Proper 22 ~ Lectionary Year A ~ October 5, 2008
Holy Trinity & St. Anskar
+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity
hurricane Katrina, an influential but misguided clergyman
announced that the disaster was God’s punishment for
Last week, we heard Ezekiel’s ancient objection to this monstrous way of thinking: “don’t you dare ever say that God causes anyone to suffer because of somebody else’s wrongdoing!” And then we heard from Paul God’s final answer to Ezekiel – and to Job as well: the Cross of the only-begotten Son.
I am convinced that God is not interested in punishing sin, but in destroying it: not by destroying the sinners, as in the time of Noah, but by absorbing all our wrong. The Cross was not a price demanded by an angry father, a price we could never pay ourselves, but it was God’s eradication of our sin by taking all of the violence into Himself, and thereby making the world New and Right.
We can’t do that ourselves, either. We are caught. Without the Cross, we are prisoners of our own wrong. That is one way to understand the popular notion of karma. It is not so much that we get what we deserve, but that our actions have consequences. If we grab a hot iron frying pan with our bare hands, we get burned. I suppose you could say that the burns are God’s punishment for grabbing the skillet, but it’s just reality ~ just the way it is. Instant karma. But grace dissolves karma. The Cross sets us free from the relentless necessity of suffering the consequences of our actions.
I mention all of this because I am going to compare the current Wall Street train-wreck to the ruin of the wicked tenants in today’s parable ~ I hope in a way that avoids the heartless, disgusting concept of God that leads people to say that natural disasters are God’s instrument of punishment. What is happening to us now is not a natural disaster, after all; it is more like karma: the inevitable result of certain decisions and actions on our part, rather than a punitive act of God. We got so used to grabbing the hot frying-pan that we began to think we could produce ever more delectable results, especially if we got rid of those tiresome pot-holders. And we got burned. Again.
The classic capitalists ~ some of them anyway ~ were not so sanguine. They understood that the frying-pan was dangerous, because the heat that made it work needed to be handled carefully. That energy they regarded as self-interest. If controlled and disciplined it could be productive. It was human nature. But they also really believed that human nature was FALLEN, and that “enlightened” self-interest could easily become greed that was sinful: very dangerous unless carefully controlled. They could still remember when lending money at interest was a crime punishable by death (one cannot resist the pun: a capital offense). But since human nature was fallen and that was just the way it is, these early capitalist frying-pan experts devised systems of pot-holders (laws and regulations) to enable them to use the energy of greedy selfishness without getting burned. The justification was the common good. In the end, everyone would be better off. And so, what used to get the death penalty began to produce great wealth. And everyone was better off. (Well, not everyone, exactly: not the slaves and the wager-earners who succeeded them at the lowest rung of the ladder. But that’s just the way things are. It’s human nature that some should be poor and others rich.)
But in time, the frying-pan-handlers forgot about the religious superstitions of their predecessors: no more God, no more sin, no more scruples about serving the common good. All that remained was the old view that greed was natural to human beings, and gradually that came to be seen as a positive good: not a sinful inclination that was a mark of the fallenness of human nature, but a virtue ~ a positive characteristic of human nature. We forgot that the frying pan was hot, dangerously hot.
And so, the pan-handlers got burned, As with the hurricane, those will suffer the most who never reached for the pan themselves and who never got to taste much of it’s product. In their case, it is neither God’s punishment nor karma, but it is what happens when human society renounces solidarity in favor of individual self-interest, in the name of “nature”. Then the society has to be re-organized, the operating system reinstalled, the beloved vineyard plowed under and re-planted with new tenants. As John Cassidy of the New Yorker observed last week,
It is no accident that the country is confronting its worst financial crisis since the Depression. Gullibility and greed caused this latest calamity, but what allowed those basic human traits to combine to such catastrophic effect was a legal and institutional framework that resulted from deliberate policy actions. Something new, from a new Administration is needed. A new deal, you might say.
In our Lord’s retelling of the sad, awful story of the Vineyard, the blame lies with the wicked tenants, who suffer a “terrible end.” This is the karmic end, if you wish of greed. The tenants had come to think of the Vineyard (the economy) as their own possession. They increasingly forgot about its real purpose, which was to produce wealth for the Landowner, who represents the Society as a whole. As I interpret it, today, the Vineyard is the economy and the tenants are the financiers. They themselves produce nothing at all (remember the day-laborers from last a couple of weeks ago? They are the ones who actually produce the wealth. The tenants just organize their work). But bankers and investors as such produce nothing. They are not entrepreneurs; they are speculators. They manipulate wealth. (We used to say “paper” but nowadays, in our digital age, it is even LESS substantial than paper.) And when they withhold the increase of the Vineyard from the Landowner ~ even to the point of murdering his emissaries, including his own heir ~ they have to be replaced, and not with more evil tenants like themselves, but with a whole new system of running the Vineyard.
We do not especially look forward to any particular persons getting what they deserve, in the sense of a comeuppance. That is the reign of karma, not of grace. The rule of grace, or the Reign of God, may well leave economic systems to the workings of their own inner logic. No grace for them, only karma. But persons are another story. In the Reign of God, we get much more than we deserve ~ all “those good things for which we are unworthy to ask.” These are poured out upon all together, in solidarity. As long as we seek to secure them through the harnessed greed of wicked tenants ~ through a system built on a moral disorder, there is no way we can be escape karma: we are handling the frying pan and sooner or later – and repeatedly – we are going to get burned.
Like those wicked tenants, we have been inclined to think of our system as just “natural”, the way things are in the real world. The Landlord is far away, if he exists at all. We can do as we please, and keep the produce for ourselves. We have forgotten that the frying-pan is hot, red hot. Karma dictates that we get burned. Unfettered capitalism ~ greed turned from a deadly sin into a virtue by the arrogant alchemy of modern thought ~ will devour us.
But fortunately, greed is still what it is: a disorder, a sin. It is NOT a law of nature, ordained by God. The Landowner is on his way to put an end to the rule of those who would have us believe that it is, and to secure the increase of the Vineyard for the rightful owner: that is, for all of society. He is coming to put those wretches to a miserable death, that the weak, the lowly and the exploited worker, the insulted and abused migrant, and all those who have no helper might at last have a share in the abundance of the Vineyard. He is coming to put down the mighty from their seat and exalt the humble and meek; to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich empty away.
Come, Lord Jesus