By Alan Finch
Exodus 20:1 – 4; 7 – 9; 12 – 20; Philippians 3:4b – 14; Matthew 21:33 – 46
Give freely as we have freely been given from God.
When I read this parable of Jesus’ I thought, well I am sure that the letting agents across the land, especially the commercial property managers would probably explain today’s gospel parable from Matthew in two seconds flat. It is all about landlords and tenants after all. And there is an entire body of property and commercial law devoted to them and their sometimes numerous disputes.
In Jesus’ telling, a vineyard owner contracts with tenants for the use of his land – and then promptly leaves town for another country. The action happens at harvest time, about now I guess; when the same landowner sends his slaves or agents back to the vineyard to collect the rent – his share of the harvest in this case – from the tenants. But the tenants decide to take matters into their own hands. Apparently hoping to secure the property for themselves, they beat the first slave, kill a second and stone the third. Then they do it all over again, finally even killing off the landowner’s son in the hope of somehow gaining his inheritance. What are we to make of this graphic tale of greed and mayhem, violence and murder?
At the very least we might be tempted to think the landowner in question ought to have done a more thorough background check before renting out his vineyard – the very source of his livelihood – to those scoundrels who ended up murdering his slaves and son. Surely even in the ancient world people knew who was trustworthy or not. Way before the Internet word got around, after all, and as it was based on first-hand experience more reliable than we get today across the web and certainly not a scam.
The question is why did they do it; the tenants that is? They had to have been fairly bright people or they would not have gone into agriculture in the first place – then as now not an easy way to make a living. Did they really think they could get away with murder? Well, apparently they must have done, their greed got in the way of their common sense and reason. No doubt not the first time such a thing has ever happened – and not likely to be the last either.
The point of the story seems so obvious to Jesus’ hearers that they leap to it without a moment’s hesitation. The landowner, they declare in moral outrage, “will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the vineyard to other tenants.” The story must have also resonated with the early church community, for it is one of only a very few of Jesus’ parables recounted in all three of the so-called Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke.
Alas, the news these days is sadly still full of just such parables of greed and corruption. We know them too well With the current Pandemic still full on we see people taking advantage of the vulnerable, the lonely and those for whom everything has been taken away; job, income and even homes. And many many people are and continue to suffer the consequences. So, yes, some people clearly do still think they can get away with it. And some indeed do. Sadly the world has not changed all that much in the time since Jesus told his parable.
We might conclude that it simply does not pay to be an absentee landlord. Better to stay home, lock the back door and mind the store. After all, there is no place like home. Surely, that is where one can feel safe and secure. Maybe so, but try telling that to someone whose has lost job, income and has been put under threat of potential eviction let alone those whose properties have been flooded, burned down by wild fires or damaged beyond instant repair and are likely to remain so for some time to come. Let’s face it. Even security at home is sometimes an illusion.
The parable, of course, is about us as much as it is about thieves – about us as much as it is about the “chief priests and the Pharisees” who come to recognise themselves in Jesus’ words. The priests and Pharisees want to arrest Jesus for his words and be rid of him. They knowingly seek to neutralise his potent message of God’s righteousness and Kingdom. What they do not know – and maybe we sometimes forget – is that it cannot be done.
No matter where we live or what we have, we are all no more than tenants in God’s Kingdom. Everything we have comes from God nothing ever truly belongs to us. In the final analysis, everything we have has been given to us to look after as a tenant. Everything is borrowed for a time; we are as the saying goes living on borrowed time – quite literally. Like the priests and Pharisees of this story, we too might wish the world were different, that instead of being tenants we were owners and servants, masters. What is true and we need to remind ourselves of, is that through our faith in Jesus we are so much more than tenants or slaves because we have been made heirs to God’s Kingdom.
Unlike the landowner who wrongly concluded “They will respect my son,” when he decided to send his child as emissary after his slaves are beaten and killed. We may well have asked “What was he thinking?” It would have been much more sensible for the landowner to go to his priest, for then he might have been set right. “Do not send your son,” I am sure he would have been told and forcefully one would hope just “Call the police and report the incident. Begin eviction proceedings. Get back home.”
All good advice to be sure, but it is doubtful the landowner would have followed even his beloved pastor’s counsel. For the landowner’s economy is not that of this world. And perhaps it is just as well. He knows something we tend to overlook, that in the end it is not a matter of land, property rights, wealth, possessions or ownership. For a follower of Christ, it is ultimately not even a question of life and death. It is only the Kingdom that matters, a kingdom most decidedly not of this world.
“The Kingdom of God,” Jesus says in explanation of the story, “will be … given to a people that produce the fruits of the Kingdom.” And the fruits of the kingdom of which Jesus speaks have nothing to do with grain or grapes, much less pounds and pennies. If we miss that, we miss the point of Jesus’ parable entirely. We miss the Kingdom at work in our lives. For, the Kingdom is, in fact, ours – but only to the extent that we give in turn to others of all that has been so generously given to us. In God’s Kingdom, So that we follow the instruction to love others as you would want to be loved; giving all we have been given because all we have is given by God freely – we then must give freely all that we have.