Monday, October 9, 2023

Nihilists in the Vineyard


Matthew 21:33-46

Proper 22 / Year A

Today we hear the last of Jesus’ “vineyard parables.”  The vineyard was a common Old Testament metaphor used to describe the people of Israel, so it is not surprising Jesus draws on this imagery as much as he does.  If you recall, two weeks ago we heard the parable of the workers called to the vineyard at various hours of the day who all get paid the same amount, regardless of the time they spent laboring.  Last Sunday we heard the parable of the father who directs each of his two sons to work in the family vineyard.  One refuses, but later goes.  The other agrees, but then does nothing.  And today we hear the parable of the tenants’ revolt against the absentee landowner.

Martin Heidegger, the German-born philosopher who died in 1976, has been described as a nearly unreadable author, a racist and a bigot who never fully disavowed his support of Nazism, and one of the most important thinkers of the 21st century.   Now that is some résumé!  He wrote a great deal about nihilism; a Latin word meaning “nothing.”  It is a philosophical belief our modern life lacks a shared meaning and direction by rejecting fundamental aspects of human existence, such as knowledge, morals, and values.  Those who write about nihilism point to society’s desire not to be under any authority beyond the individual, to have nothing and no one able to make a claim on us, and no commitments required of us.  It is precisely what the tenants in Jesus’ parable are after.

One professor sums up our times by pointing out “the things that once evoked commitment – gods, heroes…, the acts of great statesmen, the words of great thinkers – have lost their authority.”  He is saying our society, like the tenants who shed the rightful claim of the landowner, has dispensed with any such notion of objective norms or values or moral good existing beyond the individual’s preferences.  We tenants are the ones who pick and choose the ingredients we want to add into the stew of meaning we cook up for ourselves (if we even want to take the time to think about it).

Heidegger points out life in an ownerless vineyard has some serious consequences.  He held we become isolated in our existence, alienated from one another, and suffocated in a life devoid of meaning.  The same professor put it this way:

“When there are no shared examples of greatness that focus public concerns and elicit social commitment, people become spectators of fads and public lives, just for the excitement.   When there are no religious practices that call forth sacrifice, terror, and awe, people consume everything from drugs to meditation practices to give themselves some kind of peak experience.  The peak experience takes the place of what was once a relation to something outside the self that defined the real and was therefore holy.”

To the degree I understand Heidegger I am intrigued by his thinking regarding how technology fosters nihilism.  In a nutshell, he says we have reduced creation to efficiency and adaptability, with little or no thought to its intended, greater purpose.  He holds we view the environment as being “a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.”  Most of us also see nature as something spiritual, particularly when, for example, we are moved by a beautiful sunset.  But for us, both endeavors – industry and inspiration - share the common understanding that creation exists solely for our benefit and use.  It is our vineyard, not God’s.

Cardinal Celestin Suhard, who served as Archbishop of Paris in the 1940’s, famously said, “to be a witness [is to be] a living mystery.  It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”  And while the world wants to live like there is no God, just as the tenants wanted to live as if there was no owner, we are the opposite - people who, in the absence of the vineyard Owner, live in such a way that makes sense only because there is a vineyard Owner.  We live in such a way that our lives are a mystery in a nihilistic world.  We adhere to a meaning and direction from beyond ourselves.  We accept Jesus as our Lord and seek to live out his word and example; forgiving when forgiveness is a challenge, giving generously even when we have very little to offer, extending hospitality to all – especially to those people on the margins of society, picking up our cross and daily dying to self.

In a world that has either dispensed itself of God or perhaps just tamed God to suit its own purposes, our lives should not make sense at all.  But our witness does make sense because there is a God who owns the vineyard and has a rightful claim on each one of us.