By golly, we do it to ourselves! Time and time again.
There’s a sense in the gospel text for today (Matthew 21:33-46) that we are the captains of our own demise.
Let’s stay with the allegory to mean that the owner of the vineyard is God the Father, and the Son that goes at the end to the wicked tenants on his Father’s behalf is Jesus.
Notice that in the story-telling, right off the bat, it is noted that the owner goes away to another country. It is this initial leave-taking of the owner that precipitates all the action in the rest of the story.
Also, let’s not forget the premise of the story which is that the owner does provide all that is good, all that is needed, all that is required for a beautiful, satisfying, enriching life — for everyone involved. The primary grace is the gift of the vineyard. And this vineyard is intended and supplied to fulfill the needs of the economy. In other words, God provides, for all.
But it doesn’t work out so ideally in this parable. Violence and death characterize most of the action in this story. So what do we do when things don’t work out according to the divine intent? When things go wrong, do we blame God, or someone else?
When things go wrong, do we deny or repress the new thing wanting to emerge, and we re-trap ourselves in living the way we always have? But then don’t we just remain unhappy, somehow living with this low-grade confusion about our lives. Richard Rohr says, “If the old game doesn’t stop working for you, you’ll keep playing it” (Discharging Your Loyal Soldier, DVD, Centre for Action and Contemplation, 2009).
It seems the tenants are stuck in playing the old selfish game of ‘what’s in it for me?” And how does that work out in the end for them? When the old game does not work anymore. When the way you used to pray just doesn’t connect anymore? When God’s love for you doesn’t mean anything to you anymore.
Some may call this a spiritual crisis. Good! It is! And in that, lies the invitation to change. To try something else. To go deeper.
Some believe the solution to all our problems is to turn the clock back to 1950. And do everything in the same way that people once did in the church, in their families, in their communities, in their politics in the last century. Like conforming robots, mimicking the past. But that’s like advising someone who is experiencing some difficulty with their motor vehicle to get rid of it and buy a horse and buggy.
The truth is, we can’t turn the clock back. Accepting this takes great courage, because then you need to confront what might first feel like a great abyss, before you. Spiritual masters, like St John of the Cross, have called it the ‘dark night of the soul’.
There are times when we hit ground zero in life. This occurs to more people than you may imagine. People ask me when they are in crisis — where is God in this? — presuming God is absent. Indeed, it may feel very much like God is absent. It’s a good question.
But the answer, I believe, is not in returning to the old patterns of thinking and living, to fill in the ‘gaps’ with our hard work, as if the solution is merely to ‘buck up’ and lose ourselves in distraction until we ‘fake it’ back to behaving in the ways we used to. Presuming, of course, that we save ourselves from our malaise. Eventually, our toiling is over. And then what?
But it is precisely In the ‘dark night of the soul’ where what emerges, if we choose to see it, is the invitation for renewal, for beginning anew with deeper growth and maturity for life.
Are we paying attention to this call of God? I believe that when we are confused, unsettled, even despairing – these are moments of grace wherein God softly and gently calls us to deeper and more authentic living. So we no longer have to live on the surface of our lives, but discover more of whom God has created us to be, created in God’s very own image for a purpose.
When the darkness comes, and you recognize it, allow the process and don’t rush back to the economy of the way it has always been. Learn from the darkness. Be vulnerable and humble. Hold and traverse through these periods of transition in your life with gentleness and compassion.
The absence of the land-owner is contrasted with the image that concludes the allegory — the cornerstone. A cornerstone, obviously, evokes images of constancy. The rest of the building upon which it rests is measured against this aligning force. A cornerstone doesn’t move. It provides the guidance and standard against which everything else is measured.
But, in verse 44, we see another function of the cornerstone: “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When we make mistakes, and our old game doesn’t work anymore, we live the consequences of our own mis-deeds and thoughts. We are the architects of our own demise. And when we fail and fall, it does feel like we are crushed. In the imagery of the prophet Isaiah, God is a stone over whom the disobedient inhabitants of Jerusalem stumble (Isaiah 8:14-15).
How do we ‘stumble’? One way is when we reject the prophets, the messengers, of God. Prior to sending his son, the landowner sent others in his name — all of whom the wicked tenants rejected.
We reject God when we reject some of God’s people for reasons of our own. After all, human beings are capable of doing terrible things to other people whom we are somehow able to define as less worthy, less human, less valuable than themselves.
We can be as brutal to one another as were the tenants who beat, stoned and killed the owner’s messengers.
In the last century, the Canadian government and mainline churches sought to stamp out the Indigenous culture in the residential school system, by abusing native children and simply defining them as the ‘other’. Germany employed the Holocaust, and the Soviet Union used the gulags (work and labour camps in Siberia). It was apartheid in South Africa and ethnic cleansing in the Balkan region of Europe and in central Africa. In 21st century India there is still a group called the ‘untouchables’ and in Australia there still continues to be discrimination against aboriginal people. When we reject some people, we reject the God who created them. (Marvin McMickle, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, JKP Westminster, 2011, p.143).
But God continues to have faith in us, despite our ongoing sin. This is the kernel, the heart, of the Gospel good news. The owner says that surely, despite all, “they will respect my son” (v.37) before sending him to what turns out to be his brutal death. God still has faith in us to do the right things, even though we so often fail God our creator.
God loves us so much, that we are given the grace and freedom to make up our own minds. God will maintain at least sufficient distance to enable us to determine our own fruitfulness or to make our own mistakes. God is, of course, not an absentee landlord. But mature faith means we know that we have the freedom to make mistakes, yes. But also the freedom to grow up and practice sound values and judgement on our own — even, and especially, when God seems distant. (Richard E. Spalding, ibid., p.144)
After all, God has already given to us everything we need. God has prepared everything we need for fruitful living.