(This short reflection was originally included in the main body of chapter eight. In review, I decided it did not fit well, so I excised it. But, given the references to current culture in other places, I thought it was still relevant. So here it is on its own. If it is objectionable, hopefully it will not distract from the worthiness of the other reflections.)
The Gospel of Mark, 12:1-12:
Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.
I am fortunate to live in America, the “land of the free.” This country, more than any other, is focused on what it means to fully exercise the blessings of liberty. The understanding and importance of the connection between religious freedom and political freedom was instrumental in the motives of the founding fathers. Their deepest held beliefs about the primacy of free will speak to the idea of conforming the human will to the Divine. Women and men must be free to embrace the Will of God wholeheartedly if they are to live honorable, principled, ethical, moral, honest, decent, just, and satisfying lives.
Thomas Jefferson spoke for all the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence when he wrote:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Liberty is not a right of man distributed according to the will of men. It is not transitory, something that can be taken away if men decide that it is no longer of paramount importance and that some other value or right should be asserted in its place. Freedom is eternal. It is a basic and necessary truth of Creation. It was endowed on me and all other women and men in equal measure by our Creator. Women and men do not have the right or capacity to tamper with it. They only have the obligation to secure it.
No matter how poorly the times might have embraced this reality, this was true at the time of Jesus, at the time of St. Francis, and at the time of the founding of this country. It remains true today and nothing can undo it. As the current culture moves away from this and many other self-evident truths, the moral principles of western religion become further and further eroded. But no matter how much they are de-emphasized; they can never be made false. That these truths cannot be unmade is at the root of the disunity that is currently plaguing our country.
As the passage from Love’s Reply at the beginning of chapter eight asserts, and as the Declaration of Independence confirms, my free will, my ability to choose, is a gift from God. This gift comes with immense responsibility. Human will cannot be used to redefine that which is ordained and established by God. To do so is the essence of sin. Instead, I must seek to unify my will with His unconditionally.
We can argue about what the Will of God is asking. We can agree that the Will of God may be asking something different of you than it is of me. I can adapt my understanding of the Will of God if revelation, science, the fruit of my seeking, the advancement of my understanding, or the Will of God itself makes it prudent to do so.
But I cannot flaunt the Will or the corresponding plan of God without expecting to incur severe consequences. You can ask me to do so as many times as you wish, but my answer will always be the same. My first obligation is to the Will of God, and the will of one woman or man, or millions of women and men, cannot void this primary obligation. The effect on my eternal well-being is too critical.
My first and only obligation is to my Creator. My obligation to anything earthly is only enforceable to the extent that it corresponds to this initial obligation. There is nothing more fundamental than the belief that I was created in a Spirit of Love, with the obligation to return that Love. As has been repeated here numerous times in many different combinations of words, my most fundamental duty in response to the Loving action of My Creator is to participate willingly and devotedly in His plan to increase the amount of Love present in His Creation.
This duty is the basis of my existence. God was not just present, but actively at work when soul and flesh were Lovingly combined in my mother’s womb to create me. He Willed me and every other woman and man that has ever been conceived into being. His careful attention is the moving force at the root of the inexplicable miracle that made me possible. Nature may be participatory, but He is also Nature. Just as He brought me into being, He brought Nature into being. All that He brings into being is governed by Him and must operate according to His Will. All of Creation is meant to cooperate in His plan and to fulfill the duty that has been assigned to it.
The gift of freedom to men is as fundamental to His plan as everything else is. Liberty is what enables a woman or man’s ability to Love. It is what allows me to participate in His plan for the expansion of Love. Without freedom of will, I would be bereft of the consciousness that separates me from the rest of non-human creation. Without freedom and the consequent ability to Love, my humanity would disappear.
My liberty is therefore the most basic tool I have for contributing to the fulfillment of the plan of God. As His creation, my duty to participate in His plan binds my will to His Will. It must dictate the choices I make with my freedom. My choices must conform to and be unified with this most simple but most profound truth as spoken by Paul:
“If I do not have Love, I am nothing.”
I look at the culture around me and I wonder how it has come to this, and can it ever be salvaged? The women and men who lead me construct elaborate schemes and try to convince me that their sole motivation is my well-being. But they fail again and again, the situation gets worse, and the morass deepens. The country I love begins to look more and more fragile, and I wonder not how it will be healed, but how many pieces it will break into, and how will the pieces that contain me and my loved ones be put back together.
When these leaders fail, they never look in the mirror and assess their role in their failures from a perspective of humility and Spiritual Poverty. Their worldly political concern makes this impossible. It forces them to seek to blame their opponents at all costs. In the process, the basic goal of Creation is foregone. No longer do they seek to expand Love. They seek only to expand the amount of power and control they possess and wield over others. In the process, since they do not have Love, they become nothing, and their ineffectiveness compounds.
As their ineptitude escalates, they seek more and more power in an effort to preserve themselves. As additional power and control is accumulated and exercised, the freedom that lies at the foundation of God’s plan and our political structure is compromised and the pain and division grow faster and faster. It is a downward spiral, and the downward momentum appears more and more unstoppable by the moment.
I read the Parable of the Tenants (above) in chapter twelve of the gospel of Mark this morning. A wealthy landowner develops a vineyard and rents it to local farmers. At harvest time, He seeks to collect His portion of the grapes and the farmers beat or kill every representative He sends to them. When He finally sends his Son, they kill Him as well, thinking they can take His inheritance as their own.
This gospel passage closes by speaking about the leaders of Jesus’ time, saying “they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” Those leaders were not open to a message meant to save them because they were blinded by worldly ambition and power. Instead, their response was to figure out how to silence the Messenger. They thought His inheritance could be their own, but it is impossible for man to be God.
This is the state the world often finds itself in. It is the state it is in now. In a talk I heard yesterday, the presenter was discussing the division in the country, and he told of seeing a sign that read, “If Jesus comes back, we will kill him again.” It is as if the “chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” are reincarnate and walking amongst us. They are just waiting for the right opportunity to nail God to the Cross once again in the hope that this time, He will not rise.
Our leaders should be unable to dismiss the way the founding fathers cherished the gift of eternal freedom, but they are. Our original leaders were flawed and lived out their ideals imperfectly. Today’s leaders, despite the validity of the principles of the founders, seek to silence and supplant their principles based on their imperfections.
Those in power, and I speak not of one side or the other, but of the lack of humility on both sides, seek to usurp what they have no right to. They seek to manipulate the situation in the hope that they will emerge victorious and consolidate power for themselves. Each in their own way seeks to eliminate the true God and become gods themselves. Neither understands that both sides hold losing hands, and that all of us will lose with them if our course is not altered.
In the process, they also seek to silence the perfect Messenger, the one who came with overwhelming Love to save those who sought to silence Him then, and those who seek to silence Him now. But He will not be silenced because, unlike those who exhibited imperfection at the time of the founding, He embodies perfection. His entire life was a perfect endorsement of Spiritual Poverty and a perfect example of Obedience to the Will of the Father. Therefore, His teachings cannot be disputed or overturned. They can only be ignored to the disadvantage of all.
He continues to live that perfect life as He comes each day in Love in the Word, the Eucharist, in His ongoing sustenance of Creation, and in those hearts that seek to follow His Will. Even when in minority as they are now, those willing to embrace the example of a perfect life lived by a perfect man will remain those who have access to true power through the forsaking of earthly power. It is in humble submission to His True, Excellent and Holy Will that we have hope of overcoming the decrepitude that surrounds us. His Power, employed through those not afraid to forsake the world so that He may work His Will through them, will lead to an inevitable revival of His plan for Love to be ever-increasing in His Creation.
No human hubris can forestall Him. Human hubris only leads to correction. It leads to the adversity that I detoured to understand in chapter seven. All the evil and all the adversity that is happening in our culture now is happening according to His Will. He will turn it all to good in the end.
If this adversity grows well beyond anything we are currently experiencing, including the pandemic, we should not be surprised. A deviation as great as the one we are currently engaged in will likely require a correction of equal magnitude. The sin of slavery could only be answered by the adversity of the Civil War. Our current hubris is sinful in ways that well exceed the dreadfulness of slavery. Over fifty million innocents conceived in His Love have been lost before seeing His Light in this world. We all have culpability, so we will suffer together and our suffering, if we do not change course immediately, is likely to be far-reaching.
But when the suffering comes, it will be the suffering that will rejuvenate us. The suffering will lead us to an inexorable conclusion. The only way to journey beyond the hardship is to allow the Will of God to lead us back to Love according to the example of the perfect man, our Lord Jesus Christ. We will find that we cannot prosper separate from His Teaching and that His Will is Love and nothing else. We will, in large numbers, find ourselves relentlessly drawn to Him.
No other solution will allow us to rise from the pile of ashes we are currently burying ourselves in.
And when Love rebounds, as it inevitably will, then perhaps another altered/combined quote from Paul will finally be remembered by those who seek to kill God.
Love never fails. These three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.