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In some sort of fit yesterday, while cleaning my whole house and repotting all my seedlings, at the advice of clever and wonderful friends, I downloaded and listened to the whole of Carl Trueman’s Strange New World. It’s been several months since I finished The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and this short, prescient version of that larger work was most timely and excellent. But before I pushed play, I watched this talk by Mike Winger. If you wanted to quickly get a handle on the way things are, I can’t recommend both the talk and the book more highly.

What was particularly helpful, for me, was Winger’s explanation for why there are so many apparent contradictions in the progressive “Christian” movement—why, for instance, you can believe almost anything you want about Jesus, but you have to be LGBTQ affirming. That alongside Trueman’s exhortation that it’s no good moaning over the past, or panicking about the future. Rather, it would behoove one to accept, in some sense, the lay of the land. This is the world we live in, and God is still God. This point helped settle my mind as I scrubbed all the dirt off of my kitchen cupboards.

Whether any of us like it or not (I don’t) the prevailing view of the self today is plastic. You can do whatever you like with yourself as long as you discover and accept whatever that is. Though, of course, the “self” of this age is narrowly focused on sexual identity, and not anything more interesting than that. Love is love, you hateful bigots. So get your act together—I guess it’s not quite working, I still feel quite rebellious about the way things are.

So anyway, it is Passion Sunday, and dark clouds are looming over the horizon. Jesus, not running away from what he knows is coming—the curse and shame of the cross—actually precipitates more conflict, sharpening and bringing into focus what is at stake for all who reject him. He tells a parable calculated not to insult the people he has come to save, though, from the response of those people you can tell they are offended to the core, but rather to pierce to the heart of their own chosen identities, their own conceptions of how things are and how they should be:

And he began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants, so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  And he sent another servant. But they also beat and treated him shamefully, and sent him away empty-handed.  And he sent yet a third. This one also they wounded and cast out.

You may happen upon this text and wander away confused and uninterested, having no particular emotional sense of what is going on, and try instead to find the verse about the hope and the future and all God’s plans for you being yes and amen etc. But the people to whom Jesus told this pithy story knew more than any of us do. They knew that long ago God, speaking through Isaiah, had painted a picture of a beautiful, tranquil, lush vineyard. It was God’s own work. He dug the ground and planted the vines and built the wall and the watchtower. It was a satisfying project. The vines sloped down the hill, the wall was sturdy, the sun illumined that happy prospect. And the vineyard was Israel. She was supposed to produce nice grapes that would be turned into wine. But when he returned to look for the grapes, behold, they were wild, rotten grapes. They were good for nothing.

How do I know that Israel was the vineyard? Did I just make that up? Is it a secret? Isn’t the Bible very hard to understand? Can’t you make it mean whatever you want to? I suppose you could try, but in the middle of the chapter Isaiah says this:

“For the vineyard of the LORD of the hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, and behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, and outcry.”

But that was a long time ago, and the house of Judah, returned finally from Exile, had righted itself, so thought the angry people making their plans to kill Jesus, the Son of God. They were no longer the rebellious grapes, the wicked workers of the vineyard who would not give back what they owed. How dare this mere man come and lecture them. Who is he, except a blasphemer? For Jesus to pick up this particular image and tell it in this way is, in human terms, dangerous. They are already dark with anger against him. But the story isn’t over:

Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ 

The Son, of course, is Jesus himself. Don’t let anyone tell you that Jesus never claimed to be God. The owner of the Vineyard is God, and he is sending his Son to claim what is rightfully his.

But when the tenants saw him, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours.’  And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

This is the universal human response of all people when they discover that there is a God who has a rightful claim on who they are and what they do. We are not really plastic, malleable, able to choose for ourselves what we want to be. For all the chatter about the “Imago Dei,” being created by God in his own image is a wondrous, though terrible truth. If someone has made you for some kind of purpose, and you say to that someone, I will take everything that you have made, including myself, and use it wrongly, foully even, it is no good, then, crying out that you were made in the image of the one you are rejecting. But Jesus still isn’t done with the parable:

What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?  He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”

Luke says, then, that the “scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people.”

This is, to put it mildly, misdirected fear. If they had, for a brief, bright moment feared God, they would have been able to look at the one who had come in their likeness, to take their place, to not only be the vineyard, but to be the Vine, to fill the cup with his very own blood.

Let the warning settle into the very depths of your soul. Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken into pieces. There is no plasticity about the human soul. Either you accept Jesus and his work on your behalf or you don’t. And if you don’t, you won’t go on inventing yourself and finding happiness in all the various iterations of yourself forever. You won’t melt into the ocean of being. You will go on forever in your anger, rejected and being rejected, broken into pieces but never being put back together again.

But if you do grab hold of Jesus as he goes to the cross, counting no inventions of yourself as gain, relinquishing everything you think you know about yourself back to the one who made you in the first place, well, then your mouth will be filled with laughter and your tongue with shouts of joy. Like one who dreams, you will find abundant life going on forever. If you are sowing with weeping, out of sorts with yourself and the world, dreading the deaths, both small and great, that the world deals you and God allows, you will finally reap with shouts of joy. And you know what, I think I know which is better. No contest in the end. See you in church!

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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