When I was a young priest in Chicago, ordained only a couple of years, I had no car. So I rode public transportation to make hospital visits to parishioners. I remember sitting down on a bus next to a woman who was not very pleased with me. She looked at me dressed in my black suit and clerical collar and said, “Are you a Catholic priest?” I said I was. She frowned as she continued, “Well, don't talk to me about religion because I don't believe in God!” I remember clearly what I said next, “Tell me what kind of God you don't believe in, because I probably don't believe in that kind of God either.” Her face softened with a smile and we had a brief conversation about the kind of God neither of us believed in before we came to my stop.
Who is this God we do believe in? A few generations ago when we were learning our catechism, the answer was crystal clear: God was a fiercely righteous judge living in heaven and sending down horrible punishments to willful sinners. And who was Jesus? Jesus was God's Son, obedient, compliant, gentle, especially with children, and certainly not a rabble-rouser or trouble-maker! Is there not a contradiction here? If Jesus is the perfect human image of God, how can the two be so different: a vengeful God, yet a gentle Jesus?
Lately, both images of God and of Jesus have changed dramatically. The apostle John's Scriptural definition that God is Love has gained greater acceptance while the “stern old judge in the sky” image has been fading. Jesus' image has also changed. Scripture scholars are now insisting that Jesus was a true revolutionary, a rebel to the religious and political rulers of his time. His words and actions in the Gospel confirm this, as does his agonizing death on the cross, a mode of death reserved for state criminals.
This is remarkable change in a relatively short time. It frees us from fear of a harsh and vengeful God to see God as the One who loves us unconditionally. Unfortunately there's a down side. Once we are freed from an unhealthy fear of God, we conclude there is no reason at all to be afraid. We are mistaken. There is something to fear: our own foolishness: thinking we can make bad choices and suffer no consequences.
Look again at today's Gospel about the tenant farmers working in the vineyard. In telling the story, Jesus does not say that God will punish them for their sins. Instead He warns them that their own bad choices will do them in. because the choices they make always have serious consequences. That's not God being mean; it's the farmhands choosing not to share the harvest's profits with the landowner and then to attack and murder the landowner's messengers.
We can never insulate ourselves or our loved ones from our bad choices or from the consequences of those choices. We simply cannot! If we choose poorly, our relationships suffer, our cars driven drunk will hurt and kill people, a nation's unjust policies lead to war and violence, people living beyond their means go bankrupt. We can blame it all on God, but in reality none of these consequences come from God. Each and every one is the inevitable result of our bad choices.
Jesus spent much time on earth warning us to make the right choices. God has given us the great and noble task of supporting each other on earth to build a kingdom based upon making the right choices! God offers to help, but the choice? That's always our responsibility!