Old Testament readings: Psalms 55 and 74, Lamentations 2:1-9; New Testament readings: 2 Cor 1:23-2:11, Mark 12:1-11
One of the things that makes modern translations of the Bible great is also something of a tragedy – chapter divisions. The original manuscripts of course didn’t have them, which meant that narratives like the one we’re in the midst of here could be read as they were meant to be read – continuously, with a sense of brisk pace and dramatic movement.
The Gospel reading for the day follows hard on the heels of yesterday’s chilly encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders. After turning the tables on them, putting them on trial, as it were, Jesus continues to build the case and level the charges… he will use a characteristically Jewish and “Jesus” way of doing so: by telling a parable.
1 He then began to speak to them in parables: “A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey. 2 At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.
6 “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
7 “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
9 “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10Haven’t you read this scripture:
“‘The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
11 the Lord has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”
12 Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.
A vineyard. A garden. An owner. His tenants. Fundamental claims resisted in profound acts of rebellion. Grief and tragedy – death – ensue.
We’ve heard this story before… We heard it in Genesis, where the Creator God sets humanity in the Garden to work it and care for it as his image-bearers. The Garden was not theirs; it was his. They had it, not so much as on loan but as under-gardeners to the Chief Gardener. They worked FOR HIM in HIS PLACE. The moment of death is the moment of getting confused about this. Of usurping what belonged to the Creator God. Exile, expulsion, death was the result. We heard it in Isaiah (chapter 5), where Yahweh God plants a vineyard (Israel) and dreams of enjoying its fruit (justice, mercy, obedience, faithfulness). The vineyard does not belong to itself; it belongs to Him. Its failure to produce good fruit results in its being laid waste by the Owner.
Echoes of those stories ring in our ears as Jesus tells this particular story. “What has been going on in the Temple?” we might ask Jesus. “Oh I’ll tell you,” he replies, “Israel has staged a revolt against her God.” The actions of the farmers are just SO egregious, they’re almost unthinkable. The Vineyard Owner just wants “some” of the fruit. Not all. Not even most. Just “some.” And what do the farmers do? They seize and beat the messengers… they strike and treat shamefully… pretty soon, they’re killing them off, one by one, until finally, in an act of PROFOUND and UNABASHED rebellion, they kill even the son, with the hopes of seceding from the Vineyard Owner finally and fully.
THIS, Jesus says, is what Israel has been and is currently doing. They are on the brink of losing once and for all their divine vocation and calling. The “vineyard” will be “given to others”, who will bear and present to the Owner the fruits of the vineyard.
Now this startles me, as it should. And part of what startles me is that, if we know anything about Jerusalem and the wider Jewish community during this period, we know that this was NOT the worst period in the history of God’s dealings with his people. If anything, it was a time where Judaism – and with it, Temple worship and devotion to Torah – tended to flourish. The Temple was operating well, there was prosperity in Jerusalem, and Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire were striving to maintain their Jewishness (successfully in many respects) despite great social pressure to be something other than what they were. Sure there were places of compromise and middling… pockets of confused theology and misplaced expectation… but surely this period of time was not AS BAD as some of the other seedy moments in Israel’s history.
That’s what’s nuts to me… that in spite of this situation of seeming faithfulness, Jesus is appalled. All of it, he claims, masquerades a fundamentally rebellious character against the Vineyard Owner, which has been demonstrated in their actions towards the prophets and will be demonstrated in their actions against him. (Ironically, the telling of this parable is what provokes those actions.) In just a few short days, Israel will betray its real posture towards its God, by lifting the Man from Nazareth up on a Tree.
This reminds me of Abraham’s Heschel’s words in his massive and masterful work on the prophets, when he wrote:
To us a single act of injustice–cheating in business, exploitation of the poor–is slight; to the prophets [however], a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world…They speak and act as if the sky were about to collapse because Israel has become unfaithful to God.
But their “as if”, like Jesus’ “as if”, is not really an “as if” at all. It is “hard core” reality, for the Scriptural witness uniformly declares that from first to last, the laying waste of Creation is first and foremost the result of human beings failing to recognize God as God and give him what is due. The motions of the soul that embody these failures need not be dramatic (oh, how I know how subtle they can be), but rest assured, those motions, those trajectories of the soul, projected into the future, will surely plunge earth and heaven, indeed, our very “selves”, into desolation.
This is serious.
Israel’s story was always a microcosm of the human story. When Israel wrenches herself away from God, ruin results. When humanity wrenches itself away from God, ruin results. The evidence of this is as ample as it is tragic. We’re constantly casting out the Son, to whose Father we belong.
We need to hear this story. And after we’ve heard it, we need to hear it again. We’re not the worst that we could possibly be, not yet at least. And yet Jesus comes to us and says, “You’re God-murderers.” I think that this is why a crucial and indispensable piece of Christian worship and devotion is repentance. We need to be reminded of this. And horrified. And in being horrified, maybe, just maybe, space will be opened up for us wherein our stubborn, rebellious souls can lay down their arms against Heaven. Where the mutiny can be thrown down. Where the rumblings of revolt can be squashed before they become full-blown.
…and maybe, just maybe, we’ll find ourselves “born again” into the Son’s submitted love and obedience to the Father… He, the cornerstone of a brand new humanity. And there, in that place, the world will begin to “turn ’round and ’round” until it comes right.
It begins here. Now. With us.