The Vineyard: A Story for Good Friday

MARTHA

The Passover crowd surrounded him like buzzards. Sometime, selfishly, I wished Jesus would send them all away, and speak only to us as he used to back in Bethany. But of course, he couldn’t do that, not with so many of the curious gathering to hear him.

The parable he told was a short and direct: a man bought a vineyard and left tenants to tend it. When harvest came, he sent servants to collect the fruit. The tenants beat, abused, and even killed the servants. Finally, the owner sent his own son…but the tenants killed him too.

MARY

As Jesus told his story, I thought of a different vineyard. No other rabbi will teach women, of course, but there are certain stories they make sure we know: ones where women caused the downfall of men. We all know of Eve and Tamar and Bathsheba. They are cautionary tales.

And none more than Jezebel.

King Ahab found a vineyard he couldn’t have, and like the men in Jesus’ parable, he wanted to take it by force. But Queen Jezebel had a better plan. Invite the owner of the vineyard to a feast, she said, make him feel welcome, seat him in the best place, next to the king, his friend.

And then they betrayed him. Paid false witnesses to speak lies about him. And the crowd dragged him away and stoned him.

Ahab got everything he ever wanted, and for a moment, I wonder if he thought he was happy.

But when he went down to claim the vineyard, the word of the Lord came to him. The prophet Elijah declared that for his treachery, he too would die. Then Ahab regretted his choice…but it was too late.

And Jezebel? We’re not told if she had any regrets. I doubt she ever did.

LAZARUS

Like the other boys from well-to-do families, I studied the Scriptures. None fascinated me more than Isaiah. Something about him…a kind of lyricism. He spoke the truth, but he made poems instead of proclamations. He told stories.

That’s what Jesus does. That’s what I’ve done, these past few months. “Did you hear about the time I died and was brought back to life?” I say. And it draws people in, every time. Like this passage from Isaiah:

“My loved one had a vineyard

    on a fertile hillside.

He dug it up and cleared it of stones

    and planted it with the choicest vines.

He built a watchtower in it

    and cut out a winepress as well.

Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,

    but it yielded only bad fruit.”

Everything was there in the parable—do you see it? The vines, the wall, the watchtower. I felt a kind of dread as Jesus spoke of the owner sending messengers, because I knew what would happen to them. I knew who they were.

They were Ezekiel and Nathan and Jeremiah and Micah and every other prophet who brought tidings a stubborn people didn’t want to hear. I saw Elijah in the parable. I saw Isaiah.

I saw myself.

MARTHA

Why would he come into Jerusalem at the time he is both most loved and most hated? Doesn’t he know he’s putting himself and all of his followers into danger, speaking like this?

He never has seemed to care about that.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said to me, when Lazarus died.

It’s an outrageous statement, really. But I was too tired from crying to laugh, or to get angry, or even to question him. A moment before, I had thought there was nothing left in me at all, hollowed out by grief.

But then I heard myself replying, “I believe that you are the Christ, the son of God.”

And I realized there was something left after all: faith.

MARY 

Sometimes, after Jesus tells a parable, I look around to find the ones really listening and understanding, not just hearing.

Today, I saw the group of Pharisees on the fringes, their hateful glances shouting what they attempted to hide behind whispers. With joyful crowds all around Jesus, celebrating his entrance into Jerusalem, they can’t speak against him—yet.

And then I turned away from our enemies, back to our friends and found there was one face among the disciples that was…different. Most were confused, others indignant, carried away by the injustice of the tenants. But one stood apart, a frown on his face, as if wondering: were the tenants the real villains of the story?

And I thought, “I have found Jezebel and Ahab.”

LAZARUS

The crowd was watching, waiting. But instead of telling us the ending of the story, Jesus asked us to supply it. “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

And I wanted to say, with Isaiah:

“Now I will tell you

    what I am going to do to my vineyard:

I will take away its hedge,

    and it will be destroyed;

I will break down its wall,

    and it will be trampled.

I will make it a wasteland.”

Something terrible is coming, isn’t it?

MARTHA

Jesus’ parables are rather straightforward when you stop puzzling over the details and ask two simple questions: where is God and where am I?

This time, I knew: God owns the vineyard. And I want to be a branch that bears fruit, a faithful tenant. Whatever comes next, that is something I can be sure of.

But sometimes, when I allow myself to think on it, I do wonder: what is coming next?

MARY

“Are you there, my old enemy?” That’s what Ahab said to the prophet in the vineyard. It’s a terrifying thing, calling the one sent from God your enemy. I wonder, has Judas thought of that?

Jesus must know. What did he say? “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

This may be the Lord’s doing, but it is not marvelous in my eyes. No. I am afraid. That’s my old enemy: fear. And there’s no need to ask if it’s there. It always will be…but especially today.

Sometimes, I can still smell the perfume I used for his anointing. “She is preparing me for my burial,” Jesus said, when one of the disciples protested that I had wasted something expensive that could be used for a better purpose.

Judas. It was Judas, who said that, wasn’t it?

LAZARUS

“The vineyard of the LORD Almighty

    is the nation of Israel,

and the people of Judah

    are the vines he delighted in.

And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;

    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”

The crowd walked away from Jesus’ parable feeling satisfied, because there was justice. The right prevailed. But the passage about the vineyard from Isaiah ends with blood and distress. Which will we see, this Passover?

But he can’t die. Surely not the one who already showed power over death. It isn’t possible.

This can’t be how the story ends.

(Every year, around Good Friday, I write about Judas, either directly or indirectly. Here are the archives: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016.)

 

The Moon Colony Question

Sometimes, small talk is boring. When I’m tired of discussing the weather, my go-to is my favorite hypothetical question, one I’ve asked dozens of people to answer for me. (The original version belongs to my friend Kyle, and I have blatantly stolen it.)

You are the leader of a moon colony with 5000 residents. Over the years, you have become almost entirely self-sustaining, growing your own food, recycling water, and generating your own oxygen. Currently, all of this is contained under an air-locked dome, but a terraforming system is being tested and may be successful.

Reports from Earth have been coming in about an alarming disease, a pandemic on a scale the world has never seen before. Those infected don’t have any visible symptoms for several weeks, but they can often sense a change in their health before then. The disease is highly contagious and always fatal.

Soon, your attempts to communicate with Earth go unanswered. You can only assume that enough people have died that technical systems are failing. Several days of silence go by, and then you receive a transmission from a spacecraft approaching the moon.

They claim to be a ship from Earth, bearing news that everyone on the planet either has or will soon die. They were quarantined and insist that none of the 100 people on board have any sign of the disease, so they are requesting you to lower your shield and allow them into the colony. Also, the oxygen on their ship ran into issues on the way. They only have ten minutes of air left.

As the colony’s leader, you must decide between one of two options: do you let them in, risking contaminating your colony and possibly eradicating the human race? Or do you leave them in space and let them die?

(Are you thinking about your answer before you read what other people said? Good.)

When I give this scenario, the first thing that happens is that everyone tries to look for a third option. (You don’t have time to send up a doctor for examinations, you do not have a separate docking bay that could contain contaminants, you are not allowed to resign your post as leader, and it doesn’t matter if this scenario makes no scientific or medical sense.)

So, assume I told you that your clever loophole doesn’t work for some obviously contrived reason.

Next, people ask questions. This part is the most interesting to me—the answers people feel they need in order to make a good decision. Here are just a few I’ve been asked:

  • Were these one hundred people randomly chosen, or are they all rich politicians and military leaders who forced their way in?
  • Do I know anyone on board the ship?
  • What kind of leader am I? (Elected, dictator, etc.)
  • Do we have any way to verify that all or most humans on earth are dead?
  • What is the anticipated public response if I let these people die?
  • Are most of the people on the ship babies? (This is the best image ever. Enjoy. And yes, someone actually asked me that.)

Mostly instead of answering, I ask people why or how their answers would change if I said yes or no.

Finally, people have to choose. All of the people who have answered this for me fall into one of three groups:

One: People who let the spaceship in, usually motivated by compassion. Most women chose this option (with one exception, mentioned later). The general idea they expressed was that they’d rather do what they felt to be right and risk the consequences than live with blood on their hands. Many (but not all) Christians who took this option, interestingly, had a very high view of the sovereignty of God. They explained that it was their duty to do what they believed to be right, and leave the power of life and death to God.

Two: People who felt they would have to let the 100 people die, with different degrees of agony depending on the person. This was a smaller group. Some decided right away that this was the best option. (Most of my writing friends, regardless of gender fell into this group, possibly because it gives the story more of a plot.) But there were also people who agonized back and forth, taking the question very seriously. They finally felt that as a leader, they had a responsibility to their people and the human race in general to make a painful choice and deal with the fallout, both from their citizens and with their own conscience.

Three: People who refused to answer or still manage to weasel out a third option despite all of my attempts to stop them, like shooting down the spaceship in the sky to make their deaths quick and painless, then holding a colony press conference where you lie your head off and say it was an attacking ship so you don’t have to deal with the fallout of intentionally killing 100 potentially innocent people. (Yes, really. Two people suggested something like that.)

So, if you’d like to share your answer in the comment section, here it is: would you let ship from Earth enter your colony, potentially killing every human on your colony and maybe in the universe? Or let them die even if you weren’t sure they had the disease, ensuring the safety of your own people?

Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

When an eleven-year-old boy asks me theological questions, I get suspicious. Circumstantial evidence told me this particular kid was only trying to get out of singing slightly catchy but incredibly annoying VBS songs in the next room. (Exhibit A: the suspect had spent most of lesson time clocking another kid in the head with an inflatable taxi.)

Fortunately for him, I also hated those songs. Bring it on, kid.

He started out with questions related to the lesson—the Good Samaritan—but then moved on to things like why there was suffering in the world and how we knew the Bible was true.

Kid had been saving up. I liked him considerably more than earlier in the morning when he’d thrown glitter in my hair during craft time.

He nodded through my explanations, sometimes looking like he got it, and sometimes looking like I’d just started explaining trigonometry in Elvish. But he kept asking questions, finally getting to this one: “Why do Christians think Jesus have to die? It doesn’t seem fair. Why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins without the cross?”

Okay, kid. That’s a good one. You’re thinking these things through with Gungor and The Shack and a bunch of others.


This is way past my pay grade (since, you know, I’m not getting paid), but here we go anyway.

It’s the basic plot of lots of mysteries and thrillers, right? Someone who cares about the real criminal—a spouse or parent or lover—tries to take the blame for the crime. The detective finds out about the noble gesture…and the guilty person is punished and the innocent one released.

We like that ending. Sacrifice is all well and good when it’s a Tale of Two Cities situation where both people are innocent, but we have this instinctive sense that the penalty should go to the one who earned it. This is not the story of the cross, as the kid pointed out.

One problem is, the alternative he suggested doesn’t work. If you don’t think it’s fair that God let Jesus take the punishment for our sin…would it be any fairer if God didn’t punish anyone for our sin?

I’d say it isn’t be fair or just. But I’d go a little farther and say it’s not possible. (more…)

Don’t Live For Others

Have you ever thought about the hidden danger of being Mary Poppins?

The Disney version of the world’s coolest nanny is pretty, delightful, boundlessly creative, and a good singer on top of it all. Everyone, children and adults alike, adore and admire her, and she’s quite perceptive about the world.

Then, once she’s solved everyone’s problems, made people happy, and become a legendary figure, she just…drifts away.

She doesn’t really need anyone else—she’s practically perfect in every way, after all. And I can’t be the only one who’s thought, watching the Disney movie, that she seems rather lonely, despite the fact that she never seems to exhibit a stray emotion.

And it makes me wonder…is there a difference between being a beloved person…and being loved as a person?

Because, while I’m sure the Banks children will miss their temporary governess, are they really missing Mary Poppins herself, or just her magic? Just what she could do and the atmosphere she created? Come to think of it, we know very little about Mary herself. Not much slips through the controlled image she projects.

Disney producer Thomas Schumacher put it this way: “Who of us doesn’t want a Mary Poppins in our life? Someone to love us unconditionally, to be magical but not too sappy, to enchant us and to make everything right, and then to leave us to do it on our own.”

It’s a very good description. Anyone would want a Mary Poppins.

But I don’t think anyone would want to be one.

And yet, sometimes we are. Sometimes—often—I am.

Why?

Partly, it’s fear. Deep down, sometimes we doubt if we’re really all that likeable. If very few people really know us, they can’t hurt us, right? It’s easier, sometimes, to keep up a practical perfect persona than to risk others sticking around when we let it slip.

And then there’s pride. If we can do it all on our own—if they need us but we rarely need them—that makes us feel good about ourselves and our abilities. Admitting we are not fine or don’t know or need to talk would make that come crashing down in the time it takes to say “Please help.”

And maybe that’s the most dangerous thing about this: it looks so…holy from the outside.

We give of our time and energy and resources until we feel empty…but we never give ourselves, the most carefully-guarded parts of us, anyway. We are willing to serve, but never to accept service. We accept admiration and become a loveable icon and hope that it will be enough to make us feel acceptable and useful and worthy.

It won’t. It can’t be. If you live for others, you will soon find that they are fallible and frail, just like you. They can love you, and some of them will. They can see Jesus in your weakest attempts at imitating him. They are worthy of your time and attention, even when you feel you don’t have much left.

But they cannot give you purpose.

Don’t misunderstand me. There is beauty in giving, even to the point where you surrender your own desires over and over again for others. In an era where empowerment and self-fulfillment are virtues, I want to say something completely different, to applaud the quietly heroic sacrifices that many around me make every day.

But I also want to remind you, gently, that it’s not enough.

You can love others with all the strength you have. You can be magical but not too sappy. You can be enchanting and make everything right.

That’s not what God has called you to.

If you spend your whole life dispensing wise advice and cheery tunes and spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down, no matter how hard you work and how good you appear, in the end you’ll find it’s a hollow imitation of what your life could be.

Yes, love others. But let them love you. Stay when you could move on. Ask for prayer. Admit when you don’t understand. Mourn for something you’ve lost. Accept forgiveness. Most of all, live in confidence as a child of God, not as everyone’s favorite hero who’s practically perfect in every way.

LeFouGate, Part Two: A Christian Response

Have you ever had this strange, twingy, glance-over-the-shoulder feeling that something is wrong even when there are no obvious signs of it? That’s how I felt about my last blog post on Christians’ reaction to the announcement that LeFou would be portrayed as gay in Beauty and the Beast.

At first, I couldn’t pin down what was bothering me. Most everyone loved it. It was pretty mildly worded and cautious. I didn’t get sucked into the sarcasm trap or say anything that someone could take personally.

lefou3

And, although I felt like I didn’t cover nearly the ground I wanted to, the main message was helpful: if you’re going to be offended by something, be careful to explain why in a gracious way to start better discussions.

But there’s something important that I completely left out.

All of the sample explanations I gave were reasonably worded. Even if you totally disagree with their take on sexual ethics—whether homosexual relations are okay or not—I hope they came across simply as people taking a stand on something they believed.

But—and this is hard—I think some, even most, Christians were not just upset about a gay character in a Disney movie because of their interpretations of the Bible or because of their desire to maintain the innocence of their children.

They were upset because sometimes they do consider LGBT people offensive. They find the idea of loving others who deeply disagree with them in this area incredibly hard. Some are trying to work out what that looks like. Some, sadly, don’t want to. (more…)

The Wise and the LeFous: Responding to Beauty and the Beast

In the spirit of considering how to have better conversations on tricky things, I have a proposal for my Christian friends who are reacting to the news that Beauty and the Beast will feature a (sort of) gay character.

lefou

(This post is mostly directed at Christians, some of whom are outraged, some of whom think this is no big deal, and a whole spectrum in between. If you’re not a Christian, read on! Just know that’s who I’m talking to.)

If you are joining in on a boycott of this movie over LeFou’s sexuality, I have a request: when you talk about it, especially on social media, can you explain why? Yourself, not trusting people to read an article and assume it states your position.

You don’t have to, obviously. You are free to post an article about LeFou being gay with just a mad emoticon. Or “Guess I’m not going after all…” or something like that.

I just think it would save you a lot of trouble in responding to comments if you elaborated a bit. More importantly, I struggle with the fact that many people view Christians only as “people who are against stuff.” If they don’t understand why this is an issue for you, you’re just one more tally mark in the “easily offended for no good reason” category.

Here are some examples that I thought of that might be helpful in avoiding the rage-fests I’m seeing in the comments. (more…)

When You’re Tired of Performing

The only thing weirder than visiting your old high school is being asked to give an impromptu speech to a group of students. I was a college freshman, stopping back for some boring errand like picking up a transcript, and I decided to say hi to my favorite teachers. During one of those stops, my choir director asked me to share the most important thing I’d learned in the past year in front of his freshman choir class.

Put on the spot, I panicked and said something bland about getting to know new people and always challenging yourself. I started every sentence with “I” and played right into the hard-work-pays-off script that I knew I was supposed to use.

Later that night, I realized what I should have said, something like this:

Last year, after our diplomas were stowed away who-knows-where and everyone faded into a sugar coma from countless slices of open house cake, everyone in my graduating class went our separate ways.

Most of us traveled to new communities, and it was scary and exciting, all at the same time. These new people hadn’t seen the awards we’d racked up, didn’t know what social group we’d been placed into, couldn’t even remember our names.

And each of us faced a choice. We could either try to build ourselves up again—carefully craft our image, subtly brag about ourselves, work hard, become known as the smart one, the talented one, the hot one, the funny one, whatever we wanted.

We could work and train and charm and achieve, longing to be known and understood and admired…until the next time we had to start over. College graduation. A first job. Another new city. And the cycle would continue, over and over again.

Or we could step away and say, “It’s not about me, and it never was.” We could love and serve and forgive and try and sometimes fail…and live in freedom, not just from the pressure of impressing others, but from the need to make ourselves feel worthwhile.

That’s what I’ve learned this year. I want to choose purpose instead of performance.

fake

There’s what I should have told them. It’s not the story we usually hear, not from our educational system, not from the American Dream, and not even, sometimes, from the church.

I see the bestselling Christian books and blogs, the articles people are sharing and the verses in flowy Instagram script, and I want to remind you and me and everyone I know:

The way to choose purpose instead of performance, the way to be free from the cycle of impressing others is to realize that life is not about you.

Even the Bible is not about you. It’s not a book you can flip open to gain a better self-image or sense of belonging, not a horoscope chart, not a personality quiz that tells you which Harry Potter character or zoo animal or obscure punctuation mark you’re most like.

It’s about God.

I think I get that in theory, but just like my eyes scan a group picture to inspect my own face, I find myself looking first in the Bible for me.

Don’t get me wrong: “How does this apply to my life?” is a great question to ask. If you hear your heart’s cry in the Psalms, ask which character in Jesus’ parables acts most like you, and feel an uncomfortably personal scolding in James or Proverbs, you’re not doing anything wrong.

But what has helped me most in hard times is not seeing myself in the Bible, but seeing Jesus.

My first winter in Minnesota was difficult—the kind of difficult where you finally brave the biting wind long enough to raise your eyes up from the frozen, salt-scorched sidewalks…and find that you are utterly alone in a new state: friendless, directionless, and very, very cold.

So I taped a paper on my bedroom door where I wrote down things that were true about God, no matter what I felt at the time.

It wasn’t until later that I realized why: for the first time in a very long time, I wasn’t sure about myself, who I was, where I fit. All of that comfort and security had been taken away—the old friends and routines and measurements of accomplishment.

But God hadn’t changed, and what I knew to be true about him was more important that trying desperately to work out my identity again. When I read the Bible, it was less about a to-do list or an emotional connection with the text and more about how what I knew about God would change the way I lived.

I find myself circling back to this conclusion this winter. Not because I’m in the same place I was three years ago, but because the world is looking pretty depressing, and I find people asking, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned this year?”

I immediately try to string together something brilliant, questions whirring through my mind in the face of fears and uncertainties and strong opinions: What should I say? How can I convince people? What stances will I take, and does it even matter?

Me, me, me, me. As if I could save the world. (I want to.) As if all that matters is what others think of me. (It doesn’t.) As if I have all the answers. (I don’t.)

So I stop. And this time, I say the right thing. I tell you what I didn’t tell that choir class years ago.

It does not matter what I’ve learned this year. Not really. My opinions may change, my tastes certainly will. My clever connections and original ideas have been done before, my encouraging speeches will fade away and be forgotten.

What matters is what I know about God and how that changes me.

What matters is what you know about God and how that changes you.

Have you learned something new about the God you worship lately?

Set aside the devotional books and the encouraging podcasts for a moment, clear away the expectations, inspirational quotes, promises to claim, and all the other good-but-not-ultimate spiritual clutter that can set us as the center of our universe.

Then ask God to reveal who he is as you pray, worship, and read the Word.

When we do that, when we focus on God instead of us, we can finally stop performing and start really living.

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