Photo: Priscilla Du Preez (Unsplash.com)
Then 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. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes”?’
When they realised 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.
Mark 12:1-12 (NRSVA)
Our passage continues a conversation initiated by the religious leaders who ask Jesus about the source of his authority (Mark 11:27-33). Their refusal to answer his question regarding the authority of John the Baptist reveals their priority to please the people: ‘…they were afraid of the crowd’ (Mark 11:32).
Perhaps religious blindness to the things of God should not surprise us. It certainly does not surprise Jesus. In fact he stands among them ready with a pertinent parable.
First Jesus sets the scene. A man plants a vineyard, builds a fence, digs a winepress, builds a watchtower, and leases the property to tenants. He makes a productive place and chooses to rent it out. It is a picture of creation and clearly establishes ownership.
Yet, when the time arrives for the sharing of the produce, the tenants behaviour reveals a desire to own what is rightly the creator’s. And so they ‘seize’, ‘beat’, insult, drive away, and ‘kill’. They remove all the owner-sent servants.
One might be inclined to consider this repeated sending and refusal well and truly enough to cancel this contract.
Yet, there is here a generosity – a grace – that is beyond expectation. There remains a ‘beloved son’. He is sent with the owner’s hopeful – perhaps wishful – expectation that that ‘they will respect my son’.
Yet these tenants have created their own understanding of reality. They somehow reason that if they take out the son they will become owners. It reveals a twisted reasoning: they know that they are not owners, and they have developed their own in-house-understanding as to how inheritance works. They have created their own world-view bubble.
And then they act as if it were reality: they kill the ‘beloved son’.
The absolute absurdity of their plan is revealed as Jesus asks his listeners: ‘What then will the owner of the vineyard do?’ Surely every listener expects the owner to ‘come’, ‘destroy’, and to ‘give’.
This is revealing action. He is not taking the vineyard back. He is, rather, looking for faithful tenants – and has no problem with finding ‘others’.
Jesus’ quoting of Psalm 118 is revealing. Here David celebrates YHWH’s grace in leading him through many battles and hardships. David has not seen death, but in every danger found an ‘open gate’. It is a picture of unexpected and timely salvation.
The ‘capstone’ of an ancient gate was carefully chosen for size, shape, strength, weight, and direction of the grain. Recognition and selection of a capstone was a master art in itself. Many stones would be inspected and rejected by a good builder. Once selected, the ‘capstone’ would be put in its place at the top of the arch and hold the whole gate together. In a similar way a ‘cornerstone’ was carefully chosen as the first stone laid on a building project. It would determine where every other stone belonged.
The similarity between these two stones is that they are key to the outcome of the build. In both passages ‘cornerstone’, ‘keystone’ and ‘capstone’ can be used interchangeably. In Psalm 118, I prefer ‘capstone’ as it links in seamlessly with David’s image of escape through the God-provided ‘open gate’.
Yet, it is not which type of stone that is crucial here. It is the fact that the perfect stone has been rejected. Many underestimated David’s turning to God in time of need. Similarly, many – including (perhaps especially) the religious leaders – underestimated the role of Jesus in God’s kingdom. Those who are supposed to be masters in the things of God are overlooking the most significant of all God’s acts. They are not ‘amazed’ at God’s work as David and many of the witnesses to the miracles are. Rather they are threatened.
Make no mistake, this quoting of David is an invitation for Jesus’ listeners to reconsider this underestimation. Yet, as soon as Jesus finishes his parable, they seek to arrest him. Why? Because ‘they realised he had told this parable against them’.
Of course they did. Yet, even now there is a blindness that borders on madness. Jesus, now twice affirmed by the heavenly voice as ‘my Son, the beloved’ (Mark 1:11 & 9:7), has just told a story that ends in the murder of the owner’s ‘beloved son’.
And their response? Plans to arrest Jesus that eventually lead to his execution.
But not now. After all, these religious leaders – as Jesus’ parable revealed – have more fear of the crowd than of God.
Have you ever recognised religious blindness? In what ways can religion blind us to seeing the things of God? In what ways have you experienced such blindness?
In what ways is religion susceptible to fear of the crowd? When have you recognised religion to be too concerned with popularity?
Who do you think are the ‘others’ the owner will give the vineyard to in Jesus’ story? What does this parable suggest about the possible limitations on God’s entrusting his people church leaders?