Tuesday, April 11, 2006

My Holy Week reflections start here

The Parable of the Vineyard: The Planting of the Vine
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Today's reading for grad school includes a pair of chapters by Stephen Finlan from his book Problems with Atonement. His argument is that Christianity's doctrine of a substitutionary death for our atonement is not found in Jesus's teachings themselves and is a secondary development (an unhappy one at that!) of the Incarnation (primary).

In his parable of the vineyard, Jesus says the vineyard owner sent his son in order to "collect... his share of the produce of the vineyard" (Mark 12:2—a natural thing for a vineyard owner to do), not in order to have him sacrificed or killed (a very unnatural thing for a father to do). The owner is not happy nor even sadly resigned when the tenants kill his son; he is angry. Clearly this killing is not what he intended.... This theme of God wanting produce is neglected in the studies I have consulted, but it is fully consistent with Jesus's often-repeated stress on spiritual progress: the expectation that entrusted talents will yield a profit, the assumption that trees will bear fruit, the analogies of wheat and mustard growing. What the owner wants from his vineyard is growth and prosperity. There is nothing here about sacrifice, about a life given in order to make satisfaction.

Rather, we see themes that recur throughout Jesus's teaching: God's legitimate expectation of loyalty and of spiritual produce from the convenant people and bitter disappointment over a violent and ignorant response.


Detaching the Incarnation from ancient superstitions about sacrificial obeisance, patronage, ritual magic, and retribution enables us to more clearly discern the ethical and spiritual content of Jesus's life and teachings; for instance, his dissent from all abusive psychology and authority. Jesus neither taught an abusive God-concept nor, when he was being railroaded toward the cross, did he engage in self-blame, as many victims do. He rejected the whole mythology of sacrifice.

Today's reflection: With all the deconstructing of faith I've done over the last seven years, I'm surprised to feel Easter bearing down on me like an unwanted sentence, like a howling wind down a canyon at night. I instinctively turn my head away from the God image I don't accept, yet That God is supposed to be the universally right one, the substitutionary death is meant to conjure deep devotion and sorrow in me for my sins. The resurrection that follows is supposed to effect the great Greek catharsis of thanksgiving and joy...

I don't feel sorrow or joy or emotional catharsis. I feel anger (if I allow myself to go there) - anger that a substitution of Jesus's life for mine is supposed to pay for sins to a God of infinite resources and creativity, that political will turned authoritarian and evil is celebrated (yes, I chose that word deliberately - we do celebrate the whippings and nails with, as Forster might say, ghoulish interest because each nail is meant for my liberation) as the gateway to my cleansing and divine acceptance. In fact, what we say when we see Jesus's execution as necessary is that we must be moved by the torture or we are not grateful for all that he did. We can't wish it to stop or end or wish it had never begun....

So instead this week (to ward off those painful reflections), I find myself numb... thinking of Easter eggs to dye rather than the stations of the cross.

Finlan's description of the Vineyard owner knocked me backwards two weeks when I first read it. That the owner is angry when the son is killed! That's the God I believed in before I "knew" better.

This week, I want to think about how I live rather than how Jesus died. Am I yielding the fruit for which I was created, where I've been planted? A bit like planting a garden in spring, come to think of it.


Blueridgegirl said...

I feel this post, Julie. It makes sense, such sense, to me, who doesn't want to focus on the death of Jesus... rather I seems logical to focus on the life, what he did, what I can do, today, here, now. Not what will happen for me in the after life, not expecting that just because I Believe what I do isn't as important.

Just wanted to drop a comment.

jim said...

All I can say is wow, i'm going to have to think on this one...i've never heard of the vineyard story in that manner before. I'll be coming back to this one later today I'm sure.

Emily said...

Oh, the trouble you can get in by suggesting that Jesus didn't die for our sins to appease an angry, wrathful God...
Can't wait to discuss the Finlan article in class tonight.

julieunplugged said...

Emily I thought of you and almost referenced your UPI column. Let me do that now:

Emily's "Did Jesus Have to Die?" column

I kept thinking: wonder if her angry reader will find me and have me for lunch? :)

I'm looking forward to tonight too. The Christologies we're reading are challenging.

To tantalize other Unplugged readers, one of the theologians talks about "the church's imaginative witness to its experiences of brokenness and sacredness of erotic power in human existence."

Who said sex and theology don't mix? Hope to blog about that once I understand where da heck Rita Brock is coming from. :)


Rick said...

Wow. Great post.

My God LIVES for me, rather than my God died for me.

Chuck said...

Julie, this is an excellent and timely post. Finlan's writing is certainly consistent with my own beliefs. I've often wondered if concepts such as "atonement" and "messiahship" were targeted toward Jewish audiences who had built expectations of these things, rather than some universal change in the cosmic rules of order at the moment Jesus died. I certainly don't find those expectations embeded genetically/archtypically in my "being". I do find the need for hope and progress, always tightly coupled with a community offering grace and understanding of differing gifts/abilities (brings to mind the parable of the talents). That seems's perhaps like where Finlan is heading.

So during the past few years since returning to Christianity, I tend to dread these religious holiday seasons. I'm not very tradition oriented, and it just seems rather wasteful to spend 2 months out of 10 revisiting the same stories and trying to vicariously experience something we know little about and perhaps understand even less. The message of Jesus for me has been about finding enough connection with my "reasons for being" that I would be willing to give my life, energy, and resources toward them - to participate in "yielding that fruit" as you say.

jim said...

still thinking about this one...thanks :)

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I too no longer relate to the whole "substitionary death for our atonement". Just think it is unnecessary which I actually now find cathartic because I am no longer preoccupied with the whole sin and guilt trip. Not that I believe I am a saint or anything just no longer think that is what God wants us to emphasize either individually or corporately because it takes away from thinking about how we ought to live and the type of fruit we ought to bear. Have been thinking about the implications of the resurrection which I have written about elsewhere and have set aside time for personal transformation processing and exercises which hopefully will bear fruit in my interpersonal relationships with others which I think is a worthy cause. My kids no longer do the Easter egg thing but I do envy those who still have small children at home. It was one of my favorite aspects of Easter even if it had nothing to do with the Christian story. Do wish you well in your efforts in planting your own personal garden and hope you yield an abundant crop in the years to come....Bill/Bilbo

Rachel said...

The fact that the parable of the vineyard says nothing about atonement says nothing about atonement; it can't really be used as an argument against atonement when it doesn't speak to it, can it? What it does speak to is the anger of the owner against those who reject and kill the son. The owner doesn't kill his son, but he does kill the tenants, who should've known where their bread was buttered but allowed their desire to have the vineyard for themselves to get the better of them. It's the same imagery as the unfruitful vine, which is cut off without mercy if it fails to bear fruit. If Finlan wants to talk about the teachings of Jesus, it'd be an interesting study to look at what kinds of fruit Jesus is looking for and what kinds of things he considers cut-offable offenses. People tend to think he talks most about how folks respond to widows, orphans, and suchlike, but he has quite a bit to say about how people respond to him (the son), too, and the father--like maybe there's as much a personal thing going on as a "what's the right way to live' kind of thing.

Rebecca said...

Well. . .I guess I can only say that you make me glad to have grown up in a place with a waaay different view of Jesus, his life, death and mission and the nature of humanity. I wondered why so many 'come-outers' hate Easter--guess you answered THAT question, lol!