Among the issues that stand out in yesterday’s (Sunday) Gospel about the vineyard, is the wild and strange overreaction by the tenant farmers to the idea that the landowner was owed anything in terms of the fruits of the harvest. Notice that they beat, stone, and even kill the servants sent to collect the owner’s portion. They do the same with a second wave and then even end up killing the landowner’s son!
And this is not a mere story. It was borne out time and time again in Israel’s history in the shameful rejection, hatred, imprisonment, and killing of the prophets. It was about to culminate in the astonishing killing of God’s own Son! The text of yesterday’s parable said, They seized the son, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him (Matt 21:40). And as the Book of Hebrews affirms of the ancient Jews, and also of us, So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured (Heb 13:12-13).
And down through history the human family has repeated this pattern: killing those sent to preach the gospel to us, holding up God’s own Son for contempt, and even committing murder in the killing of members of His body who are forced to die “outside the camp.” They are ostracized for the mere preaching of the gospel and for calling for the fruits that befit the righteousness of those made in the image and likeness of God.
What is wrong with us? Why this special and outrageous hatred for God and His very reasonable request that we bear fruits that are suited for creatures made in His image and likeness?
Some will say that it is just the human tendency to dislike rules and limits. But honestly, most of us like rules just fine in most other contexts. If anything our modern American scene is dominated by an increasing demand for rules and laws.
Look at all the campaigns against smoking, drunk driving, sexual harassment, unfair hiring and labor practices, abrogation of civil rights. Now there is even demand for rules about the calorie, salt, and sugar content of our food! The parade of demands for new laws has been almost endless. Not all these laws are bad, but they DO illustrate Chesterton’s comment that when we break the big laws we do not get less law; we get lots of small laws. So, cast aside a big law like honesty, or mutual respect, or justice and you get ten thousand little laws.
And we not only tolerate these laws, we demand them, even as we complain that government is too big and intrusive. We still want more laws, more protection—more, more, more.
Look also at the American obsession with sports, football in particular. As I write this post, many Americans are glued to their TV screens and quite literally fixated on a bag full of air being moved up and down a field. And the game is FULL of rules. There are boundaries, lines of scrimmage, 25-second clocks, etc. The players dare not cross the lines or let the clock run out. There are dozens of fouls that stop the game, disputes that must be decided by appeal to rules. Most of the game is rules. And not only do we like this, but we become downright indignant if the referee or line judge misses a violation by the “other team.”
So I am not so sure that it is merely our tendency to dislike law. It will be admitted that most do grumble about too many laws, but at the end of the day, no one wants to get rid of a law that protects him or his interests.
But there is a special anger that seems to get excited in many people, especially today, whenever the law in question is thought to be religiously based. Suddenly an almost visceral reaction sets up in many. And the same people who demand the outright banning of smoking (but strangely favor legalized marijuana use) are crying out in anger, “Get your rosaries off my ovaries and your Bible out of my bedroom.” Almost anything at all can be discussed in the public schools. Our children are being exposed to some pretty awful and strange stuff, but if you even think about mentioning Jesus, lawsuits are threatened and bitter anger is exhibited by increasing numbers.
Why this strange anger, this overkill, this hostility way out of proportion to the very reasonable and salutary influence of faith and religion in the public square?
Some will argue that things like smoking and civil rights are public matters, but sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, marriage, etc. are private matters. But they are not. The act of sexual intimacy may occur in a private setting (and I hope this continues to be the case) but the results are anything but private. The results can have very public effects: the birth of children, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, higher divorce rates, single motherhood, children without fathers, poverty, pornography, sexual addiction, and so on. All of these are very public matters and problems that few people are willing to discuss as the very real effects of our so-called private acts.
Marriage, too, is a very public act. The LGBTQIA interest groups affirm that in demanding public recognition for their false “marriages.” The fight over marriage shows just how public and central it is to our culture. If the LGBTQIA interest groups really believed that sex was private and marriage was private then why would they demand public recognition and even affirmation of their behaviors?
Likewise, euthanasia devalues the lives of the suffering, the dying, the handicapped, and others who are increasingly seen as taking up “too many” resources. And instead of respecting their struggle and admiring their strength, we suggest they be eased out the door sooner rather than later.
And to those who want abortion to be private, it must simply and firmly be said that the death of 50 million fellow Americans cannot be considered a private matter. Their blood is crying out from the soil of this land and we will answer for what we have done to them “legally.”
So enough of this talk of “private” matters. We who live in community with one another must understand that even our private behaviors have many public effects.
But we are back to the central mystery of why there is such a special venom against the Lord and His Church. The tenants of the vineyard and their wildly outrageous anger at the landowner are a picture painted by the Lord of our human condition. And in our fallen condition we seem, at least collectively, to have a special hostility and rebellion towards God.
The biblical answer to the reason for the hostility comes down to one fundamental word: flesh. The biblical phrase “the flesh” (ho sarx) is not per se a reference to our physical bodies. It is a reference to our fallen condition of hostility and enmity towards God. The flesh is that part of us that doesn’t want to have a thing to do with God. It is that part of us that is hostile to God, that doesn’t like to be told what to do, that bristles at even reasonable limits on our behavior. It is that oddly obtuse part of us that, when told not to do something, wants to do it all the more. It is that strange and self-destructive streak that desires intensely even things that we know are bad—very bad—for us.
It began in the garden when Satan hissed at Eve, Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’? (Gen 3:1) Eve rightly answered that God only forbade eating from the one tree. But Satan pressed his case and insisted that God has no right to set ANY limits on us and that we have the right to be gods and should not let God “keep us down.” Satan thus portrayed God as an opponent of human flourishing, as an enemy of self-actualization. It was a direct appeal to human pride, and Adam and Eve bought into it. And pride has been our biggest problem ever since. It has many ugly siblings as well: rebellion, resentment, fear, and anger directed against God.
Fundamentally this is what St. Paul means when he speaks of the flesh. There is indeed a special hostility directed towards God and the things most identified with Him.
There are several forms of this hostility and aversion to the legitimate demands of God.
1. There are those who cannot (yet) take it upon themselves to directly hate or resist God. Thus they use what their own minds consider proxies (substitutes) such as the Church. It is easier for them to say that the Church is evil, corrupt, out-of-touch, sinful, full of hypocrites, etc., than it is to say that about God. But in so doing, they must set aside the biblical insistence that the Church and Christ are one body and that Christ cannot be had without His body, the Church.
And even if there are legitimate things about the Church that are less than desirable, the real anger isn’t about those things. It is our unyielding insistence on the sacredness of life, of the body, of marriage, and of sexuality (all things Christ and His apostles taught) that really angers them. Things like crusades and inquisitions are not the real issues; discrediting and hating the Church are the real goals. No attempts to explain or contextualize these largely symbolic issues will have any effect because they are not the real point. Hating and vilifying the Church, as a kind of proxy for God, is the real goal, the real need. Christ and His Church are ultimately one.
And all this they do as a substitute for hating God directly. But separating Christ from His body, the Church, is ultimately a lie.
2. There are those who move beyond the Church to the Scriptures and direct their venom there. The book is either outdated or to be discredited since it contains passages about genocide or “supports” slavery. Never mind that the same book shows God leading His people away from savage warfare in stages, or that the slavery of the biblical world was fundamentally different from the slavery of colonial times. Again, that is not really the point. The point is to use unfair and non-contextual attacks to undermine the source itself. The book is bad, hateful, and has to go.
Even within some Christian denominations there has been an attempt to set aside large portions of the clear moral law by the subterfuge that “God is Love” and surely wants people to be happy and fulfilled. Therefore Jesus must not have meant what He (plainly) said in forbidding divorce and remarriage and in warning of Hell, greed, lust, dissention, factions, the refusal to believe, and so forth. In their own mitigated way, they, too, stab at the heart of Jesus and His message. Here, too, is a basic and sinful rejection of God, rooted in the flesh that will not be told what to do.
3. Yet another group adopts the “designer God” phenomenon. Instead of directly attacking God as He has revealed Himself, this group simply redesigns Him to suit their fancy. In this way they don’t have to attack Him (or her or it). Sometimes called the “god-within” movement, this group creates a god of their own understanding, a god who just so happens to agree with everything they think. He (or she or it) affirms them, never raises His (or her or its) voice, would never judge, and is really cool with anything they want to do.
This used to be called idolatry. But that word seems so “harsh” and since the designer god would never be harsh, the word doesn’t “fit.” There are vast numbers today who think they have a perfect right to invent their own “designer” god.
This prideful rejection of the true God is cloaked in the soft clothes of niceness and in phrases like “I’m spiritual, not religious.” But at the end of the day, all this talk is just a way to avoid admitting their sinful rejection of the true God. Maybe they are even lying to themselves. But whatever the intention, it is what it is: the rejection of the True God who has revealed Himself quite clearly in Sacred Tradition and Scripture. He has to go! The designer god has to take His place. Though cloaked in niceness, it is still ugly pride and an angry rejection by the flesh.
4. Finally, there are those who cast aside all euphemisms and all attempts to disguise their outright rejection, even hatred, of God and the things of God. More than mere atheists, these people are really better described as anti-theists. God must go; the Bible and religious “myths” must go; the Church must go. Walls (laws) must be erected to contain the spread of religion, which is thought to be worse than a disease.
To them, religion (not sin) is the cause of almost all human suffering, war, ignorance, hatred, bigotry, etc. They do not see the Church just as a misguided institution, but as a terrible enemy that must be vanquished. The anger of these anti-theists is at times quite exceptional.
Likewise there is similar anger coming from many who are deeply mired in the sexual confusion of these times.
I have surely felt the wrath of many of them through this blog, many who have what seems to be a strange fear of me and of the Church. I often ask, “Why do you care what I or the Church says, thinks, or teaches? If we are so irrelevant, if we are fading away, why are you so afraid of us? If am just some dude who is deluded, and if my God is just some imaginary friend, why such anger from you? Why such apparent fear? What’s that all about?”
Part of the answer, I think, is that deep down they know we’re right. So do the dissenters from any number of our teachings know that deep down that we are right. This, I believe, lends the “over-the-top” quality to their anger.
But the other deeper answer has to be simply “the flesh,” that deep drive of pride against God. We may try to cloak it and substitute it with other proxies as detailed above, but deep inside all of us is a very rebellious streak that must be mastered through God’s grace, the Sacraments, and the truth of His word. Sadly, we live in a world that increasingly encourages, fuels, and even celebrates this rebellion.
But no amount of celebration can make this rebellion any less ugly than it is. It is ultimately a rejection of the plan of God for our salvation, wholeness, and holiness. To remain in rebellion can bring only ruin. God will do whatever He can to save us. As yesterday’s first reading said, What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes? (Is 5:6)
But if we finally refuse, and we indulge the flesh, there will come a moment when God hands us over to our willful rebellion, whether individually or collectively. And thus the same passage says,
Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled! … it shall not be pruned or hoed, but overgrown with thorns and briers; I will command the clouds not to send rain upon it. The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant; he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry! (Is 5:5-7)
Pray that the moment when God hands us over does not come. But evidence is mounting that things are now coming to that point in the decadent West. When our collective rejection of God and His kingdom reaches a certain point, God will say, “Your will be done, I will interfere no longer.”
For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
Here are some pictures from a time before the revolution—not a perfect time, but a time when faith still had a voice. The sung text is Ne irascaris Domine (Palestrina) and translates the psalm, Be not angry, O Lord, and remember our iniquity no more. Behold, we are all your people. Your holy city has become a wilderness. Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem has been made desolate.