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For Your Weekend: We Are The Tenants

Laura Phelps

Dig Deeper into Sunday’s Gospel: Read Matthew 21:33–43

Did I ever tell you about when I entered a contest to be on a reality TV show and won? They were looking for a mom desperate for a home, wardrobe, and life makeover. Entries included a written submission stating why you deserved the prize and a video of a day in your life with your children. I don’t know if my writing skills caught their attention or if it was my daughter who threw up on the couch while recording our video. Whatever the case, I won. I would get a home makeover, a shopping spree, a family vacation, and hopefully, a new couch. As if that weren’t enough, my family would enjoy a few days at the Bel Age Hotel in Beverly Hills while the production team worked its magic on my home. There was only one problem: we were tenants. We did not own our home. And our landlord said “no.”

I was not a fan of that landlord. 

My husband and I have endured many landlords and are no strangers to tenant living. We would have been in our fifties before purchasing our first home and lived in one too many questionable spaces. Aside from feeling “less than” next to my homeowning (and a few mansion-owning) friends, leasing meant that I could never paint a room a different color, replace an outdated chandelier without permission, or apparently, become the world’s next top reality TV star. While I watched friends remodel kitchens and pick out upholstery, I was vacuuming my 1970s carpets and wiping down Formica counters, which were blatant reminders that my home was on loan.

With years of leasing and a handful of stories to go with it, tomorrow’s gospel speaks my language, but with a twist, because in this story, the tenants are the problem. And not just a problem, but wicked. The parable of the wicked tenants, found in Matthew 21:33–43, tells the story of the householder who plants a vineyard, sets a hedge around it, digs a wine press, builds a tower, and then leases it to tenants. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent servants to the tenants to collect his fruit, and the tenants, in their wickedness, went on to beat one, stone the second, and kill the third. Finally, the householder comes up with the great idea to send his son, saying, “They will respect my son”(Matthew 21:37), but the tenants cast him out of the vineyard and put him to death. 

Does any of this sound familiar? 

This parable is an allegory that alludes to Old Testament prophecy (Isaiah 5:1–7) and is loaded with far too much symbolism to share in less than 1,000 words. As John Bartunek writes,  “In these few sentences, Jesus sums up the history of salvation, past, present, and future.”[1] God (the householder) gives us the world (the vineyard), and in our (the tenant's) selfishness, we rebel. 

I have never rebelled against my landlord, but I have rebelled against God. Pride is the usual suspect. To be more specific, pride of authority, and my guess is that these tenants in our parable had a fair share of their own. Pride of authority is a particular kind of pride manifested by an overbearing attitude, critical spirit, argumentative attitude, or angry attitude.[2] Due to my tendency toward this sin, selfishness often finds itself on my weekly list of sins to confess. Why is it so easy to fall into wanting more than I have been given? How is it that after struggling for so long, I can forget that everything I have is a gift? The temptation to see my work, both in my home and in ministry, as something I produce—as something I own—is a lie never too far from my belief. How I cling tightly to my children and earthly possessions points to a false belief that these are all mine, and if you dare to take any of these from me, I will rebel. In short, when pride raises me to the role of the vineyard owner, there’s no telling how I will react when the true authority returns to collect His fruits.

We all have faults. Yes. That is plural. We have many. But a good practical examen is helpful to uncover your predominant fault. There’s a leader of the pack, and my leader is pride of authority. If you are curious if pride of authority is your predominant fault, ask yourself, am I quick to see the faults of others? Am I jealous? Do I desire always to be first? Have I had a superior attitude in thinking, speaking, or acting? Do I demand recognition? Am I ready to accept advice?[3] If you answer yes to any of these, don’t panic. There is a remedy, and it’s called humility.

Now, I can’t speak for you, but when I fall into pride, I forget simple things, such as my talents, gifts, and all that I have depend on God. I forget that God gets the credit for everything and that everything I do is for His glory, not mine. God gave me life, and He can take it back before this post is published. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, and we are here for the giving; it is the taking away we struggle with. 

Here’s the hard and glorious truth: 

Life is not about us.
God owns every breath.
Without Him, we have nothing.
He is the landowner, and we have been entrusted with His vineyard.
The fruits belong to Him.

An interesting thing happens when you are entrusted with something that doesn't belong to you: you take better care of it. Take our rental homes, for instance. Every space we moved out of was returned in perfect condition. We were careful not to put holes in the walls, or at least holes too big to spackle. We cleaned the carpets and paid hundreds of dollars to steam the wooden floors, because who knew that the dog was peeing in that corner all those years? In short, we felt more acutely the weight of responsibility given to us because we were not the owners. Out of respect, we were honest, respectful, and considerate tenants.

If only we treated God, the Landlord of the world, with the same respect.

Another reason this parable is familiar is because it describes the world we currently live in. Just as God continued to send servants to the tenants, giving them another chance to repent, He does the same for us today. He never ceases to call us to Him, even when we repeatedly ignore Him, even when we choose to worship the wrong things, even when we act as if life is all about us, even when we take credit for the good things we have and live like we are gods. Even when we are selfish. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have fallen, only to be met with the mercy of Jesus. What a kind and merciful Savior we have who calls us to repentance repeatedly, no matter how greatly we have sinned. 

If you ever doubt that our God is a good Father, look no further than this parable and read how He chose to send His Son, knowing He would die. As Brant Pitri remarks, “That makes no sense! What kind of crazy father would do that?” But then he reminds us: “This isn’t an ordinary father. This isn’t an ordinary son. For God the Father sent His son to die for the sake of the sins of the world.”[4]

What other landlord gives us up his life so we can live? 

How good it is to be the tenants of this merciful Landlord. He invites us into a lease that we ought to renew until God willing, He calls us to our permanent home.

Food for thought or journaling… 

How have I rebelled against God? What if I lived as if everything was on loan? 

Patient and merciful Father, thank You for being the Landlord of my life. You never tire of calling me to repentance. Never stop reminding me that my life is not about me. Amen.

[1] John Bartunek, Choosing The Better Part (United States: Avila Institute 2007), 252.
[2] James F. McElhone, C.S.C., Particular Examen (1952), 40-43.
[3] Ibid, 40-43.
[4] Brant Pitri, "The Parable of the Wicked Tenants," Catholic Productions (September 28, 2020): https://youtu.be/b6BjMBVO8Fo?si=obVktk7u-rRMFEV6.

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