Friday, 14 November 2008

Jesus as he really is (Mark 12:1-12)

Tonight I spoke at the last 'Free week' event at the University of Cumbria. I spoke on the parable of the tenants (Mark 12:1-12). The talk is reproduced below. I struggled to sufficiently include the original challenge to the religious teachers of Israel, but hopefully haven't changed the message too much.

I recently heard about magazine article in which a mother wrote in to say this, “Our 10 year old son Robin would invariably live in a complete mess. His bedroom was a sight to behold. Finally after all the nagging seemed to have failed, I wrote the following note and left it on his pillow:

‘Dear Robin, I wish I was clean and tidy like all the other rooms in the house. Please could you do something about this? Love, Bedroom.’

Next day, to my surprise, I found the room spick and span, and my son had left a note for me to find. It read:

‘Dear Bedroom, There you are. I hope you feel better now. Love, Robin. PS You’re beginning to sound just like my mother.’"

I guess you could say our parents are our earliest landlords. We live in their space. They have rightful authority over us. And yet from the word ‘go’ we show our natural inclination to reject that authority.

That, in effect, is the issue that Jesus addresses in the story we’re going to spend just a few minutes looking at tonight. The title of the talk advertised was ‘Jesus as he really is.’ And we’ll see that to understand Jesus as he really is, we need to turn to the issue of taking other people’s things for ourselves, passing them off as our own and rejecting their love. It would be helpful if you turned to page 39 in your black books [Matthew 12:1-12], as that’s where the story is recorded. We’re going to look at it in three parts.

First of all, it’s a story about bad tenants. Let’s read verse 1: ‘Jesus them told them this story: “A farmer once planted a vineyard. He built a wall around it and dug a pit to crush the grapes in. He also built a lookout tower. Then he let his vineyard and left the country.”’ Now that wasn’t that unusual at the time of Jesus. There were plenty of mostly foreign landowners who let their land out to Jewish tenants. But perhaps the thing that might have jumped out to Jesus’ original listeners was how generously the owner had provided for them: a wall to protect the vineyard from wild animals, a winepress where the process of fermentation could begin, and a lookout tower ensuring that the vineyard isn’t destroyed by animals or humans. These tenants are in a good position thanks to the provision and kindness of the owner.

But the tenants don’t seem to appreciate the owner’s kindness. Let’s read on, in verses 2-3: ‘When it was harvest time, the owner sent a servant to get a share of the grapes. The tenants grabbed the servant. They beat him up and sent him away without a thing.’ When we read that the owner had let the vineyard to the tenants, the deal was that they were responsible to pay a fixed part of the proceeds. It’s a bit like on Dragon’s Den, where the Dragons resource entrepreneurs on the basis they’ll get a future share of profits. But when the owner sends a servant to ‘get his share of the grapes’, they resist him. At the time, you could establish your right as owner of a piece of land if you had undisputed use of it for three years. And so the tenants refused to pay their share of grapes as rent, they were attempting to deny the owner’s claim of possession. They wanted to keep the vineyard for themselves. And so the tenants treat the servant that had been sent to collect the rent like a robber, trying to deprive them of what they considered already to be theirs.

Read verses 4-5 and you see that, despite the patience of the owner with the tenants, the pattern continues: ‘The owner sent another servant, but the tenants beat him on the head and insulted him terribly. Then the man sent another servant, and they killed him. He kept sending servant after servant. They beat some of them and killed others.’ They all receive the same reception. The tenants intended to keep the fruit for themselves. They were using the vineyard as a means of gaining power for themselves. In their minds, the vineyard was their vineyard, like Robin’s room was, in his mind, his own. He could live as he wanted.

Now look at verse 12, because this makes sense of the story: ‘The leaders knew that Jesus was really talking about them, and they wanted to arrest him.’ Jesus originally told this story to religious leaders, and they understood exactly what he’d been saying. They’d have known this because they were Jewish people familiar with the Old Testament, the part of the Bible written before Jesus came. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah tells a very similar story to this one by Jesus, involving a vineyard rented out to tenants. Isaiah’s story is addressed to the people of Israel – he reminds Israel that although God built them up as a nation, they’d turned against him. He sent prophet after prophet to speak to them and to call them back to him. The difference with Jesus’ parable is the bit involving the son. But the key thing is that the people there understood that they represented the tenants. The scandal is that, despite having been warned otherwise, they took things that belonged to God and passed them off as their own.

The story of the Bible opens with God creating the world. As humans, he made us tenants in God’s world. God has given us a responsibility to look after the world and to enjoy it. But we don’t own it. God owns the world and we are ultimately answerable to him. And so we’re just like the tenants in the parable.

We’ve seen that the tenants acted as they did because they thought it would lead to getting the vineyard for themselves. They wanted to be owners of the vineyard and run it their own way. And that describes the attitude of each of us. God has made us tenants in a world that belongs to him, he’s kindly provided for us – but our response is to choose to ignore God, to own the world and rule and run it as though it all belongs to us. We want to be God of the world for ourselves.

But here’s the thing. A world that has walked out on God will always end up a war zone. God created us to submit to him, at the centre of our lives. Everything fitted together for God's good purposes. But now each of us has tried to redefine reality so that we are at the centre serving our own ambitions.

So if I am trying to rearrange the world so that I get to the top, I’m probably not very bothered about the rainforests or the fact that a child dies every six seconds of a preventable disease. When it doesn’t suit me, I am not going to be very bothered about you either. I am looking out for myself. And things get ugly because just as I am looking out for me, you are looking out for you. In my version, I get to the top, in your version you do. So what so we do? We fight. Not just with bombs over Baghdad, but with snide words and cutting remarks over the washing up. We try to prop up our version of how we think things should be. That’s what happens when we take God out of the picture and when we forget that God is the true owner.

So here’s the scandal. Blessing upon blessing has come our way from God. But what have we done with them? Thanked God the Giver? Not exactly. The natural reaction of each of us is to take each of these gifts for granted, rejecting his love. Even though our every breath depends on God, the natural reaction of each of us is to airbrush him out of our existence.

But look again at this story. Do you see how much God is showing his patience with his people – how much he loves them? He sends messenger after messenger and in one last desperate act we read in verse 6, last of all he sent his son to them and says, 'They will respect my son.' That is how much God cares for a wayward world and wayward people. He sends Jesus. A lot of people think that Jesus has come to stop their fun. But, as we see in this parable, Jesus’ claim is that he is the son; that he is the owner of everything. In other words, when he calls us to repent – to put God at the centre of our universes – he isn’t calling us to some strange religious cult, he is calling us to do what we should rightly do, what we are made to do: to submit to his authority as the King sent by God and give all that we have to him.

But let's look at what happens to this son, as we turn to its second element: a story about the death of a much-loved son.

Look at verses 7-8: ‘But they said to themselves, “Some day he will own this vineyard. Let’s kill him! That way we can have it for ourselves.” So they grabbed the owner’s son and killed him. Then they threw his body out of the vineyard.’

The Bible teaches that, far from what we often think, rather than being essentially good, humans are essentially bad. And the ultimate proof of that, according to the Bible, is that we murdered our Maker. That is what Jesus’ death on the cross, illustrated in this parable by the murder of the Son outside the vineyard, means. Remember Jesus’ call was just that each of us should place God at the centre of the Universe, in the place that he belongs. He said that humans experience true freedom when we live this way, the way we were created to live. As a fish is free in the ocean, as an eagle is free in the air, so humans are free when we live in the environment in which we made to live, submitting our lives to God. And Jesus’ life backed up this claim as, through submitting his own life to God the Father, he always put others before himself. And so the human response to him, to sentence him to death, is the ultimate insult, the supreme gesture to what we think about the idea of God as our king, as the owner of the vineyard. It is the final snub which puts the lid on all the snubs that God has received from the human race.

Sure, none of us was actually there when Jesus was crucified. ‘Oh yes,’ we say, ‘It was all their fault. The Jews, the Romans, we all know how barbaric they were. The crucifixion of Jesus was such an appalling act of judicial murder.’

But it’s the conviction of the Bible that those that actually put Jesus to death merely represented each of us. Some of us are represented by the Roman bureaucrats, turning a blind eye to the injustice of the crucifixion, just as we turn a blind eye to the evidence for Jesus today. Some of us are represented by the smug religious leaders, very religious but wanting rid of Jesus for the sake of the quiet life. Perhaps most of us are represented by the crowd crying ‘Crucify, crucify’. Our hands were not the actual hands that drove the nails into his hands and the wood, but our lives show that we want rid of Jesus’ claim to be at the centre of our lives.

Sometimes I catch myself thinking about what Jesus cried out on the cross: 'Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.' But this parable shows the generosity of that prayer, because verse 7 shows that the tenants knew exactly what they were doing. If there was any ignorance in those that killed Jesus, it was an ignorance for which they were responsible. And we living today have even less excuse for rejecting Jesus than they had for we have the whole Bible in our hands, God's complete and clear revelation. To walk away from Jesus is to add our own personal nail to the cross.

And this is why Jesus gives us a final element to the story: a story about a choice that faces each of us.

Remember, Jesus is speaking to those who quite literally got rid of him. In this parable he paints a picture of them as confident that they can get rid of him and get away with it. But Jesus goes on at the end of his story, in verse 9, “What do you think the owner of the vineyard will do?”

Jesus assumes that his listeners have the sense to see the story can’t end at verse 8 – the tenants can’t have the last word, they surely can’t get away with it. The owner must ultimately step in and act. And so he continues, “He will come and kill those tenants and let someone else have his vineyard.”

And he goes on, “Surely you know that the Scriptures say, ‘The stone that the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone.’” That’s slightly enigmatic stuff. In fact, it’s a quotation from the Old Testament, from a time when God’s Old Testament people were under attack. The people around them were trying to overthrow their king in order to build their own empires. And God had turned the tables, the attackers had failed, and the king had survived. So this line came to be written, ‘The stone that the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone’, in other words, ‘God’s king the attackers rejected has now become the most important one.’

So the picture is of a building site and there is a stone lying there. The architect’s plan is that that stone is central to what he is building. And various other builders say ‘Well, actually we want to build differently. We want to get rid of that stone.’ So they chuck it out of the building site. Then the architect himself walks onto the site. He turns the tables by rescuing that stone, bringing it back and building on it. That’s the picture Jesus is building. He’s saying that he’s the stone, God’s son, our rightful king.

The builders, the leaders of Israel are about to crucify him, and throw him off the building site thinking they can get on with building their lives as they please. But Jesus says, ‘Not so. Very soon you will realise the stone the builders tossed aside is now the most important stone.’ He is God’s king, he is risen from the dead and he will judge. And so, in effect, Jesus says, “You can reject me, but you cannot ultimately get rid of me, and you will ultimately have to reckon with me. The reality is that I belong at the centre of the universe.”

And so, it seems like a grim story, as we’ve all been bad tenants. The amazing news, however, of Mark’s Gospel that we’ve been sharing for the whole week is that God still longs to have relationship with us, the people he has created. And so Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel, way back in chapter 1, are these: ‘The time has come! God’s kingdom will soon be here. Turn back to God and believe the good news!’ The good news is that God will accept us back just as we are, if only we will put him back in his right place, admit that he owns the vineyard, and believe the good news. The good news is when we admit we don’t deserve anything from God, he accepts us through Jesus’ death on the cross in our place. At the cross, Jesus took the punishment in our place and in our shoes. As we’ve been saying all week, that’s the best news about accepting the resurrected Jesus as our King: he lays aside everything and gives his life so that we might be forgiven.

So will you come clean tonight? Will you admit that you’ve acted as though you’re the owner of the vineyard, that you’ve lived at the centre of your Universe and that you’ve ignored the true king? Do you see how deluded that is, that it messes with true reality? If you will, and you will admit that you’ve nothing to commend yourself before God, he will accept you tonight on account of Jesus. Each of us must face Jesus as either saviour or judge. It would be an amazing thing if you arrived here tonight as a rebellious tenant, and go home reconciled through Jesus’ death on our behalf.

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