Grace Presbyterian Church
March 22, 2014, Lent 5B
Isaiah 5:1-7, Mark 12:1-12, 28-34
The Last Straw
You can call it “the last straw” or the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” the “breaking point” or “tipping point.” We know what that is; whatever trouble or disagreement or source of difficulty had been bearable or tolerable before is no longer so, and must be removed. We might say “I can’t stand it anymore,” or “enough is enough, and then proceed with taking the troublemaker or source of stress out of the equation altogether.
That is the place we find the religious leaders of Jerusalem at the end of today’s reading from Mark. They already knew this Galilean rabbi was trouble after that incident in the Temple courtyard the day before, where he had been upsetting the tables of the moneychangers and animal sellers, and accusing the Temple of being a “den of robbers.” With that their anger had been kindled against this man. It was all fine and good as long as he stayed out in Galilee doing healings and that kind of thing, but now he had come to the seat of their power and started making trouble. He had to be stopped, before the people were totally bamboozled by his act.
And now here he was, having the gall to show himself again in the Temple after that display. It was time to deal with this troublemaker once and for all.
First came a challenge to his authority; at the end of chapter 11 we see the challenge, “by what authority are you doing these things?” How dare you? Who do you think you are? The Galilean rabbi threw the challenge back in their faces by reminding them of John the Baptizer – still a popular figure among the people even though he had been dead for some time. The scribes and chief priests and elders were in a quandary; if they insulted John’s work by claiming it had no divine sanction they risked angering the people, but if they acknowledged divine sanction for John’s work they brought themselves under condemnation for not supporting John. So, they were stuck.
Then this itinerant rabbi turned the tables on them with a story, or parable. In this story Jesus invoked the image of the vineyard, long a shorthand in the prophetic literature for the people of God. One of the most striking examples of the “vineyard” theme is found in the reading from Isaiah, in which the “vineyard,” here as often standing in for the people of Israel and Judah, or the people of God, is called under prophetic judgment for failing to produce the right kind of fruits – bad grapes. Verse 7 makes explicit the nature of the “bad grapes”: “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”
In Mark’s vineyard parable, the object of the story is not the vineyard itself, but a group of tenants, or overseers, left in charge of the vineyard by its master. When the time came for the fruits of the harvest, the master sends one of his workers to collect from the tenants, who instead beat the slave up and tossed him about. The pattern is repeated many times, with the violence seeming to escalate against the master’s messengers, with some being beaten and some killed. Finally the master of the vineyard sends a “beloved son,” but the tenants reject his authority as well and kill him, thinking this will make the vineyard theirs.
The scribes and elders and chief priests didn’t need to be hit over the head to know who they were in the story. Again, though, their fear of the crowds – who were definitely on Jesus’s side, at least at this point – overcame their desire to haul the troublesome rabbi off to the authorities, so they left him. They didn’t give up trying to trap him, though, sending first a group of Pharisees and then some Sadducees to throw some trick questions at him, both of which he foiled. Finally, one of the scribes, breaking away from his group, did something radical; he engaged the rabbi in an actual conversation instead of a trap. The lone scribe’s question was genuine: “Which commandment is the first of all?” The rabbi gives an answer that is familiar to us even today:
The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.
The scribe, in typical scholarly fashion, breaks down the answer into its component parts and finds it wise, implicitly separating himself from his fellow scribes and elders and chief priests. Jesus’s response – “You are not far from the kingdom of God” – was perhaps more striking and arresting to the crowd than all of the rebuttals and parables had been on this day.
Preachers tend to avoid this passage from Mark, at least those first twelve verses, because it has a sordid history of misuse in the church. There have too often been those who sought to define the “tenants” of the vineyard as the whole of Judaism, and have used the passage to justify the evils of anti-Semitism. Let’s spike that now; that kind of use is a lie, and a damnable one. The parable’s tenants are the religious leaders, not an entire nation. After all, the first followers of Jesus were Jews themselves, as was Jesus.
The lie becomes particularly pernicious when it allows religious leaders – Christian ones, in this case – to be able to evade responsibility for their stewardship of the church even today. How many Christian leaders do you see out there who are acting rightly as stewards of the church? When the news headlines include a pastor seeking $65 million from his congregation for a jet, or one who hauls his congregation across the country to scream the words “GOD HATES” – no matter how you finish that sentence, it is not one that any human being ever has any business uttering – or herding their flocks into a particular political party, or indeed leading the church in any way other than as a witness to the love of God, it’s not hard to find a few parallels to the “wicked tenants” of Jesus’s parable.
If anything, Jesus’s exchange with the lone scribe should stop us cold – all of us, not just misbehaving preachers. The two greatest commandments – each one directed at each one of us and all of us together – should absolutely stop any of us cold when we feel the urge to start wielding influence over the church. The moment we start trying to draw lines between us and the folks outside these walls, the instant we start positioning ourselves as judges of who’s in and who’s out, the second we appoint ourselves as judges over any other person’s life…we are the wicked tenants, bucking to be thrown out of the vineyard.
Jesus doesn’t mince words; the owner will “destroy” those tenants, and give charge of the vineyard to others. “Destroy” is uncomfortable language for us. We are not much accustomed to that kind of word coming out of the mouth of Jesus. At the bare minimum it should bring us up short, cause us to be circumspect and humble in our stewardship of God’s vineyard. How, then, do we remain as “faithful stewards” and not live in peril of putting ourselves against God’s purposes?
One: remember whose vineyard this is. We are not the owners. The vineyard, or the church if you will, is not our property in the sense that matters most. We are God’s stewards; our charge is to be responsible only to the true shepherd. God is sovereign – this is one of the primary tenets of Reformed theology. Anything that we might follow instead – tradition, culture, our own Bible-verse cherry-picking – violates that sovereignty, period.
Second, we need to remember what makes Jesus angry. We’ve been on this subject for a few weeks now; from the table-tossing in the temple to the leper doubtful of Jesus’s desire to heal him, to these wicked tenants not giving the vineyard’s owner his due, Jesus’s anger is raised up against anyone or anything that gets in the way of any person’s connection to the Father. The moment we presume our judgments on others instead of our welcome, the moment we build walls instead of extend hands, we are these wicked tenants, bucking to be thrown out of the vineyard.
The third point to remember is that we follow a Christ who was so determined to break down these barriers, who was so insistent on the kingdom of God coming near and bringing good news to all, that it ultimately cost him his life. As early as chapter three Mark records that the scribes and chief priests and elders were determined to eliminate Jesus. After the incident in the Temple the authorities were all the more determined. This direct challenge was too much. The rest of the chapter includes two more challenges, from the Pharisees (a challenge that gives us the instruction to “give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor and to God what belongs to God”) and the Sadducees, trying to trick Jesus on a question about marriage, before the lone scribe finds common ground with Jesus. By chapter fourteen, after more teaching, the authorities are committed to kill Jesus.
Fourth, remember the two great commandments, as Jesus described them to the lone scribe. How you love God and how you love your neighbor are more significant, more Christ-like than all the rituals and rules we can follow. Another way to look at is that it’s challenge enough for each of us to keep our own walk with Christ going; none of us – not one – is in any position to be the judge and jury over anybody else’s relationship with God. We just aren’t that good, and we certainly aren’t infallible or perfect or sovereign enough.
Finally, maybe the most important part to remember is that God really does want everybody. Our picking and choosing, our wanting to give our welcome only to those we like or those who are like us or those who make us look good – this is not God’s desire. On the other hand, when we open our doors to all who seek the Lord, when we truly love our neighbors – not just the folks we know – as ourselves, then – as Jesus told the lone scribe – we are not far from the kingdom of God.
Even when Jesus speaks of destruction and throwing them out, the door always remains open for the one, like the lone scribe, to return and to know the kingdom of God drawing near. Let us never be the ones to stand in anybody’s way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation (417); What Wondrous Love Is This (85); Lord, Make Us More Holy (536)