I’ve been struggling with the Gospel text this week, known as the parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46), as it doesn’t translate easily into our 21st century ears and hearts. As I read it, I worried about the underlying trend of Matthew’s text becoming antisemitic; and I have a problem with absent landlords and tenants having to support the landlord so the story doesn’t make sense. So, I stepped back and thought about who Jesus was talking about, and why, and how this could be understood today.
This is the second of three parables in Matthew, which Jesus tells the Jewish leaders in his final week in Jerusalem. Last week I spoke about the first parable, which began with a debate about the origins of Jesus’ authority; and finished with the story of the two brothers not doing as their father asked. Next week, I shall be talking about the third parable, a story of a Wedding Feast and those who refused to come and the consequences for the one who attended without the proper wedding robe. Jesus tells us about God who is righteously angry, and we are not used to hearing about this aspect of God’s love.
Matthew was writing his Gospel in around 85 CE. The Jerusalem temple had been destroyed and the city sacked by the Romans, in 70 CE. The small Christian group were struggling to assert their identity and surviving in an unreceptive, hostile pagan world. The parable is told in Matthew, Mark, Luke and in the ‘Gospel of Thomas’, but Matthew wanted to emphasise the identity of Christian Jews as different from the rest of the Jewish people; how Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, promised in the Jewish scriptures, by the prophets and God.
I started wondering about how Jesus might tell the story today. We have tenants who are living in hard circumstances, in poorly maintained properties, where high rents are charged and the power imbalance between tenants and landlords is frequently abusive. We know agents charge extra to confirm a rental and accept higher offers than what is advertised. They charge for extras at the end of the lease and bonds are not refunded without a fight. They collect their profits on a regular basis.
Let’s imagine the tenants come together to build a collective, they start to lobby government for changes to the laws, for better rules and to encourage governments to build more houses and apartments and have some set aside for those who cannot afford to pay market rents. However, the landlords come together to stop the collective bargaining. They put up stories about dirty, irresponsible tenants, and bad neighbours. They accuse the tenants of being dole bludgers, drug dealers and poor citizens.
The tenants refuse to be labelled. They believe they have a just cause and the governments listen and people begin to be more sympathetic. The landlords resist the moves. They go behind closed doors and negotiate separately with the government. They threaten to take their stock off the market, and to stop renting their properties. The government considers the taxes they’ll lose and the rich friends who support their election campaigns and they believe the bad publicity and get nervous about the consequences.
I could go on with the story, but in the end, the tenants are evicted and become homeless. The landlords ‘win’ and Governments pretend they were unable to change, and hope the issue will fade from public memory. The landlords now have properties they can rent however they want. They have tax breaks and they will be richer than they are already.
We can boast we have the best asset wealth in the world with houses that are no longer homes, but are assets. Our homeless citizens, who have been silenced and ignored, now camp in front of the palaces and by the waterways ruining the views while continuing to beg for accommodation, building tiny houses and camping on lawns. They will not go away however much we turn away.
Jesus said to them: ‘Have you never read the scriptures: the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.’ Matt. 21:42
Another ending to the parable is like this: The rest of the people listen to the stories of the tenants and the homeless and start to wonder at how we arrived in such a dreadful state. Those on the streets are our mothers and fathers, our neighbours, our children who can’t find houses to live in while they work. How have we let this happen? When did we become so greedy and self-centred? Our churches, synagogues and mosques are filled with people righteously angry at such an unjust and unethical acceptance of a breach of human rights and they demand Governments take action. Astonishingly, they hold Governments, tax systems, and landlords to account because God has spoken through the prophets and God tells us:
The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom’. (Matt.21:43)
The purpose of this awkward retelling of Jesus’ parable is to go where Jesus has been blunt in inviting us: to look at what we are doing in our response to the injustices and bad behaviour in the world, to acknowledge what we might be contributing to and feeling virtuous about in our own righteousness, and to respond to God’s just anger and indignation. Jesus said:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. (Luke 4:18-19)
In these circumstances, who are the captives, the blind and the oppressed in our society. Are we bystanders, citizen onlookers watching Jesus challenge the religious leaders and elders, believing we are alright? Are we the wicked tenants or the religious leaders or the oppressed tenants? Are we ‘second sons’ saying one thing and doing another? Or, are we the labourers in the vineyard, preparing the harvest, the ones seeking to provide and care for those who need our help?
The famous theologian Karl Barth said, in this parable we have unbelief, in opposition to divine revelation, and therefore, active idolatry and self-righteousness which is in place of, and opposing, the self-offering of God. If we think we own the Gospel and the focus of the Gospel is not about us, then our religion has indeed become idolatrous, and in the end, we kill the Living Son.
Jesus is inviting and urging us to be as one in the Jesus community, to identify with him and his kingdom values and oppose the values of his enemies and the world. As God sends prophet after prophet including God’s only Son, you might think God would give up and stop, given our consistent rejection, but it is only God who has an unquenchable hope and unending mercy which hopes beyond hope with love, for us to change. Let us be the change God desires.
The Lord be with you.