wrong reading. In the case of today’s Gospel passage, historical, textual, and canonical critiques support to the same conclusion.
First, it is absurd to lump all Jewish people from the past two thousand years into a single culpable collective. Even within the narrative of Matthew’s Gospel, one cannot simply refer to ‘the Jews’ with any clarity. Most scholars agree that Matthew was a Jewish-Christian himself writing for a Jewish-Christian community before the faiths had completely separated. His Gospel certainly presents Judaism in a favourable light. Throughout, Matthew gives Christian faith legitimacy by showing it to be genuinely Jewish. It’s fair to say, this Gospel is written by a Jew, about a Jew who lived among Jews, so that other Jews will read it.
Furthermore, in the Gospel when we come to the parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus is not addressing a generic Jewish crowd. He stands in the temple debating directly with the chief priests and Pharisees. It is them to whom he directs his comments. It is they who say the wicked tenants should be put to death, and it is they who plot to arrest Jesus. Meanwhile, the surrounding crowds of non-priestly Jews regard Jesus as a prophet. Clearly, the passage is meant to indict a very small number of the Jewish leadership present at the time.
On top of that, the earliest audience of Matthew’s Gospel would have thought that the priests had already been punished. In 70 A.D., the Temple in Jerusalem was completely destroyed, and the Temple cult permanently disbanded. In this historical context, it makes little sense to take the wicked tenants to be anyone other than the specific priests and Pharisees whom Jesus confronted in the Temple. No further Jewish oppression is justified.
As for supersessionism, the idea that ‘leasing the vineyard to other tenants’ means that God has broken his promise to Israel and transferred it to Gentile Christians has little support. In the Old Testament, God frequently engineers the removal of Israel’s leaders when they go astray, but this never implies retracting his promise. In Jesus day, Israelites would have commonly spoken of Israel as God’s vineyard. We heard this language in Psalm 80, lamenting God leaving it unguarded, and in Isaiah (5.1-7), which portrayed God’s displeasure at finding Israel overgrown with the wild grapes of bloodshed and wailing cries, What he wanted was the good fruit of justice and righteousness. But through out his displeasure, God remains steadfast in his promise to Israel, even as the old tenants are done away with. In this way, the Biblical canon suggests it is sound to say that God maintains his promise to Israel, even after the temple cult has been destroyed and Gentiles and Christians have been brought into the fold.
And just like that, we have confronted the death that so often laces this parable. We’ve interrogated the anti-Semitic interpretations, and found they have little warrant. It is more congruent literarily, historically, and canonically to read that the tenants simply stood for chief priests and Pharisees whom Jesus knew, and that the covenant with Israel continues with the addition of others after the coming of Christ. So, where is the life in this parable? Turns out, it is named at the end: Christ, the stone whom the builders rejected. But Christ has been our corner stone, our life line, through this whole process of reading. For, as you’ll recall, we used Christ’s teachings as the key to right interpretation. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ sums up all the Jewish laws and their prophets in two commandments lifted from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: Love the lord with all your heart soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself. By this key we should read all scripture. Saint Augustine says as much – In his view, any interpretation of the Bible that does not build up love of God or love of neighbor, cannot be the passage’s true meaning.
To these two commandments, Jesus added a new one: Love one another as I have loved you. Christ gave his life for us. Any Christian at a loss for how to treat our Jewish brothers and sisters should love them as Christ loves us – he intercedes for us, even at great cost to himself. Rather than supercessionsim, perhaps intercessionsim should be our approach. Always interceding for our neighbours. Afterall, in essence interceding is confronting death and seeking life on someone else’s behalf. We are a people of resurrection. So, whenever you have to confront death, be sure to look for where life will come.