This is, admittedly, a very long post. If you wish to skip my stream-of-consciousness Journal Entry, you can go directly to Observations and Comments.
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Journal entry; Preparation, week 1, day 4
Mark 12:1-12 – Parable of the Vine-growers
The landowner – God, who built the entire vineyard
The vineyard – the earth or the “world” left in our care or, perhaps, in a broad way, God’s kingdom
The tenants – the people of this world, including me, who are on the earth or in the world or in the kingdom (broadly speaking)
The servants – God’s prophets
The son – Jesus
The others – the gentiles?
The tenants were busy doing their own thing, uninterested in the affairs or interests of the landowner. Over time, they came to act as if the vineyard belonged to them. It does not seem that they truly believed that the vineyard belonged to them, otherwise, what would their motive have been to kill the emissaries of the landlord. If they believed that the vineyard was theirs, would they not have simply told the servants to go jump in a lake? Rather, it seems that they knew what they were doing when they killed the servants, and the son. They were effectively cutting off all communication with the landowner so as to maintain the charade that they were the sole owners of the vineyard.
The tenants behaved as if they believed that the only role of the landowner was to create the vineyard. After that, the tenants could do whatever they wanted. In fact, the value of the landowner, beyond initial creation of the vineyard, is not a focus of this story, at all. That the tenants would recognize the inherent value in the landowner is an unstated, but fundamental, assumption of the story.
If it were not for the landowner, the tenants would have nothing. Only arrogance would allow them to think that the vineyard was theirs, all theirs. The landowner was happy to share some of the fruit of the tenants’ labor with the tenants, but that did not work the other way around. The tenants were not at all inclined to share the fruits of their labors with the landowner.
The landowner made many, many attempts to contact the tenants, but they rejected all of those efforts. He was extremely patient, but his patience had an end.
The landowner in this story is more important than he seems at first, for his son is the cornerstone, a very important stone. Certainly, if the cornerstone is tossed out, the building cannot be built.
Why did the Pharisees get so angry upon hearing this story, angry enough to want to do harm to Jesus (which is what the tenants in the story did!)? Why do I not feel this story? In what ways do I behave like the tenants? Am I self-righteous in this matter since I, certainly, would never attack or wish to kill one of God’s prophets… not like the tenants in the story! Have I ignored his prophets, which amounts to the same thing? Do I blissfully go about my daily business thinking that “all this belongs to me!”
There are two ways of responding to this parable:
Rebel – Like the Pharisees, see yourself in the parable, but see it as an attack on your life and lifestyle and your practice of religion and your values and get very angry.
Repent – Listen to how the tenants behaved and resolve to feel badly about the way that they behaved.
It is not my job or my career, it is the work that he has given me to do.
It is not my house, but the house that he has given me for my health and protection.
It is not my car, but the means of transportation that he has given to me.
It is not my life, but the ________________ that he has given me.
1. It is not my job or my career, it is the work that he has given me. In telling this story, Jesus’ intention was to force the Pharisees to understand their true relationship to God. Things were not as they seemed. In prayer this night, however, the Spirit is using the exact same story to highlight a different message: what I generally take as mine, is not mine, at all. I know, at this point in time, that living in the light of this truth will not come easy.
2. It’s not that life has no meaning or makes no sense… Like many people, I struggle with the meaning of life and God knows this. He is beginning to draw me into a world where the whole question is subsumed in His person. I do not know what that means at this time, but I have a sense on this night that God knows my struggle and He will help me. How He will help me is not clear right now.
Over many months since this night of prayer, I have struggled to internalize the message that what I consider to be mine is not really mine. How I view my career, my belongings, my relationships, determines how I treat them, how I respond to loss or gain, and how I see myself in the world.
There are two models to consider:
I am at the hub of a wheel, and all of the various specifics of my life (career, relationships, money and finances, hobbies, desires, dreams, etc.) emanate from and surround me like spokes. Being at the hub, I tie all the various components of my life together and it is up to me to pursue and support all the spokes or to switch out spokes as needed, or as I might desire.
God is the hub of the wheel of my life and my life is embedded in Him. The spokes, the various facets of my life, were created by and emanate from Him. The spokes are those aspects of my life that are consistent with God’s hopes and dreams for me. The spokes may change over time in accord with God’s will and in concert with His wisdom and goodness toward me.
My natural tendency is to subscribe to the first model, seeing myself at the center, where everything in my life is subject to my will, as manifest in my desires, intentions, and actions. The fact that such an arrangement does not work out so well on many occasions does not deter my effort to exert my will and maintain control. In other words, I sympathize completely with the tenants in the vineyard.
Stating that this issue is a central struggle for me understates the enormity of its influence in all areas of my life. While it is accurate, applying the label “selfishness” further trivializes the issue and is, therefore, not very useful. Bringing to light the way we see ourselves in relation to God was a major message that Jesus preached, over and over, illustrated in the parable of the vine-growers, and summarized when he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 4:17) Most Christians can recite this verse, but many do not realize the extent of the requisite repentance. Most take it to mean that a person, to be saved, must confess their sins to God and ask for His forgiveness. In practice, this view, while not inherently incorrect, amounts to our fiddling around the edges of our lives, never getting down to brass tacks, to the center of all the mischief that is rooted deep down in our souls, where God dwells with us. Adopting such a shallow understanding of repentance may allow us to live comfortably however we please, but we miss the breadth and depth of Jesus’ life-giving call: The orientation of our whole life must change. Dallas Willard has helpfully elaborated on Matthew 4:17: “Rethink your life in light of the fact that the kingdom of heaven is now open to all.”1
I grew up in a coastal town in eastern Massachusetts. In the 1960s, environmental analysis revealed that the town beach, which is, in fact, a very large sandbar, was eroding at an alarming rate. Plans were drawn up and immediately implemented, at great cost to the taxpayers, to prevent the otherwise certain disappearance of the beach. Happily, the beach is still in existence today, but that result has come about only through persistent and costly countermeasures against the enemies of the beach: wind, waves, human traffic, and loss of natural vegetation. If the struggle is halted, even for a short time, the beach will suffer great harm. Left to itself for long enough, the harm would be irreparable and the beach would be lost.
So it is in my life. Without a considered and, ultimately, costly approach to my life, great harm will come to my soul.2 In recent months, I have come to appreciate that “rethinking,” in contrast to the relatively easy “just pray a prayer of repentance” approach, is very hard work. A new way of envisioning my life does not come easy. It does not arise spontaneously. Change is not automatic. Success against my enemies is not guaranteed. Rethinking my life is a daily, explicit effort, one in which I must depose myself from the center and recognize God’s true role in my life. Sometimes I am successful. Often I am not.
Only two things stand between me and relentless erosion and the ultimate demise of my soul: prayer and God’s gracious gifts to me. This is the reason that I practice a daily Prayer of Examen and have engaged with the Spiritual Exercises.
1 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperOne, 1997, p 274.
2 Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. (I Peter 2:11, my emphasis) I have written previously on the war that is, right now, being waged, to the death, against the souls of all human beings, including Christians: adulteresses, lust (it’s not what you think), what of the soul?, and waging war. As I point out in several of these posts, most people, even Christians, are oblivious to the activity of the enemy, unable to discern the harm being done in their souls as a result of a relentless war that is well underway, often at a level that is as subtle as it is deadly.