the absenteeness is not the point

I was struck by James McGrath’s being struck¹ by Allan Bevere’s treatment on God as absentee landlord. Part of what struck me about the whole thing was that Bevere only mentioned the idea in passing (and really as a follow-up point to his overall case), yet McGrath snatches up that passing comment and makes a rather definitive (albeit brief) statement about it: you’re wrong, Bevere; God is an absentee landlord, and the Jesus says so. And by doing this (i.e. contradicting Bevere’s comment), McGrath, in effect, undermines the overall point that Bevere was trying to make, which was: in spite of our perceptions and experience, God is near, God is listening, and God answers. Absentee landlords don’t do those things.

But the other part of what struck me was McGrath’s support for his counterargument: “that very image of God [as an absentee landlord] appears in one of Jesus’ parables”. Seriously? We’re going to make definitive theological statements from extremely limited data? Aside from Matt 21.33-40–the parable McGrath has in view–we might be able to rope in Matt 25.14-30 and… oh, wait; that’s really all we have. And we’re going to make definitive theological statements because of an interpretative decision about a parable? Especially when the absence of the landlord is not even the primary focus?² C’mon; we have to do better than that. And are we to ignore the fact that the parable describes the landlord as essentially going on vacation and returning; he’s not skipping town and hiding out because he’s a deadbeat, a swindler, anti-social, pick-your-pejorative-description. And are we going to ignore the fact that the same emphasis appears in the only other parable that somewhat suggests an absentee landlord: the dude goes away on a trip, but he comes back. And let’s not overlook the fact that the other parables about a landlord/landowner show him as not absent.³

Sure, McGrath (rightly) points out that “Absentee landlords have been hated by ordinary people down the ages” and admits that he’s been wanting “to do a study of the negative images of God and the kingdom of God in parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels”. But my two basic questions would be:

  1. Are the two parables in question truly presenting God as an absentee landlord–i.e. the kind that are timelessly hated–or are they focusing on something else, thus making the absentee dilemma a moo point?
  2. Similarly, are the other parables truly presenting “negative images of God and the kingdom of God” or are they merely using the dramatic to make a point–you know, like parables do–or are the parables only being perceived as negative because their contents and meaning are misunderstood?

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¹ Apologies for the ads and occasional delays in page-loading. It is a Patheos site.
² Umm, hello: the bit found vv34-39 is far more problematic than a landlord being temporarily absent. In other words, the primary issue in the parable is not the (temporary) absence of the landlord; it’s the evilness and wickedness enacted by the hired workers while the landlord is away on vacation.
³ And please, for the love of bacon, do not come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, this discrepancy in the portrayals of God as landlord raises serious questions and doubts about both the reliability/authenticity of the accounts and the theological message being advocated.” Crap! It’s a parable.

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