Violence… and the Shuffling of Boots

Posted: October 1, 2020 in Uncategorized

Violence… and the Shuffling of Boots

Matthew 21:33-46

What an unholy mess this parable is from Matthew! The story line is full of violence carried out under extreme provocation: people beating and killing and stoning servants, then killing the land owner’s son. And to top it off we read what other dissatisfied storytellers felt they had to add to make it even worse when we read the bit where the owner wrecks vengeance on the tenants.

All in all, there is plenty of murder, revenge, and blood in this so-called parable of the wicket tenants. Many scholars do not believe was a parable of Jesus and that it was very likely reflecting a local issue faced by Matthew’s community.

So, on that basis we look at the parable and we ask questions of its purpose and the first thing we say is that the parable can be interpreted on many levels. Matthew, for instance, has already offered an interpretation: that of an allegory. That is, the parable was immediately relevant for Matthew and his community because (we think) they were having problems with the synagogue across the road!

Like many Presbyterian Sessions and or Parish Councils, and I hasten to add some Body Corporates an ‘in-house’ conflict was present and, in their case getting out of hand. They had as Jews who say the Jesus Way as a desperately needed reinterpretation of Judaism and or a new and vibrant response to God had been struggling, without success, to position themselves as the new leaders of Israel’s faith and were being increasingly driven to the margins by resurgent Pharisaic intent. So, Matthew took some of the key elements of this story and applied them: Vineyard = Israel, God = the land owner, Messengers/servants = the prophets, Son = Jesus, Son’s death = Jesus’ crucifixion. What we might call today, ‘Creative Writing’.

Or we could even bring it closer to home and spend some time reflecting on our much more subtle ways of ‘beating up’ God’s messengers who call us to become involved in the issues of the day.

We all know that ‘Loving’ is a challenge we very often savage or sabotage, whether at a personal or a community level. Somehow love seems to awaken our fear of becoming a scapegoat, or being seen to be weak and ineffectual so we respond defensively.

So, in dealing with the text today I want to take the advice of a certain William Bausch and focus on the violence contained in the story. For this is, as we all sadly know, a timely topic. Given the race riots, fear driven street battles, Blaming and scapegoating that the Covid 19 has fostered in many communities around the world. It is as if Violence forms a subtext of our daily lives.
as Nations. Peoples and Individuals of all ages – even youngsters in primary school. All are routinely hurting, maiming, threatening and killing one another. This intolerance, and violence has become so common place in a hurting world. Social commentators have said that the fear of violence and the concern for personal safety has become a major preoccupation among the people over recent years…Especially for those in the oldest and youngest age groups.

So, we might ask what is it that is behind this proliferation of violence in our world? Rex Hunt of whom I quote on accession said that part of the problem and only part of it is a shocking lack of empathy for other people, for victims. And an inability to feel what those who are hurt are feeling. An inability to understand and share the feelings of another. I want to share a poem I wrote about  our human need for empathy in recognising the importance of other people, even those we don’t get along with.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need you to ask me why I care for you this way.

I need you to wonder how I could smile every day.

The truth is that I need you as the other

The truth is that you make my life worthy

Having you around makes my day smooth and easy.

Without you it is hard for me to end a day fulfilled.

The truth is that you make my life worthy

The truth is that you give me reason to love

Without you I cannot say “I’ve loved you since the day I met you.”

I cannot stare at you from afar and know the deep feelings that rend me silent.

The truth is that you give me reason to love

The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

You share the love you have known that stops my heart from beating.

You speak of happiness with a smile that makes me weep with joy

The truth is that without you I cannot love.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

Doug Lendrum

The claim is that many lack this ‘empathy’ because many have divided the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’… in our excess we have turned individuality into alienation an us and then distinction that was high on Jesus’ list of what was horribly and terribly evil in the world. No Samaritan and Jew. No northern and southern Irish. No Israeli or Palestinian. No black or white. No straight or gay. No Aucklander and the rest. No ‘them’ and ‘us’. Its what loving is all about. Its what loving one’s enemy is about, its what democracy is about. Its what makes the corporate, the collective, the committee and the community work. Yet more and more, a sense of empathy is evaporating. We saw in the beginning a glimpse of this when we became united with the victims of the Christchurch massacre and with the response to Covid 19. But now we are back to the verbal violence of partisan politics as the desire to win becomes a them or us. And sadly, with this loss comes an inability to be compassionate. And when there is no empathy and no compassion, there is easy violence.

And dare I say it. Matthew’s treatment of this parable with his allegorical overlay, has produced tragic consequences for Jewish-Christian relationships over the centuries.

So, like many I agree with the Jesus Seminar when they say that this overlay did not originate with Jesus. But is rather the work of the storyteller, Matthew. However, its inclusion in the text is an opportunity for us to contextualize it for ourselves.

To do this I want to tell you a story Rex Hunt has used when addressing this text. A story this time which comes out of the Second World War.

The war was still in progress but it seemed the nation was in need of a morale boost, and to rally the country, the leaders in Russia decided to stage a march of 20,000 German prisoners through the streets of Moscow.

The footpaths swarmed with onlookers, cordoned off by soldiers and police. The crowd was mostly women – Russian women. Every one of them must have had a father or a husband, a brother or a son, killed by the Germans.

They gazed with hatred in the direction from which the parade was to come. At last they saw it.

The generals marched at the head of the column. Proud, their chins stuck out, lips folded.
An air of superiority about them.

The women clenched their fists. They shouted their hate. Then all at once something happened to the women. They saw German soldiers thin, unshaven, wearing dirty bloodstained bandages,
hobbling on crutches or leaning on the shoulders of their comrades. The soldiers walked with their heads down. The street became dead silent. The only sound was the shuffling of boots, the thumping of crutches.

Then an elderly woman in broken-down boots pushed herself forward, past the soldiers and police. She went up to the column, took from inside her coat something wrapped in a coloured handkerchief, and unfolded it. It was a crust of black bread.

She pushed it awkwardly into the pocket of a German soldier, so exhausted that he was tottering on his feet. And then suddenly, from every side, women were running towards the soldiers. They pushed into their hands bread, cigarettes, whatever they had. The soldiers were no longer enemies. They were people.

William Bausch, who shared this story, goes on to suggest: “When the women saw the men hobbling through the streets, they were no longer the enemy; they were no longer those who killed their relatives. They were just victims, and the women felt for them. There was an outpouring of empathy and compassion. The violence they intended was no longer in their hearts.” (Bausch 2000:205) Its very likely that Jesus the storyteller would approve!

I want to conclude today with a verse of a poem I wrote which I think is about the nature of the compassion we seek from empathy. I think it talks about the importance of the ‘other’ in our lives and of the unconditional love that emits form a loving heart of cosmic proportion.

My love is for you as the ‘other’ is not anybody for anything,

which is how deconstruction defined a literal grace

my love is the purist of gifts, gratuity beyond and description offering,

 and pure grace is the transport of love apace

my love, freely and astronomically proffering

from a heart of almost cosmic scope here in this place.

Doug Lendrum


Bausch, W. J. The Word In and Out of Season. Homilies for Preachers. Reflections for Seekers. Mystic. Twenty-third Publications, 2000.

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