Longing for the Divine

The Vineyard Story

Because Christianity’s main concern is saving souls, it prioritizes the spiritual over the bodily and the material world. Since the material world will burn, Christianity has little concern for this earth beyond securing a ticket out of it to heaven. Social concern and caring for the environment tend to characterize liberals. I find that the growing interests in holism and caring for the earth have in many ways co-opted the ministry of the Church, covering areas such as natural foods, body care, and the natural world. What I believe was originally meant to be an important part of the Church’s message has been taken over by those seeking to restore care for the material world. The new age, vegan, and progressive movements have encroached on many areas in which the followers of Jesus should be ministering. Followers of Jesus should view redemption as working to restore both the whole person and the whole of creation. 

Personal faith is often thought to transcend the world and affect spiritual transformation, but I think faith includes more than that. To be sure, personal salvation is important, for it forms character and provides the inner strength and power needed to transform the world around us for the better, but we often see ourselves as individuals saved for heaven instead of a community of change, power, and grace.

Over the past few years, I have been awakened to Jesus’ specific social, economic, and communal instructions. I find it interesting how many conservative and religious pro-life perspectives being discussed today are often divorced from concerns like caring for the material world. Believing that the earth does not really matter can cause one to neglect caring for the environment; which can have negative effects on the unborn. To care for God’s creation is to care for human life and vice versa. I find that I do not have to worry about choosing liberal or conservative labels, as I hold an alternative perspective that promotes the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. If I am to be consistently pro-life, I must also be pro-creation. I must be holistic in my approach, for to care for one is to care for the other.

The times in which we live feel very apocalyptic to me. I sense that things will get more difficult for a lot of people and that the world will become more hopeless. I realize that this present world will not last forever, eventually reaching a critical moment, but the way we understand the future really matters; it can impact the present. I need not merely hope for a distant future while ignoring the difference I can make in the present, however limited it might be. The promise of future wholeness and union with God should impact how we engage with the world now. The Book of Revelation presents a vision of future healing for both people and creation. Heaven is not the final destination—in the end God will bring heaven down and renew this earth (Revelation 21 & 22). I believe that to embrace a faith that largely ignores this material world while seeking to escape it is to follow a mistaken theology. Our view of the future matters, for it impacts how we care for our bodies and how we treat both human and non-human creation.

I find it fascinating that Jesus commanded His disciples to “go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). We talk about coming to faith in Jesus and individually becoming a new creation, but we rarely take this “whole creation” commission seriously by becoming activists for God’s new creation. According to Mark, the gospel is for all creation. Creation groans for us to be liberated by a gospel that works to transform us so that the earth too can be liberated from oppression (Romans 8:18–30).

In Mathew chapter 21, Jesus cleanses the Temple and soon thereafter tells a parable about wicked vinedressers (33–41). A master had planted a beautiful vineyard and rented it to tenants. When harvest time came, he sent his servants to get his fruit, but they were treated cruelly by the tenants, beaten or even killed. Finally, the landowner sent his son to the vineyard, and the tenants killed him, too. What was the point of this parable? Jesus had just cleansed the Temple (which was a reflection of God’s creation) because the priesthood who had been instructed with its care had misused it. God’s intent was to bless all the earth, but religion had been corrupted by humans. God had sent prophets to convey His message, but they were rejected and killed. God’s people lacked the caring attitude and empathy needed to share His message with the world. At the end of the parable, Jesus asked what the landowner would do to the evil tenants when he returned. The people Jesus is telling the parable to answer and say he would judge those who had mistreated his vineyard.

Have we been obedient in manifesting the care and mercy God expects from us? Have we ignored the children, the poor, and the lame or misused animals and the material world in ways that further injure the Lord’s vineyard? How have we treated the Master and His vineyard? What strikes me in the parable is that the tenants did not care for the master or his son. Jesus was rejected and killed by members of the religious establishment, who cared only about taking the vineyard for themselves. How we treat God’s vineyard reflects how we treat God in our theology. We do not want to ignore Jesus or mistreat Him by neglecting or mistreating others or shirking our stewardship. I like the story about Francis of Assisi in which a spiritual seeker approached him while he was working in his garden and asked, “What would you do if you knew this was the last day of your earthly life?” One might expect him to have answered that he would pray, study the Bible, or save souls, but Francis reportedly replied, “I would keep working in my garden.” 

What we believe about the coming of Jesus and His kingdom should influence how we treat our bodies, others, animals, and the material world around us. If we misunderstand the return of Jesus, the future, or what the Master is really like, we may very well act like the wicked tenants. How will I live differently if I believe the Master is coming soon? Will I be known for a faithfulness centered on mercy for the poor and powerless rather than on religion detached from this world?

Craig Ashton Jr.

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