Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (04 October 2020)
JoAnn A. Post
Jesus said to the people,
“Listen to another parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,
put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.
When the harvest time had come,
he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce.
But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.
Again he sent other slaves, more than the first;
and they treated them in the same way.
Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves,
‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’
So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”
They said to him,
“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,
and lease the vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? (Psalm 118.22)
Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.
The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces;
and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables,
they realized that he was speaking about them.
They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds,
because they regarded him as a prophet.
The letter was practically radioactive; I’m surprised the envelope didn’t burn the mail carrier’s hand. It was delivered by certified mail to my friends, who own the property on which the letter-writer lives.
My friends own land and homes in many locations, each of them special in some way. One of their homes is a farm that has been in the family for four generations. Another is a summer cottage on the ocean. Yet another is a piece of timber waiting to be developed. And this one, the one that prompted this postal tirade, is valuable just because it’s pretty—secluded, wooded, idyllic. It might one day be the home to which my friends retire.
But for now, the home is leased to tenants on a handshake, tenants who have rented, seemingly happily, for five years. The landowners have been clear with their tenants that the property is not for sale, and that, when the time comes for my friends to retire, the tenants will be given ample time to relocate. Until recently, it was an arrangement that seemed to suit them all.
No one is sure what prompted this mailed missal, but Yikes! The renters posit that they have been renting-to-own all these years. They claim that the property was promised to them. They accuse my friends of letting the place fall into disrepair. They call my friends liars and cheats, “devious” was one of their descriptors. The letter went on and on. Apparently, the renters have been polling the neighbors, and say that all the neighbors agree with them—that the landlords are horrible people whom no one in the neighborhood has ever liked.
How do I know so much about this letter? They forwarded a copy to me, in disbelief and anger—after first sending a copy to their attorney. “What do we do with this?” my friends wrote. “Its all lies.”
Indeed, it is. All lies. Wishful thinking twisted into delusional reality. As we see in our smoldering political climate, in the absence of information we like, we manufacture plots and conspiracy theories until the world mirrors the one we have imagined. Until we actually believe the falsehoods we have fathered.
My friends’ disgruntled tenants bear striking similarity to the tenants in Jesus’ parable. And though the parable is fiction, a story intended to disarm, it is completely plausible. Except for the murder part. And the beating part. And the stoning part. And the killing the heir to acquire the inheritance part. Except for that, it could be my friends’ story.
Just as filled with delusion. Just as puzzling.
The legalities of the situation in Jesus’ parable are not in question. The tenants are tenants, the owner is the owner, there is a signed agreement about mutual responsibility. The rules have been clear from the beginning.
But, for reasons that elude, the tenants have forgotten their place; the tenants have forgotten whose land they tend; whose grapes they pick; whose harvest it is. Fueled by their fantasies, the tenants almost literally bite the hand that feeds them.
And, rather than acquiring title to the property and right to the harvest, as they had foolishly imagined, they are punished as severely as they punished the landlord’s servants and son. They paid for their delusion with their lives.
But here’s the thing. This is a parable, not a news report. A parable has to have a point. And an audience. In this case, an enraged one.
Surrounded by the temple’s religious leaders, the caretakers of all that was sacred, Jesus not so subtly implied that they were the ungrateful, misguided, delusional tenants in his parable. That they were the ones who had forgotten whose land they tended, whose crops they picked, whose harvest it was. That they, more to the point, were not caring for God’s holy place and God’s holy people, instead violating the trust God and God’s people had placed in them.
Is it any wonder the religious leaders plot to take Jesus’ life?
Is it any wonder we are left smugly shaking our heads? Stupid tenants. Stupid pharisees. Who would do that? Do you really want to know?
But here’s the more interesting thing. All the death and mayhem in Jesus’ parable distracts us from his true point. Perhaps you remember my theory that the point of Jesus’ parables is revealed by the subject of his first sentence? That Jesus gives the parable away in his first breath? I think its true today, as well.
Jesus does not begin his parable by saying, “Once upon a time there were ungrateful renters . . .” Instead he begins this way, “There once was a landlord . . .”
In all the steam created by huffing and puffing from the Pharisees, we have lost sight of Jesus’ true point. It’s not the renters. It’s the landowner. The landowner who is good and responsible, hardworking and fair. The landowner who does all the things a good vineyard owner would do—he planted vines, he built a fence, he dug a wine press and erected a watch tower. What more could a vineyard owner do?
Though the renters may be more interesting, Jesus wants us to notice the landlord. To admire the landlord. To trust the landlord. And in so doing to recognize not only the faithless tenants but the faithful master.
Jesus’ parable bears another striking similarity to the circumstance of my landowning friends. Because much of my friends’ outrage and confusion about the renters’ accusations, is that they are good landlords.
My friends faithfully maintain and improve the property and house. They rent below market rate because the renters are a young family of limited means. When the renters wanted to plant a garden, my friends paid for the supplies. When the renters wanted to raise chickens, my friends erected a coop. When the renters couldn’t make a payment, my friends forgave it.
If my friends, the land owners, were slumlords who took advantage of the poor, the renters’ anger might be understandable. But the renters’ case has no merit. Their “facts” are false. Their ingratitude astonishing.
So, what did my friends do upon receiving that especially special delivery? They did what good landlords do. They did what the landlord in Jesus’ parable did.
Let’s look back at the parable before we go on. After Jesus described the terrible tenants, he turned to his audience—the chief priests and pharisees—for legal advice. “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants,” Jesus asked.
And it is the pharisees and chief priests, the real-life model for the parabolic tenants, who advise murder. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”
Oops. At what point do you suppose they recognized their mistake? At what point do you suppose they realized they had just signed their own death warrant? Wicked tenants that they were.
But this parable is not about wicked tenants or misguided religious leaders or even about ungrateful us. This parable is about a landlord who is good and responsible, hardworking and fair. This parable is about God, whose generosity and goodness know no limit. In spite of the fact that we, the renters, forget God’s goodness and generosity. In spite of the fact that we, the renters, have convinced ourselves that all of this belongs to us—to use or abuse as we see fit. In spite of our selfishness and short-sightedness, God continues to be good.
We might want to chase each other around with pitchforks and tar, but that is not God’s way. Not with tenants in a parable. Not with pharisees in a temple. Not even with people like us, whose memories for wrong are long, but whose gratitude for goodness is short.
Perhaps like me, you were struck by the bold claim made in the prayer of the day that we offered at the beginning of worship. Here’s what we prayed: “Beloved God, from you come all things that are good.”
What a simple, necessary reminder that God loves us, gifts us, wants nothing but good for us. Even if we are rotten renters or faithless pharisees.
Meanwhile, back to my parable.
After receiving that highly-critical correspondence, my friends thoughtfully wrote back; their response was pointed but kind. They did not dispute the facts one-at-a-time or threaten to throw them out. Instead, they reminded the renters that the land did not belong to them—never had and never would—but that they were welcome to remain until such time as the landlords wanted it for themselves.
And in response to their response, the suddenly-repentant renters offered three simple sentences: “Thank you for your letter. We apologize for any misunderstanding. We are grateful to be able to make your home our home.”
We are so easily led into anger and accusation. We love to point the finger at other tenants, to find fault with other pharisees, to question God’s commitments.
But the story is not about us. The world is not about us. It is about God—a landlord who is good and kind, responsible and hardworking. A landlord from whose hands come all things good.