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If God wants us to know and love him, why is he hiding from us? And why does he threaten to punish those who reject him when we can’t even see him?
These are questions that I have always had about God — questions that caused me to not take God seriously for years.
But they are also questions Jesus addresses in one master parable: the Parable of the Vineyard in Matthew 21:33-43. We usually focus on what it means regarding Jesus’ relationship with the Chosen People. But it says even more.
We ask: Why is God hiding? Jesus answers: He clearly is not hiding.
Jesus tells a parable that goes to the very history of creation and mankind. He says, “There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.”
There, in a sentence, he concisely lays out what we find in the world. To update it a little: Imagine you were walking in a remote part of the woods and came across a house with a “Welcome” mat outside and a sign that says, “Please, come in. Make yourself at home.” Now, imagine that inside this house you found everything you enjoy: The foods you like, the drinks you like, the music you like, and art that stuns you with its beauty.
Would you say, “Whoever made this house is indifferent to me. Why is he hiding?” Or would you say, “Whoever made this house knows me and loves me. He is very good!
This is the situation we find ourselves in: We see a world that is so clearly designed to our specifications that St. Paul and St. Augustine argue that it is alone enough to show us God.
We ask: Why does God seem to stay far away? Jesus answers: To give you what we need.
Jesus addresses God’s seeming absence by describing how the landowner created the vineyard, “Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.”
If we really did find that house in the woods, we would be happy just to enjoy all it has to offer — but only at first. Soon, we would be restless. Border collies go crazy if they are stuck in apartments, and to be happy, human beings need to do more than just be provided for. We want a vocation, not just a vacation.
By loaning us his world and then stepping back to give us some space, God gives us freedom and purpose: We get to control our own work and contribute to his. Both would be a lot harder if he were always standing over our shoulder. So God arranges for us to care for his vineyard, to be fruitful, fill it and rule it.
We ask: But why would God punish us? Jesus answers: Because we grab his world away by force.
Jesus continues by describing: “When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.”
The vineyard is a brilliant image for Jesus to use — one that has been used throughout Scripture. Grapes naturally become wine, and wine, when used in moderation, gives our life more joy, more connection to others, and more gratitude to God. But it can easily be abused, and then it destroys joy, exacerbates divisions, and makes us feel trapped.
The trick is to use the gift of wine the way God intended it, not taking it to ourselves. And that turns out to be the key with all of God’s gifts.
That’s the problem we face in the world God gave us. We get very comfortable in this home we have been given, and we really like the wine. So we start to imagine it all belongs to us, and we start to horde its goods for ourselves.
God has an answer: He sends personal messengers to correct our mistake and tell us exactly what he expects. In history, those messengers were the prophets, and they were often violently rejected or killed. In our lives, those messengers are the voice of conscience we kill in our heart, or the voice of warning we tune out.
In short, God is not hiding, he’s hiring.
So, that’s the answer to our nagging questions. To fully give us everything we desire, God didn’t just give us a place to live; he gave us a place to work. Because we were made in the image and likeness of God, we aren’t just people who enjoy homes; we are people who make homes. He did not make us to be slaves, but co-creators. To drive the point home he absented himself from the scene while keeping signs of his presence all around us: Keeping the electricity on, turning the lights on and off for us, watering the vineyards, keeping water flowing for us to drink; surrounding us with truth, beauty and goodness.
In all times, people who live in our common “vineyard home” have realized that God has not left us alone, but that, nonetheless, we work for him, not the other way around.
This appeared at Aleteia.