Being a Good Tenant
Kathleen O’Donoghue, Children, Youth and Family Minister
33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41They said to him, “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.” 42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” 45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
If you have been with us in worship over the past three weeks, you have heard three separate parables of a vineyard, a vineyard owner, and those who work in the vineyard; benefit from their father owning a vineyard; and today the tenants of a vineyard owner. Each parable tells us something about the character of the vineyard owner and the conduct of the other players in the stories. Jesus, as you know, uses parables to make his disciples and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem think about the story literally and then figuratively. These vineyard parables would literally be problematic in the world of landowners and workers/beneficiaries and tenant, but have even more dramatic meaning figuratively when seen as a story of God as the owner of the vineyard and God’s people as the sometimes-ungrateful workers, beneficiaries and tenants of this flourishing, fruitful land.
So just for a quick review if you haven’t been with us to hear the other two parables of the vineyard:
- Our first story has a vineyard owner hiring day laborers in the morning to work for him-they are told what they will be paid and are happy to work the day for this wage. Then more workers join them at mid morning, at noon and mid afternoon to make sure all the work gets done. At the end of the day, the owner pays all the workers the same amount regardless of when they got to work. You can imagine what happens next as the people who arrived at the crack of dawn were paid the same wage as those who came in at 4:00 for the last hour. The morning workers felt they had the right to complain about this and the owner responded with this question, “Are you saying you are angry because I am generous?” That’s hard to argue with when you say it that way.
- The second parable, last week’s gospel lesson, has the vineyard owner asking his two sons to go out and work. His first son refused, we aren’t told why, but then he has a change of heart and goes out and works in the as he has been asked to do. The second son says, “Of course I’ll do that, father!” But then does not work at all, ignoring his father’s request. Jesus asks his disciples and also the chief priests and elders gathered to hear him, “Who is the more obedient of the two sons?” The one who has always said the right thing but does not live out their words or the one who realizes their mistake and comes back to be obedient in the end?
- And today’s parable has the owner establishing a new vineyard, leasing it out to tenants (not his family) and then leaving the area, trusting they would care for his property. When it is time to collect his profits, the owner sends his servants to get the produce but the tenants refuse to give what is due to him and then kill his servants instead. Thinking they will respect his son as they would the owner himself, he sends his son to collect the profits and they kill him as well.
The question raised by Jesus in this parable is “What will the vineyard owner do to these tenants when he arrives, seeing his son killed and them grabbing onto the profits of his work?” The people listening knew that the owner would kill the tenants, give the land to new and respectful tenants who would safeguard the land and also give him what is rightly his. There were Pharisees there that day and they are said to have understood that this parable was intended for them to see their own role as the wicked tenant in God’s vineyard and Jesus was leading people to become the new tenants in God’s vineyard.
Parables were intended to use known examples from life to explain a more mysterious truth to those hearing them. If I were to have heard these parables myself for the first time today, I think I would have varying degrees of ability to relate to the scenarios. I have never been a day laborer and although I can imagine feeling jealous about someone being paid the same as me for a lot less work, it doesn’t really catch me as it might have the people who heard it directly from Jesus’ mouth that day.
Likewise in the second parable I do understand having regret if I have been uncooperative or less than helpful when asked to do something and then turning around and saying grumpily “Oh FINE, I’ll do it!” I can connect with that one a bit more.
But for me, the third parable resonates the most deeply. I have been a tenant, first when I was just out of college, then a homeowner, then a homeowner WITH a tenant and now I am back to simply being a tenant again.
Just out of college off course I thought my landlord was a rich business person and if my rent had to be late, “Oh well”. He’s got plenty of money, right? How unfair that I can’t have a pet or an aquarium! Why are there these rules about noise after 10 pm? My lease was full of things I would never consider doing.
Then I bought a home, where I worried about every penny we had to spend to fix and improve things, figure out how to make that lawn grow, worry about the oil tank bursting open and flooding the basement with heating oil. It was pretty stressful for me!
After some time I moved and needed to rent my home. How thoughtless these tenants were, living in my personal home, having a dog who would ruin the carpet, damage appliances and not tell me, not pay their rent on time, and ultimately move out without notice. I was speechless about the lack of consideration of people who were suggesting they were adults.
Now I am fully back to a tenant only status. But I am a different kind of tenant from when I was just out of college. My experience has taught me how to be a good tenant. I would never imagine my current homeowner had endless resources or could absorb my late rent payment. That certainly wasn’t true when I was a homeowner. I would never damage carpets or appliances and I have always, like the Boy Scouts, left my place in better condition than they way I found it. It matters to me what my landlord thinks of me and I want to do the right thing. Age and wisdom have changed my perspective.
I grew to understand why leases exist, why rules help to protect the rights of both tenant and landlord. I know how to care for someone else’s property. I am a really good tenant.
So here is the question for us. We know the parable of the bad tenants was a story for those hearing it that day, a message to the Pharisees that they were mishandling God’s vineyard and God’s servants and that God would be handing over the vineyard to tenants who would want to care for it and return what was due to God as was the right thing to do. But if the Word of God is still bringing us instruction today, who are we in this story and what is its message to us?
I believe we are the new tenants of God’s vineyard today. We are called to tend to God’s creation, watch it and each other until God returns and to, without grumbling, return the gifts of the land to God.
So then, how do we learn to be good tenants of God’s vineyard? I only learned to be a good tenant of my home from having lived each of the roles and being able to see things from a different perspective and with the help of having a good, clear, reasonable lease.
If only there were a way we could learn, with God’s help, how to live this life as the new tenants of God’s creation. If there were only a lease or a handbook or a list of standards or rules or, even perhaps a set of commandments, that would help to keep us on the straight and narrow way…
- not being angry about God’s generosity and grace in the lives of others like the day laborers
- not taking advantage of God’s trust that we’ll do the right thing in the end like the vineyard owner’s son
- not abusing our privileges or shirking our responsibilities as God’s agent here in God’s kingdom like the bad tenants.
We just happened to have heard the 10 commandments this morning and of course you’ve heard them your whole life if you have been part of a church community. Sometimes the language seems arcane and the situations don’t speak to us directly ( I don’t own or covet a donkey) so I offer the following modern day interpretation of the 10 commandments, by author Mary Fairchild:
- Do not worship any other god than the one true God. All other gods are simply false gods. Worship the God of Abraham alone.
- Do not make idols or images in the form of God. An idol can be anything (or anyone) you worship by giving it more importance than God. If something (or someone) has your time, attention and affections, it has your worship. It could be an idol in your life. Don’t let anything take the place of God in your life.
- Do not treat God’s name lightly or with disrespect. Because of God’s importance, his name is always to be spoken of reverently and with honor. Always honor God with your words. Do not say that God is the cause of bad things or of good things to brag about your special relationship with God. This is disrespectful to God’s name.
- Dedicate or set aside a regular day each week for rest and worship of the Lord.
- Give honor to your father and mother or anyone entrusted with your care by treating them with respect, obedience and love
- Do not deliberately kill a fellow human being. Don’t hate people or hurt them with words and actions.
- Respect your body and other people’s bodies. Do not treat each other like objects.
- Do not steal or take anything that doesn’t belong to you, unless you have been given permission to do so.
- Do not tell a lie about someone or bring a false accusation against another person. Always tell the truth.
- Do not desire anything or anyone that does not belong to you. Comparing yourself to others and longing to have what they have leads to jealousy, envy, and other sins. Be content by focusing on the blessings God has given you and not what God has not given you. Be thankful for what God has given you.
I think that’s it! I think that is the well-written lease we need to help us learn to be better tenants. Perhaps one more codicil to our tenant’s lease…from Mt 22:35-40
“Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said to him, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Let us do all these things and be the good tenants of God’s vineyard.