Notes from the sermon by Leigh Greenwood on 19th March 2017
Reading: Mark 12
So that you know where we’re heading, this will be a sermon in two parts. First I want to take a sweep of the whole passage, and then I want to focus in on the parable of the tenants as a way of starting to unpack some of the details of the chapter.
Let’s start with the big picture then. I don’t know if this has been your experience as you’ve been working through Mark, but when reading through a gospel I’ve often found myself wondering why the chapters have been divided up as they have. It sometimes feels like a group of stories has been grouped together, with no real sense of how they interact with one another.
When it comes to Mark 12 however, the division feels a little less arbitrary, as the chapter is held together by a sense of tension or antagonism, as Jesus engages in a series of disagreements with and criticisms of the religious authorities. He has just cleared the temple, effectively declaring himself in opposition to the powers that be with a provocative performance of prophetic and political theatre, and now there’s no stopping him.
It feels like he knows that the cross is only a few days away, that those who fear his message are already plotting to do their worst and that he already has an answer to that, and so he has nothing to lose. When set against the priests and the scribes, he represents a radically different way of relating to God, and he’s going to make sure the people know it.
I don’t want to simply repeat the reading, but I do want to quickly remind us of the sequence of events, with that theme of opposition to the authorities in mind, and flesh out a few details.
So at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus preaches the parable of tenants. Often Jesus’ parables are followed by a great deal of scratching of heads, but this time the chief priests and the elders, who were the community and religious leaders who had criticised his authority at end of chapter 11, clearly understand that it was intended as a criticism of them. They want to arrest him, and it’s easy to see this as petty revenge for his criticism of them, but I think there is something deeper at work here.
Jesus appears to be claiming a special relationship to God. He is not pictured as a humble tenant or even a trusted messenger, but the beloved son. This is coming close to blasphemy as far as the authorities are concerned, and that can’t be stood for, but they are too afraid to respond openly, and so we might suspect that the rest of the chapter is a steady attempt to undermine Jesus, orchestrated by the chief priests and elders.
Because next he is approached by an alliance of Pharisees and Herodians asking about the legitimacy of paying taxes to the Romans. These groups were not obvious bedfellows. The Pharisees are often characterised as sticklers for the law, and this was because they were devastated by the Roman occupation and believed that obedience to Torah was the answer. I couldn’t find a great deal of information about the Herodians, but their name suggests they supported one of the Herods and so had accepted Roman rule. They are political opponents, but they have teamed up to take on Jesus, which says something about the strength of their feeling against him, and their question is clearly designed to trip him up, because there doesn’t appear to be a right answer.
If Jesus recognises the authority of the emperor he is little better than an idolater, but if he speaks against paying taxes then he will be characterised as a revolutionary. This is a serious attempt to give him enough rope to hang himself, theologically or politically. I can only imagine the reaction of the Pharisees and the Herodians when he slips out of the noose with a creative response which suggests that Roman rule is not really the issue, thereby avoiding saying anything to incriminate himself and putting his opponents in the wrong.
The next group to try their luck are the Saducees, religious leaders who rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees and beliefs such as the resurrection of the dead. They try to trick him with a technical theological question about a bizarre hypothetical situation. Again he dodges the question, and his response is to say that the Saducees are mistaken because they don’t know God or the scriptures, the implication being that they are asking the wrong questions. Once again, he aggravates rather than placates his opponents.
Then one of the scribes, who were officials who interpreted the law, tries to test him by asking about the greatest commandment. This one feels less like a directed attack, as the scribe just happens to overhear Jesus’ conversation, but the fact that he is so pleased with the answer Jesus gives does suggest that he was looking for a particular response rather than asking a genuine question. Again though, Jesus turns this interaction on its head, as his reply suggests it is the scribe who has really passed the test, and that switch in power dynamics seems to unnerve the crowd.
This exchange is a challenge to us too, as it not only reinforces the fundamental principles we are called to live by – love God and love neighbour – but also reminds us that they are the fundamental principles God has always called his people to live by. It can be easy to see ‘the Jews’ as the enemy in passages like this, but Jesus’ criticisms were far more targeted than that. He is not attacking the people but the authorities, and he does not set his sights on the law but on the way it has been used. It is important to remember that Judaism is built on the same rule of love as Christianity, and if we start to criticise whole religions on the basis of the actions of specific groups and individuals, we’re all in trouble.
But getting back to the text, even though the individual scribe comes off relatively well, Jesus goes on to denounce the scribes as lacking in understanding and as arrogant hypocrites, and just in case he hasn’t upset enough people, he criticises the rich by comparing them unfavourably to the poor with respect to their giving.
So what does this all mean for us? Firstly, it challenges the storybook picture of Jesus as meek and mild, surrounded by children and animals with blow dried golden locks. The reality is that he spoke hard truths, and was unafraid to call people out on their error and their evil, and once we enter into relationship with him, he will hold us accountable in the same way.
Secondly, I think it’s significant that Jesus engages with each group about an issue close to their heart. With those who have a particular angle on Roman rule, he talks about Roman taxes. With those who reject resurrection, he talks about the resurrected life to come. With the one who deals with the law, he talks about commandments. And with respect to the rich, he talks about their wealth. He challenges what they hold as sacred or see as fundamental to their identity. I think this is often the pattern for our own encounters with Christ. He forces us to rethink those things that we hold closest to our hearts, and pushes at the edges of our ideas of ourselves, reshaping us in the process.
So that’s a look at the grand theme of the chapter. There is so much in there that we could unpack, but I just want to pull some details out of the parable of the tenants.
The vineyard was a common metaphor for Israel in the Old Testament, and working from there it seems pretty simple to work out the rest of the parable. The landowner is God, the tenants are the ruling authorities, the messengers are the prophets, and the son is Jesus. God tasked the priests and the rulers with looking after his people, but they didn’t listen to those who he sent to speak his word to them, and so eventually he sent his son, but they killed him in order to hold onto the influence they felt they had, and so God upended the system.
Of course Jesus hadn’t yet been killed at the point at which he was telling this parable, and so to his first hearers it would have sounded as a prophetic word, in which Jesus laid bare the intentions of the religious leaders and the events of the coming days, but to us it reads as an allegory for salvation history.
This parable may seem easier to understand than many others, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept, as it seems to portray God as absent and vengeful, and there is a danger that we can read it as saying that he has rejected Israel in favour of the church. Allegories are never exact however, and I don’t think either of those things are what this one is saying. We need to work out which parts of this story carry its meaning, and what Jesus really wants to say is often found in what is different from what has been said before.
The description of the vineyard seems to be lifted from Isaiah 5, except that there God destroys the vineyard completely, suggesting that it is the way in which the landowner repeatedly tries to communicate with the tenants and ultimately preserves the vineyard that is crucial to this parable. God’s heart is for redemption, and Jesus marks a distinctive new way of bringing that about, by shocking the status quo and drawing others in. Because that is what Jesus does, he makes us rethink everything and opens up a new generosity and inclusiveness in the heart of God.
Jesus follows the parable by declaring that the stone that has been rejected has become the cornerstone. It seems like a strange shift in metaphor, from vineyards to building sites, but Jesus has used the parable of the tenants to establish himself as the son, and the Hebrew for son sounds like the Hebrew for stone, so there’s actually a play on words going on here. It’s hardly going to encourage a belly laugh, but there is something pleasing about the way in which Jesus could be witty and enjoy the simple pleasure of a pun. It reminds us that he was not just a paradigm but a real person, with humour and warmth and character.
It’s also interesting to note that the saying about the cornerstone comes from Psalm 118, which speaks of God’s redemptive action, so having engaged in a creative reimagining of Isaiah, he is now presenting a more straightforward use of scripture. This reminds us that there is both continuity and discontinuity in Jesus, as he fulfils the scriptures in ways nobody could have imagined, and challenges the authorities without rejecting the people, and holds to the eternal law of love but shows us new ways of understanding it.
Because Mark 12 may be full of discord, but at the centre of it is a reminder that the greatest commandment is this, love God and love your neighbour. It was the message of the prophets and it is the message of the son. No arguments about politics or theology can change it, and no attempt to silence it can work. In a few days it will take Jesus to the cross, and then out of the tomb. And it will take us to beautiful and unimagined places if we dare to take the risk follow it.