Lent 3 – Respect or Reject

Lent 3 – Respect or Reject

Respect or Reject? Whose example are you following?
Bible Reading: Mark 12:1-17
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain

We continue to journey through Lent exploring the gospel of Mark and the passages where Jesus is helping people consider their choices and what impact those choices make. In the reading this Sunday we hear a parable about some tenants and a narrative of Jesus being asked about taxes … but as we have seen in the past few weeks, Jesus uses these experiences to help us address the real issue at hand – whose example are we following?

We are almost halfway through our Journey to Easter, the journey to the cross.  So far in the Narrative Lectionary we have been hearing stories of Jesus travelling from Galilee towards Jerusalem … but as Kevin hinted last week, we are getting closer to Jerusalem and this week in our reading from Mark chapter 12 – we have arrived.

Note we have jumped over Mark 11 … the triumphant entry … but will be coming back to that on Palm Sunday.  But if Mark 11 is Palm Sunday … then our reading today from Mark 12 occurs during Holy Week.  We have not only entered Jerusalem, we are only days away from the cross.  This urgency and desire to get to the heart of issues that we have seen from Jesus over the past few weeks has just gone up several notches.

Our reading today has a parable and a conversation … but we need to first start with some context.  As I already mention … the beginning of Mark chapter 11 is Palm Sunday and at the end Mark 11, on Monday of Holy Week, Jesus has returned to the temple and turned over tables – accusing the religious leaders of turning the temple into a den of thieves. In Mark 11:18 we read “The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him…”

Skip forward 9 verses – Mark 11:27, it is now Tuesday of Holy Week and Jesus is walking into the temple courts when the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders (the very people who want to kill Jesus) come up to Jesus and have this confrontation with him about authority – and in particular who gave Jesus the authority to do the things Jesus was doing.  Our reading today – The Parable of the Tenants – is part of Jesus’ extended response.

On the surface we have a parable where we see the wrong of the vineyard workers who not only refuse to give to the owner what the owner is due … but are willing to hurt and even kill those who are sent to collect what is due.   But this parable is more complex that just that. 

Firstly, who is Jesus speaking this parable to?  Picture this … we are in the temple courts … on one side is Jesus and the disciples, on the other is all the religious leaders (including the chief priests of the temple) and … it’s the temple courts … there would have been a crowd of ordinary Hebrew people who were listening in.  And each of these groups would have had a certain bias in how they heard it because of the influence of society and cultural issues.

For example – Jesus’ parable is describing a common first century economic arrangement.  People with money or influence would buy up agricultural land and go into a share farming arrangement with the workers … who often where the original owners of the land. 

Sorry – I have made that sound too nice.  Let me try that again. 

People with money or influence would use their power to trap ordinary people in debt or unjust situations and force them to “sell” their farmland to them.  These rich people would then require these workers to do the same work that they were already doing … but only get a portion of the harvest as they would have to give a large portion to just stole their land from them.   It was an unjust economic system that kept the rich getting richer and the poor being oppressed and crushed.

And the crazy thing is that as Jesus told this parable … many of the religious leaders present would have seen themselves as the owners in the story … the good people who deserve respect and honour and yet the workers refuse to show to them.  At the same time, the listening crowd in the temple were probably initially cheering when the workers refused to pay up as they were fighting back against this corrupt economic system!  I say initially cheering because killing a person to stand up against the system is probably a step too far.

So we have this economic overlay sitting on one side of the parable … but there is also some Biblical or Old Testament understandings that would have been triggered by this parable.

For example … Mark 12:1 “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower…”  Does this ring a bell.  Have we heard something similar only a few months ago when we were in the Old Testament section of the Narrative Lectionary? 

Yes – in a sermon entitled New Growth, we heard this lovesong about a man planting a vineyard.  Isaiah 5:2 says…

He dug it up and cleared it of stones
    and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
    and cut out a winepress as well. 

Any first century listener to Jesus’ parable of the tenants would have immediately thought it was a reference to Isaiah 5.  But while the imagery is the same … the problem is different.  In Isaiah the problem was that the grapes were sour and it was a criticism of the people of Israel turning from God.

In this parable, the problem is not the grapes or the people of Israel … the problem was the attitude of the vineyard workers … or as we are told in verse 12 … a criticism of the chief priests and religious leaders!

Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.

Jesus was criticising the religious leaders and institutions for not giving God respect or what God is due.

There is also an Old Testament prophetic lens that we could see this parable through.   Did anyone else wonder why the owner kept sending servant after servant after servant to collect the payment … especially when they were being beaten and killed.  Isn’t that a little naïve … or stupid?  Why didn’t they send soldiers to punish them? 

If we put the Old Testament prophetic lens over this parable, these servants that are sent are the prophets … and yes, there is a historical pattern of the people of God, and particularly the religious leaders and people in power, rejecting the prophets message and even harming the prophets.  And in this understanding, we can see how God is the owner who patiently and graciously sends prophet after prophet to the people to call them back … but the people – or more pointedly the religious leaders – keep rejecting the prophets message. 

Can you see how this parable is cutting right to the heart of what is going on.  Here is the chief priests and the other religious leaders demanding Jesus explain himself … on whose authority does he do and say these things!

Jesus responds by telling them a parable that is saying back to them that they are either:

  • Corrupt and unjust like the economic system  OR
  • That is not the people that are causing issues in the vineyard this time … it is them  OR
  • They are the ones who are rejecting the prophet from God or even worse … they are the ones who are rejecting and killing God’s own beloved son!

No wonder they are angry with Jesus.

Jesus concludes with a verse from Psalm 118 – a quote that the religious readers would have known well – “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”  Jesus is clearly saying that he is that cornerstone and that they are rejecting and wanting to kill what is most important!

I am going to come back to this when I wrap all this together.  But lets quickly jump into the other part of the passage. 

After this encounter, the religious leaders are set on killing Jesus but they are afraid on what the crowd might do if they try … so they need to get Jesus to say something to shift the crowd’s view of Jesus.  So they ask him a question to trap him “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

This was a hot button issue at the time.  You see, the Romans had conquered Israel but originally just installed puppet kings (like King Herod the great) who largely let the people keep living normally.  But around 6BCE, they installed Romans soldiers in Israel and if you have a standing army in a place, you need money to pay for these soldiers … and hence you tax the people more. 

The Hebrew people hated paying the taxes because you were basically paying for the soldiers who were oppressing you.  No-one wanted to pay taxes.  So by asking this question – it is an obvious trap … if Jesus sides with the crowd and says “No” then he would be arrested by the Romans as a disrupter.  If he says “Yes” then the crowd would turn on him.  He is trapped. 

And yet Jesus’ answer is clever on two levels.  Firstly, he asks the religious leaders for a Denarius.  Most Hebrew people refused to carry this because it contained an image of Ceaser and inscription that declared Ceaser a god.  They felt carrying it was blaspheming.  So, when Jesus asked the religious leaders for a coin, and they gave him one, he outed them as people who carried them. 

But the answer of “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” is more than just a clever deflection … it is a call to make a choice.  Jesus was saying … in whose image do you want to be associated with?  The image of Caesar or the image of God.  Whose example are you going to follow?  The corrupt economic and political system of Ceaser or God’s way that leads to life. 

I can imagine Jesus’ thinking … stop playing games and actually deal with the important choice in front of you … you have been made in the image of God, are you going to embrace that or live under the image of Caeser instead?  As a reader of Mark, 2000 years later, we are also confronted with this question … and it comes back to the quote in Mark 12:10 – “‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”.  In the Hebrew there is two ways of understanding this phrase.  It can be translated cornerstone or capstone … both similar ideas but give a slightly different meaning.  

A capstone is the last piece that you put in an arch which holds it all together.  A capstone locks things in place and gives it strength and stops it collapsing.  Jesus is acknowledging that we have lots of things in our life … most which are good.  But if we want to experience the fullness of life, then we need to make sure that Jesus is the capstone – the thing that is in the centre that holds everything together.  The capstone is the most important and we need to embrace it, not reject it.

Or if you are in a situation where the arch has collapsed or it feels like that your life is all over the place … then the cornerstone is the foundation that needs to be put in place first before you build anything else.  Jesus is saying that getting this foundation correct makes all the difference.  The cornerstone is critical … so we need to embrace Jesus as the one we build our lives upon.  Embrace the cornerstone, don’t reject it.

How are we going with all of this?  Remember, we are going to go a little more in depth into this passage and the end of Mark 12 on Wednesday night … so if you have questions or insights, come along.

To finish, we are moving into a time of communion and I want us to consider the challenge that Jesus gave.  Whose image are we living under?  Are we living under the worldly system of politics, power and influence (the image of Caesar) or are we living as a person created in the image of God.  Have we place Jesus as our capstone or cornerstone … or are we finding that with everything else going on in our lives that we might have rejected the most important stone of all. As we come to communion, lets reaffirm the place of Jesus in our lives as we move closer to the cross!  Amen.