For the first time in our lives together, my wife Joy and I live in a rural setting. Kincaid Lake and the Kisatchie National Forest flank us on either side.
Crime poses less a threat here than some of the wildlife. Signs posted at the nearby trailheads offer strategies for confrontations with wild boar. Alligators have eaten a few of our neighbors’ pets. And we have survived a home invasion by a snake.
Prior to moving to Alexandria, Louisiana, we had chosen homes in town or in older, close-in suburbs. We grew accustomed to setting alarms and taking precautions against smash-and-grab thefts. Locking our cars was second nature.
Usually these are crimes of opportunity. An iPhone is left in an unlocked car or a laptop is left by a front window overnight.
I had stayed in the group to keep up with old friends. I left the group when the responses to minor thefts reached a level of rage that I simply couldn’t comprehend. A few people stated plainly that they would shoot thieves for stealing their stuff.
Let me be very clear here. They weren’t talking protecting themselves or their families from intruders. These felt justified in shooting someone over an iPod stolen from an unlocked car overnight.
Since we’re not talking about self-defense, we have to ask a blunt question. What does it mean about the state of our souls when we believe that our stuff is more important than another person’s life?
Don’t try to wriggle out of answering this question by saying that stealing is wrong. Of course it is. I remember the Ten Commandments as well as the next person. And thieves are accountable for their actions.
But if even in a moment of bluster you say that you’ll shoot somebody merely over your possessions, you have to ask yourself where your stuff fits in your life.
That’s one of the questions Jesus poses in what commentators have come to call the Parable of the Wicked Tenants. You probably remember how the story goes:
A group of tenant farmers were tending a landowner’s vineyard. At harvest time, the tenants would keep their share and turn over a portion of the crop as payment for using the owner’s land.
The owner sent representatives to collect the tenants’ payment. Three times. The tenants refused to pay and responded with increasing violence. They beat the first collector, murdered the second, and stoned the third.
Finally, the owner sends his son. The tenants killed him, too.
Matthew appends an explanation—put in the Jesus’ mouth—that renders the parable as an allegory. An allegorical reading invites us to read the vineyard as Israel. The tenants are the Jewish religious leaders. The bill collectors are the prophets. The son is Jesus.
The message that many draw is that the Jewish religious leaders are unfaithful and that the Christian Church will replace the Jews as the people of God.
As tempting as it may be to treat parables as allegories, it’s a genre confusion. Allegories set up a this-stands-for-that parallel.
Parables, by contrast, turn over our intellectual applecart and invite us to examine our most basic assumptions and to rethink how we navigate the world.
If we read Jesus’ story as a parable, we will find in it a challenge about the power that material possessions exercise over us and a clue about their proper place in our lives.
The wicked tenants gather, consume, and accumulate. They believe that whatever they take is theirs. They are entitled to do whatever it takes—including the use of violence—to keep what they have stockpiled.
Their identity is bound up with their material possessions. “That is mine” gradually becomes “That is me.” So if you take my stuff, you are threatening my existence. It’s like taking my arm, my leg, my very life.
This may sound preposterous to you. But look at how advertisers sell cars and clothes.
They associate their products with a certain kind of identity: beautiful, successful, confident people. They know that you want that identity. So they sell you the vehicle or the shoes or the sportswear by selling you the identity.
Plenty of us already associate who we are with the things we have. We believe that the model of car we drive, the brand of clothes we wear, and the neighborhood we live in make us who we are. Advertisers simply acknowledge this and point us in a specific direction.
In other words, our stuff can own us.
Jesus teaches a different way. It’s an old way, really. Turn back to the second chapter of Genesis. You’ll find it there.
God created Adam from the dust and gave him a reason to live. It had nothing to do with accumulating and protecting stuff. As a matter of fact, it had nothing to do with possessing stuff at all.
To put this another way, God told Adam, “Take care of this for me. You can enjoy it as long as you live. Don’t cling to it. It’s not really yours. It belongs to me.
“Whatever you have is only for your temporary use. Actually, the whole place is for everybody to enjoy and to share. Just take care of it while you’re here. Try to leave it better than how you found it.”
Once we start thinking that something—anything—is ours, it starts to own us. Eventually, we will use violence to protect it and keep it.
When we realize that everything we have is on temporary loan, joy and gratitude can replace our anxiety about keeping what is ours. No one can steal from us what is not ours to begin with.
The real test for us is letting go. Anything to which we cling will define us.
As it turns out, there is only one thing—what Jesus calls a cornerstone—to which we can cling in order to claim who are. We can cling to God’s love for us.
After all, it’s God’s love that makes us a child of God. And that is truly who we are.