Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Mark 12:1-17 The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
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.
The Question about Paying Taxes
Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.
I have talked about how we will be traveling through the book of Mark during Lent until Easter. At this point, we’ve mostly been traveling in the order of the story, ever closer to Jerusalem. Today, though, we’ve skipped ahead of the story a bit. The two parts of this reading take place after Jesus has made it to Jerusalem, after the triumphal entry we celebrate on Palm Sunday and after flipping tables in the temple. This is a story about the height of the conflict between Jesus and the religious rulers in his community. As several scholars I read this week noted, it is common to hear the stories of the triumphal entry and the resurrection during Holy Week. We don’t always get the stories of the most intense conflict, the stories that show us how someone could come to the conclusion that Jesus needed to be harmed. Remember, he taught as one with authority. And, he challenged the people in authority. These are stories that tell us something about power- what power Jesus had, whose power is threatened, and, ultimately the power of God. Jesus teaches about power by talking about a vineyard and a coin.
Vineyards are all over the place in the Bible. They were an integral part of the culture and community. It makes sense that, when trying to find a metaphor that people connected to, prophets and teachers would look towards vineyards, places of deep roots, hard work, and daily cultivation, to help teach something about the people’s covenant with God. In the book of Isaiah chapter 5: 1-7, the prophet calls Israel God’s vineyard. It was on a fertile hill, set up for success, and lovingly tended by God. Unfortunately, where God hoped to reap justice, God found violence. This vineyard produced unusable and bitter grapes. The people did not live into their call to love and justice. In Isaiah, God was going to raze the vineyard, starting something new, to get to fields of righteousness, where, as 5:17 states, “lambs shall graze as in their pasture, young animals and kids shall feed among the ruins.” Sometimes, you need to start over to get to the end you desire.
The scholar Bonnie Bowman Thurston, in her book on Mark, believes that the religious leaders would have understood that Jesus’ parable of the vineyard to be labeling them as the wicked, violent tenants. They realize that Jesus believes that they have so fully fallen short of their covenant, that they have sown violence where they should have sown justice, that they have become what the prophet decried in Isaiah. The metaphor isn’t exactly the same in this story, but it’s close enough to feel like an indictment. The leaders in his community would have heard the echoes of the earlier vineyard story in this one. They would have realized that the way that they wielded their power was being questioned. And, powerful people rarely want to be questioned, especially if they feel like they are doing the right thing.
Power is a slippery concept in this story, to be sure. While we are probably intended to understand that God is the vineyard owner in this part of Mark, as God was in Isaiah. This vineyard owner owns other humans, which is not just, and keeps sending the humans he owns into a dangerous situation, which is not just. A scholar I read named Angela Dienhart Hancock says she finds this scripture particularly hard to preach on because of the violent and complicated layers of ownership and relationship. She thinks the key here is that bit about the cornerstone. There is a strong, usable stone that will first be rejected but will end up being key to the construction of the new building. Just as with the first vineyard story, where the vineyard becomes something new, a pasture, this vineyard will be changed, too. The cornerstone will reshape the space back towards justice. That is the power that Jesus, and God through Jesus, will wield here; the power to shape the people into the Kin-dom of God, the sweet pastures where love and justice are cultivated. This is why the people in power were threatened by Jesus. He said they were doing it wrong and that they needed to be corrected to be put more in line with what God wanted from them. Now, if you have been in power and someone tells you he’s pretty sure you’ve messed up so badly that you must be removed, you might end up wanting to get rid of him, too. And, you would definitely want to know who the heck he thought he was to be telling you how you were doing wrong by God.
There is an additional entity exerting power on Jesus and his people that the second part of our reading addresses: Rome. Rome has taken over Israel and is a cruel colonizer, extracting goods and people for Rome’s own gain. Even as Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees are having intense arguments about what it means to be Jewish and adhere to the covenant, Rome is a constant threat looming in the background. Someone who is crafty might be able to use the power of Rome against Jesus in order to bolster their own authority without taking the blame for violence enacted against him. That’s what this bit about the coin is here for. To show us how people threatened by Jesus hoped to get him in trouble with either the people who had trusted him or with Rome, who had the power to do him harm. Jesus, again, has the power to change the direction of the conversation away from what his questioners intend and back towards God.
Clayton Croy, in his commentary on this text, reminds us that Jesus’ community hated paying taxes to Rome, not because there is something wrong with taxes, but because the taxes ultimately supported the Empire that had conquered the local people. If Jesus seemed to side with the Empire, the regular people would stop listening to his teaching. If Jesus was too anti-Rome in his response, Rome would come after him for threatening the empire. Remember, this is during Passover and Roman soldiers were everywhere. They had a low tolerance for any talk that sounded like Revolution.
Jesus, though, did not answer the question on their terms. He almost never does. Instead, he makes this a question of taxes into a question about who has power of what. Caesar, who has money printed up with his face on it, has power over what is done with that money. But, God has a different power. God’s power should be their first concern. Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. But, give to God what belongs to God. Croy, in his commentary, said that Jesus argued that what you owe Caesar is actually pretty limited. What you owe God is a much bigger question.
I’ve read before that we should remember that if the image of Caesar on the coin shows us whom the coin belongs to, perhaps we should consider where we see the image of God to figure out what belongs to God. You might remember that humanity is said to bear the image of God at creation in the book of Genesis. “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” That means that our whole selves and our neighbors’ whole selves belong to God. So, as we consider our actions, we act in such a way that we are rededicating ourselves to God and tend to our neighbors’ well-being as they are reflections of God. And, look at that. Jesus, in reminding the people that what is owed to God is our first concern, has realigned his people with the covenant. This is him using the power of the cornerstone that he talked about, directing the shape of the kindom we can build with God. As we move ever closer to the crucifixion and, ultimately, resurrection, remember this. Remember that Jesus is ultimately directing us towards God and all that is God’s. Even when things get scary and complicated, Jesus is answering the question: What is God’s? Jesus says we are. Now, let’s make sure the vineyard we are working in reflects that.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.