I write this post in a moment when church leaders are deciding whether we should cancel public worship in our church buildings because of the COVID-19 Pandemic. This is a such a surreal moment.
It is also a moment when I am preparing a sermon for this weekend from Mark 12:1-12. The immediate passage is the parable of the “Wicked” Tenants. This is a perplexing parable, especially when taken out of context.
How do I, as a preacher, a pastor/leader, and a human being, bring these current events into conversation with this text and make sense of it all (and preach a coherent and helpful sermon)?
Here is my attempt to bring these things into conversation (but not necessarily into a good sermon).
A Story about Leadership
I believe this text is a story about leadership and what happens when leaders get distracted from their primary calling. It might be hard to see this message if we focus only on the parable of the tenants. When we zoom out and place the parable in the context of the Narrative that begins in Mark 11:27 and ends in Mark 12:44, then the leadership theme becomes clear (at least, to me).
Read these two pages of the Cartoonist’s Guide to Mark to get the whole story in context.
A Trouble Maker
Here’s what happened. Jesus had just entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey and the people greeted him like he was the reincarnation of King David (Mark 11:1-11).
He went directly to the Temple and created a scene. He overthrew the moneychangers’ tables, drove them out with a whip, and accused them of turning his Father’s house into a den of thieves (Mark 11:15-29).
Naturally, this behavior attracted the attention of the leaders.
They ask the logical question. “What gives you the authority to do these things (Mark 11:27)?” In other words, “Who do you think you are?”
Location, Location, Location
The location of this conversation is important to understanding its meaning.
They are standing in the temple. This is the building that stands as the physical representation of God’s presence within the people of Israel and their role in the world. It is not an accident that the author chooses this location to frame the conversation. It is a commentary on the religious leaders and the distortion of the Temple and all that it stands for.
I think it is important to get context for what this building looks like in Jesus’ day and the story that it carries.
In order to get a frame of reference for the size of the temple, let’s look at this photo of an American Football field.
The story of the Temple actually begins with a tent. God told Moses to build a tent, called the Tabernacle (Exodus 25-27). It was portable. It could move with the people when the pillar of cloud and fire moved. The children of Israel were able to follow God at a moment’s notice.
Look at how big the tabernacle was compared to the football field.
It was big enough that it would take a large group of people to set it up, tear it down, and carry it around. It was small enough that it could be portable.
Years passed. The nation settled into Canaan. David unified the 12 tribes and dreamed of building a permanant version of the Tabernacle. His son, Solomon, fulfilled that dream and built the Temple.
It was exactly the same blueprint as the Tabernacle, only now it was permanent. It was polished marble and shiny gold, and it was not able to move if God moved.
Solomon built this temple by over-taxing the people. His son took over and made things worse, propelling the nation into a civil war, division, and dissipation. Eventually, the temple was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire.
The exiles returned and rebuilt a shadow of Solomon’s temple. The shabby temple stood for 400 years as the people suffered under one empire after another.
Eventually, after the Roman Empire took over the occupation of Israel, a King named Herod was placed in power by the Empire.
Herod taxed the people greatly. He played political gymnastics between his aquiescence to the Empire and his leadership of the people of Israel.
He put all his energy into building a nation that appeared strong and powerful…and shiny.
Look at his Temple.
It was over the top. People marveled at its grandeur and beauty.
Jesus called it out as a distortion of its purpose and said it would be destroyed.
That did not make him popular with the leaders.
The Leaders Retaliate
Notice that, immediately following the parable of the wicked tenants, 1) the leaders knew Jesus was tallking about them (Mark 12:12), and 2) Jesus was attacked by four groups of leaders: Pharisees, Herodians, Saducees, and Scribes.
A Faithful Example
Jesus calls out the arrogance and abusive power of the Scribes. Then Jesus points to the widow’s faithful generosity as the examplar and stark contrast to the distractedness of the leaders.
Back to the Parable of the Tenants
It seems obvious, to me, that the context of this parable makes it about leadership. Jesus responds to the question of his authority with this parable…
So, what is this parable trying to communicate to leaders, then and now?
Jesus draws from two key Hebrew scriptures.
The Fruit of the Vineyard
The first text is Isaiah 5:1-11. Isaiah, the prophet, compared Israel to a vineyard that God planted in the world. The purpose of the vineyard was to produce the fruit of love, justice and mercy in the world. God blessed Abraham’s family so that they might be a blessing to the world. They are called to demonstrate to the world what God’s love, justice and mercy look like lived out in a real-time society.
The task of the leader, therefore, is to cultivate that kind of society; a place where love, justice and mercy are the cornerstone.
It is God’s vineyard. God expects to see a fruitful crop that demonstrates generosity.
Instead, God finds greedy tenants who are more concerned about their own gain than justice, and are prone to violence rather than mercy.
This has been the perpetual struggle between God and the leaders of Israel. God has sent one prophet after another to speak truth to the power structures of Israel, and repeatedly the leaders have abused the messengers.
Now, Jesus stands inside Herod’s Temple—the symbol of the most flamboyant display of arrogance, self-interest, injustice, and violence—and says, “Times up.”
He is the son, the final messenger to the leaders. He knows they are going to kill him.
The inevitable is coming for the leaders of Jerusalem.
Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.
Herod’s temple will be destroyed by the Romans.
That’s what happens when leaders forget who they are and what they are called to be and do.
A Psalm of Hope
The final words of Jesus’ parable come from Psalm 118:22-23. Psalm 118 is a song of victory for the underdog. It is a Psalm that reminded Israel that God was always with them. It reminded them that, even when they were slaves, God was with them. Even when David was laughed off as the little shepherd boy, God was with him. Even when they felt like they were the stone that the builders rejected, that very stone would become the cornerstone.
Jesus lifted up this Psalm to reassure the crowds that everything would be OK.
Jesus was rejected by the leaders. He didn’t fit into their power structures. “Fear not,” he says. Herod’s big, beautiful Temple was coming down. Oppressive systems always implode. The way of Jesus is the way of love, justice, and mercy. Jesus came as the leader who shows us the way to tend the vineyard. It is a vineyard for the whole world.
Leadership for Today
Today, leaders of the church have similar temptations and challenges. We have buildings and systems and reputations to maintain. We exist within an oppressive system of Capitalism and Narcissistic success-and-growth-at-all-cost mentalities that form the cultural air in which we breath. We watch the rich and powerful become richer and more powerful while the poor and marginalized become poorer and more marginalized. We are torn by a political and economic environment that feeds on antagonistic divisiveness and Us-vs-them mentality. This mentality deepens the chasm between factions and feeds fear and hatred. It subverts our ability to listen to our neighbor and love our enemies. We are easily swept up into this whirlwind.
And then a virus spreads across the globe.
For the next two weeks (at least) we will not have access to our big shiny buildings.
Political parties are being forced to reach across the aisle and discuss what is best for the common good.
Large companies are forced to cancel big-ticket events. We cancel our trips and our agendas are confounded.
It is moments like these when we are reminded of what is important.
The fruit of God’s vineyard is love, justice, and mercy…for ALL people. The leader’s job is to cultivate that in society.
The vineyard does not belong to us. It belongs to God. We are called to tend the vine and cultivate love, justice, and mercy for all people.
The leader’s call has very little to do with the size or beauty of our buildings, or the admiration and respect that we get from our credentials and status.
The leaders of Jesus day were distracted by fear and power.
We are too.
May we, in this time of uncertainty, be leaders and followers who realize three things:
- The vineyard belongs to God and is meant to feed everyone.
- We are called to cultivate the fruit of love, justice, and mercy.
- It’s going to be OK, the rejected rock is the cornerstone.