Tenants & Bumper Stickers

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22), Year A.

Jesus said, “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. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They 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.”

Jesus 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’?

Therefore 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. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Matthew 21:33-46

Of the thousand forms of communication humanity has developed over the millennia, only in the last sixty years have we reached the pinnacle. From speech to the written word, the telegraph or the tweet, there is only one ideal form of communication. So concise that there is no space for falsehood, deception, or insincerity, yet saturated with symbolism, bravely broadcasting the deepest convictions of one human soul to the entire world in perfect brevity and clarity. Friends, I speak not of the tweets of the virtue-signaling unrighteous, the babbling of the misinformed timeline post, the idolatrous insta, the silver-tonged karma-craving threads, nor the monetized motions of TikTok. For reasons beyond my facilities to comprehend, as a society the only place where people communicate their honest feelings consistently is printed on humble vinyl or plastic with adhesive, or for the less convicted, magnetic, backing. Of all the ways we have available to share our truths, only one casts aside any pretense or face-saving manners, and as a society we have decided the best place for it to be proclaimed is the back of a civic, tesla, station wagon, pickup, suv, or minivan.

The bumper sticker.

There are many things to be learned from the humble bumper sticker, most notably about proclaiming to all your honest truth, sharing who you are while remaining concise, understandable, and accessible for all to see, all while bearing witness to other’s honest convictions. They are remarkable in that there is no room for dishonesty or deception in them, and they convey complex meaning in the simplest of forms. In my life, I’ve only met two bumper stickers that I didn’t understand: one was the word “coexist” but instead of the usual form where all the letters are replaced with various religious symbols, the “x” was replaced with the battle flag of the army of Northern Virginia, more commonly known as the confederate flag. It’s been about three years since I came across it, and I’m still baffled as to what message the owner was trying to convey. The other bumper sticker that I don’t understand has been popping up more and more in the last few months as we have entered into a political season with the upcoming election:

“Jesus for President”

It seems to be a simple enough statement. I mean, who wouldn’t want the sinless incarnation of eternal Love and Charity as our commander in chief? But considering the Lord hasn’t registered with the electoral commissions and filled out the necessary paperwork to be included on the ballot (other than a write-in) I have to assume that this bumper sticker is communicating in metaphor. But what does someone want to communicate when they say “Jesus for President”? It could mean any range of things, from a conservative stance of “bringing America back to ‘Christian’ morality” to a utopian socialist image of the disciples sharing all things in common, Christ making good on His promise to return to strike down the wealthy and unrighteous and free the poor from their captivity. Jesus means many things to many different people, so without further clarification I am left baffled, though grateful for the philosophical distraction from the I-81 traffic.

That particular bumper sticker is almost parabolic in nature, with its multiplicity of meaning and brevity. An unintentional tribute to the Jesus’ favorite form of teaching: the parable. Parables are a unique form of rhetoric, almost the antithesis of the bumper sticker. They are short stories, metaphors, and similes built on familiar images and life experiences, but using them in a strange way, carrying multiple layers of potential meaning, causing the listener to re-evaluate their assumptions. In other words, using common images in an uncommon way to bypass biases and help the listener consider a new perspective. Unlike the bumper sticker, which boldly proclaims what the owner stands for, the parable engages the speaker and the hearer to create their own meaning from the parable.

The parable in our Gospel reading today, known as the parable of The Wicked Tenants, is the second of three that Jesus confronts the Temple authorities with. In the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has made his final grand entrance into Jerusalem and is criticizing the Temple authorities for teaching God’s righteousness but failing to uphold the spirit of the very Law they teach. What is unique about this parable, beyond the story itself, is that the Temple authorities and Pharisees figure out, though a bit late, that Jesus is criticizing them. It is a moment of comedy that shows how Jesus is able to engage everyone in meaningful dialog.

“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.” (Matthew 21:45-46)

Through the parable, He and His enemies were able to step outside their usual adversarial roles and consider a new perspective together. Even though ultimately the Temple authorities and Pharisees reject the perspective they had entertained with Jesus, it is one of the greater miracles of Jesus’ ministry that He was so consistently able help people break out of their usual party lines.

As far as the parable itself, there are too many noteworthy features to count, though there are few things to consider. In this story about a vineyard and wicked tenants, Jesus is re-telling a parable from Isaiah 5:1-7, where the people of Israel are described as God’s vineyard. Jesus puts a spin on it by making it unclear who exactly the tenants are and other details. It’s a common mistake to simply allegorize it, saying “God is the Landlord, the wicked tenants are the Jews, the slaves that are sent are the prophets, and the son that is killed is Jesus. Therefore, Jesus is prophesizing his own death, and proving to us Christians that Jews had their chance but blew it by killing Jesus.” That is one way to interpret the parable, though it does lead to several unsatisfying theological conclusions. If God is the landlord, then what does that say about God if he’s an absentee manager who can’t be bothered to care for his own land? This would be especially troubling Jesus’ audience, as such absenteeism was seen as shamefully exploitive and disgraceful. As for the wicked tenants being the Jews, considering Jesus is Jewish and loves all people, it would be out of character to assume that Jesus was making a blanket condemnation of his own people.

In this parable and this conversation, Jesus is certainly challenging the authorities, but he is doing it in such a way where they are participating in a conversation. Rather than simply hurling insults at one another, they are able to meaningfully converse, even as adversaries. The Temple authorities and the Pharisees even come to insightful conclusions, recognizing that the wicked tenants need to be removed and that the land should be managed by tenants that will behave honorably and produce good fruits. In this insight they recognize that they share the same goal as Jesus, stewarding God’s creation honorably and fruitfully. Though at this point they don’t make it to the conclusion that they need to change, instead becoming angry with Jesus, we see as readers how Jesus was able to converse in love even with his most staunch opponents.

In our current social and political climate, where tensions have been running high for years, and conflict between sides seems to have only become more extreme, we constantly cry out for “meaningful dialog between parties”. We wail and gnash our teeth about how no one talks things out and everyone stays in their own echo chambers. Yet, when we have opportunities to engage in meaningful dialog, especially when confronted with competing views from real people in our lives, not just those posts on social media, we shrink away out of fear that we’ll cause trouble, that we will destroy the relationships we’ve worked so hard to build. It’s like dogs who furiously bark at one another through a gate, but once the gate opens, they all turn and whimper away.

There is also a sense of fatigue. After all, it seems like everywhere we turn there is political and social conflict, on television, the internet, papers, radio. It’s understandable that people want a break from the endless punditry and talking heads. But there is a danger with avoiding conflict, and we are seeing it play out in our wider society: nothing changes, and people only become more set in their ways. After all, unless an external force is applied, an object at rest will stay at rest. Unless we make a concerted effort to break the cycle, it will continue to self-perpetuate. What’s more, if we don’t engage in difficult conversation, without conflicting perspectives, we will never see third, fourth, or even otherworldly options we never even thought possible.

But why bring this up? It’s potentially divisive after all. Is it that I am determined to ruin pleasant coffee hour conversation? Isn’t it the place of the church to be a refuge from all of that unpleasantness and welcoming to all people, an embodying of God’s kingdom on earth? It is precisely because the Church is an embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth that we should have difficult and divisive conversations. As the body of Christ, we are called to engage and challenge one another as a way to be good tenants of the vineyard. We are better equipped than anyone because we are a community of Love. We can have difficult conversations because as Christians, we know and trust that we actually love one another. That even in heated moments or the most contentious debates, we know that our adversary isn’t really our adversary, but our brother or sister in Christ.

Underneath the fear and the fatigue is hopelessness. The real reason we shrink away from difficult conversations is that we falsely believe that it’s a pointless exercise. That by having a difficult or divisive conversation we will cause trouble and not even make meaningful change. This again is where we as the body of Christ are uniquely qualified to do this difficult but necessary work. In Christ we have hope. We see how Christ was able to meaningfully converse with his staunchest enemies, and still do it in a way that was loving. What’s more, we know that God isn’t some absentee landlord who will get fed up with us wicked tenants. God not only constantly sends his prophets to us, but He himself walked among us and with us. His Spirit is always with us. We have seen how the gospel of love, hope, and forgiveness has conquered all things, even death itself.

Because we have love, and because we have hope, share your bumper sticker. Boldly speak your convictions with confidence and clarity. Let this church be a refuge where all are welcome to share their truth and be heard. Rejoice when difficult conversations and conflicts arise, as these arise when important and meaningful work is being done. Welcome all your brothers and sisters in Christ with love and hope, challenge them to be better tenants of the vineyard and be grateful when you yourself are challenged to be better. Praise God for this community where we can have difficult and meaningful conversations because we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Give us the courage to break the cycle of division and hopelessness.

As the Psalmist Proclaims:

20 This is the gate of the Lord;

    the righteous shall enter through it

21 I thank you that you have answered me

    and have become my salvation.

22 The stone that the builders rejected

    has become the chief cornerstone.

23 This is the Lord’s doing;

    it is marvelous in our eyes.

24 This is the day that the Lord has made;

    let us rejoice and be glad in it.

25 Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!

    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Psalm 118

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