But those tenant farmers said to themselves, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.”
At the core of our human dilemma lies our desire to “own” what does not belong to us. We mistakenly think the world is ours, and so, we likewise “forget” that our very life belongs to another. We are stewards and “tenant farmers” of the life we have been given. To realize this lies the way to consonance and peace. To forget or refuse this truth is a way to perpetual frustration and conflict.
Today’s parable from Mark’s gospel begins with the symbol of the people of Israel as a vineyard from Isaiah 5. It then diverges from the image in Isaiah by speaking of the vineyard as being “let out to tenant farmers.” The vineyard does not belong to the farmers; it is merely on lease to them. It is to this reality that the famers are unfaithful. They see it as their possession and, as a result, they see the vineyard as existing “for them.”
In his encyclical Laudato Te Pope Francis points out that this attitude of ownership or dominion, which is not reserved to the religious leaders of Jesus’ time but is an illusion of all of us, is at the heart of our current environmental crisis. it is, as Pope Francis says, what is also at the heart of our human discord and lack of concern for the poor and the weak of our world.
What makes the reality of stewardship, of the dominion of God, so difficult for us to accept? St. Augustine’s answer was “original sin,” the sin of Adam and Eve which we have inherited and from which we can only be delivered by God’s intervention. The existential philosophers call it our “fallenness.” William Wordsworth called our birth “a sleep and a forgetting.” Eastern spiritual traditions tend to identify the problem in our inevitable developing of an illusory “I,” a “false self.” However we identify it, it is clear that our consciousness comes to experience ourselves as separate and autonomous. Adrian van Kaam calls it the self-ruling or autarchic, “pride form.”
In daily life this manifests in us as our propensity to see everything in light of ourselves, of how it affects, for good our ill, our own well-being and gratification. Some years ago, when speaking with a friend and arrogantly applying my own experience to his, he said to me: “This isn’t about you!” As common as this saying is in our time, I was deeply struck by it. I had to realize at that moment that precisely what I had done was to make his experience “about me.” Instead of serving the reality and the mystery of his life, I had unwittingly arrogated it to myself. I was at that point of no help to him but was inflicting on him my own agenda.
We live in a time in which our self-understanding has been greatly enriched by the insights of psychology and neuroscience. We know far more about the human brain and aspects of human behavior than the those in the centuries preceding ours. Yet, all of our insight and knowledge is often limited by our basic anthropological mistake. We mistakenly, at times, believe that the problem of the narcissistic person is solved by their giving more attention to themselves, by becoming more and more “owners” of their own lives. We can never find rest, or peace, or fulfillment in enhancing ourselves, because the self we are enhancing is, to paraphrase Thomas Merton, its own mistake.
The Prayer of St. Francis is a powerful reminder to us of who we are and whose we are. We are to be “an instrument” of God’s peace. We know love and peace to the degree that we spend our lives in service to all we have been given and to the One who has given it to us. It is not in enhancing our false self that we truly love but rather “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Our life is a unique and beautiful instrument of God’s love and peace. We are truly alive when we give our life to tuning that instrument in accord with God’s will and plan and then “playing” it in service to the call of the present moment.
Every time we turn our gaze on ourselves and away from what around us is calling to the offering of our gift, we become conflicted, anxious, and depressed. We come, understandably, to feel as if we are alone, isolated, and without significance. As a child, I can remember conversations of my parents who would justify their lack of communication with their siblings by saying, “The phone works both ways. They can always call us.” Even as a child I felt there was something strange about that attitude, even though I continually reproduce it in my adult life. To dwell on what we see as the duties of others toward us is a distraction from and violation of the call. If we are instruments of God’s loving activity in the world, then it is only in self-donation, in the playing of the instrument, that we can know peace and love. St. John of the Cross says, “Where there is not love, put in love, and you will find love.” We have not been given life to be served by but to serve the vineyard that has been loaned to us. This is eternal life.
Self-love may be the foundation of an affection in men towards God, through a great insensibility of their state with regard to God, and for want of conviction of conscience to make them sensible how dreadfully they have provoked God to anger. They have no sense of the heinousness of sin against God, and of the infinite and terrible opposition of the holy nature of God against it. And so, having formed in their minds such a God as suits them, and thinking God to be such an one as themselves, who favours and agrees with them, they may like Him very well and feel a sort of love to Him, when they are far from loving the true God. . . . [The] selfish proud man naturally calls that lovely that greatly contributes to his interest, and gratifies his ambition.
Jonathan Edwards, On Religious Affections, pp. 95-6 (Google Books)