Sermon for February 28, 2016

February 28, 2016
Another Vineyard Full of Stinkers
Mark 12:1-12

Before I get to today’s Scripture reading, I want to look back to last fall, to a text from the prophet Isaiah. I do this because, as is true in a lot of cases, today’s parable borrows and builds on imagery from the Hebrew Bible; so we need to hear from the prophet to understand fully what Jesus is trying to tell us. Here’s the passage from the fifth chapter of Isaiah, what is often called the Song of the Vineyard.

Let me sing for my loved one
a love song for his vineyard.
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it,
cleared away its stones,
planted it with excellent vines,
built a tower inside it,
and dug out a wine vat in it.
He expected it to grow good grapes—
but it grew rotten grapes.[1]

So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it?
When I expected it to grow good grapes,
why did it grow rotten grapes?
Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a ruin;
it won’t be pruned or hoed,
and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to rain on it.

The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
righteousness, but there was a cry of distress![2]

In Isaiah 5, the vineyard itself fails to live up to the owner’s expectation; instead of yielding good grapes, it produced only nasty, inedible stinkers. In Jesus’ parable in Mark 12, though, there’s nothing at all wrong with the vineyard or the grapes; but it’s still full of stinkers…

 

In the Roman Catholic Church and a great many Protestant churches, as well as in Jewish syngagogues, the weekly Scripture readings are assigned by a lectionary. Use of a lectionary actually goes back at least to Jesus’ time, and we can see it in action when Jesus teaches at his hometown synagogue in Luke 4.

It can make the preacher’s or the teacher’s job easier to have a lectionary—plus it can help keep us from riding our favorite hobbyhorses too often by forcing us to study passages we might not otherwise choose. Lectionaries are designed so that churches who use them read the majority of the Bible over a set period of time—three years for the Revised Common Lectionary, for instance, and four for the new Narrative Lectionary, which I’ve been using lately.[3]

Lectionaries are not without their problems, however. One of my main criticisms of the Revised Common Lectionary is that it tends to skip over troublesome texts. For instance, in the summer of Year B, the RCL takes us through the entire letter to the Ephesians—except that it skips from verse 20 of chapter 5 to verse 10 of chapter 6. That means that, if we faithfully follow the RCL, we never take up the troublesome passage that begins with 5:21, which has been misused to justify a second-class position—if not outright abuse—of women. If we don’t agree with that interpretation, and skip preaching or studying that text, we miss the opportunity to offer an alternative.[4]

The parable in today’s text is also left out of the Revised Common Lectionary altogether, and listed as optional in the Narrative Lectionary. Its parallel in Matthew 21 is included in the RCL, but it’s assigned on a day when the other readings include the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20; the 19th Psalm, which begins with “The heavens are telling the glory of God”; and the passage in Philippians 3 in which Paul sets aside as worthless all of his heritage and accomplishments, compared to what he gains by following Jesus. For those of us who are not in churches that require us to use all four assigned texts every Sunday, guess which one is virtually guaranteed to be left out? When we’re called upon to choose between “The heavens declare the glory of God” and a parable filled with greed, violence, and judgment, the Psalm wins every time, hands down.

Even the Ten Commandments are more attractive than this parable; and quite frankly, when I sat down yesterday to write my sermon, my first thought was, “What was I thinking?” Why on earth did I decide to preach this thing?

One big problem with this parable is that, like the passage I mentioned a moment ago from Ephesians 5, it has been misused. We went into this in a lot more detail in Sunday school today, but the upshot is that this is one passage Christians point to if they are trying to make the case that God has rejected the Jews and we Christians have taken their place as God’s chosen people. That argument has led to some horrific atrocities over the centuries—most recently in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s—and we do well to rethink it.

That’s probably why texts like this one get glossed over or ignored altogether whenever they turn up. But once we set aside this problematic interpretation, we can see this parable is not a condemnation of the Jewish people as a whole.

Remember that in Isaiah 5, the vineyard itself is meant to be understood as a metaphor for God’s people in Israel and Judah. And here in Mark 12 there is no indication that the vines themselves did not bear good fruit. The “stinkers” in Mark 12 are not the grapes, but the tenants, the ones who have been placed in charge of tending the vineyard.

 

The people who first heard Jesus tell this story knew exactly who the tenants were meant to represent: not the people, but their leaders. Powerful folks don’t generally like it much when a prophet shows up and tells them God is calling their stewardship of God’s people into question. Prophets who stand and speak truth to power run the very substantial risk of getting slapped down for it. The servants in Jesus’ parable represent the many prophets, beginning with Moses and Miriam, all the way up to John the Baptist, who spoke on God’s behalf and, in many cases, suffered for it—and perhaps they represent the prophetic voices who have come along after the Bible was in its final form, even modern voices like those of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was killed in Memphis three months before I was born; and Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated at the altar of his church 36 years ago this Good Friday.

It is no wonder that the call stories of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible tend to describe how the prophets try to talk God out of calling them.

But the last person the landowner sends to settle up with the tenants is his own beloved son. We are meant immediately to recognize that the son in the parable represents Jesus—because the way he’s described calls to mind what God’s own voice says about him at his baptism[5] and on the Mount of Transfiguration.[6] So this parable also functions as another Passion prediction, another time when Jesus predicts that he will soon be killed.

 

So what does this story mean for us?

If I were speaking to a group of pastors and political leaders, the answer would be obvious. But apart from myself and the elders and teachers who are here, and the few of us who have held, or might one day hold, elective office, does this story apply?

I think it does, and here’s why.

For most of our country’s history, Christians have held most of the cards, both politically and socially. Even though the separation of church and state, and the freedom of every person to practice their faith—or not practice any faith—as they see fit, are enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution, and even though the Constitution specifically says that no religious test may be imposed to determine whether someone is fit to run for public office, up until recently it’s been pretty much assumed that our leaders would be Christians—and not just Christians but, for the most part, Protestant Christians.

Some here remember the election of 1960, in which it was an issue that John F. Kennedy was a Roman Catholic. Even as recently as 2012, some people did at least comment on Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormons. Eyebrows went up when in 2007, Keith Ellison, a former Catholic who converted to Islam in college, was elected to represent Minnesota’s 5th Congressional district. They went up even further when he declared that he intended to put his hand not on the Christian Bible but on the Qur’an for his swearing-in. (The Qur’an in question had actually once belonged to our third President, Thomas Jefferson.)

It probably depends on your point of view whether or not you consider it progress that there hasn’t been a whole lot said during this election cycle about one of our Presidential candidates being Jewish.

Up until recently, Christians in this country have held most of the cards. Most of our political leaders have been, at least nominally, Christian. Many people can remember a time when, especially in small communities, life centered around the church. Businesses closed on Sunday, and sports practices and games were never scheduled for Sundays or church night.

Growing up, I never had to ask any of my friends if they went to church; the question was always, “What church do you go to?”[7] There was only one family in Coffeyville that was not Christian—the Phillips family, who were Jewish. I do not know where, or whether, they attended synagogue; as far as I know the closest ones were in Tulsa.

There are a lot of reasons—far too many to go into right now—that this is changing in our country now. We don’t have the power we used to have. We have to fight a lot harder to make sure our kids are able to attend church and youth group without having to choose between those activities and other worthy ones, like sports or mentoring. The number of people who not only don’t go to or belong to any church is increasing every year.[8]

The Barna Group, a Christian research organization, released the results of a study a few years ago that revealed how Christians tend to be viewed nowadays by non-Christians. It isn’t pretty.

We’re losing our grip on the power and privilege we once enjoyed in this country. This is why I think this parable applies to all of us, not just those of us who can be called leaders. Even if we never held elective office or served in positions of leadership in our church or community, we’ve enjoyed quite a bit of power and influence in this country until fairly recently. And now things are changing.

 

Is God sending servants to collect his due from us, to see how well we have done as stewards of the people God has entrusted to our care? And if so, who are those servants, and how have we treated them?

Have we listened to them, or have we ignored, discredited, or silenced them? Do we take the opportunities they offer us to set things right when they aren’t quite right, or do we assume, like the people of Jeremiah’s time, that everything is fine simply because we are God’s people, and shut our eyes to any evidence that might present itself that everything is not fine? Do we remember that when God blesses his people, it’s usually so we can be a blessing to others?

 

The last question this parable asks us may be the toughest one to answer: If God’s beloved Son were to come again, come into our midst to see how well we have tended God’s vineyard, how would we treat him?

 

[1] Another possible translation of the Hebrew word here would be “stinkers,” or “stinkberries.”

[2] Isaiah 5:1-7, Common English Bible.

[3] With the RCL and the other lectionaries that assign more than one reading per Sunday, this only works if all of the assigned texts are read each week.

[4] The alternative interpretation of Ephesians 5:21ff is that the whole passage is governed by 5:21, which calls for voluntary, mutual submission within the Christian community. Everything that comes after is an example of that voluntary, mutual submission: wives to husbands and husbands to wives; servants to masters and masters to servants; children to parents and parents to children.

[5] Mark 1:11

[6] Mark 9:7

[7] My best friends belonged to the noninstrumental church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, a storefront Charismatic/Pentecostal church, and the African-American Sardis First Baptist Church. My very first “best friend,” at four years old, was Catholic.

[8] To be fair, the number of people who don’t profess any religion, not just Christianity, is what’s increasing.

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