Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Assuming Rights

The tenants said to one another, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” (Mark 12.7)

Flagrant Disrespect

One spring, my parents leased land on an Indiana farm, hoping to give my brother and me a taste of what goes into growing your own food. We were very excited at first. But our enthusiasm waned when we realized we first had to clear the plot of weeds, till the soil, plant the vegetables, and tend their shoots for weeks before seeing any results. Near the end June, our excitement resurged as the first tomatoes and beans started to ripen. “Next week, they’ll be ready!” Mom promised. We could hardly wait. The moment we stepped into our garden, however, we saw everything had been picked. Maybe the farmer and his wife pulled the ripe vegetables to keep them from rotting, Mom suggested. We knocked on their door. In a most unconvincing manner—so much so even my brother and I weren’t persuaded—the wife insisted she had no idea. My parents didn’t press the issue, but they were clearly appalled by such flagrant disrespect. That ended our farming experiment.

Jesus tells a similar story in Mark 12, only the roles are reversed. A farmer leases his vineyard to tenant farmers while he’s away. In return for use of his land, they agree to share their harvest with him. When the time comes, he sends a servant to collect his share, but the tenants beat him up and he returns empty-handed. The owner sends a second servant, and they beat him as well. The third servant they kill. This continues, with some servants beaten and others killed, until there is none left to collect the owner’s share. Finally, the owner sends his son. The tenants hatch what seems like a cunning idea, but isn’t. They decide to kill the heir and assume ownership rights of the property. “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?” Jesus asks. “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (v9)

Delusions of Ownership

Predicting His death is the Christ’s primary purpose for the story. He wraps up with a quote from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Then, Mark says, officials who heard Jesus’s story “looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them.” (v12) What rattles them about the parable? It’s not Christ’s prophecy He will be beaten and murdered just as many other prophets had been. It’s not even His suggestion He’s the Son of God; He’s said this before. What angers the religious leaders is His overt rebuttal of their authority. He debunks their delusions of ownership by casting them as tenants—sharecroppers—whose first obligation is to repay God’s kindness in allowing them to tend His vineyard. The supposition that murdering the Heir entitles them to His inheritance is no less than assuming rights they don’t have. Jesus uses the story to caution them against this, predicting their doom as well.

In light of the story’s volatile subtext and timing, we would expect it to garner heavy rotation on the parable playlist—if not a “greatest hit,” then surely an “essential” that resurfaces regularly. But it remains one of the least-repeated of Christ’s parables. Though we can’t say why with any certainty, our first impression seems most probable. Many charged with passing down Christ’s parables are burdened with similar delusions of ownership and assume rights that aren’t theirs. They don’t own the vineyard; they tend it. Yet, somehow, working day-in, day-out without benefit of the Owner’s physical presence eases them into mistaking the vineyard for theirs. Anyone God sends to claim His share of the harvest meets with hostility, anger, and, in the most extreme cases, violence. Then, if we incorporate my family’s experience as well-meaning tenants, we find it’s also the case that those of us who work faithfully in the vineyard may face the eventuality our good work may be stolen by deceitful people. We may have to reevaluate whether we want to continue working where this occurs.

God’s Tenants

Reporting the tense atmosphere created by Jesus’s parable, Mark says the authorities decide not to arrest Christ on the spot because “they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.” Not one word Christ say penetrates their hearts or troubles their minds. He couldn’t be more explicit in His warning that conspiracies against Him will result in severe punishment. Yet, totally in keeping with how Jesus depicts the unruly tenants, they plot His demise. They’re more frightened of public protest than God’s wrath!

Christ’s warning still stands—and we still see religious leaders who ignore it by continuing to assume rights of ownership. Modern bastions of faith teem with tenants who are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than honoring their obligations to God. Their focus rests entirely on controlling the crowd. If the will of the people clashes with their agenda, they quietly step away to find another way to retain power. And in all probability, their Plan B will succeed—temporarily, that is. Such is the case with Christ. The angry tenants work to foment a groundswell of support for their plot against Jesus. The only factor they don’t account for, however, ends up being the one that counts. God says, “Not so.” In defiance of all natural and social law, He rescinds Christ’s execution and instigates a grass-roots movement of His own that ultimately destroys religious power in Palestine. In the end, they lose everything they sought to protect—assumed rights of ownership and control of the crowd.

We mustn’t be dismayed when God’s tenants abuse their privileges, exceed their rights, and manipulate minds to retain power. It’s not their vineyard. From all appearances, their schemes may work. But eventually God will stun them by saying, “Not so.” It’s His vineyard. What grows there belongs to Him. The day will come when every rightful heir to His promises will rise again, filled with new life and power. We believe this, because Easter proves it.

We are tenants in God’s vineyard. No ownership rights are available, and anyone who mistakenly assumes them shouldn’t distress us.

Postscript: God’s Children

I forgot about this terrific tune by The Kinks. Then, thinking about how often tenants who take charge of God’s vineyard attempt to exclude others, the song’s ebullience (and the video artist’s quirky image selections) brought on a big smile. Enjoy!


Man made the buildings that reach for the sky

And man made the motorcar and learned how to fly

But he didn't make the flowers and he didn't make the trees

And he didn't make you and he didn't make me

And he's got no right to turn us into machines

He's got no right at all

'Cause we are all God's children

And he's got no right to change us

Oh, we gotta go back to the way

The Good Lord made us

Don't want this world to change me

I wanna go back the way the Good Lord made me

Same lungs that He gave me to breathe with

Same eyes that He gave me to see with

Oh, the rich man, the poor man, the saint and the sinner

The wise man, the simpleton, the loser and the winner

We are all the same to Him

Stripped of our clothes and all the things we own

The day that we are born

'Cause we are all God's children...

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