The New Zealots and the Golden Carriage Luke 20:9-19
“Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my own beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?”
What indeed? Jesus ends his parable with a question, but he doesn’t wait for an answer. He hastens to supply one himself —the owner of the vineyard “will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” The Lord’s message is clear—upon those whose lives are motivated by hatred and violence a terrible reckoning is coming.
In Jesus’ time the Palestinian countryside was seething. Absentee landlords controlled most of the land, and they were fiercely resented by their tenants. Independent and proud of their labor, leaseholders found themselves denigrated into share-croppers, forced to render a portion of their produce to land-owners who had done nothing to earn it. Often anger with the establishment erupted into acts of violence. Revolutionary feeling burned hottest in Jesus’ own district of Galilee, which was the headquarters of the Zealots, a radical party responsible for numerous terrorist attacks upon the landed big shots. Jesus knew the situation first hand. There was even one of these revolutionaries among his inner circle. The gospels number among his disciples one Simon, called “the Zealot.”
Now that was long time ago and a world away, but the first-century situation closely parallels our own in some interesting ways. There are many people in our own country who fume and seethe with anger against the establishment—the government or Wall Street or whatever–and for many of the same reasons those Galilean tenant farmers did. They are the folks who complain about the size of the plates at the salad bar. They feel short-changed by the system that seems rigged against them, like share croppers in their own land. And certain media outlets—they hardly need to be named—have long fed their rage and resentment on a diet of raw meat.
There was a time when these New Zealots appeared to be just a bunch of wing-nuts. No one in either political party took them seriously. But lately their appeal has greatly widened and consolidated under the leadership of a certain charismatic if half-baked candidate for president whose name hardly wants mentioning. Donald Trump has arisen to become of the hero of those who feel themselves pinched by system under which the rich get richer and everyone else gets the shaft. And Trump, who has done as much as anyone to create that state of affairs, has succeeded in galvanizing these disparate malcontents into a movement, making revolutionary anger fashionable even among those who have no particular reason to feel it. Zealotry has become the new shabby chic.
This sort of thing is nothing new, of course. In October of 1795 the gilded coach carrying King George III was surrounded by an angry mob as it made its way through the streets of London to the opening of parliament. It was a mixed crowd–honest, hardworking tradesmen as well as indigents, and even a scattering of the ladies–all united by their feeling of having been ill-used by the powers-that-were. Britain had for years been at war with revolutionary France, and as the conflict dragged on, it had become ever more unpopular because of the economic pain it caused to ordinary Britons. Some people, as usual, were making a lot of money from the conflict. But many others were hungry, and protestors called out for “peace” and “bread.” Others, however, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, cried, “Down with George! No king!” Stones were thrown at the carriage, and one shattered the window inches from the royal head.
It was a well-aimed shot propelled by popular outrage. The mob saw their corpulent, simple-minded monarch as the image of the bloated power of a state controlled by the rich and the well-placed for their own benefit. And his golden carriage provided for them a symbol of a government insulated by privilege and indifferent to the suffering of its subjects. The newspapers of the time expressed shock. Some hoped and others feared that the attack on the golden carriage might be the prelude to a British Revolution along the lines of the French. But no popular leader arose to lead it. Fervor drained away and no guillotine was set up at Charing Cross. Revolutions depend upon a charismatic leadership to kindle the blind anger that fuel them.
And anger really does deserve to be called blind, because those who are possessed by it are able to overlook almost anything in their search for a hero. Even so what I find hardest to figure out about the Trump revolution is its appeal for so many evangelical Christians. Here is man who can only be described as a moral leper—an unrepentant adulterer, an exploitative employer, a compulsive liar, an outspoken bigot, and God alone knows what else. So what exactly is his attraction for the twice-born? Could it be that bigotry, hatred of the outsider, and a shared love of bad music is what really musters and motivates them rather than love for Jesus? Could it be that Trump’s rhetoric connects with something deeper than their Christian faith–a deep-seated sense of having been wronged, a burning resentment of those different from themselves, and a self-righteous belief of their own version of the truth to the exclusion of all others? His is a Zealot message, aimed at those who feel themselves reduced to share-croppers in their own land, those who itch to pitch a stone at the golden carriage. It has already stirred them violence. Now I am no prophet and no prophet’s son, but even I can see that this movement is going to get even more vicious.
The attractions of evil, beloved, should never be underestimated. It is powerful because it calls out to something in each one of us. You can detect the presence of evil by the way that it brings out the worst in everyone with whom it comes in contact. Have you listened to any of these so-called debates I wonder? Well, it is always good to know what tunes the devil is playing, but I couldn’t advise it. But if you have watched them, however, you have seen how they degenerate into nasty, ill-mannered, irrational schoolyard free-for-alls. That is what is happening to our country, beloved. This man and his words are bringing out the worst in us, just as he brings out the worst in those other candidates with whom he shares the political stage, just as he brings out the worst in his supporters–and also in his detractors. He calls forth anger in all of us—myself included.
I know it, and I am afraid, beloved. Afraid for us all. It seems that a sizable portion of the American people, including a large number who call themselves Christians, would prefer to junk the democratic process and be ruled by a tyrant rather than by a duly elected government that does not share their particular cultural values. So does the rise of Donald Trump in this election year portent the beginning of the Anti-American Revolution? Who can say?
But our concern, yours and mine, must be for our own souls, first of all, to guard them against hatred. Because hatred is simply the ripened fruit of anger. Now there is certainly plenty for all of us to be angry about in this annus horribilis. But anger never moved anyone to make a righteous choice or gave anyone a peaceful night’s sleep after making it. It is the just the music the devil plays to make us dance. And from violence and hatred always come a terrible reckoning.
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? Who knows? And what will be the future of Donald Trump–snake-oil salesman, unreality star, and would-be emperor? Well, we shall see, won’t we? But what you and I must do in the meantime is guard ourselves at all cost from the hatred he inspires and pray that God’s will be done in our nation and its political life.
From Book of Isaiah (21:11’-12) come these haunting words: “He calleth me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, but also the night.”
In other words the future is uncertain. There is cause in the news for both fear and hope. But to some degree what shall be depends upon each one of us and the degree to which we are able to banish anger from our lives and embrace decency, order, and tolerance. And whether in the face of evil we are able to stand up and tell the truth.