The Parable of the Absentee Landlord
Updated: Aug 1, 2021
"Peasants" by Diego Rivera
In January of 1960, Martin Waters of Waters Insurance and Realty stood before the Charlotte City Council to make one last plea to stop Urban Renewal. The council was set to vote that night, after a decade of starts and stops, to formally adopt the recommendations of the Charlotte Redevelopment Commission and to submit their final plans to the federal Urban Renewal Administration. The council planned to seize and destroy the Brooklyn neighborhood, a historic Black neighborhood that had been, for decades, one site of Black thriving and creativity in Charlotte. It had also been subjected to the long siege of Jim Crow policies. The vote in council chambers seemed like just a formal step, a foregone conclusion, but several people stood to speak in protest anyway.
They weren’t the first to lodge a protest. The local NAACP chapter in 1950, under the leadership of Kelly Alexander, Sr., had pushed a 10-point plan to remake Black neighborhoods in Charlotte. That plan argued for basic infrastructure, and for the elimination of exploitative landlording relationships that caused untenable living conditions for many tenants. Accomplishing even half of the NAACP’s plan would have radically altered the shape of those neighborhoods, including the Brooklyn neighborhood that in 1960 was in the crosshairs of the Redevelopment Commission. The NAACP plan might have eliminated the possibility of Urban Renewal a decade later by making it far more difficult for local white leaders to declare the area a “slum” and schedule it for demolition. (Doubting the tenacity of Charlotte's elite in following through on a land grab might be a mistake, though.) Charlotte’s public and civic leaders ignored Alexander and the NAACP. And, landowners in Brooklyn – 90% or more of whom were white – went on ignoring the eroding conditions of their rental properties, though never ignoring the rent.
Martin Waters rose on that January 1960 day to offer a last-ditch warning to the all-white city council. Waters was white, though, and his arguments were far different from Alexander, the Black leader of the NAACP, himself a business owner in Brooklyn. Waters summarized his three arguments against Urban Renewal in this way:
1. Government using eminent domain to take private property is a fundamental wrong against property rights.
2. The federal dollars that were to pay for 75% of the cost of the Urban Renewal program was a deal that was too good to be true. In the end, Charlotte would be out far more money that the rosy projections from the Redevelopment Commission stated.
3. And for three, Waters said, “many widows, whose sole income comes from property within the area, will be deprived of this income and will be unable to reinvest funds for the property to obtain a like yield.”
The condensed version of that last argument goes like this: Slumlording is profitable! Waters warned that the effect of so-called “slum clearance” would be to clear out derelict housing to the detriment of the white families who owned and profited from the largest portion of it. At no point did those city leaders and real estate agencies who pushed for the renewal projects consider policy decisions that would force the owners of dilapidated housing to take responsibility for the conditions they had creates. Nor did they make a serious consideration of the effect of Urban Renewal on those whose neighborhoods they were destroying. The situation was so bad that in 1962, as the bulldozers were running in the first phases of demolition, the federal government threatened to cut off Charlotte’s funding until the Redevelopment Commission began taking the displacement and housing crisis they were creating seriously.
The key image of Psalm 118 – the cornerstone – becomes one of the key images of the New Testament. It is cited in 1 Peter 2, and it is cited in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all in connection to the parable we have read this morning. Only a handful of Old Testament passages, mostly from the Ten Commandments, are quoted more frequently than this one from Psalm 118. So something important is going on here.
The three synoptic gospels offer us a hint for why this passage is cited in connection with this parable. Mark says, e.g., that the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, which is to say, the religious and cultural authorities recognize themselves in the parable. They immediately wanted Jesus arrested for telling this story against them, though none of the gospel writers make clear what they had understood. They only say that the religious elite knew they did not look good in the telling of the story. Jesus had shown them up. But with Jesus surrounded by a crowd, primarily consisting of peasants and outcasts, the rejected and the despised, they dare not move to have him arrested quite yet.
The easiest way to read this parable, and by far the most common way for western, primarily White audiences, is as an allegory. In an allegory, everything is a symbol for something else. God is the landowner, the prophets are the enslaved people, Jesus is the son, and the chief priests, scribes, and elders are the wicked tenants who kill the prophets and the son, and now face the coming wrath of God. But every text has multiple ways into it, and if this one suggests an allegory, it also demands a reckoning with economics.
The context of the parable within Mark chapters 11 and 12 makes the clear the need to reckon with the economics of the story. In those two chapters, we have a series of actions and sayings from Jesus that mash together criticism of the religious elite and criticism of the economic order of the day. In a short space, Mark offers the lampooning of the elite in the Triumphal Entry story, the cleansing of the Temple, the question of paying taxes, a denunciation of the scribes for seeking seats of honor, and the story of the Widow’s Mite. In other words, money and economics are squarely on the table here. Religious authority and economic authority have been mashed up, and Jesus is confronting both.
The Psalm text that forms the key point toward which the parable is working is also an economic and political text. Psalm 118 uses repeated imagery from the domain of landscape and built environment to make plain that the salvation of God has spatial dimensions. The psalm is about places and buildings and cities, all ways of structuring common life and economic roles. Jesus is telling the story inside the city of Jerusalem, the most important city for his region and his culture. We’ll have to read the parable with that urban context in mind.
The story begins with a quick characterization of a man. What we learn in the few words used to describe him is this: he is wealthy. Very wealthy. He planted a vineyard, which is about the most expensive and intensive kind of planting you can do. He built a fence around it, contra the instructions in Leviticus to leave the edges of a field open and to keep the gleanings of a harvest available so that the poor could access it. He built the infrastructure for winemaking, a capital-intensive investment and a lengthy process that makes money after years, not weeks. Then he built a watchtower, presumably to protect his investments. And finally, having scratched this itch, he leaves the country. He makes himself an absentee landlord
In other words, he is rich. Fabulously so. He’s the sort of guy who builds vanity projects, the Ancient Near Eastern equivalent of riding a phallus to the edge of outer space. And you don’t have to read too far into the gospels to understand that that is not a good thing.
Indeed, for an audience of Palestinian peasants subjected to Roman imperial rule, the hearers of this parable would have been unlikely to sympathize with this absentee landlord. They would have known the plight of tenant farmers all too well – to work long hours, from “can see to can’t see,” as Black southern sharecroppers and enslaved people used to say, only to have the work of your hands taken from you.
And that characterization turns this little parable upside down. It undomesticates it.
The action that follows sounds different if you read from the underside, as though the primary listeners were an exploited working class. The absentee landlord wants the profits that he thinks are his. So he sends enslaved people, which is to say, those who shared the most in common with the tenant farmers, but did the work of the absentee landlord anyway. The tenants kill the enslaved people.
Then the absentee landlord sends his son, the heir to the farm. The tenants see an opportunity to seize what they perceive to be rightly theirs – namely, the land they have worked, and fertilized, and harvested, only to have it taken by a wealthy guy who never shows up. So they kill the son. That’s not the way I would have encouraged them to handle the situation, but the parables use big characters and dramatic action to drive home the point.
Now the story shifts slightly. It sets up like a classic joke, in the format of same/same/different. In the first two movements, the action focuses on what the tenants farmers will do. In the third movement, Jesus changes the subject of the action. Now it is the absentee landlord’s actions that we are to notice. What will he do? He will come and destroy the tenants and remove them from the land.
I think it is worth asking why this shift is happening. Why does the focus of the story change in this way? What do we learn from it? One answer to this question is that Jesus is making plain the inherent violence of a system of landlording and tenancy, especially when it is done in a way not aimed at meeting human need, but instead aimed at turning profits. It is important for Jesus to turn the focus on the rich landowner to show that his actions are and have been exploitative from the beginning. They will continue to be so, we can presume, until he finds tenants who will not question his right to collect from their labor. Remember: we began with a characterization of this man who is wealthy and who stands in clear violation of Torah, against the well-being of his community.
With that in mind, the quotation from Psalm 118 begins to sound a little different. The verse says, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” If we can resist the allegorical reading, and hold to a plainer reading for a few more moments, I think this makes even more sense. Who is the builder in the parable? It is the landowner, who builds a fence and a wine press and a security system. And who is it that the builder rejected? It is the workers who worked the land that he abandoned, and yet were not able to profit from their own labor.
What is happening in this parable is not only an interpretation of the life of Jesus in relation to the religious authorities. What is also happening is the invocation of a new set of economic relations that places laborers and workers in the position to profit from the labor that they do. (And it is worth remembering that to some extent, those same religious authorities often cooperated with the Roman occupiers of their territory.) The entire system of absentee landlords and exploitative contracts and the disrespect of labor and the prioritization of those who make money without laboring is at its root violent, and it requires a differently ordered economic world.
Those differing relations are not figurative. Psalm 118 continually appeals to the spatial dimensions of God’s salvation. Which is why quoting that text in the context of a story about landlords and workers makes so much sense. And that sense transfers well into our own society, with its disordered economic relations and belief in myths like meritocracy and equality of opportunity. Though Americans love those myths, a very different reality has been concretized in our cities. We have not built for equity, nor for equality. We have constructed segregation, ghettoes of wealth and greed surrounded by vast swaths of disinvestment that are now becoming sites of rapid displacement.
We live in a new Gilded Age, where access to basic goods and infrastructure like groceries and sidewalks and quality health care and decent housing is only available to a smaller and smaller portion of our society. There are increasing numbers of wine presses and watchtowers, massive developments owned by a small number of elites, and larges masses of the displaced with no chance at using the work of their own hands to build the wealth they need for basic sustenance. These economic results are built into our spatial relations – our cities are constructed around architectures of segregation. I cited Urban Renewal earlier, but it was only one strategy for cementing unjust racial and economic relations into our very city building plans.
Even today, small efforts to undo even a sliver of the damage wrought by policies like Urban Renewal are met with great resistance. We have legal codes that have allowed Wall Street firms to become the most active home and land buyers in Mecklenburg County. Pretty much no one thinks this is a good idea. Yet even the simple policies found in the Charlotte Future 2040 Vision plan that shift us toward building more traditional, dense and walkable neighborhoods have been met with great resistance. Policy efforts that would make greater changes, like adopting a reparations framework for dealing with the legacy of Urban Renewal, or de-coupling the ownership of land from the building of wealth, seem well-nigh impossible. We know that absentee landlords harm neighborhoods, but no one is willing to give even a single inch of property rights to change our practices around private property.
We could very well just give land back to the communities from whom it was taken. But the power of our unjust social relations is strong. Jesus assumes, as does his audience, that the cost of changing those power relations will be unquenchable violence by those who hold property.
Read together, Psalm 118 and the Parable of the Absentee Landlord offer a radical proposition. They ask us to build – in literal fashion – around an unusual set of principles. To build spaces for thriving. To build so that labor is shared, so that the fruits of our labors are shared. To fundamentally reimagine the spatial orientation of this city, in its traffic and transportation patterns, in our housing and education policies, so that the ones thought to be weak and forgotten among us become the strong foundation of our communities. Their flourishing will be our flourishing. In a society where land relations are constructed inside a system of white supremacy, this first and foremost means abolishing a culture built on anti-Black racism. Reimagining our cities will not end there, but it must begin there.
Should we become so bold, we would have cause for celebration. The Psalm frames that celebration this way, and Jesus quotes it: “this will be the Lord’s doing, and it will be marvelous in our eyes.”
Thanks to Providence Presbyterian Church, Charlotte, and Metro Baptist Church, NYC, for having me as a guest preacher recently. This sermon was given in both of these places. I'm grateful for the opportunity to share, and for the feedback I have received.
---------------------- Charlotte City Council minutes, 18 Jan 1960 meeting. Available at https://charlottenc.gov/CityClerk/Minutes/January%2018,%201960.pdf  My reading here is deeply influenced by the reading of the text from Ched Myers in his Binding the Strong Man, pp. 306-310, 384-386.  See Lev. 23:22  This sermon is already too long, but it is worth tracking Myers’ discussion of the text cited above, in relation to assumptions about land ownership, the rights of heirs, and the assumption of “ownerless land.” His reading adds further dimensions to the theo-political context of this text (and this section of Mark).