Living in a large city where poor people rent sub-standard housing at inflated rents from unknown owners who collect their booty from afar through hired intermediaries doesn’t predispose a reader to a sympathetic assessment in a story about an absentee landlord.
Something similar might well be the case in rural areas in which the absentee landowners exploit farmers who can’t amass the money needed to buy, work, and profit from their own land, but year after year hand over the receipts from the harvest to a distant proprietor who has no dirt under her or his fingernails.
But that kind of sympathy toward the absentee landlord is exactly what the writers of the Gospels 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.)
With just a few, seemingly insignificant, variations, the story goes like this:
A landowner decides to turn his property into a vineyard, 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 he has slaves attending 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 to the slaves and, instead 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; and the tenants treat these slaves in the same way. Finally, the absentee landlord sends his own offspring to collect from the tenants, thinking that surely the tenants would respect a member of the landlord’s family. But the tenants realize that this is the landlord’s heir, the one who will keep in place long into the future the same conditions that they are operating under currently. 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 he quotes from the 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.”
That is, in all of the accounts (but more elaborately presented by Matthew) 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, yes, 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 that is 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).”
(A neutral or suspicious reader might even hypothesize that the violence attributed to the these first tenants against the landowner’s slaves and son in the story served as way of accounting for the crucifixion of Jesus as well as the persecution experienced by the early church.)
The core of the story, scholars contend, has its biblical origins in a narrative from Isaiah 5 (1-7) about God’s fertile land that is entrusted to God’s “beloved” for a vineyard, complete with a vat and a watchtower, to yield grapes for fine wine. But instead of nurturing wondrous grapes, the beloved tenants yield “wild grapes,” to God’s great displeasure. God had expected of “the house of Israel and the people of Judah” a harvest of “justice” and “righteousness,” but realized only bloodshed.
Importantly, however, in this prophetic rendering of the story, God does not replace the old “beloved” tenant with a new one in order to restore the vineyard to its original purpose, but rather destroys the vineyard completely: “And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.” (vv. 5-6)
That last part of the story in Isaiah, obviously, does not track with what the Gospel writers have portrayed when they have Jesus and his church become the new lessees of the vineyard.
Neither do they seem bothered by a God, in their version, who is an absentee landlord, who has slaves to carry out the 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, today, of this Gospel story of the vineyard, especially when re-set in the context of a democratic polity?
One way is take the version as we have it in the Synoptic Gospels and 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, or cultural, or political identification, since there is abundant evidence that the indictment has nearly universal relevance.
Another way of contending with the story as we have it presented to us in the Synoptic Gospels is to 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 one’s 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 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 twenty-first 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, in the end, 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, and cultivating, and harvesting of inclusive justice, righteousness, and peace. Violence, I think it would be fair to claim, 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 chosen, isn’t it time for renewing the lease?