Mark 12:1-12, NRSV
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 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.
Preached Sunday, February 18, 2018 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
Death was already on my mind at the start of last week. Ash Wednesday, the start of the season of Lent, is a day we’re reminded of our mortality—that we’ve come from dust and will return to dust. I’d already been thinking about that—about death and dust and ashes when the news broke of an active shooter at a school in Florida. And since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about mercy, about what it means when we bring a cold-blooded killer to justice. And here’s what I’ve come up with. I’m just kidding. I don’t have any answers. Just more questions. The first is probably one we share: why? But then there’s this one: What is justice? And another: Does he deserve mercy? And another: where is the grace in this? And another: is God even in this? Which leads to a whole other series of questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why doesn’t God stop tragedies like this one? If God is omnipotent—that is, all powerful—and doesn’t stop it, then God is basically a cosmic jerk, right? And if God can’t stop it, then God’s not omnipotent in the first place, right? And if God created all things, why did God create evil?
The truth is that there’s no easy answers to any of those questions—certainly not answers we can get at in any satisfactory way over twelve minutes of me standing here and talking to you. But, I can tell you how I start to think about them: I log off facebook and I turn off the news and I open my Bible. Here’s the thing about the Bible: it contains the breadth of human emotion and experience. And so, whatever we’re facing, usually we can find something, somehow that speaks to it. We lament and celebrate with the psalmist, we hear stories of triumph and tribulation in the Hebrew Scriptures; we are convicted and edified by the letters of Paul; and Jesus, more often than not, reminds us of what it means to be broken and what it means to be healed. The challenge is that, sometimes, when you open up scripture—you don’t find the answers you’re looking for, just more questions.
And that’s what I faced this week, when I turned to Mark 12 and the parable of the wicked tenants. This is a story that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all share—but all in different ways and in different places of their gospel narrative. But every time I encounter it, it kind of stops me in my tracks—it’s one of those parables I’d rather skip over.
Now there are two main veins of parables in the gospels: kingdom parables which Jesus uses to help us understand what the kingdom of God is like. You can tell those because they usually start with, “The Kingdom of God is like…” And Judgement Parables—parables that are used to convict his audience.
In Mark 12, Jesus is back in Jerusalem and he’s talking to the religious authorities. Now parables are a pretty heady way to teach, so he’s already ruffled some feathers by using parables to teach the teachers. And to top it off, he’s not making up this story entirely on his own, he’s riffing on a story from Isaiah—one that the religious authorities would’ve known by heart, one that is their job to interpret, not his.
He draws from Isaiah 5:
Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
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 watch-tower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry!
So Jesus, teaching the teachers using a scripture they thought was theirs to interpret, questions their loyalty to Rome over their loyalty to God because of their continued avoidance of God’s messengers and seeming allegiance to the Empire. Later, the Church interpreted this parable as a story of Christianity replacing Judaism as the major Abrahamic faith. And still later, Christians today, read this parable almost exclusively as God sending his prophets and finally Jesus who was killed.
This is one of those parables that gives more questions than answers. We wonder why the tenants are so evil, why the landlord would create such a beautiful vineyard only to rent it out to hateful people. We wrestle with slaves being beaten and killed. We don’t know what to think about a father who would send his son to die. Sure, it sounds magnanimous. But doesn’t it also sound a little crazy? And of course, there’s the grand final question: after all of that destruction, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” If Mark has anything to say about it, “he will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Which, whew. God, I hope I’m not a wicked tenant and don’t know it!
In the midst of all the questions the text lifts up today and the ones many of us are holding in our hearts from this week, there’s one piece of this story I want us to focus on: God kept sending people.
You know, these days seem pretty dark, don’t they? The division in our country is unlike anything we’ve encountered before. The world seems angry and things seem hopeless. But even at its darkest, even when we’ve beaten everyone who’s come in our path, God still sends people—people who call us to peace, people who call us to hope, people who call us to grace and mercy and kindness.
My favorite theologian of all time, Mr. Rodgers, famously said, “Whenever you see something scary, look for the helpers.” That’s our call today and everyday—look for the helpers God is sending in the midst of the chaos and destruction. Look for the people standing up and proclaiming God’s love. And for God’s sake, don’t beat them.
I suspect that’s some small comfort, but comforting it is nonetheless—and it’s the comfort I have for you today—that God’s love for us doesn’t make sense, God’s continued presence and care for us, even when we are more loyal to destruction than to him, doesn’t make sense. And yet, that’s exactly what we have.
Now, we just have to live like it.