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Tenants Not Owners

Date: Feb. 9, 2020

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

Mark 12:1-12

Key Verse: Mark 12:6

He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, "They will respect my son."

Anybody here like movies? Movies are great. They entertain us, inform us, move our hearts and help us express things like no other way. Just a few days ago, my daughter had a field trip in school to the theater for a black history month film festival. And, tonight is the 92nd Academy Awards, the Oscars. It is the most prestigious awards for acting and filmmaking. Many times, the lists for the nominees are from movies we have never even heard of. The nominees are usually thought provoking and, many times, controversial. These movies can affect humanity on a level little else can match. The telling of stories allow us reach people in a way that shows an example to get the point across. It is not a new thing; Jesus employed such an idea two thousand years ago. Jesus told stories called parables to help people understand his teaching. In our passage today, Jesus employs this method to help all the religious leaders understand who he really is and who they really are.

This passage takes place immediately after what happened in the last passage. If you remember, Jesus was approached in the temple courts by the entire faction of religious leaders: the chief priests, teachers of the law and the elders. These religious leaders came to Jesus demanding to know who gave him the authority to clear out the temple, as he did the day before. He was cutting into their livelihood and their own authority, so they wanted to know how he was able to do so. Jesus asked them a question about John the Baptist, but they chose not to answer so Jesus did not tell them about his authority. The story doesn’t end there, though. Jesus used this as an opportunity to teach them and any people there. “Jesus then began to speak to them in parables: ‘A man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.’” (1) Jesus began to tell them a story about a man who planted a vineyard. It was a nice vineyard with a wall to protect it, a place for the grapes to be juiced. There was even a watchtower for people to guard the vineyard from nefarious people. It was a really well-prepared vineyard, the perfect place to produce the choicest wine. Then the man rented out the beautiful vineyard to some farmers and left them to their work. So, it is like this man built a place, put locks on the door and installed a security system. He made it the most wonderful place he could, and then he set it up as an Airbnb. It was really nice and well protected. It would have everything that a person would need and then he proceeded to rent it out.

It sounds like a wonderful place, and since he is renting it out, the man is expecting to receive payment for the use of the vineyard. As it says, “At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard.” (2) The man wanted some of the fruit of the vineyard as payment to live and work the land. They aren’t his hired hands; they are his tenants. They pay him, but they get most of the fruit. It honestly, seems like a pretty sweet deal, but the tenants didn’t feel that way. “But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed.” (3) Wow! That is a strong response for paying rent. They took hold of the servant and beat him and sent him away with nothing. Who would do such a thing? What kind of people are these? But it only gets worse, “Then he sent another servant to them; they struck this man on the head and treated him shamefully. He sent still another, and that one they killed. He sent many others; some of them they beat, others they killed.” (4-5) I don’t know about you, but that seems a little extreme. Let’s try to understand this, you rented a vineyard from someone and worked the ground, produced a crop and made some wine. Since you are renting the vineyard, you should pay some rent, but when someone comes to collect, you beat the person or kill them. Did the man rent out the vineyard to the mafia? That doesn’t seem like normal behavior. Going back to the Airbnb, would you ever expect someone to beat you and mistreat you when you go to get the rent? Certainly not! I mean, in Airbnb all the transactions happen online, but usually no one tries to cheat the system and especially physically harm or kill to avoid payment? This is an unusual story, one that could win an Academy Award because of the insight it can provide to the minds of humanity.

When the owner saw all this, he continued forward, “He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’” (6) The man thought that if he sent his son, they would see how serious he was in wanting what was due him. The tenants didn’t care for or respect the servants, but if they saw the son, perhaps they would act differently. This son was the only son that the owner had. The term “whom he loved” is also translated as “only” in other parts of the Bible. He was the heir to the man’s fortune and deeply precious to the owner. So the son went the vineyard, but things did not go so favorably. “But the tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they took him and killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.” (7-8) Doesn’t that seem crazy? Why would anyone think that, by killing the heir, they would get the property? Well, in the culture of that time, if a property owner died without an heir, then the property could be claimed by nearly anyone. These tenants must have thought that the son’s arrival meant that the owner was dead, and the son was coming to claim the property. Since, in their minds, the owner was dead, if they killed the son, there would be no heir and no one to claim the property. Then, they could claim it as their own. There is some logic to it, but the plan is still pretty crazy.

What is the owner to do? If you hadn’t read the passage, the suspense would kill you. The owner was being more patient than you could ever believe, but now his son was killed by the tenants. His only son was shown no respect in either life or death. What would the owner do? Most would have taken charge after the first servant was beaten, but this owner was patient and willing to forgive, but how about now? “What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (9) Jesus said that the owner would finally have enough and kill the ungrateful tenants. His patience will finally run out and the tenants would be replaced, as the vineyard would be given into the hands of others. The tenants extreme and selfish actions led to their own end.

Jesus then switches from the parable, “Haven’t you read this passage of Scripture: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” (10-11) Jesus quotes Psalm 118:22-23. It was a passage that the Jews of Jesus’ time attributed to the nation of Israel being rejected by the other nations but being restored by the Lord. It gave weight to the thought that the Messiah would come and restore the political nation of Israel. However, here Jesus isn’t using the verses to refer to Israel. He makes the connection to those rejected in the first story, who are the owner and his son to the stone that becomes the cornerstone.

Jesus had told an interesting and outrageous story. There were fantastical elements, but there also was a point, a controversial point and the religious leaders knew exactly what he was talking about. “Then the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.” (12) The religious leaders knew that Jesus was talking about them. They knew that this parable was meant to criticize them about their handling of their leadership role in Israel. They wanted to do something about how Jesus was treating them, but they were still afraid of the crowd. In the last passage, which happened just minutes before, the religious leaders couldn’t come to a consensus about the question Jesus asked them. Jesus asked them about John’s baptism. He wanted to know if they thought that his baptism was from heaven or human origin. They deliberated. They didn’t believe that John was sent from God, but the people did. They didn’t want to answer what they thought because they were afraid of the people, but they didn’t want to answer according to what the people thought either because they obviously did not believe John or his message, and, again, they were afraid of what the people would say and do. Here, the religious leaders, held their tongue and left because they knew that the people loved and supported Jesus.

How did they know that Jesus was talking about them? Well, let’s look at the story one more time. The man is intended to be God. The vineyard is to be the nation of Israel and alludes to Isaiah 5:1-7, where it is very clear that the vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God. God created Israel and protected it. He provided for it in every imaginable way. He set up the priesthood through Moses’ brother, Aaron’s line. They were to be the ones who watch over Israel and teach the people the ways and decrees of God. These priests and the subsequent kings became the tenants. They were to watch over and protect the people. They were to cultivate the people to produce a crop. God called for the nation of Israel to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, an example to the world of living before the Lord, but very quickly the leadership became more about supporting themselves and not the people. They forgot that they were servants and not owners. Instead of taking care of the people for the Lord, they began to use the people for their own means. Before the time of Samuel, just a few hundred years after the priesthood was ordained, the high priest Eli’s sons did not care for the rules God had set up concerning the offering. Instead of having their portion of the offering being chosen randomly, Eli’s sons wanted to choose the meat portion for themselves before the meat was to be boiled. They thought of themselves before the ways of the Lord. Over time, the leadership’s treatment of the people and God’s ways became even more skewed. Many of the kings thought that the people existed to serve them and would extract heavy burdens on the people, while leading them away from worshipping the Lord. They were concerned about their own benefit and profit more than anything else.

In order to bring the people back to God, to produce the fruit that was intended, God sent his prophets to these leaders in order to get them to repent. Over the course of hundreds of years, God sent prophets, but it became common for the prophet to be ignored, abused, shamed or even killed because of the message they were brining to the leadership of Israel and Judah. It was so common, in fact, that it became proverbial. There was hardly a prophet that was listened to. So, God chose to send his one and only son to this earth, but with his arrival, the religious leaders were no different. They recognized who Jesus was in their hearts. They could never deny the power he showed. They could never deny the truth he gave though his teaching, but they could never accept Jesus for who he was, either. Being a religious leader was among the few ways for a Jew to become rich during those times. All the walls and barriers that they put up added money to their pockets. They wanted the money for the offering to be given in a specific form of currency and provided money changers, who charged exorbitant prices to get the money in the right form. Also, people had to give a sacrifice and the religious leaders set a high price so that people who traveled from afar could purchase an animal for sacrifice in Jerusalem. All the profits would be channeled to the religious leaders and to make things easier, they set up these transactions inside the temple courts. It became more about their own wealth instead of being an offering to the Lord. I was joking that the tenants in the story being a part of the mafia, but the religious leaders’ actions really looked like the acts of organized crime under the auspices of a legitimate business.

These religious leaders seemed to forget that they were just tenants and stewards of God’s vineyard. They were to take care of it for God. They were to water it and work it so that an abundant crop would grow. Instead, they chose to use the vineyard for their own agendas. They thought that they were the owners and could do whatever they wanted with the property. This kind of thinking is not unique to the religious leaders of Jesus’ time. It is something that still runs rampant throughout the course of history. Hundreds of years ago, the Catholic church set up a method of indulgences so that the people could pay to view certain relics. By paying the price, the people would increase the chances of a departed loved one to get into heaven. They were basically trying get people to pay their way into heaven, all the while pocketing the proceeds, making themselves rich. On top of that, the church squeezed the poor people to build extravagant structures in Rome that most people would never see. The poor common believers were essentially building a palace for the religious leaders in Rome. There are many today that are no different. There are preachers and pastors that use the offerings of their churches to fund extravagant lifestyles for themselves, with huge homes, yachts and private jets.

Unfortunately, it is not just for financial gain that people abuse their positions in the church. More often than not, people use the church to pursue their own agendas instead of the pursuit of God. I heard on the radio from someone calling in, that in the south there are many Christian radio stations, but so many of them use the radio as a platform to spew hate. It saddened me to hear that. Nowhere in Jesus’ teaching is there the message of hate. This was not for the building up of God’s people but to make someone feel better about themselves. It was for their own benefit to tear people down. Likewise, how many times have you heard, so called pastors and preachers, expounding on a handful of sins like they were the worst things ever? The people they are talking against aren’t believers. What they may be saying is true, but their hate-filled speech will never bring them to repentance and a new life. Their methods are more about making themselves look holier than drawing people to Jesus. These leaders forget their own sins and they just want to trumpet how much better they are than others. They forget that they are intended to be servants, stewards and shepherds guiding, protecting and watching over what God sees a precious. These sorts of people are giving God a bad name and would never lead people to him. There is no love in their hearts. They have forgotten that God is the point; he is the owner. Everything that we do should be done for the glory of God. That is our key verse for the year. We have to look at God and not at ourselves.

It is distressing to see what many outspoken Christians are saying and doing, but we shouldn’t just be pointing our fingers at them saying what they are doing wrong. If we do that, then we become just like them, but, in fact, we are already just like them all the time. We try to insert our own agendas. We are selfish and only care about certain things because they affect us directly. We have a vested interest. It is fine to be interested in things that affect us, but to only be interested in things that affect us is selfish and seeking personal gain, instead of being selfless and building up others. It is so easy to only want to do something because we expect to get something out of it, but we really should be serving without expectation. We should be serving a master at his leisure, not our own. There are many times I don’t want to do something because I just don’t want to do it. I’m tired and I really don’t see the point, but that is the wrong heart. I am being selfish, not wanting to build others up. When I am like that, I am not focusing on what truly matters.

In the passage, the landowner sent his son, hoping the tenants would respect him when they saw him. Likewise, God send his son to this earth so that we can see him and respect him. Jesus came to put us back on the right track and instead, in our sin, we chose to have him killed in the most shameful and painful way, crucifixion. We are so selfish and prideful. We have to look to Jesus and seek to glorify God in all that we do, not seek to advance ourselves. We are not the point and the purpose. Jesus quoted that the rejected stone would become the cornerstone. The cornerstone is one of the most important stones when constructing a building because it would set the orientation of the whole building and provide a firm foundation to build off of. Jesus is the cornerstone, not us. The church and the world are not built on us. We are not the be all, end all in all of creation. We are but a small piece in all of creation. I am not the main focus here, but neither are you. There is a cross behind me that should remind us, who truly is worthy of all honor, glory and praise. The one who hung on the cross for us is the one who is the focus. He is Jesus Christ, our king enthroned. Jesus is the God who became man to bring us, his belligerent and selfish children, home. We killed him and yet he still saved us. He died on the tree but rose again to break the power of sin and death. He then, ascended into heaven to reclaim his throne. He is the only one who is worthy, so let us turn our eyes off of ourselves and on to him whose name is above all names, our lord and savior Jesus.

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