In Mark’s Gospel Jesus says:
“…he… (the owner of the vineyard) went away on a journey.” (Mark 12: 1)
This short statement is part of a parable that Jesus tells his listeners. The parable is particularly aimed at the religious leaders and authorities who are resisting Jesus’ teachings – to the point where they are conspiring to have him killed.
The parable is known as “The Parable of the Tenants” and is about a landowner – God – who rents his vineyard – creation – to tenants – us. But the core theme of the parable concerns those tenants who are hard-hearted and unloving. In the parable, these tenants enjoy the fruits of the vineyard but have no intention of paying any rent to the owner, and even after the landowner sends his men, and ultimately his own son (Jesus), the tenants resort to violence and even murder in a vain attempt to keep the produce for themselves. These cruel and selfish folk really believe that they can take ownership of what is not theirs to own.
Jesus ends the parable by asking his listeners what will the landowner finally do to these ungrateful tenants. The answer is obvious to all, even to the religious authorities who clearly get Jesus’ point and the fact that the story is really about them, and they are then all the more resolved to do away with him. In reacting this way, they of course are actually validating Jesus’ parable!
I began by mentioning the short statement: “he went away on a journey”, and although the parable has a profound and pointed message to all who would choose hate over love, I want to focus in this short blog on those few words because I think they are pregnant with meaning for what is a thorny issue for all seekers of the truth – the seeming absence of God.
The parable (as indeed all Jesus’ parables) is about the reality of human life. And by stating that the landowner – God – “went away”, Jesus is emphatically confirming that, to all intents and purposes, God appears to be absent from our lives and our world. God has “built the vineyard”, which is to say, has created our world, but no sooner has He done this than He departs the scene! And although Jesus goes on to suggest that the departure is only temporary and God will return at some time in the future, it is a departure nonetheless. God isn’t in the vicinity. He’s not around to interfere or react one way or the other. This absence of the vineyard owner seems to give the tenants the impression that they are in charge and accountable to no one. Isn’t this the truth of so many in our world today? They have effectively decided that God is non-existent and that they have the sole right to do what they want with the world and its fruits. This of course is crass stupidity borne of pride.
Jesus also suggests that before God comes back, He will however send emissaries: His servants, those who believe in Him and speak His word. These prophets are all the holy women and men who through the ages heed God’s commands and preach His truth even to the cost of their own lives. We may also say that God’s emissaries are everything that speaks of Him: the universal desires deep in our hearts, the glory of nature, and the undeniable dynamic of love. God is absent but nonetheless His Spirit touches us through all the aspects of our life.
And then of course, God sends His own Son… There seems to be a naivety on the part of God, for He appears to think that these nasty tenants will respect His Son. Jesus is however once more foretelling of His suffering and death at the hands of evil men.
We might ask why did God go away? Why did He not stay nearby and oversee His tenants? Surely that would have forestalled any trouble and kept them in line? The only answer I can give is… love. God is love. He cannot be false to Himself. He cannot force His love on us. He cannot oversee and manipulate our freedom. He had to go away.
The truth is of course that God is… here. “We cannot not be in the presence of God.” (Richard Rohr) But His almighty power is constrained because otherwise our freedom would be constrained. His seeming absence is the very proof and ground of His love for us.
Hard truths maybe, but this truth can set us free,