Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Today’s passage comes from both the end of chapter eleven and the beginning of chapter twelve of Mark. When reading books from the Bible it is often a good idea to read on beyond the end of a chapter to see what comes next. Unlike the chapters in modern books that tell you that the situation, topic, or time has changed, the chapter breaks in books of the Bible are sometimes arbitrary. The reason for this is also the reason why the chapters and verse were numbered: Rather than being for the sake of students, all these numbered segments were kept for the sake of copyists. Fifteen centuries of Bibles were hand copied. The chapter and verse numbers are there for the sake of avoiding errors by the copyists.
We assume that today’s story is the day immediately following the day when Jesus drove the money changers out of the Temple. He is walking in the Temple courts when he is confronted once again.
The Temple of Jerusalem was the center of worship for the Jewish people. It had been damaged and partly destroyed many times over the centuries. The Temple in the time of Jesus’ visits there had been rebuilt around 20 B.C. by Herod the Great, so it was called Herod’s temple. The complex of buildings and courts that made up the Temple covered an area of something a little less than four football fields. It was a place of worship that included sacrifices of animals and grain. It was destroyed down to its foundations by the Romans in the year 70 A.D..
They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?”
Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.)
So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”
Jesus was Jewish and had reaffirmed that the Temple was holy to God when he drove out the money changers. On his visits to Jerusalem, it was in the courtyards of the Temple where he chose to preach. This infuriated many of the chief priests and scribes. They demand to know who gave him the right to preach there. Effectively they ask to see his credentials. This was a leading question, because much of what Jesus had to say identified him as a Pharisee from the region of the Galilee, and everyone knew that the Pharisees had tried to control him but failed. They all saw him as a provincial Pharisee that had gone rogue after identifying himself as either the messiah or a prophet.
Jesus responds to his critics in a very clever yet aggravating way. Jesus aligns himself with John the Baptist who was both very popular and an irritation to the established religious elite.
Jesus never stopped being a Jew, but he came across as anti-establishment. To the people, he is either a holy man or a counter-cultural hero. He does not want his detractors to abandon Judaism but to repent of the ways they have become corrupt. The continuous squabbles between Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes, Zealots, Temple Officials, and others have led to a very contentious atmosphere that is dangerous for anyone who stands alone.
Having refused to cite his authority to preach at the Temple, Jesus tells a parable that answers the question indirectly.
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. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants to collect from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. But they seized him, beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 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.
“He had one left to send, a son, whom he loved. He sent him last of all, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
“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.
“What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. 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’?”
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.
It doesn’t take much work to see the parable is about Jerusalem. You could even see the Temple as the “watchtower” in the parable. The servants sent to the vineyard represent the prophets that God sent to the royal and religious leaders of Jerusalem. Jesus is clearly identifying himself as the son of the vineyard owner that the tenants will kill. For this act, the tenants will lose everything.
The passage tells us that the Chief priests, Scribes, and elders knew that the Parable was spoken against them, but it does not say if they realize that Jesus is claiming to be the son of the vineyard owner (the Son of God). By quoting Psalm 118 (“the cornerstone that the builders rejected“), Jesus is also foretelling his resurrection.
So, Jesus is telling the officials that his authority comes from God, his Father.
In all of this, Jesus never rejects Judaism. He never tells the disciples to stop being Jews. In the coming passages we will see that Jesus and the disciples are still observing Passover traditions.
The things that Jesus rejects are the corruption of power and the mistreatment of people. In modern language Jesus is killed for speaking against the systemic evil of the religious and royal leadership. In old language, Jesus is taking a stand against sin and the willful resistance against repentance. He is taking a stand against the status quo; people’s acceptance of things as they are.
To this day, people in authority do not like to admit wrong. They would much rather shift blame or change the subject altogether.
Questions to Ponder: What authority do you allow Jesus in your life? What is the appropriate way to take a stand against corrupt officials? Have you admitted to yourself and/or others that you are not free of sin and temptation? [If you are human, you either fight internal evil or you have surrendered to it].