When I was a teacher, at least once a year, one of the boys in my class would in a fight with another boy. And when I set about to solve the problem, I usually asked the boys what happened. One boy would accuse the other of hitting him, and so, fool that I am, I would ask the kid, “So, did you hit him?” And the young man will almost always answer that he did not. Then, usually, a chorus of voices from the class would announce that the boy in question did, in fact, hit the other child. They saw it. And then the boy who at first denied hitting at all would offer, “He hit me first!” And then I would usually say something glib like, “Oh, I see. You didn’t hit him, but he hit you first.” So then I would ask the other boy if he did, as the other boy attested, hit him first. And then he would usually say something like; “He called my mother fat.” And this was supposed to justify is actions.
And it is at this point that I would usually say something like, “And that excuse works for you, does it? You get in trouble for hitting somebody and then say that the other kid insulted your mother, and then the teacher says, ‘Oh, he insulted your mother? Well then, let me hold him for you while you punch him.’” And then the poor kid would generally say, “No.” And then I would ask if this excuse has ever worked for the kid in the past with any teachers. And the kid would say that it hasn’t. And then I would ask him why on earth he continues to use the same excuse over and over when it never works
People are like that. Anybody who thinks we are the most intelligent life on earth has never really stopped to think about all the stupid shit we do. And we do a lot of stupid shit. No matter what the past teaches us, we keep doing the same thing over and over again, somehow expecting that this time the results will be different. I have read that is the absolute definition of stupidity.
I mean, look at the economy. During the Reagan and Bush the First administrations we tried massive military spending and a trickledown theory of economics. And what happened? We went broke and headed into a recession. Then we elected a democrat, which is not to say that the democrats are perfect or anything, but in eight years we had a surplus. So then what do we do, decide we need trickledown economics again, because they worked so well the first time. After all, they worked great in the 1920’s, right? Oh yeah, they didn’t work then either. I guess we’re just slow learners.
Human beings are not very good at those cause and effect types of concepts. We are not good at seeing what the consequences of our actions will be. That is why capital punishment has been shown over and over again NOT to be a deterrent against crime. Texas has one of the highest murder rates in the country and nobody fries convicts the way the Texans do. The threat of the death penalty doesn’t work because the people committing the crimes never think they are going to be caught. The truth is that they are not usually thinking about anything when they are committing the crime. They don’t think. And that’s the problem.
Even Jesus addresses this issue. In the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, Jesus is telling several of his parables, stories designed to teach a lesson about humankind and God. In this story, he talks about a man who plants a vineyard. Wine was obviously very important to Jews in the first century, but then when you think about how Jews in the first century had to live, you can see why. Anyway, this guy buys a vineyard and plants some grapes. Then he rents the property to some tenants and goes on a long journey.
When it’s time to pick the grapes, he sends some of his servants to claim the landowner’s share of the crop. The tenants, however, believing in the Little Red Hen Philosophy of Economics, do not give the servants any of the grapes. Instead, they beat one, kill another, and stone the third. You see what comes of rent control. So the landowner sends some more servants, a lot more servants, and they are treated in like manner. Running out of servants, the landowner then sends his son, figuring they wouldn’t dare do anything to his son (this is because they’ve been so reasonable up to now, naturally). But when the son comes, the tenants think to themselves that they ought to kill the son. That way THEY can inherit the land (because the landowner will be so happy with them and all). So they kill the son.
So then, after telling this story, Jesus asks the temple officials what they think the landowner will do when he finally gets a hold of those tenants. And they answer, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.”
This is, of course, a rather superficial story (in hindsight) that describes what the Jews have done since like forever to every fucking prophet that ever was unlucky enough to draw breath in Judea. And there are many scholars who believe that this particular little gem was added much later by early church leaders to attract more gentile converts. There were still some hard feelings towards the Jews at the time Matthew was written. However, this would seem unlikely to me since Matthew was primarily written to a Jewish population in Antioch. You don’t win too many converts insulting somebody’s culture.
So, in other words, you guys blew it, so Gods gonna hand the whole shebang over to the gentiles. How do you like them apples? This story may also have been a way to convince the Jewish converts to play nice with the gentile converts. It stresses that the gentiles are at least no worse than the Jews were. So they should be accepted as much as any Christian who happened to be Jewish first.
This story, however, does appear in a more abbreviated way, in the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic gospel not accepted by the mainstream church. It may not be accepted, but it is older than Matthew and an authentic representation of an early Christian sect, albeit somewhat heretical in relation to accepted Christian theology. Remember, the Gnostics believed in more than one God, and that Jesus never really was a real human person. They believed him a divine manifestation on earth. At any rate, the inclusion of some version of this story in Thomas indicates that Jesus may have said something like this.
And what I see here is a lesson about Karma. Here, the landowner sends people to claim what is his, and each time, terrible things happen to those servants. And even to his son. And the tenants, who are only renting the land after all, seem to expect that they will get away with this. They seem to expect that the landowner will get tired of sending people to claim his grapes. Indeed, they even expect that by killing the son, they will stand to inherit the land. Are they fucking nuts? Jesus seems to be saying at the end of this story what is obvious. Eventually the landowner will return to his property and kick some tenant ass.
You can’t do things and not expect some kind of consequences from what you do. But we do all the time. I am thinking of one person I know, a person very close to me, who smokes. Now I’m not going to start throwing stones at smokers. But this person was recently told that the condition of his mouth was pre-cancerous, and that he needs to quit smoking right away. Has he quit? Of course not. And when that pre-cancerous condition turns cancerous, he will feel as if a giant stone has just conked him on his stubborn little head.
The truth is that most of us eat as if we’re never going to gain any weight. We drink at bars as if we won’t be driving for hours and hours. We often live out our lives as if we expect to have nothing but good things happen to us, and then feel despair when the bad things do happen. And if there is one thing certain about life, it’s that shit happens. That’s the yin and yang of it all. You can’t just have good times. Nobody has just good times. The fact is, it’s the bad times that make us stronger, better people. Look at all the people who never take their cars in for servicing and then get depressed because things break down.
But those consequences seem normal and natural to us. They’re obvious. People who constantly ignore those sort of possible outcomes to their actions seem like fools to us. And yet, there are other actions that bring consequences. Selfishness and greed, cruelty and vengeance, anger and bitterness, apathy, all carry consequences too. Walking past that homeless guy has consequences too. Buying that gas guzzling carbon dioxide producing anti-green SUV because it looks cool and fuck the earth also has consequences. Placing justice above mercy has consequences. Being unforgiving also has consequences. And there is no escape from those consequences either.
Jesus challenged the people of his time and place, according to Matthew, to change their way of thinking. There is a way to live your life that brings good consequences, that brings peace, and feelings of love and acceptance. There is a way to live your life in harmony with the great cosmic spirit energy commonly called God. And God does not punish you for your sins. Your sins punish you for your sins. Jesus said to forget the rules. Rules mean nothing. You don’t live your life by the rules to please God. God loves you no matter what. That’s what the last parable was about. You live your life by the rules because sooner or later the landowner is going to come and kick your ass if you keep stoning his servants.
I’ve been on diets before. And when I have, I sure would would have liked some nice hot salty french-fries. But I didn’t eat them. I wanted to eat them, but I didn’t, not because they were against the rules of the diet (because they’re not—weightwatchers doesn’t have any rules like that), but because I didn’t want to fall backwards after making such good progress. I prefer to move forward. I don’t need to go backwards. In Christianity, there really are no long lists of sins, regardless of what the Catholic Church (of which, you know, I am a member) claims. Saint Paul says, “All things are legal for me in Christ Jesus.”
If you understand the story of the tenants and the landowner, you know that what you do matters in this universe. Jesus tells this story because the prophet Isaiah also told a story about a vineyard, in the fifth chapter of the Old Testament book by his name. He tells the story of a vineyard that is purchased and well-tended, but grows nothing but wild grapes (which are not useful). Isaiah then says that because the vineyard has nothing but wild grapes, he will let it go to ruin. Then Isaiah spells it out for the people. The vineyard is the nation of Israel and the people are the wild grapes.
Jesus knows that the temple officials will be familiar with this story. That’s why he told such a similar story. But, regardless of what various anti-Semites might say about the Jews being at fault, it is important to recall that the Jews are the grapes, not the tenants. There’s nothing wrong with these grapes. It is the tenants that keep the owner (God, we assume) from his rightful harvest. The tenants are those who care for the grapes, the temple leaders. So Jesus is fucking with the Jewish leaders with this story, not the Jews themselves. The temple leaders are keeping the people FROM God, as is the case in most religions. So don’t blame God for all those evangelicals that have made Christianity unbearable for you. It isn’t Christ’s fault his leaders can be assholes.
Our lives are vineyards. And the things we do are the fruit of our labors. Ultimately, each one of us is responsible for what we produce. That is why there is a Jewish tradition of never missing an opportunity to perform some act of kindness. We change the world, you and I. And there is no way to measure the impact of a single act of kindness, even the smallest act of kindness. You can change a life with a smile. Whose life did you touch today? Together, one kind act at a time, we can change the world. For the deeds we do have consequences and there is no escaping them, for yin or yang.
Of course Jesus knew they were going to kill him. It’s what we always do to holy people, to people who speak the truth. We did it to Jesus; we did it to John the Baptist, to Jeremiah. We did it to Martin King, to Ghandi, to countless martyrs. Jesus learned from history, and what he learned was the ultimate price he would pay for his message of love and compassion. He spoke the truth anyway. That was the consequence of his love, that by following his teachings we free ourselves from the slavery of fear and anxiety, from ritual without spirit.
And so I suggest yet again, for those who think that religion is for fools who believe in talking snakes and magic bearded guys in the sky, that it is not. You don’t have to believe in the talking snake to take the truth out of that story. It doesn’t matter if Jesus actually told this story, or if it was made up fifty years later by early church leaders. The truth it contains is the same. It’s easy to make fun of a talking snake. But there is no denying that each one of us experiences his or her own loss of innocence and has endured the bitter sorrow that goes along with that loss. Even the ancient Greeks understood that, hence the story of Pandora’s Box.
And I would say the same thing to any person that I say to those children who fight and make up excuses. Look at your lives. Look at the things you do. Are they working for you? That hurt you won’t forgive, that bitterness you feel, that endless quest to acquire more stuff, is it working for you? Are you happier for it? Because if it isn’t working for you, maybe it’s time to try something else. Maybe it’s time to change your way of thinking.