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In last week’s reading (Mark 11:1-26) we saw Jesus enters the capital town of Jerusalem, fulfilling all that the Messiah-King-Leader would be and do to deliver the Israelites from their captivity and occupation by foreign powers. Yet rather than patting the leaders on the back, he confronted them, condemning them for forsaking the welfare of the people in order to enrich themselves, using the sacred position given to their priestly families by God (in Moses’ time) to create a stark and solid social hierarchy among their own people. Jesus went as far as to call them brigands and bandits.
Here the established powers that he’s challenged strike back. The chief priests, scribes and elders (those who ran the Temple institution, decried the rules and profited from the financial transactions) push back against the rebellious Jesus, questioning his self-invoked authority. They seek to trap him in a verbal snare, in a religious question which will force him to chose a side and either lose the love of the people who adore him, or self-identify as a heretic and enemy of his people. But they underestimate what the authority of Jesus is really about. He invokes it in his response, refusing to answer their false trap-laying question, until they themselves are more clear. It seems a bit like our current presidential debates. These Temple authorities demonstrate their own lack of authority by their choice to not respond publicly. They may have an answer, but they are hedging their bets, avoiding saying what might decrease their numbers in the polls of public opinion. Faith is more than a word trap, more than a philosophical and rhetorical question.
Jesus then speaks, again using his authority, to teach, talking in parables. The story is a teachable moment that is also a thinly veiled contention of their leadership. Throughout the First Testament a vineyard frequently serves as a metaphor for the nation of Israel, whereas God is often the farmer or vineyard owner. While we might be puzzled with this unfamiliar language, they wouldn’t have been at that time. The servants sent by the landowner would be understood as the prophets, including John the Baptist who was beheaded by the King (v.4) The son would have been equal to the father, coming in his place and stead. Killing him was like starting a revolution against the father.
The parable condemns and criticizes the religious authorities for being blind to the will and work of God. They claim to be holy, important and the voice of God – yet they are unable to recognize what God does…even when God comes to them, as the son came to the tenant farmers. They echo the lack of faith and spiritual jealousy of the brothers of Joseph in Genesis 37 who kill their beloved brother to gain their father’s favor. “come, let us kill him!” (Mark 12:7).
Jesus is the corner, key, or capstone which holds all of the construction together in perfect harmony and balance. Jesus is the interpretative key for “getting” God, the lens through which one can most clearly “see” God. Yet his packaging is neither what the authorities expected, nor what they wanted.
Questions for Going Deeper: