October 4, 2020 | 18th Sunday after Pentecost | The Killer Instinct | Matthew 21:33-46 | Pastor Norma Johnson

The Killer Instinct

Of all the creatures in creation the shark is near the top of the list when it comes to the killer instinct.  And that creates anxiety – even in little children.

It might seem a little far-fetched to begin this homily, on our Lord’s Parable of the Landowner and His Vineyard, with the thought of the killer instinct of the shark.  But it deserves our notice that neither the Clown fish nor the horses nor the ants   conjure up such a reaction as does the shark.  There is something in us that is fascinated by the instinct in a shark.  And that something is also in you and me, for whom this scripture is intended.

Jesus hints at this dark underside of our human nature in the parable we hear as today’s Gospel reading.  It certainly doesn’t sound like Good News!  But the text itself tells us that it is.

However, the thing that comes at us in this story is the cruelty with which the hired hands treated the servants and especially the son of the landowner.  They “beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  But their chief prize was the son himself.  Casting him out of the vineyard they would not let him go until they had killed him, too.  And the landowner’s judgment came down on the tenants with full severity.  They lost their lease on the land, and their fate was to have done to them what they did to others.

Jesus is speaking of the manner in which the prophets of old, right on up to John the Baptist in Jesus’ time, were rejected, beaten, and oftentimes killed by the people whom God had chosen to be a special instrument of God in the world.  The eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews documents this sad story, as it tolls the bell for “the prophets . . . who were tortured . . . suffering mockery and scourging, chains and imprisonment . . . they were stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword . . . and went about destitute, afflicted, ill-treated . . . “ (Hebrews 11:33-38).

Such things, by the way, I have never seen referred to in any brochures encouraging people to study for the ministry!

But above all, Jesus was speaking of the way of the cross that lay before Him.  He is the Son of that Owner and Maker of all things visible and invisible.  He is the One Who came to His own, and His own did not receive Him.  His calling as the Suffering Servant of God was to face those who plotted and carried out His death.  This Messiah of God was anointed for kingship by means of the cross which He carried.

What made that cross so heavy on Him is the wild, deadly fruit which stems from that layer in our lives which runs deep in us all.  No matter how mannerly and appealing the veneer of civilized respectability, we have within us the killer instinct.  It comes forth in many ways, and sometimes the ways are a jolt to our senses.

I still remember this incident which happened to me one day.  I was caught in the morning traffic and I was late for a meeting.  Cars were standing still, and I could see my destination from my car.  When cars ahead of the car in front of me, began to move.  The car ahead of me didn’t.  I am not usually rude, but I was late and had driven for the past two hours to get to this meeting.  In frustration and anxiety, I honked my horn to encourage the car in front of me to move.  But it didn’t. And, to my surprise, I saw the driver door open and a man crawled out from behind the wheel.  He got out of his car and came towards me shaking his fist.  I was frightened because I had nowhere to go and the line of cars behind me prevented me from backing up and turning around.  I felt like a prisoner in my own car.

Fortunately, this man stopped just short of my window, shook his fist and then his head . . . and then he turned around, went back to his car, got in and proceeded to drive forward.

Yes, there is a killer instinct in all of us.

So much of our fallen nature comes out when we get behind the wheel of a car.  One sees that sort of thing and sits back wondering.  What is there down inside of us that, when triggered, flares up in such anger?

Sometime, the killer instinct can be redirected down the channel of bitter attitudes, petty gestures of hatred, or most commonly – the view of another person that says if we never see that person again it will be too soon.

We can all add to the list of how the killer instinct surfaces in the daily woes of the world.

But, folks, that is not the point, here.

The point Jesus makes in this Parable is that this instinct surfaces even in the circle of religion.  After all, it was not to the Mafia of Jerusalem that he spoke this Parable in the first place!  It was to the scribes (the administrative clergy of the temple) and the Pharisees (the dedicated laity).  The Evangelist Matthew noted that both groups “Perceived that he was speaking about them.” (Matthew 21:45).

Yes, hate can join hands with religion and claim the very sanction of God for the killer instinct.  Witness the world events.

But Jesus Christ does not teach us to hate.

Nor does his Spirit lead us to believe that we have solved a problem by simply putting people out.

His way is a strong, unconquerable love that produces these fruits:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).

These are the fruits which grow in God’s vineyard, which is Christ’s church.  And, Christ’s church is his people, gathered in faith, linked together by God’s mercy, and active in the deeds of love which Word and Sacrament produce.

And no, the killer instinct is never totally obliterated from us as long as we live.  And yes, it can explode in, and on us when we may least expect it.  But it does not dominate.  It is being worked on day by day, as we seek to grow in faith and in holiness of life.

I share with you an illustration of how this can be true.  This story first surfaced some years ago on the internet.  It is one that I prize and keep in my digital file of thoughts to remember.  It is the story of “THE TWO WOLVES”:

One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that was going on inside himself.  He said, “My son, it is between 2 wolves.  One is evil:  Anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego . . .  the other is good:  joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith . . .”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then he asked his grandfather, “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one I feed.”

I invite each and every one of us to ponder the question:  “Which one do I feed?”





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