God’s Absence: A Necessary Crisis
When I was about eight, my parents got a dog named and we named it Fido. Fido was – we found out shortly after picking him up from the pound – pure evil. He was not a bad dog in the traditional sense, in fact when anyone was around him, he was fun and playful and energetic. When left on his own, however, he was a weapon of mass destruction. He would target and destroy everything in his vicinity and had a special charism for knowing what was valuable. If there was three pounds of raw meat thawing on the counter, he ate it. Even after we put barbed wire on our fence, he found a way over it. Unfortunately, Fido’s wild adventures and treachery in the streets of Billings meant he wasn’t long for this world. In his two years on this earth, he tore our house to shreds.
Now, Fido was a dog, so he did not have free will, he was just the perfect storm of breeding and puppy energy. However, I hope to use him to illustrate the power of absence in discovering someone’s true character, as this is exactly what our gospel depicts for us today. I will return to this theme, but first I think it’s worth taking a closer look at the image of the vineyard we see in the first reading and the gospel. In the reading from Isaiah, he tells us that his friend – who is God – planted a vineyard
“on a fertile hillside. He spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest vines.”
After all this, it yielded only wild grapes. The only course of action here is to break down its wall and let it be trampled by passersby. The image is, of course, Israel. God chose Israel, brought them out of slavery, set them apart, and gave them the law that they could be a witness and a light to the nations.
Yet they did not want to be a witness to the nations, rather they wanted to be like the nations. They were unfaithful to the Lord and his covenant. So, what did he do? He left them to their own devices, let them feel the consequence of their sins. We see in scriptures this is the only thing that seems to wake Israel up. Because of their idolatry, God lets them be sent into exile, lets the first temple be destroyed. After the Babylonian exile, we never see idolatry again in Israel.
It was interesting being in the Holy Land this past Christmas, talking to the Jews about the destruction of the second temple and the dispersion that occurred at the end of the first century. Baseless hatred is what they cite as the reason for God allowing the destruction of the second temple. The division, hatred, and violence that consumed them could only be overcome through great suffering and trial.
Even in the first century, those in Israel were very familiar with the vineyard image, so when Jesus calls upon it, the religious leaders of his day know immediately what he is referring to. Yet he shifts the emphasis a bit, of course, away from the fruit itself- it is assumed in this parable that the vineyard is fruitful. So Jesus shifts the focus to the tenants themselves and their responsible care for the vineyard.
Jesus is saying something new, lets dig into it. In this parable, the landowner – again, it’s God – goes off to a distant land and leaves tenants to tend his vineyard- but he is demanding, he sends servants to gather a portion of fruit in his absence. Regarding the literal meaning, the servants are the prophets who were all rejected in their times, often beaten and killed. Even when the son comes, the tenants cast him out and kill him. This is the most overt prophecy Jesus gives of his own crucifixion.
It is usually our tendency, when we hear harsh words directed at the leaders of the Jews to shrug them off, assume they don’t apply now. This is wishful thinking, for this parable is as relevant now as it ever was.
There is one concept in this parable I want to focus in on- that is the landowner’s absence and its impact on the tenant’s activity. This is where I return, briefly, to my old dog Fido. When in my line of site he was a great dog, yet the second I turned away he became a little devil. Is this not our own inclination? If God hovered over the world in some physical form, making his divine presence felt in every moment of our day, we would certainly act differently, but that’s because we would be terrified of God’s punishment were we to sin.
One commentator says of the landowner in the parable that his:
“absence is a sort of mystical vacuum that generates a tremendous moral crisis exposing the innermost heart of the tenants, revealing it in all its perversity.” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis)
God’s absence in the world does the same for us. We are faced with a moral crisis: how will we act when God is not there before us demanding obedience. Our God does demand fruit, but he does so not as a tyrant, rather as a lover of souls who sends messengers to remind us of everything he has done for us. Yet though he loves us and is patient with us, we have limited time to respond to the call. We are here to be his hands and feet and to bear fruit! We who do not see him yet we love him and believe in him, are to witness to those who do not know him.
When those in the world who do not yet believe look for Christ- they see only Christians. Are we a source of inspiration to them, a witness of God’s love, or are we a scandal?
Perhaps, like Israel, we are nothing more than just like everyone else, more of the same. I would say if we are like the rest of the world, just like everybody else, that itself is a scandal. We are called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
We must not reinvent the Church in the world’s image. Jesus Christ has set himself as the cornerstone, his death and resurrection have already brought us victory, and there is low hanging fruit is everywhere. We who – though we see Him not – know He is here calling for us to be in relation to Him, need to be concrete witnesses to Him in the world.