by Daniel Harrell
Throughout this survey of the red-letters of Mark’s gospel, the chief theme of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God was that by any earthly estimation, it wouldn’t be much of an earthly kingdom. Two weeks ago, in chapter 10, Jesus informed his followers for the third time how, as king, his coronation would look more like an execution. He would be betrayed, condemned, mocked, flogged and crucified. But then three days later, he would rise from the dead. And not only would he rise, but all who likewise took up crosses to follow him would rise from their own deaths too. I’ve told before how many years ago in this room, during a morning service sermon, an usher scurried up to the pulpit and slipped the preacher an urgent note. Turned out that one of our long-time members had just keeled over dead in his pew. The minister preaching that morning, our previous Senior Minister David Fisher, read the note and looked over and observed that sure enough, the pew spot which this longtime member occupied every Sunday—and had been sitting in when the sermon started—was now vacant.
David stopped his sermon and led the congregation in prayer for this man and his family. At the amen, we all looked over toward the empty pew where the longtime member who was dead, bless his soul, suddenly sat up. While we preach the resurrection of the dead in this church, none of us had actually ever seen one happen! (OK, the man had merely fainted, but it still looked like a resurrection.) The usher was embarrassed, but David Fisher went home feeling pretty good about his sermon that day.
Not too long after David’s miraculous sermon, it was my turn to preach and while in the middle of what I’m sure was an inspiring point, the back doors suddenly swung open and a stranger frenetically burst into the sanctuary and ran down the aisle shouting that he had a word from God for the church. The ushers tackled him and escorted him out. I ducked behind the big pulpit. The man yelled all the way out that he was a messenger sent by God. We never did get to hear what he had to say. Not that anyone remembered what I said that morning either (including myself). But I do remember this thought crossing my mind: “I sure hope he really wasn’t a messenger from God.” Having read enough of Mark’s gospel, I knew better than to write off the crazy-sounding man simply for sounding crazy.
I’ve skipped chapter 11 since we looked at those red-letters during Lent. You might remember my describing the episode of Jesus cursing a poor fig tree and clearing out the Temple in terms of a Mark Sandwich. Throughout his gospel, Mark often sandwiches one story of Jesus inside another in order to amplify the meaning of each. Jesus’ cursing a fig tree provided the bread for the Temple clearing meat. A hungry Jesus wanting some breakfast stumbled upon a fig tree that had no fruit. Like any of us might do when we’re hungry, Jesus got irritated and cursed the fig tree to death. Why didn’t he simply command the tree to pop out some breakfast? Instead, Jesus comes off as petty and petulant, picking off a helpless plant just because it had nothing to pick. But that was the point. Remember, the fig tree was figurative.
Throughout the Bible, God’s people are compared to fruit trees, expected to flower and bloom and produce fruitful deeds in accordance with their redeemed nature. Yet in accordance with their human nature, the chosen people resisted his grace, treating his favor as favoritism and as permission to do as they please. The prophet Jeremiah stood in the Temple centuries prior and conveyed God’s displeasure. “When I would gather you, declares the LORD, there would be no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave you has passed away from you.” Their sin ran deep―but the topper was the way they used the Temple system to cover their rear. Jeremiah (sounding like a crazy man himself) yelled, “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to idols, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are saved!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?” Jesus quoted this last line in his own Temple tirade, intentionally reenacting Jeremiah. If you read “den of robbers” as “hideout for evil,” then you understand how the people regarded the Temple as a safe-house for their sin. No wonder Jesus got so furious.
However he finished the sandwich not with promises of retribution, but with prayers for grace. “When you pray, forgive, if you have anything against anyone,” Jesus told his disciples, “so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive your sins too.” For a Messiah in such a bad mood, this was a remarkable concession. He angrily killed a tree to predict the end of relationship between God and sinners, then prayed to throw the whole mountain of mess into the sea, only to turn around and forgive. Remember that whenever Jesus spoke of the Temple he also spoke of himself. Both were the dwelling places for God. And both would be destroyed. The curse Jesus put on the fig tree and the Temple was the curse Jesus put on himself. And yet the curse Jesus put on himself was one intended for you and me. And if you can accept that, then the grace of God will not only save your soul, but make you fruitful and raise your body once its dead.
Unfortunately for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, accepting that from Jesus was out of the question. They viewed him as a flagrant blasphemer who was always interrupting their sermons claiming to have a message from God. It’s easy when you’re a religious professional, a master of divinity, having devoted all those years to training and study, having kept company with scholars of impeccable wisdom, having lived week in and week out with your head in the Bible, musing on the Greek and the Hebrew, acquainted with the nuances, the lingo and the theological terms—it’s easy to presume that you’d know a genuine messenger from God if you saw one. The religious types in Jesus’ day, presuming to know God inside and out, insisted that as far as Messiahs went, God would never send one with Jesus’ pedigree. The clincher came after he cleared the money changers from the Temple courts. The chief priests, teachers of the law and the elders stormed over to him demanding to know who told him he could behave as he’d behaved in God’s sanctuary. It obviously hadn’t been God. As usual, Jesus answered their question with a question they couldn’t answer―this one about John the Baptist and baptism―and then commenced to tell them the parable read from tonight’s passage.
It’s a story they would have already known. It came straight from Isaiah chapter 5: “Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard… he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” The priests and elders would have known the vineyard to be a metaphor for Israel, bad fruit a metaphor for Israel’s disobedience and the vineyard owner a metaphor for God. However Jesus, taking a few liberties with Isaiah’s imagery (which Jesus being Jesus was at liberty to do) shifted the focus off the bad fruit and onto the ones who grew it: a group of tenant farmers whom Jesus introduced into the story.
It was customary for prosperous absentee landowners to lease out land to tenants who would manage the vineyards, farm the land, turn a profit and then pay rent with a percentage of those profits. The absentee owner in this story happened to be very absent—off in some far country—so he sent a servant around at harvest time to collect the rent. The tenant farmers, for some inexplicable reason, decided they weren’t going to pay. So they grabbed the servant, beat him up and sent him away empty-handed. The owner sent another servant whom the tenants insulted then pelted with rocks. The owner sent still another servant and this one the tenant farmers murdered! It was ludicrous. Still, the vineyard owner kept sending servant after servant and the tenants kept beating and killing them all. The vineyard owner was either a sucker for sedition or unbelievably long-suffering.
Finally, all out of servants, the owner decided to send his only beloved son. (An obvious tip-off to those who’d been at Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration and heard God refer to Jesus that way.) “Surely they’ll respect my son,” the owner reasoned. But the tenant farmers had already gotten away with murder, why change their ways now? Instead the tenant farmers said to each other, “This is the heir to the vineyard! Come on, let’s kill him too and the inheritance will be ours!” So when the son arrived, they killed him and tossed his body out of the vineyard without even the decency of a proper burial. What sort of idiots were these farmers? Their lease arrangement was customary and profitable. Why did they brutalize the vineyard owner’s servants? Did they think the owner was that far away? Or were they trying to cover up the bad fruit their work had produced? And how did they figure they would inherit anything by killing the son anyway? They were tenants not kin! Moreover, the vineyard owner, the murdered son’s father, was still alive and well and soon to be breathing down their necks! What did they think that the vineyard owner was going to do to them once he finally returned? Jesus answers this one: “The vineyard owner will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Mark adds in verse 12 how the religious rulers “knew Jesus had spoken this parable against them.” I’m sure they did.
Jesus rubbed it in. “Haven’t you read the Scriptures?” Of course they had. Having devoted all those years to training and study, they had their Bibles down pat. They would have been able to recite Psalm 118:22 by heart: “The stone the builders tossed out has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous, astonishing really.” No doubt the religious leaders and chosen people had always considered this verse to be speaking about them. But Jesus rejects that application and applies the verse to himself. He declares himself to be the rejected cornerstone―rejected by the chosen people themselves. The rejected become the rejecters. And yet the stone tossed out by the builders, like the beloved son the tenants tossed out of the vineyard, ironically ends up being the cornerstone of God’s redemptive plan.
The religious leaders committed a double sin: they not only rejected God’s beloved Son—along with all the servant-prophets who had previewed his arrival—but they outrageously ventured to usurp what belonged to God for themselves. Our tendency is to write off them off as corrupt, greedy, power-hungry malcontents whose illusions of entitlement blinded them into seeing themselves as immune from reaping what they’d sown. You feel no sympathy for them. Certainly no affinity with them. But still, the thought does cross your mind, would I have been so righteous and blind to Jesus too? While the gospels tend to group the religious leaders together as one insidious lot and label them Pharisees, there were surely those whose faith in God was genuine. Surely there were those who devoutly studied their Torahs, who worshipped sincerely, who cared for people, aided the sick, thoughtfully preached, who abided by the law while they eagerly and fervently awaited the coming Messiah. Yet surprisingly the gospels make no distinction between the faithful and the deceitful when it came to recognizing Jesus. The faithful priests and elders missed the Messiah too.
Yet if all the priests and elders weren’t in fact as deceitful as Jesus paints them in this parable, why does he use such a broad brush stroke? Understand that Jesus often employed hyperbole in his parables in order to elicit exaggerated responses which would then be turned back on the hearer’s head as either indictment or grace. In this parable, the tenant farmers’ over-the-line behavior elicits outrage. They deserved the punishment they got. The hyperbole, however, stresses not how all were equally evil, but rather, that all were equally ignorant.
And not only them. Just as surprising, if not more, was the fact that even some of Jesus’ own followers failed to recognize him even after he had risen from the dead. As startling as it was for us to see that longtime member sit up in his pew, it must have been terrifying for the disciples to see Jesus following his crucifixion. Luke reports that when Jesus showed up that Easter Sunday night, his disciples mistook him for a ghost. In John’s gospel, as I mentioned last Sunday morning, after the resurrection the disciples hilariously went back to their boats to fish, as if all they had been through with Jesus was nothing more than extended time off (“Wow, that was some trip. OK, now back to work.”). The resurrected Jesus showed up again, this time on shore to wave them in, basically saying “Hey guys, we’re not done!” Though I still think he should have walked out to get them.
The stranger who burst in on my sermon those many years ago probably wasn’t a messenger from God, but he made me wonder. He made me wonder about the times I do refuse to recognize the hand of God, the times I’m reticent to listen and quick to judge. I may not be as twisted and deceitful as Jesus’ parabolic tenants, but I can be just as ignorant. I can claim to see and still not get it. Rather than taking up my cross, I whine about my inconveniences and sufferings as though I deserve something better. I get bitter because life hasn’t turned out like I thought it should. I selfishly want what I want and disregard people in need. I forget that all I have is gift from God and how that should elicit from me gratitude, humility, generosity, and service. And I rationalize all of this based on perceptions of a Jesus who loves me just as I am—even though he was clear I can never follow him and stay just as I am.
And thus I return to the communion table, this fruit of the vineyard, to have my perceptions fixed; and I do so without presuming upon God’s grace, but confessing my genuine need for it. Join me.