Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Life Owes Us Nothing

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

“If there is such a thing as a basic human quality: self-deception it is,” observed British anthropologist, Collin Turnball. You are most likely not going to agree with this statement. How could you? The beauty of self-deception is that you are never aware of your own delusions. We are so good at fooling ourselves that we do not recognise the lie. We find ourselves in the curious position of being both the deceiver and the deceived. Our penchant for self-deception often gets expressed in delusions of grandeur and a sense of entitlement. We feel that the world, and perhaps even God, should bow down before us and that everyone should accede to our request because it is our right – they owe it to us. Though most of us would be appalled at the wickedness of the initial group of tenants in today’s parable, and never see ourselves filling their shoes, we may be surprised that we actually share much in common, namely self-deception and a wicked sense of entitlement.

The Parable of the Vineyard or the Wicked Tenants must have been an important parable as this is attested by the fact that it appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, with St Matthew’s account being the most complete; it provides us with a clear ending whereas the other two versions leaves us guessing. The context of Matthew’s version is Jesus teaching in the temple. While He was teaching, the chief priest and elders confronted Him with a question regarding his authority. According to rabbinical norms, a teacher had to first establish his authority to teach, usually by demonstrating his rabbinical lineage – that he was a student of so-and-so, who was a student of so-and so and so forth. In his usual manner of taking charge in the face of opposition, Jesus answered their question by posing a question of his own. Jesus now questions their authority and ability to discern the nature and source of the authority of another contemporary and popular preacher, his cousin, St John the Baptist. Since they are unable (or rather refuse) to answer his question, it figures that Jesus is also not obliged to answer theirs. This exchange leads to the escalation of the tension between the religious leaders and Jesus, thus sealing the fate of the latter.  Jesus then narrates two parables: the Parable of the Two Sons, which we heard last week, and the Parable of the Vineyard, or the Wicked Tenants. Both parables point at their disobedience and its consequences.

The second parable, the parable of the Wicked Tenants finds inspiration in the prophecy of Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading. But, here, Jesus adds additional characters to thicken the plot. The parable falls within the category of an allegory and relates to the story of salvation history. God entrusted his kingdom to the Israelites during Old Testament times, here symbolised by the familiar image of the vineyard. When they steered off course, God did not immediately remove these wayward tenants but rather sent the prophets to try to correct them. Their failure to listen to the prophets seems inevitable. Finally, God decided to send his son Jesus to make clear God's message. But the leaders turned against Jesus and finally had him killed. Then the majority of the Jewish people refused to accept Christ. So the kingdom was given to a new people, the Church.

There you have it, the meaning of the parable in a nutshell. It seems so easy to now just bask in the knowledge that we are the good guys in the story. But the parable allows no self congratulation on the part of the New Israel, the members of the Church. The Christian community is now in the position of being the tenants, and the parable begins all over again. Now we Christians are subject to the scrutinising lens of the parable. It is we now who are responsible to God for the harvest of the vineyard; now the church is challenged to be “a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”

What’s wrong with the wicked tenants and why should we guard against repeating their mistake? Well the answer is that at some point the tenants got so used to running things their own way, imagining that there is no accountability at all, that they become confused about who is the owner of the vineyard and who is the tenant. If your sense of entitlement turns on yourself, then there is no accountability for what you do. The parable exposes a dirty little secret about us. We are constantly tempted to think that the vineyard, be it the world, the Church or even the Kingdom of God, is ours and we can do what we want with it and we can treat each other in any way that we want, and there is no holding us to account for it. But in the parable, that is all turned around. The vineyard that we treat as our own belongs to another who expects us to make good on our responsibilities. We are not owners in this vineyard, we are tenants; we are merely servants, not masters. God doesn’t owe us anything; on the contrary, it is we who owe God an account of our stewardship. That’s irony!

Most of us cannot imagine ourselves taking the path of the wicked Tenants. But here lies the power of self-deception. The parable, in fact, exposes the lie that we have sold ourselves. It is the cult of self that is killing our culture and society. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once our goals are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Most adults, and the overwhelming majority of today’s children and teens, feel entitled to having everything they’re taught to want. As a result, when they have a bad experience, lose a person or possession they value, fail to get the award, the increment, or position, or even just have to do something less than fun, they feel slighted—victimised by life. Anger and a “poor-me” pity-party ensues, and the structure for a miserable existence is reinforced. It repeats without end.

The painful truth is that life doesn’t owe us anything. Our parents don’t owe us an inheritance or even our future wellbeing. The government doesn’t owe us a subsidy for every commodity. God doesn’t owe us a blessing or even an answer to our prayer. No one owes us kindness, love, recognition, empathy, apologies, or understanding. In fact, no one owes us anything at all. These are hard truths, but with every truth lies a treasure. The gift in acknowledging and accepting that life owes us nothing is that we realise that every single thing we have is a blessing. God owes us nothing, and yet look at all we’ve been given. This is the point where people often only remember the tragedies of life and conveniently forget or discount the many blessings that have been rained on our lives. Our lives are overflowing with treasures, if we are only prepared to recognise them. God is not a demanding task master, but rather a patient, generous and kind deity who continues to reach out to us till all means are exhausted.

The parable of the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants thus illustrate both the justice and mercy of God. God is merciful. He is patient and generous. But we should never mistake this for moral permissiveness nor should it be seen as negligent supervision of creation. Grace is a free gift, but it is also an awesome responsibility. In our petty pursuits for position, honour and recognition within the Church, we must never forget that Jesus, though he may be “the stone rejected by builders,” has always been and remains very much the “cornerstone.” And so we must not allow our sense of self-importance and entitlement to blind us to this truth and lead us to usurp the place of the rightful heir in whom all humanity’s destiny rests. Ultimately, it is Christ who is the chief corner stone that adorns, strengthens, knits, and keeps together, the whole building; in which saints and sinners in all ages and places are united together. Without Him, the whole edifice will crumble.

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