Of Landlords and Tenants

Proper 22A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus said, ‘Listen to this’ (Matthew 21:33a). An investor bought a three flat in Edgewater. They renovated everything right down the studs. New insulation, windows, plumbing, and electric. They opened the floor plan, refinished the floors, and installed an upscale kitchen and bathrooms. They leased it out and moved to Florida. When the rent came due, the tenants banded together, beat up one property manager, killed another, and stoned another. Finally, they even killed the landlord’s son. The end. That’s where Jesus stopped the story. He asked his listeners to supply the ending.

It doesn’t take much imagination. We all know what’s coming for those really bad no good, horrible tenants. The Temple leaders answered, ‘the landlord will put those wretches to a miserable death and lease the three-flat to other tenants who will pay the rent on time’ (vs. 41). Problem solved. Right?

What was Jesus driving at? He was, of course, not talking about a three-flat, but a well-appointed vineyard. From ancient times, the vineyard was a symbol of the nation of Israel. “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are God’s pleasant planting. God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” (Isaiah 5:7). In answering Jesus’ question, the Temple leaders pronounced judgement upon themselves. The faithful people of Israel and their leaders were behaving just like those violent, wicked, greedy tenants.

Jesus’ parable was not about a three flat, but perhaps our quick answer to Jesus’ question convicts us just the same. Is not the world and everything in it like a well-appointed garden God planted and entrusted to us? God is endlessly creative. God cultivates perfectly balanced, thriving, and resilient ecosystems filled with every kind of plant, creature, and organism, both visible and invisible, joined together in a beautiful harmony of contrasts that gave birth to us and continues to sustain all life. Yet where “God expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

We just experienced the hottest summer ever on planet earth. Yet, Public Religion Research released a survey on faith and concern for the climate revealing that, among U.S. religious groups, no single faith community exceeds one-third of its adherents viewing Earth’s current situation as a “crisis.”

What’s a loving God supposed to do? Evict us? Kill us? Replace us? No. God does not make the same choices that we would. You, wanderers. You lovers of leaving. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times God invites you again, to come. Come into my arms, I will hold you. Come take and eat, I will feed you. Come drink and be satisfied. Despite our faithlessness, here comes our Lord Jesus again in Word, in wine, bread and water. Here comes the paraclete, the teacher, the advocate, the Holy Spirit to fill us again with the truth of our own worthiness. You are welcomed with compassion and forgiveness into the inner circle of the Holy Trinity so that you may become compassionate and forgiving where you had neither. Here comes the Spirit to move us beyond enlightened self-interest into to Christ-consciousness.

Perhaps we should pause here to say what Jesus’ parable is NOT about. The parable of the wicked tenants is not about the transfer of Israel’s privileges to the Christian church as it has so often been portrayed. Jesus parable is designed not to condemn the Jewish faith but to provoke repentance all of us. In the course of Christian history, this passage, and others like it, tragically became fuel for fires of anti-Semitism. Jews were reviled with the hated nickname “Christ killers.” Popes and bishops taught that Jews were less than fully human. Most tragically, Martin Luther’s own teachings against Jews fueled the flames of the “final solution” of the Nazi gas chambers. This parable does not allow us to shift blame away from ourselves. That is too easy.

Instead, this gospel calls us to embrace God’s love to become love for ourselves and for others. Rather than retribution for sin, Christ Jesus has planted compassion deep within us. The Spirit, God’s Holy Advocate, has poured into your heart the truth of your own worthiness. Attuned to the mind of Christ, our bodies are flooded with gratitude and connection. The seed of compassion planted in us grows into nonviolence, non-judgmentalism, forgiveness, and mindfulness. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound. God’s strategy for changing the world begins with self-care. Compassion and empathy for others grows in direct proportion to the compassion and understanding you have for yourself.
Look! Here is healing balm you don’t have to pay for. Here is healing you don’t have to add to your to-do list. Here is love for you, just the way that you are, in the body that you are, in abundance and without price, poured out for you in the fullness of every moment. Here is the love of God coming into our world and into our lives. Jesus opened his arms on the cross, bringing life into this world even where there is death; bringing hope where there is despair; and bringing resurrection to all creation.

How many times have we turned away from God’s grace? How often have we rejected God’s love, taken the gifts of God’s Garden for granted, used its fruits for personal gain even as the garden was being harmed or destroyed? How often have we remained silent as others suffered to create the material wealth we enjoy? See, Christ, the cornerstone, is breaking our small self in pieces. We are being crushed, like grapes. Our hearts and minds are being transformed into new wine. (Matthew 21:44)
New wine must be stored in new wineskins. Filled with God’s compassion and love, our voice changes from proclaiming selfishness to justice. There, on the back altar, is an icon of one of my heroes, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. While standing behind the altar presiding at communion, he was shot and killed forty-three years ago by those who considered him a rebellious tenant of the land. Archbishop Oscar Romero will have the last word.

It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word, a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world because it belongs to no part of the world. A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts.
What starts conflicts and persecutions, what marks the genuine Church, is the word that, burning like the word of the prophets, proclaims and accuses: proclaims to the people God’s wonders to be believed and venerated, and accuses of sin those who oppose God’s reign, so that they may tear that sin out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws—out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity. This is the hard service of the word. But God’s Spirit goes with the prophet, with the preacher, for he is Christ, who keeps on proclaiming his reign to the people of all times.
(Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, 1977, pg. 18)