-- The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire
Readings for Proper 22A:
I have a pet peeve: I hate it when people use the word “tenants” in place of the word “tenets.”
Tenants are people who temporarily rent a place. Tenets are ethical beliefs or guiding principles.
And in the parable we just heard, too often we ourselves get confused not just about who the tenants are, but what tenets we are called to embrace as followers of Jesus. So please hold that thought while I explain.
I am also not fond of today's readings- or perhaps the baggage they bring with them-- either as a Christian, as a historian, or as a preacher. As a Christian the casual violence seemingly endorsed in the story sets alarm bells off in my head and heart.
As a historian, I know that, for centuries, this parable has been used to justify rampant hatred of Jews by the Church in its official teachings and by people who call themselves Christians-- all through misunderstanding who the characters are in this parable, and how the original listeners received this story and why.
Historically, the parable in today’s gospel has been broken down this way: God, despite acting wildly un-God-like, is the vineyard owner. The evil tenants, supposedly, are the Jews, and they are painted as a threat to the greater community and even to God's order in a way that would have made Hitler happy: Trying to get something for nothing, substituting ruthlessness for the obligation to anyone beyond themselves. The servants sent to the tenants who are beaten and killed? Those are the prophets, just like John the Baptist had been executed by the pseudo-Jewish King Herod. And when the vineyard owner's son is killed? And then, the murdered son is Jesus.
This parable, cut free from its context, reinforces the claim that lives on to this day among some Christians that the Jews were the ones who killed Jesus, ignoring the fact that crucifixion was a Roman punishment. It was the way the Empire dealt with rebels and resisters. The gospel writers, of course, dared not name Rome as the culprit. For the people of Israel in the time of Jesus, ROME was the ruthless claimer of each and every vineyard, LITERALLY. That’s how Empires operate: they take what isn’t theirs by threat or by violence, and use what they take for themselves and their murderous machinery.
In Jesus and Matthew’s time, it was ROME that had unjustly claimed the vineyard, and extracted the produce not for the benefit of the people of God, but for its own greed and power. If Matthew’s community had written that into this parable, though, they would have been exterminated. When we forget that, we lose sight of the implications for us today in asking ourselves who the Roman Empire is for us today, and whether we really, in actual deeds, serve God or that empire.
One of my seminary professors once gave us a very important piece of advice about our interpretation of scriptures like this: if you constantly see yourself and the position of the underdog in every story, you need to stop and ask yourself to stand in the shoes of the other characters in the story, and see how that changes your perspective.
It's human nature, of course, to want to hear of your enemies getting what you think is coming to them. But since we are commanded to love our enemies, if we fail to love them, aren’t we acting just like the “evil” tenants?
The evil tenants, we are to understand, committed the great evil of taking what God had provided to them and using it for their own pleasure and advantage, to feed their own greed at the expense of the people. First and foremost, the tenants are everyone who ignores that they don’t own the vineyard, and thus not free to do what they wanted with its produce. They were only given use of the vineyard while they used its produce to advance God's Kingdom.
It's always tempting to see ourselves and biblical stories as the character that's the underdog. It's tempting because so often in scripture it is the underdog who gets favored: the younger son over the elder son; the second wife over the first; and, especially with Jesus, prostitutes and tax collectors over the religious leadership. But Jesus, himself a Jew, wasn’t criticizing all Jews—he was still in the process of answering the question asked at the start of Matthew chapter 21 three weeks ago—the question of the source of Jesus’s authority to come in to the Temple and start flipping over tables and criticizing those who encouraged those tables to be there in the first place. He was acting as a prophet to call all to honest self-examination and repentance so that they could embrace a new status, not as tenants, but as children of God. ALL of us.
So, if I hated thinking about how to put this parable into context for 20th century Americans at the end of last week, I am especially concerned about how it might be used on this particular day, as we hear of the attacks on civilian targets in Israel yesterday morning by Hamas, which is a proxy for Iran, and then of Israel’s responding rocket attacks into Gaza and the West Bank. And so the historical misuse of this parable by the Church for centuries to justify its ascendancy and claim to having displaced all Jews as God’s chosen people, a hateful philosophy known as supersessionism and triumphalism--must be noted, and denounced in the strongest terms. Any attempt to kill each other over the vineyard must be denounced today and every day.
We must remember that each generation is called to read these parables in light of their own situation—and thus far, each generation has failed to consider that they themselves might be the tenants willing to do anything to avoid acknowledging that they there are times when they themselves forget that we are ALL tenants.
I say this as I lay alongside this parable not only the terrible genocidal bloodshed going on right now in Israel and Palestine, but also as on Monday, we will hold in tension the remembrance of Columbus Day and the push to reconsider tomorrow instead as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
In the case of our Indigenous kindred, too, the word “tenant” has actual historical meaning. Let me explain: when the conquistadores representing European kings came to these shores, they did not encounter an empty country, but rather a fertile vineyard, if you will, that they saw being occupied by evil tenants. And legally, they referred to Indians as tenants, rather than owners of the land.
What made Natives tenants worthy of being displaced? Two things: first, that those tenants we supposedly “godless,” since they had never been exposed to Christianity. But second, that to the invaders’ eyes, the lands which the indigenous peoples occupied had not been improved and harnessed for economic exploitation. They believed that God’s command to dominate the Earth in the first chapters of Genesis meant that only those who turned wilderness into cropland and mines had a full right to the land. Because, to their eyes, the “Indians” had not improved the land, they believed the Indians had violated God’s will and therefore forfeited their right to it.
That’s right-- they believed that to be Christian, one had to act as the wicked tenants we just condemned. To take fertile land that did not belong to them and use it for their own selfish ends. Talk about ironic. They substituted their own tenets justifying theft, just like those evil tenants did.
Do not think that I am kidding—this is the actual legal justification for the enslavement of native peoples and death of 90% of them within the first fifty years post-contact; the further removal of the surviving native peoples over the next 250 years, for supposedly impeding white settlers’ “progress” with their continued territorial claims; the confining of the survivors of THAT removal effort, one that moved right through this diocese in several cases during the Trail of Tears, onto tiny reservations on the most unproductive lands; and the eventual further fracturing of even those tiny holdings left to them if anything of value was found upon them.
We see this in what happened to one of Missouri’s own original nations—the Osage—when, after they were removed from Missouri and Kansas, the county-sized reservation they received in exchange in Oklahoma was found in the early 20thcentury to be sitting atop some of the richest petroleum deposits in the world—a story so heinous it is now a major motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese and opening later this month.
All of this based upon the same kind of misapplication of notions of God’s justice that occur when we fail to use this parable for anything but a self-examination of our own actions and the way WE fail to understand the values of God’s kingdom that we ourselves are called to embody.
So let’s back up.
Can we start from the understanding that, in imagining the vineyard, we are ALL being reminded that all that we are and all that we have is NOT actually ours, but is a gift from God? We are ALL start with just being tenants on this Earth, and in this life. This understanding is one of the main tenets of scripture. Do we acknowledge God’s ownership of everything in our lives, or do we serve the empires that come along and encourage selfish misuse of the resources God has given us?
Do we instead remember and take seriously what we proclaim every single Sunday—that in every single thing Jesus did and does, Jesus calls us to joyfully take up the offer to be not just tenants, to not be assisters of Empire, but children and heirs of God in God’s vineyard. We are given the opportunity to exchange our tenuous tenancy for the status of God’s children—a matter of choice and not mere accident of birth.
Rather than making us feel vulnerable, however, if we understand God as loving us so fiercely as to only desire our flourishing—the very God Jesus repeatedly described and came to earth to make visible before us in human flesh—that should be a reminder that we are called to abundance—and to care for the flourishing of one another if we truly want to be not just God’s tenants, but God’s children. God’s ways of abundant generosity and grace must become our ways too, if we want to truly inhabit the vineyard rather than murder each other over it. That means we must be good stewards in every aspect of our lives—starting with stewardship in our faith communities, yes, which we have been talking about up her from this pulpit for a month now. But even more importantly, in the care of those around us.
For instance, in ancient Israel it was absolutely forbidden for a landowner to harvest from edge to edge in their fields, leaving nothing behind. Instead, it was an actual law that harvesting should leave behind some of the produce, so that the poor, the widowed, the foreigner, and the destitute could come into the fields after the harvesters and take provision for themselves from what was left deliberately behind. The idea of the super-rich 1% of the landowners taking everything for themselves from resources that belonged to God and therefore to the entire community was considered to be an outrageous violation of God’s call to care for everyone in the community.
Being not just tenants but good stewards and heirs in God’s kingdom means examining how our actions—and especially the actions from the past from which we still benefit today-- affect the most vulnerable and most oppressed among us. To make sure the produce of the vineyard is used for the care and flourishing of EVERYONE. We are meant to produce good fruit by embodying God’s generosity and compassion with one another, rather than attacking and killing off anyone who stands in the way of our insistence that we can do anything we want, even hurting other people directly or indirectly, in the name of our own freedom.
Being not just tenants but good stewards and heirs in God’s kingdom similarly means to take seriously the care and protection of this beautiful and precious planet, the only one we have.
Here is the good news: God gives us all that we need, and more besides. Everything we have comes from God, and comes from God abundantly and without qualification. In giving us everything, God only asks that we follow God’s example in making sure that everyone is cared for, that our resources are dedicated to God in response to God’s own gifts to us. That we live not by what we can hoard and keep for ourselves, but by how we can do good and live blessed lives that celebrate abundance with what we have, and how we care for each other.
We move from being tenants to being children living by God’s kingdom tenets when we decide, through real faith, to align our entire lives upon the cornerstone values of Jesus. We follow that example when we make Jesus the true cornerstone of our lives both inside these walls and how we live outside them—because the point of a cornerstone is to set the orientation for the entire building that symbolizes our lives.
The good news is that Jesus calls us, right now, to turn away from the embrace of division, oppression, and violence that makes up the tenant life, to embrace the tenets of true flourishing: abundant grace, abundant stewardship, abundant mercy that is our true inheritance as beloved children of God, with Jesus as our cornerstone, right here, right now, in our lives and the lives of St. Martin’s. May we make that proclamation of abundance not just a tenet, but a cornerstone on which to build a faithful future.