Wicked tenants

Friday

Matthew 21

File:Hubacker mit Turm.JPG

photo credit: Symposiarch

33There 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.

It’s interesting to me that this story is often referred to as the parable of the wicked tenants. The tenants are certainly wicked in the eyes of the landlord, but I suspect that the peasants in the crowd, reduced to poverty through tenancy, are cheering for these daring rebels.

Some have suggested that the story is a warning by Jesus about the need for land reform. I don’t doubt that Jesus had things to say about land reform – but this is an argument about scripture rather than politics. What did God require of Israel? What fruit did God seek? What is the harvest God expects? The Torah was clear about land: it was a gift from God to a people rescued from slavery, a people without land. It was God’s land entrusted to them. It was not to be sold and acquired, but protected and preserved – and occasionally redistributed – that all might have access to life’s necessities.

Misfortunes leading to debts were not to drag a family down forever. “There will be no poor among you.”

Of course, it didn’t work out that way. I say “of course” only because of the reality of our resistance to the way of God in favor of the way of self.

The zealot answer was resistance and rebellion. It was the seizing of the temple and the burning of the debt records. (How profound is that symbolism that the temple served as the bank and kept record of debts?! Religion wedded to wealth and power rather than sharing and service.) And Rome’s answer to resistance and rebellion was crucifixion and destruction. A cycle of violence we continue to witness.

Jesus talked about forgiveness of debts, love of enemies, living the way of God. This is not land reform for the sake of land reform. This is land reform for the sake of our essential humanity, for being the reconciled and renewed sons and daughters of God. Faithful. Giving to God the fruit for which he looks.

So, like the prophet Isaiah, Jesus tells a vineyard story. Like the prophet, Jesus draws the crowd of listeners into his tale. Rebel tenants. The high priestly families that hold precisely such tenant vineyards are outraged by the behavior of these tenants. They cannot help declare that the owner will come with an army to destroy such rebels! And it’s only then, when they are fully engaged in the narrative – perhaps ready to do battle, expecting Jesus to defend the tenants – that Jesus let’s their own words condemn themselves: 41They 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.”

To which Jesus answers, after quoting Psalm 118 about the stone the builders rejected:

43Therefore 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 leaders of Jerusalem are the tenants. The ones in bed with Roman wealth and power. The ones who have neglected justice and mercy. The ones who built, in the name of God, a system God said they should never build.

This parable becomes dark with memory after the son, the crucified, is laid into a tomb. It morphs from parable into allegory: God is the landowner; the prophets are the servants sent to gather the “fruit”, the obedience owed to God; the rebel tenants are faithless Israel; the new tenants are the sinners and tax collectors and ultimately the gentiles who will give to God God’s due.  And the dark, dark memory of Jerusalem destroyed.

But it is not a tale of how we have gotten the vineyard. It is a tale about the consequences of not giving God what God has required of us: our love, our compassion, our generosity, our mercy, our fidelity – God’s way of sharing and service.

“Have you never read in the scripture?” Jesus asks. And it is much more than a question about that one verse where God takes the rejected stone to build his true temple.

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