Beyond the Landlord Church? 

Beyond the Landlord Church? 

I took some study leave in January to work on a paper looking at the parable of the landlord and tenants in Mark chapter 12.  

The parable tells the story of a vineyard run by tenant farmers but owned by an absentee landlord who never seems to visit. Instead, he sends servants to collect the produce and profits from the land which he owns. In the parable, the tenant farmers being to resent this arrangement and end up killing the servants sent to collect. And later, in a continuation of this logic of destruction, they even kill the landlord’s son who is sent to do what the first servants could not.  

Preachers and scholars mostly agree that this parable is clearly allegorical – that the landlord stands for God, that the son refers to Jesus, and the servants are the people entrusted to care for the things that belong to God – in the first instance the “chosen” people and their land but also, perhaps, all people and all lands.  

There are lots of difficulties that arise for us when we read this parable. The first is that the people listening to Jesus and the people hearing and reading Mark’s gospel would have identified with the tenant farmers and most likely resented the absentee landlord. The experience of many rural people in Judea and Galilee was that of dispossession, as the Romans took control of their land, gave it to others, and forced the original residents to work as indentured servants. Many of the new “owners” of the land were wealthy Roman elite, who never visited nor cared about their new lands – unless, of course, production ceased and profits stopped flowing. A system and a story bound to inspire resentment.  

Throughout Christian history other poorer and more marginalised communities have had similar reactions when reading the parable. How is it possible that God can be on the side of landlords. How can it be that the absentee landlord is a helpful image for God? Surely this does not gel with Jesus’ clear ministry with and to those on the edges of wealth and power – and his reminder that the kingdom comes first to the “least of these.” Surely the “least” includes tenant farmers like us?  

Even today in 21st century Australia, a clear economic divide is emerging up between people whose wealth is tied to property and others (mostly younger people) who will likely always need to rent a place to live from a landlord. Even today, this parable evokes tension and questions about how we understand who God is. Can God be associated with institutions of authority and power? Is the character of God exploitative and expropriative? Does the initial portrayal of the landlord as distant and capricious “work” for helping us understand the God of the gospels? Or is there something more to the story. 

As a minister in the Uniting Church I go to a lot of meetings. Some of these meetings are ministry focussed – planning worship, reflecting on how we best care for those entrusted to us, thinking about how we witness the kingdom of God. Though I am not a big fan of meetings – I understand why we need to gather together to share, learn and discern. But there are other meetings which are less directly focussed on everyday ministry and more concerned with “governance” and “oversight””. Now while I understand that we need these kinds of meeting too – I often think we have too many of them, so that the balance between ministry and governance is a bit out of whack. Moreover, in many of our governance meetings, the weight of discussion tends to be about finance, property, management and future viability – topics that I have come think of as “the problems of the landlord”.  

In too many of our congregational meetings the problems of owning property and worrying about how to maintain it, how best to use it and who we should rent it to seem to fill our agendas. I can’t help feeling that too much of our governance conversation is shaped by the perspective of the landlord… and so, perhaps, we forget what it is like to see the world from the perspective of a tenant. When so much of our conversation is about our buildings and their future, maybe we become disconnected from the life, faith and future of the people we are called to serve. There are real missional consequences for our fixation with buildings, seen most clearly, perhaps in our difficulties connecting with younger, more transient people – people much more likely to be tenants than landlords. 

It is important to note that concern with buildings and property is not a new thing for the church. Throughout history the church has almost always had access to buildings and land – from a shared access in early home churches and synagogues, through to the grand churches, cathedrals, convents and monasteries that marked European Christendom. Leaders and power brokers in the church have also often been too interested in the property of the church – sometimes clearly at the expense of the people. Through much of Christian history, however, dealing with the property was largely out of the hands of the “regular” people – except, perhaps, when they were asked to give money towards some new construction project. Which meant that there was typically less opportunity for conversations about faith and life to be dominated by the concerns of the landlord.  

Without romanticising nor simplifying the life and faith and practice of believers over the ages – Christian communities have always be complex and varied – I am concerned that we might be living in an age and context when the concerns of the landlord church are distracting us from our communal discipleship and mission. At least this is how it feels in too many of our meetings. 

I also don’t want to argue that our churches are inherently “bad” landlords. The graciousness and generosity of many in our congregations is to be celebrated and we need to thank them for their faithfulness and diligence over many decades. Similarly, I don’t want to suggest that when we do have property we don’t think carefully about how we use it, who we share it with, and how it might been a blessing to the church into the future.  

I also acknowledge that many larger churches do need regular places to meet for worship and community and if we received these from previous generations we should be thankful. But churches, even larger churches, need not be dependent on their own buildings to thrive, and there are many which have grown into the hundreds without ever owning buildings. Lately I have been worshipping as part of a small church plant that has never owned its own property. It faces numerous challenges but, up until now, property management has not been one of them. And this has been liberating for me and many who attend. 

In my paper on Mark 12, I argue that the picture of God as absentee Roman landlord might be short-circuited by the sending of the son in verse 6 because it is so unusual for such a landlord to do such a thing. My contention is that that in the sending of the “son” the image of God is shifted from absentee landlord to one more present in the lives and work of the people. Perhaps, in a world of violence and antagonism between economic classes marked by invasion and dispossession, the good news of the son might break down the “natural” divides which lead to destruction. Viewed in the context of the crucifixion and the resurrection, perhaps another way is possible – in earth and in heaven.  

Whatever God has in store for the church in Australia – I hope that it involves a thankfulness for what has gone before, but also a freedom to move beyond it as we witness to the presence of the Son. If this means we need to reconsider our relationship to property so that we have more time for fulfilling our collective call, this can only be a good thing. 

Rev. Dr Niall McKay


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