Jesus’ parable has me thinking about my experiences of owner/tenant relationships. Thankfully, they have been mostly good: a basement suite with my brother in the home of an older couple who were kind; an apartment near the university that had its challenges, including with the manager and his reluctance to spend money on fixing most anything, especially the flooding issues in our third-floor apartment; an apartment during seminary and the retired clergy couple who managed it and their offering us the opportunity to clean other apartments to help pay our rent; and even a parsonage – a house owned by the congregation, which was our housing in the first parish I served; and renting a house when we first arrived in Victoria, and making a deal with the owner to change the old green shag carpet in the lower level to make it more liveable. And there have been aspects of the tenant relationship working with students in Luther House, dealing with their concerns and encouraging them to clean up after themselves for the sake of other residents, and students we have rented to in our own home when they could not find housing. As I said, thankfully, these owner/tenant relationships have been mostly positive, and I acknowledge my own privilege in that. But there are tensions between competing needs, desires, and interests, and we can appreciate how it can go sideways. And in the present housing crisis and an almost zero vacancy rental market, those tensions can become much greater, and breakdown completely at times.
The parable Jesus tells is of an extreme and violent breakdown in that relationship, with dire consequences for both parties in the end. We can barely hear it without immediately translating it into the broken relationship between God and God’s people. Which to be fair, is the way the gospel writer of Matthew conveys the parable, as an allegory, and a condemnation of religious leaders in Jesus’ time. But the original parable may have had more to say about owner/tenant relationships, economic injustices, and the surprising upside- down world of Jesus’ story of God’s grace and righteousness.
I wonder if there are other ways to hear Jesus’ parable in our own time. Clearly, the parable is not simply about religious leaders and communities of the past failing in relationship to God’s generosity and grace. The parable points to us as the “tenants” now, as a spiritual community and religious leaders, questioning how we respond to God’s calling us to share the fruits of this God’s vineyard as God desires. To challenge us in recognizing our own failings in being just and generous, as God is, in all our practices, beyond self-serving interests or preserving what has been for our benefit and security. Isn’t this part of the parable’s questioning and challenging us as God’s tenants now? And part of an examining and confessing and reforming we need to practise together as a church community and individually, striving to be generous and just with what are gifts we receive from God’s vineyard, as we know God is good and generous in Christ Jesus.
And I wonder if the parable has something to say about the current housing crisis, and the great challenge for so many to find suitable, affordable, and secure housing for themselves and their families, and how housing has become out of reach for so many. Jesus’ parable is hyperbole and the violent actions of the tenants toward the owner’s representatives is unjustifiable. But the unjust treatment of tenants by some owners in this housing crisis is a reality and leading some to organize rent strikes to push back against unfair increases and practices like renovation eviction. I wonder if we can hear in Jesus’ parable a call for right and fair relationships between tenants and owners, balancing affordability and security for renters with reasonable income and property care and security for owners. Our own efforts to develop affordable housing with Luther Court continue, with an upcoming submission to BC Housing once again and all the details around land sale to be considered by the congregation in the next few weeks. All of it hoping that the vision of building affordable intergenerational housing for elders and students in need can be realized.
And I wonder if we can hear a parable of God’s good creation, the vineyard of planet earth, and humanity’s use and abuse of this gift and the ignoring of God’s messengers, including the sacrifice of Jesus, calling us to live more faithfully, more carefully, more in harmony with God’s ways, all creation, and with our neighbours, especially our neighbour most in need? How have we failed to see our role and relationship as tenants on this God’s earth with a responsibility to care for all that is not our own, nor for our own selfish purposes? As this year is likely to be the warmest year on record, and extremes of weather and fires, floods, and droughts increase, is Jesus’ parable an urgent and blessed warning to recognize our tenancy on earth as gift, and our shared responsibility to care for this gift for the sake of all creation and all our neighbours, now and for generations to come?
And I wonder if we can hear the parable in connection to Indigenous relationships to these and every lands. That the truth of colonial occupation and stolen lands will never justify any concept of “ownership,” but instead to recognize and respect the Indigenous understanding of relationship to the earth as tenants, with a responsibility to faithful stewardship and prior informed consent in all aspects of the use of these lands, from resource extraction to development, to preservation and conservation, to respect and honouring of these lands and their creatures as fellow citizen’s of Creator’s vineyard and the equal sharing of it’s produce so all have enough. Can we see the parable as a truth telling of this broken relationship with one another and with creation, and a warning and call to right relationships together on these lands and in care for these lands as Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together.
And I wonder if we can hear this as a parable of thanksgiving. Its overt violence and evil intent may not feel like it on the surface. But the gracious willingness or foolishness of the owner to reach out again and again, including naively through their own child, to get through to the tenants, is itself a wild and ludicrous act to restore a right relationship between the owner and tenants. This allegory of God and Jesus’ own life and death is perfectly clear. Is the absurdity of this gracious seeking by the owner what finally awakens us to gratitude and seeking a right and good relationship with the owner/Creator and right relationships with our neighbours and all creation? Is this God’s invitation to constant thanksgiving, that leads to right relationships of justice, especially economic justice and equity,
with our neighbours, as God’s Spirit graciously and constantly seeks right relationships through the Spirit of Jesus with us.
This has been God’s gracious way from the beginning. Today, we hear one of the accounts of God’s giving the Law, the commandments to the people of Israel. And it is all premised on God’s being God for the people, who brought them out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and therefore the people are to have no other gods. And the rest of the commands follow in thankful response to God’s gracious acting. First in relationship to God: no idols, no misusing God’s name, and keeping the sabbath; and second in relationship to family and community: honouring parents, no murder, no adultery, no stealing, no lying about neighbours, no taking a neighbour’s home, spouse, employees, or anything related to your neighbour. Despite the people’s fear of hearing God’s commands directly, Moses conveys their gracious truth and invitation to righteousness, to shalom, God’s justice, joy, and peace.
Paul says in Philippians, all else is loss, but to know Christ and Christ’s resurrection, pressing on toward this goal, the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. A call, a way, a life of thanksgiving, that everything is a gift in God’s vineyard, and to be faithful, generous tenants and stewards of these gifts in justice and righteousness together. It is the very cornerstone of our faith, the gracious, generous, ludicrous, naive, passionate gift of God in Christ Jesus that invites us, compels us, empowers, and inspires us to thankful, generous, joyful, hopeful, response to all our neighbours, this world, the earth, and all creation. Blessed Thanksgiving. Let it be so. In all our relations. Amen.