Review (Mark 11:1-26)
[September 26, 2010] Let us begin with the events that immediately preceded our reading. It is the time of Passover. The City that normally had a population of 80,000 would swell to several times that from the number of pilgrims who visited from all over the world. Jesus entered Jerusalem the Sunday before the Passover in a procession that hailed Him as the Son of David and the King of Israel. The crowd expected the kingdom of God to come immediately, but Jesus knew otherwise. He entered the City as the heir to the throne of David, but He did not expect to take that throne; the City was not ready for Him. He came as the Judge to pronounce God’s judgment.
On Monday morning, according to Mark, Jesus cursed a fig tree that produced no fruit, and then He entered the outer court of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles, and enacted a prophetic demonstration, casting out the merchants and declaring that the “house of prayer for all the Gentiles” had become a “den of robbers.” The following morning the disciples noticed that the fig tree had withered from the roots up.
When Jesus was in Galilee, He often confronted the zealous and their leaders among the Pharisees, people who were zealous to keep Israel pure of Gentiles and non-religious Jews (sinners). They had a lot of influence among the patriotic people of rural Galilee. They advocated using violence to make sure Israel remained holy, recalling several examples in the Old Testament and of course the Maccabees. Eventually, this hotheadedness would lead to the revolt against Rome that would bring an end to the Temple and the destruction of the City.
But in Jerusalem we hardly hear about the Pharisees anymore. (Only 12:13). The people we hear about are the chief priests, the Temple scribes, and the elders (members of the Sanhedrin), or in other words the aristocratic rulers of the City who controlled the Temple, most of whom were Sadducees. They worked with the Roman occupiers, who kept the peace, and benefited from the economy of the City that depended upon the festivals of the Temple. When the pilgrims came for the major festivals and the City population swelled to several times its normal size, an enormous amount of money came into the City, and the aristocracy benefited the most. When Jesus cast the merchants out of the Court of the Gentiles and said what He said, He was protesting their merchant mentality, and the fact that they were using the Gentiles for their own gain rather than bringing them to a knowledge of God. When the zealous revolted against the Romans, the first people they killed were the chief priests and members of the aristocracy.
Jesus, as the Son of David come as heir to the City its throne, came demanding spiritual fruit, fruit that had not been delivered—delivered, that is, to God, the Owner of the City. But what He found was this merchant mentality among those who were responsible for the spiritual life of the people—the chief priests who were responsible for worship in the Temple, the scribes who were responsible for teaching the people, and the elders who were responsible for judgment and ruling. They did not care about God’s stake but only what they could get out of it.
This is the meaning of the parable of the fig tree that Jesus enacted. The fig tree in full foliage represents the blessing of God on the people of Israel within the Land. But there was no fruit. Therefore the blessing will be taken away, abruptly. In forty years time the Temple was to be destroyed and the Sadducees and their kind were to disappear from history.
The new shepherds of Israel, who organized themselves in the second century, were the great rabbis of Rabbinic Judaism. No more was the life of the people of Israel to center around either the Temple or the Land. It was to center in the synagogue around the Scriptures as they waited for the coming of the Messiah. The great “mountain” was cast into the “sea.” At the same time, the church was to exist alongside the synagogue, consisting of Jews and Gentiles who recognized Jesus as the Messiah.
We believe that the Messiah did come. He did not establish the kingdom of God yet, not outwardly. He came incognito, as it were, without the Messiah’s glory. But to those whom He revealed Himself, He was the kingdom of God in Person. He bore the judgment of the sins of the many, and in resurrection He remains with His believers through the Holy Spirit—still incognito—until His coming again when He will transform creation and fulfill His promises to Israel.
In today’s passage this is made even clearer. It is Tuesday, later in the same day that the disciples recognized the fig tree that Jesus had cursed, and Jesus and His disciples are in Jerusalem again. The chief priests, scribes and elders come to Him and demand to know by what authority He does what He does—the way He entered the City to the cries of Hosanna (which means “Save us”) as they hailed the “coming kingdom of our father David” and also the scene He made in the Temple upsetting the seller of animals and the money-changers.
These people, those responsible for worship, teaching and ruling, are the stewards of the City of David, until the Son of David takes His throne, and the stewards of the spiritual life of the people. They are responsible for the care of the people.
Jesus does not answer their question. Instead He turns the tables around and questions their competence to judge Him. Was the baptism of John from God or from men? He asks them. The reason He asks them this is because He was completing the work that John began. John called for the repentance of the people and demanded the fruits of repentance. He was arrested in the course of His ministry. Jesus also called the people to repentance. And now He had come to Jerusalem to see if there were any figs on this fig tree.
From our point of view, it was bad enough that they did not recognize John for who He was. But what was really bad was the way they equivocated about how to answer Jesus. They could not be straightforward because they were afraid of the people (12:12). Probably they would like to say that John was self-appointed and his ministry was not from God. He was a dangerous radical who did not recognize the parameters of proper authority. But they could not say this publically because John was popular among the people, especially the pilgrims thronging the city. Nor could they lie and say that John got his authority from God, because Jesus would simply point out their hypocrisy. So they said they did not know. It was a politically safe “answer.”
Jesus thinks that in their position they ought to know. Since they are not competent to pass judgment, He does not think He is obligated to answer them. When He refuses to answer them, He is refusing to recognize their own authority to question Him, as if to put His own authority above theirs. This would seem insubordinate, rebellious, cocky, and arrogant was it not that we concur with Jesus’ premise that He actually is in that position. We can imagine how His interrogators saw it.
The Stewards of the Vineyard (12:1-12)
The following parable elaborates on this. The vineyard is an image from Isaiah of the people of Israel. In the days of Ezra they returned to the Land, the City and the Temple were rebuilt, and the scribal establishment set up to teach the people. Likewise, in the parable, a hedge was put around the vineyard a vat was dug for a winepress and a tower was built. The vinedressers or tenants are those now responsible for tending the vineyard and rendering its fruit to the owner of the vineyard, who is God.
The slaves who were sent to collect the fruit of the vineyard are the prophets whom God sent to them throughout the history of Israel, the early and later prophets on until the coming of John the Baptist. Jesus later (in Matthew’s gospel, 23:37) will cry out, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her!” Jesus accuses them of persecuting and killing those whom God has sent to them. John the Baptist too was put to death (though by Herod Antipas).
Jesus, of course, is the Son of the vineyard Owner, and, as we know, the high priest (together with his coterie of chief priests, albeit at the behest of the governor) arrests Jesus and betrays Him to the Roman governor. Their thought is to get Him out of the way as a troublemaker. He is an embarrassment to them, especially with the governor. They are too blind to recognize anything beyond what is practical and politically expedient. What if there was something to what Jesus was claiming? It is never even considered.
Without the slightest realization of spiritual realities, they rejected the very “head of the corner” on which the whole edifice of the Temple and Israel’s religion was built. The religion of Israel was built with an eye to what was coming. It was built on the basis of hope in the promises. The coming of the Messiah is the hope on which everything depended, from Abraham in Genesis to Moses in Deuteronomy and of course to the later prophets. Jesus becoming this “head of the corner” took place when He rose from the dead, and that was “from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.”
While the leaders did not—outside the parable—recognize that Jesus was the Messiah (the Son), they also did not recognize the claim of God to the fruits of the people. They shepherded the people for their own advantage—that is, they gave the fruit of the people’s devotion to themselves. Their wealth and prestige were built on the people’s devotion to God, many of whom were poor, like the widow who gave her all into the Temple treasury box. While they thought they were themselves devoted to God, their self-interest made them blind to how self-serving they were. If we kill the messianic dream, the “inheritance” will be ours!
So Jesus pronounces that they will be destroyed—which happened in the War of 66-70 AD, and says that the vineyard will be taken from them and given to others. It was. The new shepherds of Israel were, at first, twofold—the rabbis of Rabbinic Judaism and the church. At first many Jews believed in the Messiah, and this continued to be the case for centuries, especially in the Syria and the East (the Persian Empire). In the West, by the fourth century, the leadership of the predominantly Gentile church turned against the Jews. This was very unfortunate and it affected how the Western Church interpreted the Scriptures and how the Jews understood Christianity. In any case, eventually it was Rabbinic Judaism that took over the care of the Lord’s vineyard until this day.
It is the temptation of leaders to see themselves as owners instead of stewards of what is in their charge. In the “church,” not the church of God but the institution that we mistakenly call the church, there is often little sense of this stewardship and what the claim of God is. What is God really looking for from His people?
It is not really that difficult to answer this question, if we recognize the authority of the Scriptures. The Scriptures can be very confusing if we take it all apart and look at it piece by piece. But if you put it all together, as a “Canon,” and get the order right—that is, the perspective with which to look at the whole, it begins to look very clear. The word “canon” means a ruler or yardstick and thus, a standard. Our canon is first of all the collection of books that we call the Scriptures. Taken as a whole they interpret each other. But you still need another canon that helps us with what perspective to take when we look at the whole. This is the rule or canon of faith. Historically it refers to the Apostles and Nicene Creeds and the Ecumenical Definitions of Faith (the key definitions of the faith in the first eight centuries of the church). Basically this is the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. These doctrines give the “grammar” of the revelation of God in Christ. In other words, the rule of faith tells us to interpret the Scriptures on the basis of the revelation of Christ, a revelation that derives from the Scriptures through the Holy Spirit.
What God wants from the church is a spiritually mature people—“until we all arrive at the oneness of the faith and of the full-knowledge of the Son of God, at a full-grown man, at the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ … that we may grow up into Him in all things.” That, quite simply, is what God wants. The apostles tell us that this takes place by knowing Christ in our spirits through the revelation of the Holy Spirit through the Word, and that Christ matures in us as we bear the cross and learn to function within the Body of Christ. What takes place in us, as the soul becomes transparent to spirit, matters to the rest of humanity and to the creation itself. The purpose of our existence is spiritual, in other words. We will, of course, do our share to help the world, but the purpose of our existence—as the church—is not to be responsible for changing the world. In fact, it is our purpose to “cut through” what the world is to what really matters.
Now the question I have is whether the denomination (the PCUSA) has any inkling of this, or if this somehow escapes their attention. This congregation is not denominational, but we have chosen (or it was chosen for us) to use the polity of the denomination as a form of accountability. This becomes increasingly uncomfortable to me.
Some of the vinedressers of the Lord’s vineyard are saying that Scripture is no longer an authority. Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence, is having much influence on denominational leaders, and it is his contention that the authority of the Scriptures has been overthrown. Where now is the authority of the church? It is disestablished, he says. That is, it no longer resides with any person or body, but resides in the people themselves as they are interconnected. This is, he implies, the new Reformation.
I too do not think that authority resides with any person or group or network within the church. The problem is that it does not reside in the church at all. Authority resides in revelation—the revelation of Jesus Christ—to which the whole canon of Scripture bears witness. If we locate authority within the church, even if—or especially if—it is democratic, as it is in the Presbyterian Church, we betray the true source of authority. The authority of the people—if they are not spiritual and under the authority of the Holy Spirit—is the authority of the culture, the authority of the world. The Presbyterian Church sometimes gives the airs that it is not hierarchical, but in fact it is. It is a democratic hierarchy of the whole. Each part is governed by the larger whole, the congregation by the Session, the Session by the Presbytery, the Presbytery by the Synod and the Synod by the General Assembly. This pyramid structure is simply a democratic version of any episcopal hierarchy that we protest. But the rule of the majority can hardly represent the rule of the most spiritual among the believers.
So I have a problem with any hierarchy in the church that does not recognize that all authority in the church resides in the revelation of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit through the Word. Not even the apostles have authority in themselves. Paul recognized this when he pleaded with the churches to recognize the revelation of Christ in him. The same is true of local elders. So, I just want to put you on alert about this (and about me).
It is hard for me to tell what the truth is with respect to the leadership of the Presbyterian Church. I doubt that the theological conservatives represent the theological liberals accurately. On the other hand, I know what liberal theology is. It is based on philosophical assertions which Jesus demonstrate (this is what they call revelation). The proposed revision of the Book of Order is more generic than the last one, making room for every point of view. There are nominal references to the death of Jesus and even the “blood” of Jesus, but the underlying assumption is that Jesus simply demonstrates the love of God, not that He undertakes the judgment of God on our behalf or that our final salvation depends on the death of our soul and its relation to the world. This is already the tendency in the current Book of Order. While there is this idea that we are supposed to colonize the world with the “gospel,” it is never clear that the “gospel” is anything other than a moral message of social reform (a cultural agenda), with Jesus as the exemplar. This ambiguous wording obviously is meant to be inclusive, but it makes me very uncomfortable.
The leaders of the church are all the people who are responsible for forming the life of the people of God. The chief priests were responsible for the worship at the Temple, the scribes with the teaching of the Scriptures, and the elders with judicial and administrative decision making. They were responsible for forming the life of the people of God. Jesus found them wanting. They could not or would not render to God the fruit of the vineyard. Jesus warned them that the judgment of God was going to destroy them and God was going to give the care of the elect people of God to others.
Are those who form the life of the church today being responsible for the ends to which the church exists? Are they concerned with the spiritual development and maturity of the people of God? Are they safeguarding the revelation of Jesus Christ and the life of the local church that makes this possible?
But then, who ultimately is responsible for forming the life of the people of God? In the church there is no hierarchy invested with this that they can impose it on others. In the church every believer is responsible for the building up of the Body. We are each given gifts for this purpose, and we are all to build up, encourage and console one another. “The work of each will become manifest,” so “let each take heed how he builds upon” the foundation of the church, which is the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-13).