SERMON Lectionary 27a 2017
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
The Wicked Tenants
Today Jesus offers what is possibly his most political parable ever, and
you will be relieved to hear that it is not the politics of our present
congress and administration that Jesus speaks of, but of the politics of
the kingdom of God. The word politics comes from the Greek word
polis meaning “city”. The polis is home to the polloi, “the people”.
The politics of the kingdom of God concern God’s people, who they
are, how they live, what they do. It’s a political parable about us.
In order to climb into today’s gospel there is something we need to
understand: there is a crucial difference between Jesus’ world and our
own, specifically between our American way and the ways of the
tribe. We have tribes in America, certainly, but America is not a tribe.
Jesus lived in an intensely tribal society. A tribe is an extended family,
where everybody is the same color, shares the same bloodlines and
operates according to the same social customs, superstitions, taboos
and religion, all of which set it apart from every other tribe. It can be
argued that the whole purpose of the Old Testament law was to build
a fence around the tribe and enforce intense social conformity.
Among the Jews there were laws that covered every aspect of life
from the toilet to the temple. That’s a tribe.
America is not a tribal society. America is about freedom. America is
for people of every color, every family tree, and every faith, or no
faith. “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator
with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.” On a philosophical level at least,
Jefferson meant that that principle applies of everybody, everywhere.
As Americans today we’re still living into that principle, but
unquestionably it is bedrock America.
Here, bedrock America reflects bedrock Christianity, which, after all,
got there first. America is for everybody; Christianity is for
everybody. That’s what Jesus is up to today, when he teaches his
parable about the wicked tenants. The Jewish tribal authorities
immediately recognized that Jesus was speaking about them. The
parable is really plain and very scary: There’s a beautiful garden, the
land of Israel. God made the garden and gave it by covenant to one
family, Abraham’s family, with a promise of forever. But this family
grew and became wicked and turned against God. So God will kick
them out and the garden will be given to new tenants. God is doing a
new thing. In political terms, God is rewriting the constitution,
making a new covenant. Instead of one family, one tribe, this time
the covenant is with all creation.
But in fact the old tribe was not so much rejected as subsumed by the
new thing that God is doing, by the new covenant that God is opening
in Christ. It’s not just about Abraham’s tribe and the land of Israel any
more: now it is about the whole human family and the whole of
creation. We can’t call the new thing a tribe because, as I said, tribes
are based on race and color and bloodlines and history. The new …
family is the best word I have, the church … knows nothing about
those things. The new family God called into being on the day of
Pentecost is for people are of every race, nation, and language (and
every gender and condition). As I said, God is not abandoning his
covenant so much as exploding it to include everybody, everywhere.
What have we done, we mangy sinners, down the centuries, with
God’s glorious new thing? We have tribalized it; we have worked very
hard to make Christianity, or some version of it, into a feature of our
tribes, whatever that tribe happens to be. These tribes do what all
tribes do: choose up sides, take names and start fighting.
Of course it’s easy to see that this is exactly what’s happening in the
world today. There is a world-wide slide into tribalism, whether it’s
white people in America, Kurdish people in Iraq, whether it’s
Republicans or Democrats, or radicals of all stripes: evangelical
Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shia muslims, Hindu nationalists in India,
Buddhist bigots in Burma, to say nothing of separatists in Scotland or
Catalonia or Quebec. The list goes on. Tribalism is rising in our
country and our world. Dear people: It is not of Christ. Tribalism pulls
away from Christ. Tribalism builds walls. Christ is a bridge, not a wall.
Christ takes walls down. Our family the church is not a tribe. Christ
brings us all together in one love, one heart, one mind: the mind that
was in Christ Jesus. Our perceived differences don’t matter. Not for a
hot New York minute.
I realize that this is a very Monday-morning-quarterback take on this
parable. But that’s what Jesus wanted, I think. He wants us to read
this parable through the lens of what God actually did in establishing
the new covenant: dying and rising and opening the kingdom of
heaven to all believers. It’s Monday morning; we know who won and
by how much. Praise the Lord.
But my word to you this morning is a very specific one, just as Jesus’
word to his hearers today was specific. As we see, tribalisms are
rising in our world today. Most are based on race, color and
bloodlines and a myth of some kind (like the myth about how great
things were in the South before the civil war, when the slaves were
happy and the mint juleps were tasty). Watch for it, and you will be
astonished at how this renascent tribalism shapes events, in our own
country and across the world.
Watch for it, and remember it has nothing to do with the Christian
faith, nothing to do with God’s will for human society. I happen to
believe that the things that make for Christian society- love,
compassion, variety, generosity, and joy – can be, should be,
hopefully will be eventually the way of our world, all the world.
Maybe not, but we know a tree by its fruits, Jesus says. When
tribalism divides us and sets us against each other it fosters conflict
and ignorance and nonsense, which breed evil. We Christians need to
help the world let go of tribes, and live into the new thing that God
continues to do among us, right now. That is the politics of the
kingdom of God; that is what it means to live under God’s
constitutional order. The parable of the wicked tenants lays down a
challenge, but it also offers a promise and an opportunity: we can
step out of the tribe and into the family, the polis that is the people of
God for the sake of our own personal happiness, and what scripture
calls the healing of the nations.
May God in his mercy and power make it so.
Let us pray.