This week we pray over and read together Matthew 21:33-46. This is the "Parable of the Wicked Tenants" (at that is the title in some translations). This is the violent climax of the vineyard parables and allegories in Matthew 21.
Before I read and pray over this text, I have to wonder how we can dare read it at all in worship. Last week, I heard Anna Madsen remind us that we must subject all our texts to the Auschwitz test. How will a text sound if we read it at the gates of Auschwitz? This text takes us to the limits of that assessment tool. The owner of the vineyard "will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time." Worse yet, the stone that the builders rejected will break opponents to pieces and crush them to dust.
How does that sound in the precincts of the gas ovens?
A subset of this problem, of course, is the notion of Christian "supercessionism." Is this about the Church replacing the Chosen People as the tenants in God's vineyard? If so, what do we do in conversation with our Jewish colleagues in the twenty-first century? Or will we just cough uncomfortably and preach on the second reading for this week?
In addition, our texts must also be read on the streets of Birmingham or Atlanta or Memphis. Here we have another "slave" text where the realities of slavery are assumed and never critiqued. The slaves are sent as disposable commodities. There is no real indignation regarding the beating and murder of those slaves. The assault is on the honor of the landowner rather than on the bodies of the slaves. It is only when the son appears that the landowner's rage is fully engaged.
How does that sound in the ears of the heirs of human bondage in this culture--whether our forebears were owners or owned?
It is easiest to burrow into the text itself and try to work out some sort of contemporary application of limited scope and awareness. I have committed that homiletical sin many times. But we cannot un-know what we know. Texts like these are what Phyllis Trible named in another context as "texts of terror." The abused in this text are slaves and Jews (some of whom were also women).
How do we read this text, tell this story, pray about our response in such a way that we do not continue the terror? Can we do it at all?
I'm a lot better at questions than at answers...