The authority of Christ

Scripture: Mark 12:1-12

We now continue our travel through Mark, this Lenten season. As always, with Mark, because he has a sort of a newsy feel to it, a lot of the commentators like to go to a different Gospel. The parable that we just had read is almost one dimensional in its interpretations through the commentaries; but I want to see what parallels or differences I can bring to light.

One of the things that was interesting to me as a Presbyterian, as a Reformed believer and pastor – I like to emphasize that context is always important. It’s very difficult when you just pull things out of the Scriptures, out of their context, both cultural and historical, in terms of what was going on.

This parable happened immediately after a passage where they were questioning the authority of Jesus. Jesus had overturned the tables in the temple, and he had driven the moneychangers out of the temple. He had overturned the tables, he had unleashed a lot of the temple sacrifice animals, and things like that.

So he basically caused a major ruckus. Then he came back a day or two later, just sauntering right in, and began to teach. The Pharisees, and in particular the temple leaders, were very upset with him, and they sought to undermine him by questioning his authority.

By what authority did he do all these things? They figured that they’d kind of entrap him, and as always when they asked questions to try to trap Jesus, he turns it on its head. He does a nice little rabbinical debate technique by asking another question.

By whose authority was John preaching the gospel of repentance? Because they didn’t like him either. He preached repentance and a baptism of repentance. Baptism was reserved only for Gentiles. A good Jew who had been circumcised at birth didn’t need a baptism. He just needed to give sacrifices.

Yet here John was saying you have to be baptized as part of your conversion, if you will, to an understanding of who the Messiah is. So Jesus says, “By whose authority did John baptize?”

Their first thought is not theological. It’s a good theological question, one that we Presbyterians would like to take a big bite of and chew on and worry at. But they avoid it. What they say, they’re looking at political.

They gather in a huddle, and I’m sorry but I have sports metaphors in my head, so I see a football huddle. They stand there and they talk, and they say, “OK, so what should we say? What do you think? He asked this question.”

One of them says, “Well, if we say it’s from God, then he’ll say, ‘So’s mine.’” Because, if you remember, John said Jesus was the one greater – he pointed out and called Jesus the Lamb of God, that comes to take away the sins of the world. He was very clear that he thought Jesus was greater. He told his own disciples, “He must increase and I must decrease.”

One of the others says, “Yeah, but if we don’t say it’s from God, if we say that it came from himself, well, the people believe that he’s a prophet, and they’re going to tear us to pieces.” So they decided – like a lot of people, in today’s culture as well – to avoid the question, and said, “We don’t know.”

So Jesus said, “Then I’m not going to tell you where mine comes from.” So he kind of set them on their heads. Then he immediately moves into this parable. So that’s the context.

They had just questioned his authority, and he had just turned it on their head, and suggested they he had far greater authority – which frankly he’d been telling them that anyway, by forgiving people’s sins, which is reserved for God – and that he was the authority. So he tells this parable.

In this parable, everyone agrees that God the Father is the owner of the vineyard. For many, the vineyard is the church – or the people of God (who were the nation of Israel in Jesus’ time). The tenants are – for the most part – agreed upon as the Jewish leadership – both the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The servants are the prophets. And the inheritance that the tenants were willing to kill for is not really explained, unless you count it as the church being directed to their own ends.

Let me suggest something a hair different, based on that pulling of context. God the Father is the owner, yes. The vineyard is the local community – not just the church. The tenants are not just the leadership. They are each one of us when we walk outside the will of God; or the world at large.

The servants are prophets, yes; but often the prophets can be ordinary individuals living lives that are faithful to Christ, and which act as a rebuke to the corruption in very world they walk through.

Part of the reason why Christ promised the world would hate them even as it hated him, would hate his disciples, is because, when you live a Christlike life, when you live a life that follows the commandments that Christ gave, of loving the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your soul, and then loving your neighbor as yourself, fulfilling it through the Holy Spirit and being moral and ethical and witnessing to the grace of God, you are a standing rebuke to the world at large.

You don’t have to preach hellfire and damnation. The people recognize the difference, even if they aren’t willing to admit it.

The inheritance for us in this story is eternal life, to a degree, but even more so the inheritance is the power and authority we derive from God. Who is running the show? Who owns the vineyard? Who “deserves” the fruit that was produced? Who deserves the honor? The praise? The glory?

This story is about Jesus being the Messiah and Jesus being the rightful authority as opposed to the religious leaders of the day. But the passage is also about you and me, especially as Americans.

As the religious leaders of the day thought they were the final authority and they enriched themselves with that perceived authority, we as Americans often see ourselves as the final authority, to the damage of our Christian walk. Are we living like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were overconfident in their authority?

In the verses prior to this parable, the leaders of the temple thought to challenge Jesus’ authority. The leaders of the temple don’t consider the facts about John the Baptist. They don’t think theologically. They think pragmatically.

The issue was not lack of evidence, but a refusal to draw a conclusion from the evidence given. They don’t consider the facts because the facts do not matter to them. What matters is that they are the ultimate authority.

How often have we heard something like that today? “Your truth may not be my truth..” Some people try to respond that facts are a hard thing to ignore, but they’re there, and people ignore them anyway.

Jesus tells this parable to highlight their mistaken belief. It is styled to be easily understood, and it is styled so that no one could miss its meaning. The parable given is an allusion to the song of the vineyard found in Isaiah 5:1-7.

We see in verse 2 that there was a contract between the owner and the caretakers. The type of contract mentioned was common in the day. (Call it sharecropping, if you will.) Remember, Palestine was occupied by Rome at the time.

The whole upper Jordan Valley and the Galilean uplands were in the hands of foreign landlords at the time, and it was common for a contract to stipulate rent in the form of a portion of the produce. The crucial detail here is that the owner was living abroad.

Those taking care of the vineyard are locals; those who are sent to collect are foreigners. What local neighbor is going to object to the running off of foreign rent collectors? They hated tax collectors anyway. There may be a feeling that the land was stolen from the locals.

So they beat the first, shame the second, and the collectors kept coming – so they kept refusing them. I imagine that with each successful refusal to pay rent, the tenants become more and more bold in their attacks on the collectors. So when the son of the owner arrives, well, their hearts are hardened and it is not difficult to kill the son and be rid of him.

Why would they kill the son anyway? Wouldn’t they be afraid? This is not the servant. The son deserves respect. He deserves honor. He deserves to be listened to. Don’t they fear the owner?

When the son shows up, the caretakers, in their eagerness to enrich themselves, assume the owner is dead when the son shows up. Under specified circumstances those who lived on the land could seize the land if the owner was powerless to defend himself.

According to law, the caretakers could take the land if the heir was eliminated. Sort of a rough form of non-eminent domain. Once the heir was eliminated the land would be ownerless property, and if not claimed in a period of time, those living on the land would receive it. Kind of a squatters rights of the day.

We see this in verse 7, where the caretakers speak of a petition that they have drawn up themselves in their own interest, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” Historically, wine was high on the export list from Palestine and the caretakers were basically eager to make a full profit.

This story, finishing of course with the owner of the vineyard, the one who had taken time to build a wall, dig a winepress, make a pit – he had it all set up perfectly to get the best harvest – it says will come back with a bunch of soldiers, and destroy them.

The religious leaders are furious, because they recognize that it’s about them, and he’s basically calling them the evil tenants. It is very easy for us to criticize the Jewish religious leaders of the day and to think we’re not like them, that we understand.

But the truth is, often we tend to think like them. Here in this passage, chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders believe they are the final authority about who Jesus was. Their question about Jesus’ authority is really a question about who Jesus is.

To them he was a nobody. Some carpenter from Nazareth, a place that was known for stiff-necked hicks, with the saying “Nothing good comes from Nazareth,” for instance.

Here in our time, here in America, Americans, both believers and unbelievers believe this exact same thing – they believe they are the final authority about who Jesus is. If we’re honest, you and I believe it too. Really. We practice this belief by asking others, “Who do you believe Jesus is?”

It is as if we create and establish who Jesus is by our opinion, by our vote of confidence. “Well, I believe Jesus is this, or that”, and so we build this picture of our own personal Jesus. In my opinion Jesus is… (whatever it might be). And here in America, one person’s opinion is just as valid as the next opinion.

So we create, especially, here in the church, a personal image of Jesus, to fit, in many cases, what may be for our own personal benefit. And we are right to do so, according to society, for everyone has a right to their own personal opinion. Because, like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, we are the ultimate authority.

See what I am saying? We as Americans place a very high value on the freedom of personal opinion. We are free to believe whatever we want to, no matter how crazy it is. One place we can see this today is the arena of public opinion. We see this by the creation of the perception of who public people are by popular opinion.

People are called experts because they act a role in a movie, and they go testify before Congress. You get things where they seem to be more worried about when a person has an issue, commits a crime or domestic violence, for instance, what is the public image of that person, and that’s who he is.

But we’re wrong, a lot of times. So our idols come crashing down, frequently, because they’re just human, like you and me. And we don’t understand who Jesus is either.

I don’t know about you, but as I grew up and matured in my faith, I have to admit, I had a couple of personal opinions and views about Jesus as well. When I was young, in elementary school and even up through junior high school, God was that great Thou-Shalt-Not in the sky. You know, the one with the long white beard and the finger that shoots lightning. A lot of people still have an image of Him that way today, or some wrathful, angry person.

Then I went through a stage after that, when I was in high school, where it was “Jesus and me.” We were bro’s, we were buds, we were pals. Jesus went everywhere with me and it was all cool, it was all good. I’d been forgiven, so really, now, you just want to relax, and live life. Because it’s all taken care of. He died on the cross and He saved me. It’s a done act.

Then there came a point where I began to recognize and realize that Jesus is far more than that. He’s not an insurance policy or a get-out-of-jail-free card, like in Monopoly. He’s the Lord of all creation and of each and every one of our lives, if we believe in Him. He is our King and our Master, the one to whom we owe everything. There is an obligation for us, if we follow Him, to follow what He says.

Sometimes it’s going to take us places we don’t like. Sometimes it’s going to make us do things we’re uncomfortable with. Sometimes it’s going to ask us to take a stand that public opinion and culture aren’t going to like. But we do this because the authority rests not in us but in the Scriptures themselves and in the Holy Spirit who inspired them and opens them up to us.

We need to test the spirits – our feelings, our thoughts, our opinions – by the Word of God, to make sure they’re in line with the Word of God. Because one of the first things we need to understand is, when we are restored in a relationship with God, through the blood shed by Jesus Christ on the cross, and then his resurrection from the grave to make us new creatures, is that God is the center. Not us.

It’s a hard thing to give up your self, and put yourself at the disposal of someone else. But that’s what Christ did for us, and we owe it to Him in gratitude to give our lives back.

Since God is the authority, and not us, we need to start living like we believe it. It’s a challenge, at any time. It’s a challenge especially, I think, in these times, in our culture and our world today. But isn’t that part of what Lent is all about? Challenging us to grow in our faith and our understanding, of our need for God and of His mighty grace and love that He has poured out upon each and every one of us.

So take time to see what your opinion of Jesus is, versus what Scripture says. Look at who’s in authority in your life, for real. And then place your trust in the hands of the Father, to protect you and keep you whole.

Then as you go forth from this place, later, and you go back out into this world that is hostile to the authority of Christ and would challenge you in your understanding, hold fast. Hold fast to the assurance and knowledge that Christ is the King, that He is the one and only way to salvation, and that through Him we have the promise of life, and He will deliver.

Lean into the Holy Spirit to empower you, to live a life that stands firm before the world, and witnesses and testifies who Christ is. We know the answer. That’s what the good news is of the gospel. May you be a witness to that with everything you do, everything you say, and with the lives that you touch.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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