Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Absent Landlord

I have never lived in rented accommodation before. The closest I have come is living in Vicarages, where there is effectively a landlord/tenant relationship between us and the Diocese.  As you’d expect, what that means is, if something goes wrong in structure or fixtures and fittings of the house, I can send an email or make a phone call requesting that whatever needs resolving gets fixed, and it does. The relationship is mostly very good indeed.

It is significantly more difficult for those who have poor relationships, or none at all, with their landlords meaning that a complaint about a leaking tap or a faulty boiler could face evection. It is very good news indeed for the UK’s 9 million private tenants, 200,000 of whom faced revenge eviction last year because of making genuine and valid complaints, that a law preventing ‘vengeance evictions’ is coming in.

How much worse would it be to have a landlord who never responded, who never showed up, who never seemed to care about their property and investment? We would be appalled. Tenants would move out. The weight of the law would be brought to bear. The landlord would be out of business and their investment in the property would be lost as it went to wrack and ruin.

If the landowner who planted the vineyard in this parable told by Jesus, who put up the fence to protect it, dug the winepress in the midst of it and built the watch tower to keep this precious investment safe is supposed to be God, and the land and its produce are the world which belong to Him - where is the absent landlord when it mattered? When slaves are sent to receive the wine at harvest they are beaten and abused, and when the son and heir is sent the tenants plan to have him killed - where is the Landlord when it counted? Why did He not prevent such awful tragedies occurring?

Where was the Absent Landlord for Alan Henning? Or for Alice Gross? Where is He in Iraq or in Syria? Where was He in Auschwitz or on the fields of the Somme? Has the Landlord just gone AWOL because as sure as hell it feels like that sometimes…

Quite correctly you might point out that the landlord in the story had no idea that His slaves would be treated the way they were or that his son would be murdered. There would be no way that he could have prevented these atrocities. But as a person of faith, I find that image of God deeply unhelpful - God who sends people to receive and pay blessing upon blessing are stoned and killed as is finally His Son, so He comes in stern vengeance to clear the tenants from the land and lease it to others… No thanks.

Culturally, the leasing of land to tenant farmers was a common experience in the first century. Landowners could expect tenants to turn over (a portion of) the crop at harvest time. Those who failed to meet the landowner’s standards would be removed from the land and the landowning elite could usually pay others to remove them forcefully if necessary.
Many in Jesus’ audience would have understood the experience of these farmers all too well. If they chose not to “pay” the landowner, as was the case in this story, the landowner would find new tenants without doubt.

To us the story looks and sounds different: First the landowner sends servants, and they’re beaten, stoned, and killed. Then he sends more — not the police, mind you, or an army, just more servants — and the same thing happens again. So where does the bright idea come from to send his son, his heir, alone, to treat with these bloodthirsty hooligans? It’s absolutely crazy. Who would do such a thing? No one…except maybe a crazy landlord so desperate to be in relationship with these tenants that he will do anything, risk everything, to reach out of them. This landowner acts more like a desperate parent, willing to do or say or try anything to reach out to a beloved and wayward child, than he does a businessman. It’s crazy, the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.
And maybe that’s the key to this story - it’s more Jilly Cooper than Alan Sugar. The landowner isn’t absent - he is so besotted with his current tenants, so deeply in love with them that his actions display patience - eternal patience - which makes no business sense then or now, despite what they do to his investment, his workforce or his family.

So after the murder of the son, Jesus goes on to ask the pharisees what the landowner should do: ‘…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…’  

And maybe that is what we want - vengeance on those who destroy the vineyard and who kill and maim those who work (however tenuously) for the landowner by doing good or by being innocent bystanders. Maybe we want a God of vengeance for Alan Henning or Alice Gross however rightly so, and Jesus knows that as He finishes this parable and accuses and condemns the Pharisees himself. But at this point, I can’t help noticing Jesus introducing us to a God so blinded by love for us, who is even more merciful and patient (almost naively so) than we could possibly imagine.

This morning Jesus tells a story of heavy business investment - land, plants, fencing, protection - which will have cost the landlord dear. He tells of swindled business deals, violent assault and multiple murder.  But who is the bad guy in this story? The landlord or the tenants? Who actions turn your stomach? Who let’s you down? God, the Absent landlord or us the selfish tenants?


This morning Jesus also tells of the desperate, crazy love of the Absent Landlord - which is offered not once, not twice, but a million times or more, often in surprising ways and through unexpected people, to all who will receive it.