Scripture Reading: Mark 12:1-12
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When I was a kid, we had a small group of trees on the corner of the lot behind the house. The trees weren’t huge, by any means. But they were well spaced to put up a treehouse. So off dad and I went to the lumberyard to pick up some boards.
I got to work, along with help from dad and my friend. We built, what I thought was a beginnings of a pretty nice treehouse. We had a good strong floor. We had some walls which gave us some privacy. We had a trap door in the floor so we could climb in and out. We were quite happy with our treehouse, that we had made with our own two hands.
Then the earwigs moved in.
We didn’t use it much after that. They kind of took over, there wasn’t much we could do at all. Our fun was over. All we could do is simply watch the treehouse from below, climbing the ladder to go in only occasionally.
Now I’m sure the earwigs were quite happy we built them their new home, but I surely wasn’t. I had put a lot of work into preparing and building this safe haven. I had plans on building up the walls and even a roof at some point. My ultimate goal was to spend a night up there some day.
But… earwigs. Yuck!
If the earwigs were going to live in there… there was no chance I would sleep there.
With my dream crushed, I had no choice but to abandon the treehouse and move onto other things. It didn’t help much I had a great view of the treehouse from my bedroom window.
Unwanted, unwelcome tenants are a good way to sour your day. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a landlord. It’s certainly not a job I want to take on. Dealing with the problems of a home you don’t even get to live in isn’t all that attractive to me.
Yet in our reading from the first twelve verses of Mark 12, we see a landowner dealing with difficult tenants. It just goes to further my resolve to never be a landlord.
In our reading, Jesus tells a parable of a landowner who builds a vineyard, but not just any old vineyard. This is a top of the line vineyard with fences and a watchtower, and even the pit for the winepress. The landowner built himself a fully functioning, turnkey vineyard, which he decides to lease out.
He found some tenants and then left for another country. We sure know a thing or two about absentee landowners in this area, don’t we?
When the time comes for the harvest, the landowner sends one of his servants to collect his portion of the fruit as part of the agreement. This would be how they paid their rent. The landowner gets a share of the harvest.
Instead of paying up, the tenants decided to beat the servant and send him home empty handed. How lovely.
So he sends another servant. This servant is treated even worse. He’s beaten in the head and treated shamefully. I’m not sure we want to know much more of the details around what being treated shamefully might mean.
The landowner, still wanting his portion of the harvest keeps sending servants. And the violence continues. Some of the servants they continue to beat, others they even kill.
You’ve got to wonder what the landowner is thinking. He keeps sending servants to collect something that clearly isn’t going to be paid. And maybe he does figure this out, as he decides to try one more time. This time, instead of sending a servant, he’s going to send someone with much more authority. He’s going to send his son.
And what to the tenants do?
Here’s what we read in Mark 12:7, “But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.”
There you go. Cast away like the days trash.
So much for a respectful end to the story.
The tenants clearly have no interest in paying up, they have announced their claim on the vineyard as their own. No one, it seems, will take it from them, not even the landowners beloved son. It’s quite the story.
But before we start to dig into this passage, I think we need to understand what’s happening when we read this story.
Last week Jesus was leaving Jericho for Jerusalem. This week we see Jesus inside of the city. For good reason we skipped over Jesus entering Jerusalem, we’ll save that for a few weeks from now on Palm Sunday.
Jesus is also right inside of the temple in our reading today. This helps us understand who his audience is during the telling of this parable.
Jesus is talking to the priests, the scribes and elders among other people who have made their way into the temple, along with what is likely a large crowd waiting outside.
Jesus is talking to the priests, scribes and elders… the same people he told us just last week would be the ones who will kill him. Nothing like facing a problem head on now is there?
The people Jesus is talking to have a significant influence of power in not only the temple and city, but their influence extends to the nation. They may not be in power as far as government is concerned, but their influence is felt just as much as any ruling king in Israel.
While you can look at this parable as an attack on the leaders of the religious establishment of the day, we cannot ignore that there may be something in it speaking to us as well.
We can look at the building of the vineyard as the temple they are standing in. It has great walls, it has a tower, it has all the things is needs to do the work it is supposed to do. Just as it was designed.
And who then are the tenants? It would have been plain to the listeners, the temple leaders, because at the end of the parable we read, “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.”
Jesus makes no friends in the telling of this parable.
But what is he getting at?
The landowner built a fabulous new vineyard. It’s a top of the line facility. I’m sure the tenants were ecstatic to be given the opportunity to run it on behalf of the landowner. But it seems the relationship sours… even though the grapes are plentiful.
So what has happened here?
In telling this story among the religious leaders, Jesus is likely drawing a line for them back to a song from Isaiah chapter 5.
“My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.” (Isaiah 5:1-2)
The song goes on to to tell of the coming destruction of the vineyard because it only produces wild grapes.
In the parable Jesus tells, he says that the landowner will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to someone else to maintain.
It all comes down to the wild grapes, or in the case of the parable, the wild tenants. Either way, bad fruit or bad tenants, the landowner isn’t getting anything back from his significant investment in building the vineyard.
Think about what has happened here. Someone has built a top facility at significant cost. It is a fabulous vineyard. No doubt there were many who were looking for the opportunity to run it for the man.
And in the beginning, things were likely great. The tenants made good use of the land, they worked hard producing a great crop of fruit.
But then something happened. The tenants began to assume some ownership in the operation. They began to take pride in their work and their respect for the landowner continued to decline. It declined to the point where they lost all respect for the owner and outright rejected his authority over what was happening in the vineyard. Even to the point of killing his son.
All of this, despite the fact that had he not built this vineyard the tenants would have never had such an opportunity in their lives.
The hardest part about this parable is that Jesus is doing nothing more than point out the trajectory of the human condition.
Time and time again we see this story play out in the history of the human race.
It doesn’t change. We receive a gift of some sort. We enjoy it for a while, then finally we decided we can do better and end up destroying the gift.
The gift comes in many different packages and sizes and to many different people and nations, and yet we continue to destroy it.
There are many parallels we can draw with this parable. You can even go back as far as the Garden of Eden. God created the perfect garden, and entrusted it to Adam and Eve. But was it long before they too disobeyed the landowner and ended up banished from paradise?
This parable is a violent depiction of the state of the world. The problem is this… we’re in there somewhere.
In some way, big or small, we’re part of this parable.
This parable is the story of the rejection of God’s gift, God’s grace, and even His love for the world.
There are two reactions we could have to this parable:
1. They had it coming, or
2. It’s a wake up call.
When the landowner sent his son to pick up his portion, they killed him. At what point in the story are we going to cry out, “My God, no!”?
This story is a tragedy for the landowner. The people have not only rejected his authority, but they are beating and killing those who represent him… even his own son!
This parable is a summons, it’s a wake up call to people to realize what we are doing in God’s kingdom.
It’s a call to renew ourselves in Jesus Christ, His Son, so we can become better tenants of what God has gifted us.
When the religious leaders heard this parable they wanted Jesus arrested, which is to say they wanted him gone. They wanted him out of the picture.
What is your response?
The leaders missed the point. They ran away from Jesus because they were too proud to realize the mistakes they were making, the pain they were causing.
This parable is a call TO Jesus.
He is the son who comes from the landowner to make amends and bring healing to the relationship between the landowner and the tenants.
The religious leaders chose to kill him. They couldn’t face the reality they were in the wrong.
We can see that now. We have the chance to enter into this reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ. Yes he died, he was killed… but he did not remain in the grave.
Jesus rose from death to life abundant to continue offer us new life, a new relationship with the landowner of this earth and of our lives.
This is the time to recommit ourselves to God through Jesus Christ. To be better tenants of what He has entrusted to us so that we may share in the harvest with Him.
It’s a time to work to change the destructive patterns of this world and bring healing and hope to those who find themselves trapped and completely buried in the decline towards such destruction.
Part of the beauty of God is we are given the freedom to choose.
We can choose to be reconciled to God through His Son, or we can choose not to.
To choose not to is to fall into those same patterns. God’s judgement in this case is to allow us to self-destruct. It’s not His preference, of course, he’d much rather be in relationship with us. But because He isn’t a vengeful or controlling God, He allows us to find the power of walking with His Son on our own.
At the end of the parable, Jesus addresses his audience by quoting Psalm 118. He says,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
Jesus is the cornerstone of the world, and of our lives.
I’m not going to read all of Psalm 118, but I’m going to end this message with the last few verses of it… it seems like an appropriate for today.
“I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar.
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God, I will extol you.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever.” (Psalm 118:21-29)
May His love be known in our hearts, our homes and in the world in which we live. Amen, and amen!