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.