Whenever a mass shooting takes place, as one did last week in Las Vegas, everybody is horrified. We all want to know why anyone would do something like this. And we wonder how we could prevent another such shooting.
But almost immediately, we also ask who or what could have prevented this tragedy. Who's to blame? And depending upon your political perspective or your feelings about guns, the blame might lie with:
- The laws, the legislatures and the lobbyists who have crafted bad laws; or
- Maybe the laws are fine, but somebody or some group of people, failed to enforce the laws; or
- Maybe somebody (or several people) saw something, but didn't say something that could have averted this; or
- Maybe it's a sickness in our society, in which more and more people feel disconnected and alienated, and in which violence is glorified; or
- Maybe it's just the fault of one or more sick and twisted individuals who really are either mentally ill or evil at the core.
Different people have different answers. But two things seem be the same: my human nature wants me to figure out who's to blame. And when I figure out who's to blame, I want to be certain that it's NOT me!
Now it's absolutely important, when horrible things happen, to ask what's gone wrong and how can it be fixed. But when we become fixated on asking who's to blame, that's often where the conversation shuts down. I've figured out who's to blame, and then I can go on with my life smugly believing that it's somebody else's problem to fix.
That's always been a problem, and it's a problem when we read today's parable. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus tells a story about a vineyard with tenants who are letting the deal go down. They may or may not be taking care of the vineyard. They aren't paying the rent. And they beat up and kill the representatives of the owner.
Now it's important to understand that in the Old Testament, as in today's reading from Isaiah, a vineyard is often a metaphor for the people of God. Jesus' first hearers would have instantly recognized this. And the picture Jesus painted in this parable of how the people of God were conducting themselves was pretty grim.
Why was that? How did it happen? And who's to blame? Luckily, Matthew answers that last question in the final verse, "the chief priests and the Pharisees...realized he was speaking about them." So! It was those lousy leaders! Now we know who's to blame! We'll shake our fingers at them, post some snarky comments about them on Facebook and Twitter, and get back to business as usual.
The thing is, while the chief priests and the Pharisees may have taken this parable to be personally directed against them, and while Matthew is clearly happy to let them take the blame, Jesus didn't actually say that. In fact, he tells this story in a way in which everybody has to take responsibility for what's going on.
So could it be that Jesus isn't trying to lay blame? Maybe what Jesus is doing is asking all of us - as people of God - to take responsibility for living as God's people in the world.
And that begins with all of us taking personal responsibility for our growth as individual people of God. The tenants in the parable were first and foremost responsible for tending to the vines and helping them bear fruit. That was everybody's responsibility.
So what does it mean for each of us to take responsibility for tending to our own spiritual growth so that we can bear the fruit of God's love and justice in the world around us?
It seems to me that part of accepting responsibility means:
- Considering what helps me grow in experiencing God as a living reality in my life ... (you can't make a difference as a child of God if God is merely an idea or a moral code; God has to be a living reality in your life and that happens differently for different people...)
- Opening myself to new possibilities and new ways of thinking if the old ways aren't working so well anymore ... and of course, this was what early disciples had to do when they considered that Jesus might be the new possibility... (For us, sometimes, religious education for adults gets stuck in 5th grade Sunday School...; "the leaders are responsible to God" or even "pray for the emperor" was fine in a dictatorship; but how do we translate those biblical principles in a democracy where we're all part of the group that makes the rules...?)
- Putting myself in places, and with people, where growth is likely to occur... (I always talk to the confirmands about considering people, places and events that God works through to bring about the fruit of faith...)
Jesus told this parable in way that makes clear that we're all included in what God is doing in the world. We're all blessed with possibilities and opportunities to grow and bear fruit. And we're all called to accept the responsibility for taking what God gives us, and doing something meaningful with it.
But that can really only happen when we first accept responsibility for our own spiritual growth - that is, for nurturing our own connection to God. For it's when we grow in our connection to God that we find the strength of God's living presence among us. It's when we grow in our connection to God that we can begin to grow in ways that makes a difference, if only in small ways. And it's in growing in our connection to God that we can move on from wondering who's to blame, and instead work together to bear the kinds of fruit God wants for us and for our world.