Please read Mark 11:27-12:12
In the Steven Spielberg film, Catch me if you can, Leonardo diCaprio plays the part of con man Frank Abagnale, Jr, who has an astonishing ability to pull the wool over people’s eyes. It’s not just that he has good looks and a way with words: he adds to that the confidence to blag his way through any situation and an astonishing attention to detail. For years, Abagnale succeeds in keeping one step ahead of the pursuing FBI agent, who is a formidable figure in his own right. Featured in Abagnale’s career of con tricks are episodes where he successfully poses as a teacher, a doctor, a lawyer and most memorably an airline pilot, complete with resplendent PanAm uniform. He also manages to cash forged cheques to the value of around three million dollars – and this at 1960s prices. At one point, to distract the FBI who have surrounded Miami airport, he puts on his pilot’s uniform, drops into a nearby college to ‘recruit’ some stewardesses, returns to the airport next day with these girls in uniform and successfully makes his escape to Europe. All this at the age of eighteen!
Catch me if you can is great fun. What makes it even more remarkable is that it is based on a true story; hence the film’s tag line – ‘The true story of a real fake’. The scams depicted in this film are of many kinds, but they all have one feature in common. In every case, Abagnale has to persuade his victim to believe that he is genuine, that his qualifications are real, that his uniform is what it claims to be, that it really is PanAm who have given him these pay cheques. The issue is authority. The cheques are real only if they come with the authority of the bank. The uniform is genuine only if the airline has issued it – otherwise it’s just fancy dress.
It is this issue of authority that looms large in Mark 11:27-12:12. Jesus is apparently claiming the authority for some fairly extreme and dramatic actions – and perhaps not surprisingly, people want to know where he gets that authority from. Down through the ages, people have been asking the same kind of questions about Jesus. Can we accept him as someone with authority – someone who has the right to tell us what to do – whose way we must therefore follow? Whether we are Christians or not, these are questions we must get to grips with. Whose authority are we going to accept in our own lives? We are looking here at two closely connected stories: in the first, Jesus is challenged directly to explain and defend his authority; while in the second, the parable of the tenants sets out his authority and issues the sternest of warnings to those who reject it.
Already in v.18, we have seen the response of the leaders to what Jesus is doing. Now in vv.27-33 the threat grows stronger, the storm grows closer, as Jesus is confronted by an official delegation. This story begins as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the third time in as many days (vv.27-28). At some point in the Temple’s outer courts, probably under one of the covered walkways which run round the Court of the Gentiles, Jesus will now continue his teaching programme. This is where his opponents finally catch up with him. To say the least, it is an impressive delegation. These three groups, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders, represent the main components of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. The chief priests are very senior figures in national life: they are in charge of the Temple which also gives them a key role in liaising with the Romans. The teachers of the law, or scribes, are responsible for teaching people how to understand and apply God’s law. The elders are respected community leaders who are expected to bring the wisdom of their years to the council’s debates. Many of their faces are known to the crowd, who stand back to let them pass – the stern faces of their nation’s leaders, intent on dealing with this wandering Galilean teacher who has created such a stir here in the capital. Already they have had their discussion in private – v.18 – now it’s time for the confrontation.
It is the authority question that they ask. The day before yesterday, Jesus arrived in this holy city with a procession who were shouting and chanting all sorts of dangerous things; and he accepted their acclaim. Yesterday, still worse, he arrived on this very spot and started driving out our perfectly legal and licensed stall-holders, who were doing no more than providing services for the worshippers, and generally creating mayhem in the house of the Lord! Abusing the words of the holy prophets, causing uproar, disturbing the peace, almost starting a riot, threatening to attract the attention of the Romans…! Jesus, what gives you any right to do this? Whatever their attitude, whatever their motives, it’s a good question. What gives Jesus the right to say that the venerable leaders of the established religion have got it all wrong? Who does he think he is to come storming through the Temple like this? To put it bluntly – is Jesus just blagging it, or is he for real?
Jesus’ response in vv.29-30 is not straightforward. He answers a question with another question – a very pointed one. Twice he demands an answer, which requires some nerve in this company. John the Baptist has been dead for some time by now, grubbily executed by Herod Antipas (6:14-29), but memories of him are still fresh. The crucial point is that John is closely linked with Jesus (1:7-8). The authorities didn’t approve of John, just as they don’t approve of Jesus. That explains Jesus’ question. He’s implying that the answers to the two questions are the same. Where did John’s baptism come from? Where does my authority come from? There are two options – either John and I get our authority from heaven, from God himself; or else we are just men, making claims that we can’t back up – con men, in fact. Jesus asks this question not as a trick, but as a test to see whether they are really interested in discovering the truth or not. Their reply in vv.31-33 shows them up. These leaders know about John’s popularity. They know the crowds accept him as a genuine prophet from God. But to accept John now would leave them open to a charge of hypocrisy. Worse still, to accept John’s authority means accepting the one he points to – the Jesus who is standing in front of them now. But on the other hand, if they say John was not genuine, as they really believe, they risk the anger of the crowds; and this conversation is happening in a very public place. So they fudge. ‘We don’t know’! What an answer! It’s like a top tennis player saying he doesn’t know which end of the racket to hold. It is their job to know such things; but Jesus’ simple question has put them in a fix they cannot escape – these great leaders! They know, and so does he, that they have simply dodged the issue. Jesus says, If you cannot even commit yourself to an answer about John, I am certainly not going to give you anything else about me. This vivid little narrative shows us starkly why and how people react as they do to Jesus Christ and the authority he claims. We will look at three issues that arise as people face the authority of the King.
First, look at v.27 and the advantages that fail . Think what these leaders’ lives have been like. From a young age they have been taught the Word of God. They learned to read by poring over a copy of the Torah; they probably learned to write by scribing the Ten Commandments. Every one of them has spent his life in study and memorising and discussion of the Law, the Prophets and the history of their nation. They have every advantage that a sound religious background can give; but when it comes to recognising God’s King, to recognising his authority and his rule, all these advantages get them nowhere. In fact these religious leaders are precisely the people who will be responsible for condemning the King to death. We need to understand that being religious is not the same as knowing God. However good you are at going to church, quoting the Bible or having any other religious advantage, it does not put you in a relationship with God through Christ. Knowing God, being a Christian, is not something you gain by being religious. Nor is it something you can be born into, whoever your parents might be. Someone can say, I was born a Hindu. I was born a Buddhist. I was born a Muslim. But no-one can say, I was born a Christian. Until there is that personal encounter, that individual recognition, there is no relationship.
Second, look at the barriers that intrude. Look at the attitude that the delegation adopts. Jesus’ unanswered question shows that they are not interested in finding out the truth but only with playing it safe. At no point does it enter their heads to accept the claims of Jesus. They are trapped by the fear of what they will lose if they accept him: they will lose face, status and control. It is much the same today. People who reject the claims of Jesus Christ don’t usually have an intellectual problem – or at least, it’s not the main problem. Solving people’s intellectual problems can only take you so far. Very often, behind every problem you will only find another one. Yes, it’s right that we tackle the problems that people bring up: questions about the Bible and where it comes from, or about evolution, or about the absoluteness of truth or whatever it may be. Our faith is reasonable, it is rational, it is not full of holes; and God has given us our minds so that we can explore the truth and so that we can think through the important questions. But being more clever is not the answer. Being clever is just one more of those ‘advantages’ that cannot bring you to God. In my lifetime I have encountered many very clever people, including several Nobel prize winners and the like, some of them rather bizarre, some of them perfectly normal; and while their brains may be up in the stratosphere, I can assure you they are just the same as the rest of us. They have the same kind of problems, the same kind of hang-ups. Some believe; some don’t believe. There are clever ways of being stupid, just as there are dumb ways of being stupid. Usually, people who present an intellectual or academic objection to the Christian faith are concealing a much more basic problem in their hearts – the problem that they simply refuse to believe. The basic reason why men and women will not accept the authority of the King is not in their brains, but in their hearts. It’s not that they don’t understand – it’s the problem of their stubborn will. As Christians trying to reach people, we need to realise that. This delegation already have the answers they need. They have spent the past two years investigating Jesus – Mark has told us this. All the evidence to identify Jesus accurately is there, and they refuse to see it! Today, many unbelievers stand in the Temple courts with that hostile delegation. They long for people’s respect, and fear they will lose it. They want to be accepted – what a powerful driver that is – and so they will not entertain the claims of King Jesus.
Finally, look at the faith that submits. Jesus’ questioning is a sharp knife into their hearts. The members of this delegation know exactly what he will ask them if they give their endorsement of John (v.31b). But this is the chance Jesus is giving them – they still have the opportunity to believe! Even at this late stage, when his death is at most four days away, if any of these solemn gentlemen would break ranks and accept Jesus’ claims, and put his faith in him, the Lord would welcome him. The faith that submits to the King is not just a mind that is convinced, though that certainly helps along the way. This faith means believing and trusting in Jesus Christ, accepting his absolute authority over our life, our plans, our destiny, our will.
There is a well-known story associated with the Mona Lisa. Two women have come into Paris from the countryside and visit the Louvre to view the famous painting. As they stand there in front of it, one says to the other, ‘I don’t like it. Whatever is all the fuss about?’ The guard simply says, ‘Ma’am, the Mona Lisa has stood the test of time. When you stand before her, it is not she who is being judged. It is you.’ What he means, of course, is that you have no right to judge the Mona Lisa. Its place among the world’s greatest works of art is not in doubt. If you say it’s nothing special, if you pass judgement on it, you are saying nothing about the painting. You are simply demonstrating your own ignorance. Your verdict on the Mona Lisa says nothing about her, but everything about you!
When Jesus tells the parable of the tenants in Mark 12:1-12, this is precisely his point. It’s the story of people who pass judgement on him, reject him and will eventually kill him. The message is that their verdict on Jesus Christ says nothing about him – but it says everything about them. While they think they are deciding his fate, the reality is that their judgement actually decides their own. The same is true today. What we decide to do with Jesus Christ makes him no greater or less, but our decision makes all the difference in the world for us. In this parable, Jesus gives the answer to the authority question which he refused to give in v.33. He gives the answer on his own terms and in a way which the leaders don’t like one little bit, because his answer makes it clear that people who pass judgement on him are actually passing judgement on themselves. Again, let’s get into the story and explore what Jesus says, before we come back and look at what the parable means. Immediately after his confrontation over the authority issue, with the official delegation still standing there, we read that Jesus begins to teach the people in parables. A man plants a vineyard, protects it with a wall and a watchtower to keep away intruders, and prepares for the harvest by putting in a winepress as well (v.1). Clearly, this is the landowner: his next step is to select tenants who will look after his vineyard while he goes off on his travels. Their job is to produce the best possible crop; their rent will take the form of a proportion of that crop.
All this is very true to the customs of the time. In the Israel of the first century, especially in Galilee, much of the land has been consolidated into large estates owned by absentee landlords. Tenant farmers are then employed to look after the land and produce crops for the benefit of the far-away landowners. Examples have been discovered of contracts just like this. We also know that wine is one of the region’s major exports at this time; and that under these conditions, disputes could easily arise between the tenants and the landowners – just what happens next in Jesus’ story. The time comes for the first harvest and a servant arrives to demand the owner’s share of the crop, as per contract (v.2). But the tenants have other ideas: vv.3-5 recount their escalating rebellion. In the end, the landowner has just one representative left to send. This one is not a servant, he’s his son; but when the tenants see him, they spot their chance at once. (vv.6-8).
The story may sound odd, but it makes good sense in the light of the customs and the law of the time. If a piece of land has no identifiable owner, under certain circumstances it can be lawfully claimed by anyone – with priority given to whoever stakes their claim first. When these tenants see the son approaching, they make the not unreasonable assumption that his father must have died and the son is coming to take possession. If they can kill the son, they can make a legal claim to the land – and this they do. So the son is now dead, but unfortunately for the tenants, the father is not. The owner arrives, the tenants are executed and the vineyard is handed over to others who can be trusted to keep the agreement he has made with them. This is the story Jesus tells, and he gives it a very pointed ending. We will come back to that, but we notice straight away that he’s obviously upset his audience, to put it mildly!
This parable is rather different from those in ch 4. The story is more detailed than most other parables; it is closer to allegory than the others, meaning that many points in the parable correspond directly to things in the real world. But more importantly, this one is clearly directed against a specific group of people; and whereas the earlier parables were designed to divide the hearers – Jesus says explicitly in 4:11-12 that he uses parables to divide his audience into those who can and cannot understand – with this parable, the meaning is unmistakable and obvious, so that even the most obtuse cannot miss it. Throughout his gospel Mark has shown us, step by step, how Jesus gradually reveals himself more and more openly. Slowly, slowly, the veil of mystery is being lifted. Now very close to his death, Jesus is speaking of himself more clearly than at any time before – yet still with a residual element of mystery. Jesus is revealing exactly what he wants to reveal about himself, where he comes from and where he gets his authority; but he is doing it in a way which shows that it’s his hearers who are the ones under judgement. If we look back at the story, we can highlight four facets of his own story which Jesus explains to us here.
First, Jesus completes the line of the prophets. Jesus’ original hearers have one big advantage over us when it comes to understanding the parable. The moment Jesus begins to speak about a vineyard and its owner (v.1), they know exactly what he is referring to, because exactly the same picture is used in Isaiah 5:1-7. There is a vineyard planted, with a wall (v.5), a watchtower, a winepress. Earlier in Mark 11 we saw that the fig-tree was a popular image for Israel. Now here is one which is used even more often than the fig-tree. Isaiah says his picture of the vineyard represents the people of Israel; and its owner and planter, clearly, is God himself. So as they hear Jesus’ opening words, they know immediately what he is talking about. This parable, evidently, has much in common with Jesus cursing the fig tree. The slant is slightly different now, and it’s different from Isaiah 5 as well, because Jesus’ focus is not on the vineyard but on the people in charge of it. The target of this parable is not the people as a whole, but on the nation’s leaders – who are standing here in front of him.
Having begun with a picture from the prophets, Jesus next begins to tell their story. So far we have God, the owner of the vineyard; and the national leaders, the rebellious tenants. The next cast members in the story are the servants who come for the rent; and they are the prophets, the men God sent to Israel to call them to righteousness, to collect the fruit of good and godly living that he was looking for. In the parable, the owner sends what sounds like a ridiculous number of different servants on this fruitless quest; but that large number fits very well when we realise that Jesus is talking about the prophets, who kept appearing over a period of many centuries. The prophets came with God’s authority into the life of the nation, to demand what was due to him. In every case, the nation failed to produce the fruit; and in most cases, the prophets themselves had a very rough reception. Some of them were killed; many others were threatened with death. ‘Some of them they beat, others they killed’, says Jesus (v.5). The prophets appeared in a long line; and right at the end of the line came Jesus Christ, the beloved Son (v.6) It is Jesus Christ who completes the line of the prophets. Jesus himself was a prophet, a man who spoke God’s words faithfully, perfectly and with divine authority. What this parable shows us clearly is that Jesus is the end of the line. No-one who follows him can speak with that same unchallengeable authority; no-one who follows him has that unique ministry.
Number two. Jesus stands unique and alone. Look again at vv.6-7a. Jesus is more than a prophet. v.6 very pointedly describes him as ‘a son whom he loved’ – a ‘beloved son’. When the gospels use that expression it has the sense of uniqueness – his only son. Already in Mark’s gospel it’s been heard twice – once at Jesus’ baptism (1:11) and again on the mountain of transfiguration (9:7), both times in a direct affirmation by God that Jesus Christ is his beloved son. In the parable he is clearly set apart from all the others, from all the prophets who have come before him and from anyone else in the human race – the Lord Jesus stands alone as God’s unique, beloved Son. The prophets spoke with God’s authority and had a divine right to be heard. The people would be judged for disobeying them. But Jesus is on a different level altogether. He is not some spokesman for God, carrying a message in a briefcase. He is the message. He is the word, the final word (Hebrews 1:1-2). If we want to know about God, if we want to hear from God, we need to listen to his Son Jesus Christ.
Number three. Jesus suffers rejection and death. Look at vv.7b-8. Jesus is now looking into the very near future. He knows how it will go. The tenants give the son no more respect than they gave the servants: quite the reverse. They now see their opportunity to take full possession of the vineyard. Here Jesus faces the ‘tenants’ of the nation. They see him as a threat to be disposed of. If only they can get rid of him, they think, they will be safe, unthreatened, securely in possession. So they will reject him, kill him, and throw him out. In the parable: the humiliation of being casually killed and his body thrown over the wall of the vineyard and left to rot. In real life: the humiliation of a shameful death, crucifixion which was the most disgraceful of deaths as well as the most agonising; and death outside the city walls. In the background there is also a reference to the way that the bodies of sacrificed animals were taken outside the camp and burned – the whole idea of what goes on outside being unclean (Hebrews 13:11-12). So this detail Jesus inserts in the parable suggests that his own death will be unclean, will be tied up with the sins of the people; and that is because Jesus himself is going to die as the final sacrifice, with the sins of a world of evil on his back. As Jesus tells this parable, he is face to face with the leaders who will actually make it happen. He is describing his own death to the people who are just about to engineer it.
But now for number four. Jesus crowns God’s plans. Look at vv.9-11. The parable is finished and the verdict has been given: the evil tenants have met their just deserts. To drive his point home, Jesus chooses to quote from Psalm 118:22, 23 – the psalm which was sung to him by the excited crowd two days ago. In fact, these verses come from almost immediately before those words about ‘blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’. That choice in itself is certain to infuriate the authorities. These verses originally refer to building Solomon’s Temple. The thought is of a stone on the building site that seems to be the wrong size, or the wrong shape, to be used anywhere in this great edifice; so the stone is rejected. But in the end this stone turns out to be just the piece they need to hold the whole structure together – the words mean literally ‘the head of the corner’ which can either mean the capstone or the cornerstone: it doesn’t really matter. A rejected stone becomes the missing piece that holds the whole structure together. Jesus is saying, This is about the son in my story. This is about me. So yes, like the son in the story, Jesus suffers rejection and death. But God has made this rejected stone the keystone of his purposes, the crown of his plans. After his death, God publicly vindicates the Lord Jesus by raising him from the dead. The resurrection proves that his judges have brought judgement on themselves. Peter would declare this, speaking in the same city less than two months later (Acts 2:36).
Jesus dies, but Jesus is raised from the dead; he is exalted to heaven and glorified; and he lives and reigns eternally with God the Father, the key and climax to God’s purposes. For through him, God has rolled out his plan to bring salvation to all peoples. The vineyard has been taken away from the evil tenants and given to others, given to a worldwide people, Gentiles along with Jews, for the glory of the name of Jesus, that at his name every knee will bow. ‘The Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes.’ Marvellous for Mark’s first readers, the Gentiles in Rome; and marvellous for us, Gentiles of many races today, along with believing Jews. The questions and demands of the Jewish leaders have blown up in their faces. In response to their probing about his authority, Jesus has shown them that he is the unique Son of the Father. He has declared to them that their own days as tenants are numbered, and that though they can kill him, God will vindicate him. As the story closes, we leave the leaders fuming. They know perfectly well that Jesus has told the parable against them. It’s impossible for them to miss the point. For the third time since the Triumphal Entry, we read of their fear. It is only fear of the crowds that keeps them from arresting him publicly. So they disperse; and the scene is set for the secret arrest that will follow.
What we do with Jesus decides where our lives will go now and where we will spend eternity. The father in the parable says, ‘They will respect my son’. From the story, it looks as if he gets that wrong. But at the end of days, the time will come when every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). God looks at the Lord Jesus and says, ‘They will respect my Son’.
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