THE MICRO-CONVERSIONS OF FAITH
Some stories mess with your brain, like one of those novels where you assume the narrator is the one you should be rooting for until you slowly realise they are a psychopath. We make similar assumptions with the parables of Jesus when we latch on to one character or group in the story, when God may be asking us to look more closely.
In the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21, we imagine ourselves to be the people to whom the vineyard is given when the original tenants commit murder, but it is careless to draw such a neat conclusion. This story among others has been used to justify antisemitism. That Gentiles have inherited a kingdom from Jews who lost it because they were stubborn hearted. But of course, this is a story told by a Jewish person to other Jewish people. And the new tenants must produce a harvest to show the owner also. There is nothing guaranteed about this.
The landlord in this parable sent a series of messengers to the tenants, who would not listen. It’s interesting how we receive news. We have an endless supply of it today, and our response has been to reduce the sources and filter the content. We read things that bolster our view of the world, rather than challenge it. It gives our brain a little chemical boost to hear someone agreeing with us; it’s like looking in the mirror and admiring ourselves. This means we leave unread what may disturb our view of the world. Confirmation bias is the tendency to favour and interpret information in a way that supports our existing opinions.
The news brought by the messengers in the parable was unwelcome to the tenants. Today, they would have deleted the text. Back then, they beat up and murdered the emissaries. The business guru Margaret Heffernan coins the phrase wilful blindness to describe how some evidence is quite literally missed because it is unpalatable. This becomes more pronounced in groups, leading individuals to swallow their doubts and embrace group certainty. Many people in Jesus’ time may have been led astray this way, especially as community inclusion was dependent on it.
So the question to us may be: how open are we to the prophetic voice? It’s the easiest game in the world to spot a prophet with hindsight. That’s how we read our Bibles. The taller order is to identify this person, this voice, today.
There is no fool-proof way of achieving this, but it probably means we should not discount sources just because we don’t like them or don’t agree with them. Sometimes the conversion that needs to be made is ours. The voice we are looking out for carries something of God’s frequency. It may not always be crystal clear, and contain the white noise fuzziness of a carelessly tuned analogue radio, but there are moments that make us stop in our tracks. The duty is to strain to listen, not instinctively to block our ears.
There is nothing automatic about bearing fruit. Not every tree produces a harvest each year. The husbandry we need to do begins with the duty of listening. Having the answers to everything nicely sown up is no place to be, as Jesus pointed out to his angry listeners in that parable. That used to be the standard criticism of the Christian. Today it’s a fair description of the culture. Distinctive, fruit bearing faith is open to the micro-conversions from which a follower of Christ is formed.
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