It’s Not Our Story: Why Living in an Empire Skews Our Experience of the Bible

One of the things I love most about the Bible is that after almost thirty-eight years it continues to surprise me. Over the years my understanding of what the Bible is, it’s role in the community of faith, and my interpretations of many texts has been transformed. I was reminded yesterday, however, that the journey of transformation continues.

Faith and Reason recently released a podcast (which is definitely worth the $15) based on a fantastic book called The Last Week by the late Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan. The book walks through the Gospel of Mark’s telling of Holy Week, the final week of Jesus’s life. In the course of the discussion on episode three, Crossan interprets a parable from Mark 12. It’s often called The Parable of the Wicked Tenants. It’s about a vineyard and the tenant farmers who are responsible for cultivating and caring for the land. The landlord goes on a trip, and later sends a servant to request his share of the produce.

The response of the tenant farmers was to beat the servant and send him away empty-handed. This is followed by a succession of servants, some beaten, some killed, culminating in the landlord’s own son. The farmers kill the son, and the landlord retaliates by destroying the tenant farmers and giving the vineyard to others. Those who heard Jesus tell this parable were incensed; they wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd.

Who are we supposed to see in the role of the landlord?

I know what you’re thinking. It’s God, duh! We tend to interpret the roles of powerful and absent rulers in Jesus’s parables as being symbolic of God. Which is a good reminder that we tend to read the Bible as we are, not as it is. Like a Rorschach Test, our interpretations of scripture often tell us much more about ourselves than they do about God.

This is true because we have a worldview. Everyone does. It exists in the way a contact lens does. It’s there, shaping what you see and how you see, even though you are unaware of it. People like me, who have lived lives of privilege (I’m a straight, white, heterosexual, cisgendered male, so pick your privilege) as a citizen of the most powerful military and economic superpower the world has ever known, tend to see the world through that lens. We gravitate toward power. We think about God in terms of power and control. God is the powerful and absent landlord of our lives, who puts us in charge of the world. We see God as we are, or long to be.

This interpretation, however, misses a crucial element of all interpretation: it ignores the context. Jesus lived his life in the matrix of Roman occupation. Rome was, then, the greatest economic and military superpower the world had known, and first century Judea/Palestine became part of the empire roughly sixty years before Jesus’s birth. All he and his contemporaries had ever known was centurions in the streets, and hillsides riddled with crosses, a public warning of what happens when you cross the empire.

A central feature of empire is the spread of culture and values. The Romanization of Palestine meant that the rich would become richer, and the poor would become poorer. This reality is present in the parable of Mark 12. There is a wealthy, absent landowner, and tenant farmers. Tenant, meaning that they owned no land of their own. Why? Because the process of Romanization, and the taxes that came with it, caused them to amass debt, and eventually lose their land.

So, in Jesus’s day there was a lot of discussion about when and how God would act to liberate the people from their oppressive overlords. When will the land be ours again? When will we live under God, and not some Roman Caesar who thinks he’s a God? You can imagine the tension that began to build, specifically in the week we call Holy Week. The marking of Passover, the retelling of the Exodus story, in which God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt, combined with the presence of Roman soldiers everywhere, meant they were living in a powder keg and giving off sparks (you’re welcome).

There were multiple opinions about how this liberation would occur. Will God just rend the heavens and rain-down wrath against the Romans? Some hoped so. Others focused on practicing their faith more deeply and piously. Still others tried to withdraw from society; they went off the grid to avoid the whole mess. Yet, others decided they must act in some way. One approach, seen in the life of Jesus, but also in others we are perhaps less familiar with, was that of non-violent resistance. This isn’t pacifism, but a form of resistance that asserts one’s dignity, while refusing to descend to the level of returning violence for violence. Another option present in Jesus’s day was that of violent resistance. How will we rid ourselves of the oppressors? We’ll kill them. This is the option that won out in the Jewish Revolt of 66-73 CE. Rome responded to the uprising, retaliating by razing the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. This is a fresh wound when the gospel we call Mark was written, likely in 71-73. It hangs ominously, like a fog over much of the conversation and tension, especially during Holy Week.

Back to our parable. What if we see the landlord, not as God, but as the Romans. Rome owned the vineyard (i.e. Palestine). The tenant farmers, then, would be the people who chose to resist the empire by violent force. The result? Rome came a decimated the tenant farmers, giving the land to others.

What if this parable is a warning?

A warning against playing the game by the rules of empire.
A warning against believing we can kill our way to peace and security.
A warning against choosing the path of violence, because revenge and retaliation are the song that never ends.

So, all that to say this: how much of the Bible do we just miss? Not because we aren’t taking it seriously or are actively trying to read it in ways that prop up our cultural values, but because we live with a worldview that is rooted in empire?

Perhaps one of the best questions to ask when we’re engaged with scripture is, “How might someone who is marginalized, oppressed, and on the underside of power hear this text?

It’s not a sin to live in an empire. Most everyone does. Some empires do a better job than others, but empire is still empire. It succeeds at the expense of someone, and the responsible, Jesus-y thing to do is ask who those someones are, and how we can hear their voices challenging what we assume is reality.

The truth is, for people like me, the story that reflects my reality isn’t reflected in the Jesus story, but in the Roman story. My hope for myself, and all of us who find ourselves in a similar spot, is that we will have ears to really hear the challenge of the Jesus story, especially as we move toward Holy Week.

And, if this interpretation angers us, if the idea that we are somehow missing things in the scriptures because of our privilege and worldview causes our blood pressure to elevate, then we actually have something in common with those who heard Jesus share this parable in Mark’s story. If that’s so, perhaps we should spend some time wrestling with why.

Grace and peace for the rest of Lenten journey, friends.

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