Tenant Evaluation

It is too easy to point toward the Pharisees and shake our heads. Perhaps this talk of vineyards and slaves and owners is about once upon a time instead of here and now. Such a strange story seems a long way from the stillness and expectancy of unprogrammed worship. And maybe since we Quakers opted out of the closed versus close communion discussion and whether it’s wafers and wine or saltines and Welch’s we think we can avoid the implications of this parable. Yet God has left this parable on the Meeting House doorstep and it won’t go away.


 

October 5, 2008

Scholars say that this Sunday’s parable is an allegory. The parable of Matthew 21:33-46 goes into great detail about the owner’s love and care for his farm. He planted the vineyard with his own hands, put a fence around the vineyard, dug a winepress and even constructed a watchtower to protect the vineyard from the enemy. He then employed tenants. As the story is told you come to understand that God is certainly the landowner. Our imagination fills in who the mistreated slaves sent to receive payment represent.  And we are quick to connect the owner’s son who is murdered with our own passion narratives.  The Pharisees on hearing and reflecting on the story understand that Jesus says that they are the evil tenants. The story says they were furious when Jesus directed his harsh words toward them and called them the poorest of tenants.

 

“Listen to another parable.” Jesus began. “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. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 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.” 42Jesus 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’? 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. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. (Matthew 21:33-46)

 

You, like I, have heard many times that this parable is Matthew’s way of showing the end times: the fall of Jerusalem, the diaspora of the Jews, the rise of Christianity among Gentiles.  But what if this is a story that contrasts human judgment with the as-yet-unexperienced-and-unimagined divine judgment of a God who is so far beyond us, that we cannot even apply the same patterns of justice?

 

In the human realm, when wicked tenants behave like these, we know what happens. We have perfectly credible, reasonable, rational ways to judge those caught in the act, and this act is particularly reprehensible. So the question posed by Jesus to his hearers is for us as well: What would we do? Well, we would put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give the owner of the vineyard the produce at harvest time!

 

Jesus doesn’t exactly confirm us in our perfectly credible, reasonable, rational judgment.  Instead, he asks “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’? 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.”

 

We human beings spend a lot of time and energy arguing about judgment. “An eye for an eye,” as the scholars tell us, was originally an attempt to keep the retaliation urge in check; if we’re talking about a missing finger, here, let’s not take revenge by lopping off the whole arm. No, let us only take the equivalent of what we ourselves have lost: an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth. In Moses’ day, this was truly progressive thinking. Given the human appetite for revenge, it must have been hard to enforce, especially in cases of blatant, flagrant, love-to-hate-the-offender reactivity.

 

What we would do…is not what God would do!  In the realm of God, judgment does not look like it does in the human realm. Jesus drew on the allegory in Isaiah 5 for his parable. There the story of another vineyard was told. In this story the very vineyard itself refused to bear good fruit. The outcome of that tragedy it wasn’t that evil tenants were replaced but rather that God’s protection and care was withdrawn. In Jesus’ parable, the vineyard gets new management and will bear another kind of fruit. But the judgment ends there.  Our God forgives – and encourages us to forgive.  God welcomes home the prodigal. God opens the banquet to tax collectors and prostitutes. God raises the dead to new life. What we know about what God would do…is that it is completely incredible, unreasonable, and irrational; not at all what we would do.

 

Jesus spends a lot of time talking about judgment too. He tells story after story, parable after parable, addressing it from every conceivable angle. Listen: Jesus does judgment. He does it backwards and forwards, inside out and upside down. He speaks to our secret fears and our public self-righteousness. He shows us our despair and our ugliness. He is so thorough, in fact, that you have to wonder if he was afraid we wouldn’t get it.  And evidently he was right: we still haven’t. Not really.

 

Along with being the first day of Mental Illness Awareness Week, this first Sunday of October is World Communion Sunday. Christians around the world remember that we are linked with brothers and sisters of all colors and languages.  Through the years some of the biggest squabbles in the church have been over notions about how communion is to be done. Some talk of transubstantiation, consubstantiation or symbol? Is the table a sacrament or is it simply a way to call to remembrance Jesus and his love for us? For all those reasons Friends opted out of the dispute into a simpler approach.  There have also been too many battles fought over  who comes to the table and who can partake. The issue of inclusivity has not disappeared.  So while ‘table language’ is a real stretch for Quakers because of our disuse of the serving of bread and wine as a symbol of communion with the living Christ I don’t think it is stretching this allegory too far to suggest that our worshiping circle could well be the vineyard where “we who earnestly repent of our sins and are in love and in charity with our neighbors draw near” to be fed and renewed? Could we keepers of our ‘table’ be the tenants too? God left us with this vineyard to tend and to make productive. When God gave it to us the fields were lush and beautiful. What kind of tenants have we been?

 

I read that this past Pentecost Sunday a church in Washington State turned away a hundred worshipers from the communion table because they wore rainbow-colored sashes and ribbons representing the gay movement. During the 2004 presidential election some churches and even bishops said they would deny John Kerry and other political candidates the sacrament because of their stands on abortion and other issues. Are these church officials good tenants?

Thirteen percent of our population is now Hispanic. That’s over 37 million people. You see them working on roofs, cutting lawns and cleaning tables in restaurants. But we don’t see many of them in the churches that frequent.  Maybe it’s as one soul said” They might just feel more comfortable in their own churches.” :  I think I heard something similar in the sixties. Think about all those others who feel out of place as we open the doors and say: “Come.”

 

In a more liturgical church there was an announcement in the Bulletin saying that next Sunday the church would celebrate the Lord’s Supper. A new attender with no church background saw the notice and called a member they had come to know. “I have two questions,” she said. “It’s about this supper thing. Am I invited and how much will it cost?”  How we answer those questions go along way toward determining what kind of tenants we are.

 

It is too easy to point toward the Pharisees and shake our heads. Perhaps this talk of vineyards and slaves and owners is about once upon a time instead of here and now. Such a strange story seems a long way from the stillness and expectancy of unprogrammed worship. And maybe since we Quakers opted out of the closed versus close communion discussion and whether it’s wafers and wine or saltines and Welch’s we think we can avoid the implications of this parable. Yet God has left this parable on the Meeting House doorstep and it won’t go away.

 

The question of what kind of tenants we are as Friends are best found in our history of Queries, those questions that plumb the depths of our faithfulness, our service and our stewardship.  Do we treat the earth with respect?  Do we find appropriate ways to work for peace? Do we speak out for justice and morality and against oppression, exploitation and public wrong.  Our understanding of our faith is an ethical challenge to the world, a practical faithfulness.  It is in those practical ways we can evaluate what kind of tenants we are in this God’s vineyard.

 

 

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