“All that Borrows Life from Thee”
Text: Mark 12: 1-9
Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3 But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4 And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5 Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6 He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7 But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8 So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
This is a crazy parable. At least that is my reaction to it; as you are reading, I find myself thinking that these tenants are really ignorant. How do they think this episode is going to end? How could it possibly end well? What were they thinking? It’s not like they were in hiding. It isn’t as if the owner of the vineyard didn’t know where they lived. This cycle of escalating violence always leads to a disturbing conclusion. It really makes no sense that anyone in their right mind would act this way.
Yet, the parable rings true on a number of different levels. We have all experienced situations that seem to mirror this parable. Often it leaves us wondering.
As we look at this parable and the scholarship around it there are a couple of things that I think are important for us to know about this particular story. The first thing that I think is important is the level of authenticity that seems to surround this parable. This story appears in varying forms in all three of the synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark and Luke. It can also be found in the Gospel of Thomas, which is thought to have been written similar in time to Mark and qualifies as one of the writings we have that is closest to the execution of Jesus.
In spite of the wide acceptance of this parable by the authors of these Gospels, the fellows of the Jesus seminar fail to attribute the parable to Jesus. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main idea is for us to know that all scholars do not agree as to the origin or interpretation of this parable.
This is important for us to recognize because when the Bible scholars cannot agree about source or interpretation, then I find a little freedom in that conclusion to go ahead and find my own personal interpretation as well. It’s not like the meaning of this parable has been cast in stone and any other interpretation is absolute heresy. I think we have a green light to ask questions, to dig deeper and to apply the concepts of this parable to our 21st century lives in ways the original Gospel authors could never imagine.
That being said, I’m going to unpack this parable in a new way with an interpretation I’m pretty sure you will not find in any Bible commentary anywhere. Before I do, let me add that these are my ideas around this parable. You don’t have to agree with me, but I do hope it creates a thought process within your minds as to how we might interpret ancient observations within a 21st century context.
The first observation I want to make about this parable is that much the available scholarship wants to focus on the allegory of the landowner being compared to an apocalyptic return of Jesus. There is certain death and destruction awaiting these wicked tenants and the comparison of the landowner finally sending his son who ends up getting killed, with the eventual execution of Jesus is just too tempting for interpreters to ignore. Everything just seems to line up and fall into place.
But my response to those interpretations is simply to say not so fast. There are other ways of looking at this text which lie outside of any apocalyptic return of Jesus.
For example, I think the parable makes a very valid point about how greed can cloud our thinking. A few minutes ago when I first began to make comments about this story, I said something about the tenants not being all that astute. I mean, how did they think this little episode would end?
So this is an important part of a parable. It is supposed to have certain elements which turn the tables, or turn things upside down or have certain events which don’t make sense. As we read about these wicked tenants, we can’t help but think that these people are a little dim. How could anyone be so cold and cruel and calculated and actually think they could do this and not suffer any consequences? Of course the answer to this question is that they can’t. Of course there will be consequences. The text says they will be destroyed. And yet the wicked tenants persist. They kill and beat one slave after another until the landowner finally sends his son and they kill him as well. What are we to make of this behavior?
I think the parable is really about this lack of vision on the part of the tenants. It is incredibly shortsighted to engage in this level of violence just because you don’t want to pay a portion of the harvest to the landowner. What conclusion I come to when reading this parable is the power of greed has the ability to overthrow common sense and common decency. The power of greed blinds us to the otherwise obvious truth and compassionate behavior. The power of greed propels us forward into events and circumstances that have no possible chance of ending well. All is lost and given up when the greed of the short term is allowed to invade our thinking and dominate our common sense.
This parable is about how greed can color our thinking to the point that we are willing to commit atrocities to other fellow human beings just to increase our bottom line. I don’t think the tenants in this story were stupid or ignorant; after all, they were smart enough to run a vineyard, collect a harvest and smart enough to recognize the son of the landowner. So what happened to this apparent level of intelligence? It was displaced with greed. The intelligence was no longer functional and greed had taken its place.
It is like filling a glass of water. When you begin the glass is full of air; as you pour in the water, the air is displaced because the water is heavier than the air. That doesn’t mean the air no longer exists, it is just displaced out of the glass. Common sense and basic human decency can suffer the same result when displaced by the stronger and heavier components of greed. When our minds fill up with greed, common sense and decency can be displaced, and things which should be obvious, are no longer so clear. Our good judgment is displaced with greed.
I find another parallel with this parable that I find particularly disturbing. That parallel is that we are tenants of this earth. As tenants of this earth have we allowed our greed and economic zeal to cloud our thinking? Has our common sense and human decency given way to economic stimulus and greed for a larger bottom line? I think so.
I want to offer a little perspective on how I view this planet that we call our home. You are welcome to disagree with me, but I don’t think you will. This is what I believe to be true about planet earth.
*God created it – the how doesn’t matter, but God created it.
*God is present in creation – what we do to the planet, we do to God.
*Creation belongs to God – Creation is God.
*Our relationship with creation mirrors our relationship with God.
*How we care for creation mirrors how we care for one another.
*The pulse of creation is the energy of God and is the source of all that is.
Have we been good tenants of planet earth? Has greed blinded us to common sense and common human decency? Can we see planet earth and ourselves in this parable of the wicked tenants?
In our closing hymn one of the lyrics, (which was written over 300 years ago) I believe supports the understanding of creation as I have outlined. Watch for it. In the third verse, there is a line which states that everything in creation borrows life from God. In other words, every living thing and all of creation borrows life from God and eventually returns to God. God is creation and creation is God. Everything is part of the whole.
I was recently in a conversation with someone about climate change and the Paris Climate agreement and issues surrounding all that. The argument was raised that if scientists can’t agree, how are we supposed to understand climate change and come to our own conclusions.
Here’s what I think. There isn’t any scientific debate.
As for understanding climate change; if you have sense enough to know that you don’t leave a pet or God forbid, an infant in a car seat, inside a parked car on a hot day, you understand climate change.
If we read the parable through the lens of being tenants of planet earth can we see ourselves in this story? Does it end well? Can we change the ending?
Food for thought.
Go in peace.