Sympathy toward an absentee landlord, difficult though it may be, is exactly what the Gospel writers ask of us in a narrative assigned to the voice of Jesus. (See Matthew 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12 and Luke 20:9-19.)
The story goes basically like this:
A landowner decides to turn his property into a vineyard. He fences it off, digs a winepress and builds a watchtower.
But rather than working the land himself, he leases it to tenants and then takes off for another country where slaves attend to his needs.
At harvest time, he sends those slaves to collect the profits from the tenants. But the tenants refuse to hand the profits over.
Instead they beat one, stone another and kill a third. The absentee landlord gets word of this and sends still more slaves to collect what he believes is rightly his; the tenants treat these slaves in the same way.
Finally, the absentee landlord sends his own offspring to collect, thinking that surely the tenants would respect a member of his family. But the tenants realize this is the landlord’s heir, the one who will keep current conditions in place. So they seize him, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.
That’s the story.
It is followed, in each of the three accounts from the Synoptic Gospels, with a question from Jesus: “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do with those tenants?”
And in all three accounts the answer given to Jesus is essentially the same, although Matthew is more picturesque: “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.”
All three accounts then add Jesus’ words, directed to the chief priests and elders of the Temple, which Jesus quotes from Psalms (118:22-23): “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.”
Thus, the interpretation of the story is blended right into the story itself. And that interpretation prejudices the tale not against the absentee landlord (who seeks to profit from the labors of others) but against the “wretched” tenants, who take repeated and violent action against the absentee landlord.
This interpretation clearly is designed to justify the proclamation of Jesus about the coming reign of God – a rule in which the former stewards of God’s design for the world (most immediately the chief priests and elders of God’s chosen people, but also by implication all who follow those leaders) will be replaced with a new master-steward and his followers, the one portrayed in the story by the son who is murdered by the wicked tenants.
And it is an interpretation clearly designed to justify the early church’s self-identification as the new tenants of God’s vineyard.
Matthew (alone) adds a concluding statement from Jesus to confirm this: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you (the chief priests and elders) and given to a nation producing the fruits of it (the church).”
The Gospel writers have Jesus and his church become the new lessees of the vineyard.
And the writers don’t seem bothered by a God who is an absentee landlord, who has slaves carry out divine orders, who makes no mention of justice and righteousness as the fruits of harvest, and who enacts vengeance rather than forgiveness and mercy when wronged.
So what are we to make of this Gospel story of the vineyard, especially when reset in the context of a democratic polity?
One option: ask ourselves if we are the original tenants who are so committed only to our own well-being that we will deny to God the portion of what results from our labors that is rightly God’s, even if it means beating, stoning and murdering those who come to collect from us on God’s behalf.
That’s a question that could be widely applied to everyone, irrespective of religious, cultural or political identification, since there is abundant evidence that the indictment has nearly universal relevance.
Another option: picture ourselves as the new tenants of God’s vineyard and ask ourselves if we are doing any better in our work of caring for God’s world than the ones we replaced.
That would seem to apply more directly to the Christian community and the opportunity it has to bring to harvest what can be enjoyed as a result of being God’s workers and what is returned to God to do as God pleases.
But is there still another option – one that allows us to ponder the texts from Isaiah 5 (which scholars contend is the biblical origin for the narrative) and the Synoptic narratives together in new ways in light of our democratic context?
That would require our bracketing the interpretations of the story that serve to justify the special standing of one group or another in God’s valuation of human communities and their role in tending to God’s 21st-century vineyard.
With that bracketing provision, this might allow all of us to see how we are being reckless with the natural world that God has entrusted to us, producing the wild, useless grapes that, according to the Isaiah narrative, will be trampled down in a once bountiful vineyard, soon to be left dry and desolate.
It could also provide us the opportunity to identify our primary stewardship to God as the planting, cultivating and harvesting of inclusive justice, righteousness and peace. Violence, then, is ruled out.
It may even permit us to review and rethink the relationship we have with God – a God who is not an absent landlord but one who is, as Jesus said elsewhere, near to us always, a God who is not a slave owner but a loving parent and partner, a God who is not vengeful but full of grace and forgiveness – and come to terms with that God in a new agreement.
Whichever alternative is chosen, isn’t it time to renew the lease?
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.