Mark 11:27 – 12:12
I don’t know about you, but I am about finished with this year’s politics. I know we have not even voted yet, but sometimes I think if I hear another political story my head might explode. Not only does the rhetoric seems particularly bad this year, but the issues on which people are choosing to focus seem, to me, coming from nowhere. And, I confess to you, this year’s politics are making me judgmental.
I mean… JUDGY… to extent that I’m not proud of, but seems hard to avoid. I keep trying to think of the 8th Commandment; however, that plan is not going so well. The 8th Commandment, you may remember, is “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” We usually interpret this to mean that we should not make things up, speculate, or tell lies about our neighbor. In fact, Martin Luther said we’re not only to fulfill this commandment by omission of lies, but by also coming to the defense of our neighbor, speaking well of them, and interpreting everything they do in the best light.
Um… I can’t do that with some people. In fact, not only do I not interpret their actions in the best light, I kind of want Jesus to come back, just so he could punch them in the nose. Better yet, I’d like to punch them in the nose and yell, “For God, for country, and for Yale” (or something like that).
Which pretty much makes me (and you if you’re like me) exactly like the scribes, chief priests, and elders of this story.* These are the people, the men, who make up the hierarchy of the church and the leadership structure of the Jewish community. Jesus does not only unnerve them, but he also frustrates and angers them by the threat he poses to their power and to the order they have lived to carefully cultivate and maintain.
He uses this parable of the vineyard to pin them exactly where it hurts. This parable appears in Matthew and Luke as well (and for what it’s worth, in the Gospel of Thomas), so it’s fairly certain to be something that Jesus said. The vineyard is a particular metaphor for Israel that appears in several of the prophets, particularly Amos and Isaiah. Israel is spoken of as the vineyard that bears the fruit of God’s grace to the world. Jesus is leading these religious leaders along the path of the story until they come to the end and recognize that he’s talking about them.
But what’s he saying about them? Presumably, they are the tenants of the vineyard in this allegory and the owner is God. The servants who come to collect the harvest are the prophets. The owner’s son is… Jesus.
Why do you think the tenants act the way they do? Do you think they are deliberately cruel? Do they really think they will inherit the land if the son dies? Is it possible they began to think the vineyard and all its fruits belonged to them and they were angered by anyone who made it seem otherwise?
We are talking about nearly a thousand years after King David, when the Messiah, God’s anointed, is supposed to show up and be like David- the 3D experience. People waited and waited. One hundred years. Two hundred years. Five hundred years. Still they waited for the Messiah. Once people waited for a few hundred years, they probably began to wonder if it was true. As they waited, as they were exiled, as the temples fell and were rebuilt… the idea of the Messiah who would come became more and more grand. As they waited, it became easier and easier to think of themselves as the owners of the vineyard.
The mystery of stewardship, the caretaking of God’s garden of creation, took a backseat to Messianic speculation and preservation of life-as-they-knew-it. (Particularly certain types of power) When Jesus shows up and people proclaim him as the Messiah, not only is he coming to talk about the harvest, he is, in part, shining a light the people who have been keeping the garden. To be clear, he’s not casting all Jews in a bad light, but specifically the people, Jews and Gentiles, who have refused to acknowledge God’s intentions and plans for the vineyard of creation.
The scribes get what Jesus is saying, the stewardship of the vineyard is going to be opened up… with the criteria of tenancy being faithfulness to the plans of the owner, God. The only criterion of tenancy is faith in the plans of the owner. Not how well you behave, not how much you do, not how good a gardener you are… the owner has faith in you and you are called to respond in faith.
Which brings me back to the 8th commandment and the people who I want to hit in the name of Jesus. That’s not what Jesus would have me (or you do). The Messiah of grace and peace that upsets the religious leaders of two thousand years ago still expects the same thing today.
We are certainly called to point out rotten fruit, to say when a vine seems to be rotten. But we are also called to try to love our neighbor. Who is your neighbor? If you wouldn’t call a person a family member or a friend, then he or she is your neighbor. So we have three categories- family, friends, and neighbors. All of whom are with us in God’s garden of this world.
In anger and judgment, we easily make the same presumption that the tenants make- the assumption that the vineyard belongs to us. That whoever is against us is a trespasser. Then it follows that we begin to think that the harvest is ours. And then we are so focused on what we have done that we will fail to recognize the Messiah when he’s right in front of us, loving us.
One of the purposes of the season of Lent is to give us time to think about what we need to change and how God is trying to shape and change us. In this challenging church season, we are called to consider that all we have is a gift from the One who made us, knows us, and loves us still. We are called to see our neighbors and to attempt to see them in the best possible light, if we can’t do the same for all their actions. We called to remember that we are ambassadors for Christ and that it is, in part, through what we do that people have an experience of Jesus, of God-in-us. (Which means punching someone in the nose is right out.)
We are also called to ponder in our hearts the message that the vineyard was opened to all people, through the faithfulness of the Son. Open to all people, with the standard for tenancy being faith… which is itself a gift from God. Which goes to show you that even when we are not able to see a person in the best light, God still sees us through the best light… through the light of Christ.