If you asked a Christian -- How does God change evil into good? -- you would probably get as many answers as you would the number of Christians asked. Even more complicated is that you would hear apocalyptic answers like God using (or allowing) violence to change evil into good. Some would even interpret today's parable that way.
If you dig a little deeper, however, in trying to answer the question of how to change evil into good, I think you discover a better answer. Jesus.
Jesus changes evil into good. Not with violence, however. In short, Jesus changes the world through His life, death and resurrection. But for us, in the throes of a violent world, we could use some of Jesus' tactics for how we change evil into good; and there is one tactic in particular I'd like for us to focus upon -- namely, Jesus' use of parables. Before we look at Jesus' parable in our reading for today, I want us to see how powerful a contemporary parable can be.
Often in African American communities, urban children go to their grandmothers for the summer. Little Johnny was no exception. When he arrived at his grandma's house, she told him the Pastor was coming for dinner next Sunday and he needed to be ready.
"When he asks what's your name, what will you tell him?" the grandma asked. "Johnny Jones," the little boy replied. "How old are you?" "Six years old." "Where do bad boys go?" "They go to hell." Grandma said, "Good Johnny, and by all means remember, don't talk too much."
The next day, grandma pulls little Johnny aside after they eat dinner. "When he asks what's your name, what will you tell him?" "Johnny Jones," the little boy said. "How old are you?" "Six years old." "Where do bad boys go?" "They go to hell." Grandma said, "Good Johnny, and by all means remember, don't talk too much."
Sunday morning came. The grandma made little Johnny put on his "go to meeting Sunday best." Right after Johnny put on his white shoes, she practiced with him again, especially since this was the big day and right after church the pastor would be coming over to eat with them.
"When he asks what's your name, what will you tell him?" "Johnny Jones." "How old are you?" "Six years old." "Where do bad boys go?" "They go to hell." Grandma said, "Good Johnny, and by all means remember, don't talk too much."
Finally, the big event. The pastor entered the home and immediately said, "Mrs. Jones, what a nice boy you have!" and then turned to the boy and asked, "What's your name?" Nervous, Johnny quickly said: "My name is Johnny Jones, I'm six years old, go to hell, and don't talk too much."
Now, the humorous story I just told is not meant to be taken literally; instead, it is meant for you to see yourself in the story. And by learning to laugh, we learn about Jesus' strategy to heal us from the paralysis of evil that stunts our growth as Christians.
For example, in today's Gospel, Jesus is like Johnny's grandmother trying to train nervous disciples. Jesus knows his incarnate life is short on earth. He knows that His incarnation is hard for people to understand -- a paradigm shift for most, even the greatest theologians of Jesus' days -- the chief priests and Pharisees have a hard time understanding Jesus. Even they could not wrap their minds around the coming of God made flesh. I think this is why Jesus tells parables -- stories in hyperbole that display extreme examples to make a specific point. And the best theologians still took a long time to figure out what the specific point was -- that God was standing in their face.
We can't blame them -- the chief priests and Pharisees -- just like we can't blame Johnny Jones who told his pastor to go to hell. In our anxieties and closed paradigms, we often fail to catch ultimate meaning standing right in front of us.
Even Jesus' disciples are like twelve little Johnny Joneses -- often scared to death as they ask Jesus to increase their faith. With God standing in front of them, the disciples became confused, like little Johnny, because they wanted a king wearing a scepter, or a business man promising gold and riches or a military general killing enemies and telling stories of monsters slayed and battles won. But Jesus is none of these. Jesus is confusing to the disciples. Jesus is not using any kind of power. Jesus is not the typical super hero. Jesus even tells parables.
Instead of them having to change from evil to good, they would rather see Jesus be like Samson and pull down columns of stone and to punish and humble the enemies to make "them" change instead of the disciples. But Jesus doesn't pull down any stones. Jesus doesn't kill any enemies. Why?
God's true power is relationality. Another word for this is love. God's very nature is relationship. Being related is the greatest effect of God's true power. You see, life itself is the result of being related. In such relatedness of triune persons, we discover our image of God, not as individuals, but as community. The imago dei, the image of God, is community. Our uniqueness as individuals matters for sure, but we are individuals in community. Jesus' parable is a mirror that He holds up to help us see this magnificent image of God.
I recently finished a book with Westminster John Knox, entitled Heaven on Earth: God's Call to Community in the Book of Revelation. My task in this book is to show, despite our evil inclinations, despite our being like Johnny Jones, despite our not really wanting to change but wanting everyone else to change, despite our evil inclinations, the extent to which God is willing to go to be related to us is enormous. So, I have the focus in my new book that I have in this sermon. That God changes evil into good through this powerful, canonic, infinite way in which God is willing to become incarnation -- God made flesh -- to change evil into good.
The parable of the landowner who sent slaves during the harvest to collect his harvest is not about the presenting issue of gaining justice for somebody stealing his produce. No, what it is about is simply this -- Jesus is trying to explain the measure to which God is willing to go to be related to us. God is willing to send God's self to change good into evil. In the parable, however, the corrupt tenants of the vineyard lack the worldview of such infinite relationality. They lack the vision to why they are in the vineyard in the first place; so, they kill God. Pretty shocking language, I know, but it conveys the hyperbole of Jesus' parable (that the tenants thought they killed the blood heir of the landowner).
Jesus tells parables for a purpose. Theologically, I think it's this -- namely, to learn how to live in a paradigm shift. After all, that's what a parable is, something that induces a shift in perspective. In other words, Jesus tells parables to invite us into God's point of view instead of our limited one. When we enter God's point of view, we realize God cannot stay dead. That's the Gospel. That's the good news. No matter what we do to God, God cannot stay dead because God is willing to go to the infinite extent of being related to us.
I was blessed to have the previous Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams write the Foreword to my book that I wrote: Heaven on Earth. One of the things that Archbishop Williams writes about my book is helpful here as I close this sermon. It's helpful for why we need God's point of view rather than our own apocalyptic one. Archbishop Williams writes:
To read the book [of Revelation] sanely and Christianly but still to keep our ears and eyes open to the depth of its imaginative challenges, we need a sane Christian expositor who also understands what matters about poetry and politics, and who knows what prophecy is and isn't. Michael Battle is wonderfully we equipped as a guide to such a reading, and his reflections are going to be a really valuable framework for many people willing prayerfully to "sit under" the holy text but wary of the seductions of theological fancy and self-justifying mythologies. It is an unusual and creative book which will be a welcome addition to the resources of critical and obedient biblical discipleship.
I include Archbishop Williams' insight here, not because of his praise for my book -- although it was an honor to receive such a Foreword from someone who I think is one of our greatest theologians of our time -- but rather, because in our anxious world of politics and economics we rush to apocalyptic interpretations of God so that we as Jesus' disciples do not have to change much. We just want everyone else to change. We would rather see Samson bring down stone pillars on our enemies. We would rather pay the movie ticket price to see heads roll in streets full of blood and horror. This is why those who heard Jesus tell today's parable rushed to their own apocalyptic imaginations. They said to Jesus, "The landowner will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time."
God's kind of apocalypse, however, will not be the way we want it to be. So, in closing, in order to live in God's kind of apocalypse, in God's paradigm shifts, especially the ones that God is trying to bring evil into good through, we indeed need a guide -- it doesn't have to be me, but we need a guide. Of course, as a Christian, the greatest guide is Jesus. But there are other contemporary guides who do an exemplary job of following Jesus. Folks like Desmond Tutu, Simone Weil, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and many others; as well as our ancient dessert fathers and mothers, and as well as mystics and saints, medieval era and the global south and people we've never even heard of. These can be our guides and they can help us see the imago dei, the image of God, even in our enemies. These are the folk I write about in my new book. They teach us that I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the tactic that Jesus uses in His parables to change us from evil into more than goodness -- to change us into God's loving community.
So, to be true to the sermon, I close with a parable. And strangely enough, it is a parable from our scientific world. The huge redwood trees of California amaze us. They are the largest living things on earth and the tallest trees in the world. Some of them are 300 feet high and over 2,500 years old.
One would think that trees so large must have a tremendous root system that reaches down hundreds of feet into the earth. But not so! The redwoods have a very shallow root system! You have to get down on your knees to understand their depth. On your knees, you can then examine the redwoods' root system. Right there on the surface underneath the soil, you see that redwood trees have roots intertwine with other redwood trees. They intentionally lock to each other. When the storms come, when the winds blow, and the lightning flashes, other powerful trees smash together and fall to the ground. But not the redwood. The redwood trees still stand in the midst of storms. They may sway, they may bend, but they sway together and they bend together and they stand together. Redwood trees do not fall because of their individual power or extraordinarily deep rootedness. They do not fall because they are community. Each tree is related to all the other trees in the grove and each tree's life depends on the other.