Sunday, July 27, 2008

27 July 2008

Mark 12.1-12
12Then he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” 7But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” 8So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10Have you not read this scripture:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;*
11this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?’
12 When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.

I bought my son a cell phone, but he never talks on it. Apparently his generation has evolved beyond talking on the telephone. Now they text each other, spending countless hour “texting” back and forth in some sort of teenage code that is largely undecipherable to adults.

Here’s a future prediction I hope we don’t live to see: in the future children will have pointy little thumbs, suitable for typing on the smallest of keypads, and with smaller ears, of course, having evolved beyond “hello” and “how are you?”

It gets worse: the most recent phenomenon is the “flash mob,” kids who text each other to converge on some location at the same moment and do something unusual, like have a pillow fight. It all sounds so benign and lovely now, but what happens when they realize the real potential here? What happens when 50 kids with pillows becomes 500?


Let me tell you about another mob, in the era before texting and MSN: A man created an ancient near-eastern estate winery, a little bit of Napa in the Judean desert. It had a tower, press and a gourmet kitchen. But there was a change in plans, as often happens, maybe another interest needed his attention, and he was called away. He leased the winery to a co-op, with terms and contracts and a schedule of payments.

Some time later, after grapes were pressed and juice fermented and wine matured, the owner sent a servant to collect on the agreed terms, cases of wine, I suppose, or maybe some profit from the Wolfgang Puck Bistro. The tenants roughed up the slave, and sent him away.

Soon another followed, and this one got a rock to the head and an insult thrown in for extra measure. This is scripture’s first recorded example of adding insult to injury. One more came: he was killed. Then another, and another: some beaten, some killed, too much suffering to count.

It was time for a new plan. The phrase “how’s that workin’ out for ya?” comes to mind. The owner resolved to send his “beloved son” to end this thing and restore the peace. Let’s listen in at the Manischewitz Ancient Near-Eastern Co-op: “This is the son;” they said, ”come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” I think you know what happens next.


Before we continue, I want you to imagine Tom Hanks with long flowing hair and the French actress who’s name I can never remember, running through the Louvre and I think you have a sense of my approach to biblical interpretation…it’s like unlocking a code. In fact, all of Mark is a bit of code, and unlocking the code will reveal what the evangelist wants to say to me and to you.

I don’t know about you, but the tenants in this vineyard seem like a people possessed. They are clearly in the grip of something, and it isn’t pretty and it isn’t going to end well. But before we rush ahead, I want to look at the clues Mark has planted within the text:

Let’s begin in the Capernaum synagogue way back in chapter one: A man with an unclear spirit appears and with his weird demon mob voice says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Fast forward to our parable and Jesus used the same Greek verb “to destroy” to describe what’s going to happen to the unruly mob in the vineyard. That’s the first clue.

The second clue also includes a typically Markan idea: Any time someone is sent anywhere in Mark’s gospel it implies the sender’s delegation of authority. For example, in 3.15, the disciples are sent with the authority to cast out demons. And in our parable, there is more sending out than anything else. Everyone sent has the authority to confront the tenants, to take on this mob that seems like a people possessed. Clue two.

Here is clue three: Throughout this Gospel, the Sonship of Jesus is concealed. Peter finally gets it in chapter eight, and James and John figure it out too after God says “guys, don’t you get it, this is my beloved son.” Throughout most of the gospel, however, chapter after chapter, nobody gets it except the demons:

1.24b: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"
3.11: Whenever the evil[a] spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God."
5.7: “[The man] shouted at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

The tenants in the vineyard know exactly who they are dealing with, just as sure as pigs can fly, or fall, when they are heavy-laden with demons. Back to the vineyard and once again the mob speaks:

“This is the son;” they said, ”come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.”


You see, if the Son of the Most High was travelling by that way, and heard from the locals of the awful events in and around the vineyard, and heard the tales of a people possessed, where would he go first? If he heard that the power of evil had overtaken a place and the fabric of the community was torn apart by unspeakable violence, where would he go first? And if he heard that those, chief among the sinners, had fallen far from the path of righteousness, where would he go first?


On Christmas day, 1958, the new pope, John XXIII, decided to visit a children’s hospital. To our ears this doesn’t seem extraordinary, but it becomes extraordinary when you consider that in 1958 a pope hadn’t left the Vatican in 88 years. Needless to say, the staff were ill-prepared. Never one to rest, the next day he decided to visit a prison. The staff were apoplectic. But the pope is the pope and so they went along. He began the visit in his own particular way when he said to them with a big smile, "You couldn’t come to me, so I came to you." And just to torment his staff some more, he asked to be let into the cell of a convicted murderer. Inside, the somewhat surprised prisoner asked the Holy Father, “Can there be forgiveness for even me?” Pope John gave the man a hug.


Where would he go first? Wouldn’t Jesus go to be among the sick, those most in need of a doctor? Wouldn’t he go to be among those the world hates most? And wouldn’t Jesus bear the ugliness and the hatred, the anger and the violence, in the same way he was willing to die to redeem the whole world? Wouldn’t Jesus gladly give up his life for the wicked tenants, in the same way he was willing to give up his life for you and for me?