Jesus and the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-12)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached March 7th 2021*

Sermon Audio: Jesus and the Vineyard (Mark 12:1-12)

“We think little about the world. We think about the things that it imposes upon us. We must think about the workplace, about appointments we have made, people we will meet, and jobs that must get done. We must think about car maintenance and train schedules, neighbors and parents, life insurance and taxes, groceries and vacations, dangers and death…In a thousand ways, every day, we think about the world of which we are a part, the world we experience.

We do not, however, often think about the world at a deeper level. We no more wonder about it than we do about the sun or moon. We take it as a given, like the fact that Tuesday has followed Monday, May has always followed April, summer has always followed winter.

The world does not strike us as a particularly dangerous place here in the West. There are pockets of lawlessness, we know, streets that should not be walked at night…Yet the West in general and America in particular is to us a place of plenty, of opportunity, and of choices, not a place where we feel greatly endangered. We certainly do not think of it as a place where we can lose our souls. If such thoughts do cross our minds, we would be inclined to suppose that souls are lost by doing large and inhumane acts of evil, not by living in the realm of shallow and empty triviality where so much of our life is moored. We live not out in the depths of what is truly wrong, but on the surfaces where nothing is right or wrong and nothing really matters. Others, however, have not been quote so sanguine about this state of affairs.

Karl Marx had his own utopian agenda, of course, but he was remarkably prescient in seeing what was coming in our Western world where everything solid has melted into air. So, too, was Mahatma Ghandi. He feared the West as well. He thought that the Western acids that dissolve all beliefs and morality would be brought to India by the use of technology…What these outside eyes saw, however, is lost on us. They feared the West; we do not. We have no fear of it at all. It is, after all, the hand that feeds us with more affluence, more opportunities, more choices, more miracle drugs, more pleasurable distraction than any civilization has ever known. We are now so much a part of its workings, we are now so addicted to its largesse, that life is inconceivable without these blessings of our modernized world. But what does all of this do to us? That is what we do not think about. That is what we simply think is, as much a part of life as Chevrolets, Time magazine, movies, and pizza are and as unavoidable as the rising sun tomorrow.”

So writes David Wells at the beginning of his excellent book Above All Earthly Powers. Now, Wells was writing in 2005. We live in a different world today in many ways; technology has advanced at an alarming rate; social issues have shifted and political climates have soured so that our sense of security is less certain. Perhaps we do not feel the same sense of triviality and sleepiness Wells describes.

And yet, Wells’ perception about our unexamined acceptance of values and assumptions in America ought not be disregarded. We live in a time where the highest good is to be true to oneself, and the supreme evil is to be unauthentic, whereas past civilizations believed the “good” life to be the life lived in devotion to God and His design, and the great evil to be abandoning that design. One would think with this inward self-deification atheism would be on the rise. But that isn’t true. A 2019 Gallup poll shows that 87% of Americans today proclaim to believe in God. Amidst our therapeutic materialism and addiction to distraction, entertainment, and pleasure, Americans still are fundamentally a religious people. But what does living in this kind of culture do to us? I think that our culture gives us two popular misconceptions about God: God wants me to be happy; God is nice.

In our text today we find these popular misconceptions confronted and contradicted by Jesus’ telling of the parable of the vineyard. Our story today occurs in the climactic final week of Jesus’ earthly life. The day before this event Jesus cursed and cleansed the temple (Mark 11:15-19). The next day Jesus enters the temple again and is confronted by the temple authorities who demand Jesus to explain on whose authority He has done all these things. But Jesus answers their question with another question and when they refuse to give Jesus an answer He refuses to give them one. But Jesus doesn’t remain silent for long, and so we find ourselves at our text:

And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. 2 When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. 3 And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. 4 Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. 5 And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some 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 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. 9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 10 Have you not read this Scripture:

“‘The stone that the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone;

11 this was the Lord’s doing,

and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

12 And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away. – Mark 12:1-12

Jesus employs that famous song of the vineyard from Isaiah 5, written nearly six hundred years before Jesus was on the earth. Isaiah’s song of the vineyard describes Yahweh as diligent owner of a vineyard who plants a choice vine, works to build a watchtower and a winepress and clear it of all stones, but when the harvest time comes rather than getting an excellent crop he finds wild, inedible grapes (Isa 5:1-2). Yahweh then asks the reader what must be done to the vineyard (Isa 5:3-4), before answering that its end is judgment (5:5-6). Yahweh concludes with explaining that the vineyard represents the people of Israel (5:7). God had chosen Israel and had worked to set them up for success: He redeemed them from Egypt, worked miracles, gave them a Law, made a covenant with them, and gave them their own land. But rather than producing the good fruit of righteousness and justice, Israel produced wickedness, idolatry, and injustice. The rest of chapter 5 details the numerous sins of Israel for which God is bringing the judgment upon them: greed, drunkenness, arrogance, and total reversal of God’s standards (5:8-30). God decrees this judgment: 

“Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the LORD of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against his people…– Isaiah 5:24-25

The parallels between this story and Jesus’ parable are evident. However, there are a few notable differences. First, we have the introduction of the character of the “tenant.” Tenant farming was similar to what we know as share-cropping. A farmer would have a large plot of land and would lease portions of it out to tenants who would work the land and harvest the crop for the farmer in exchange for their own plot and a share of the harvest. In Jesus’ parable the tenants, however, are wicked. They refuse to give to the absent farmer his rightful share of the crop and are willing to murder anyone who tries to tell them otherwise. This behavior seems shocking to us today, but particularly in a shame-honor culture of the ancient near east, this kind of behavior would have been appalling. Thus, the judgment in Jesus’ parable doesn’t fall on the vineyard as a whole, but on these tenants.

Which brings us to the second innovation in Jesus’ parable: the servants. The servants are sent to remind the tenants of their obligation to the Master, but are met with mocking, harassment, and violence. “Servants” is the most popular title used to describe the prophets of the Old Testament (eg. Amos 3:7; Rev 10:7), which is who these servants are intended to represent. The prophets have a history of being routinely abused, ignored, and martyred by wicked rulers in Israel’s history. The prophets were intended to remind Israel of their obligation to their Lord, their covenant they made with God, when they had begun to wander off into sin and idolatry. However, their efforts, like the efforts of the servants in the parable, do not produce the fruit of repentance.

Which brings us to the final innovation: the beloved son. After every servant is either assaulted or killed in their mission, the Master finally sends His son, His beloved son, thinking: “They will respect my son.” But what do the wicked tenants do? They conspire together, “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours,” (Mark 12:7). Perhaps the tenants had gone so long without seeing the Master that they had simply assumed that he had died and the son was now approaching to receive the land as his inheritance. Whatever their thoughts, they were “in for a penny, in for a pound” and decided to push their murderous plot to its final conclusion, “And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard,” (12:8). And Jesus, like Yahweh in Isaiah 5, asks His listeners, “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others,” (12:9). Jesus then concludes, “ Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” – Mark 12:10-11

Let’s turn now and consider how this parable confronts three popular misconceptions about God and utterly contradicts them.

God Wants Me to Be Happy

H.L. Mencken (inaccurately) described Puritanism as the “haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” There are countless stories of people who have shed the cocoon of their childhood faith because they have found something that they have always been taught was wrong, profane, and sinful, and have discovered that it has also brought them a great deal of happiness. This leads a small few to reject the existence of God, but for the majority of persons it leads them to simply change their idea of God. If this makes me so happy, why would God not want me to have it? It is taken as an axiomatic truth that God wants me to be happy. But here in our parable we find that God seems to require something else of His tenants that goes beyond their happiness.

In Isaiah 5 we discover that the “fruit” of the vineyard symbolized faithfulness and obedience to God’s commands. But instead of this, Yahweh finds them completely reversing His commands, calling “evil good and good evil” (5:20). The people of Israel are described as greedy perverters of justice, accepting bribes, building luxury mansions, and sinking into drunken stupor day after day, all the while laughing at the idea of God’s judgment. Why are the people of Israel devoting themselves to this lifestyle? Because they believe it will make them happy! “All men seek happiness,” writes the 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal, “This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” But if the only thing God wanted was for these men to be happy, He would simply leave them alone. But God doesn’t leave them alone—He requires something from them more than happiness; He expects holiness; He expects obedience. Jesus, in teaching this parable, is showing us that God is not looking to put a rubber seal of approval on whatever we want. So our first question shouldn’t be: does this feel good or does this make me happy. But should be: is this what God wants? Does this align with His Law?

Does this mean, though, that God doesn’t care about our happiness? That kind of sterile, austere religion is what leads so many to an inaccurate picture of God: if THAT is the kind of God I have to believe in, then I don’t want to believe in that kind of God. Of course, what you want doesn’t determine what God is like, but more importantly God is not like Puritans that Mencken describes. In fact, as we read our Bibles we discover that God is devoted to our joy, our satisfaction, our happiness. Psalm 81 briefly describes what God has done to rescue His people and the purpose of His Law: “There shall be no strange god among you; you shall not bow down to a foreign god. I am the LORD your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it,” (81:9-10). The purpose of God’s Law: to fill our mouths with what is good, to satisfy us. So, He tells us, don’t worship other gods! Don’t give yourselves up to idolatry—why? Because God is trying to hide joy and happiness and pleasure from you? No—the exact opposite! God has all the joy,He wants to bless us with it. But what do His people do?

11 “But my people did not listen to my voice;

Israel would not submit to me.

12 So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,

to follow their own counsels.

13 Oh, that my people would listen to me,

that Israel would walk in my ways!

14 I would soon subdue their enemies

and turn my hand against their foes.

15 Those who hate the LORD would cringe toward him,

and their fate would last forever.

16 But he would feed you with the finest of the wheat,

and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.” – Ps 8:11-16

Have you heard the idea that if something feels so right, how could it be wrong? Friends, things can feel right and be very wrong all the time. Nobody gets into an affair because it feels wrong but they just feel obligated to do so. People have affairs because it feels right, but it is very, very wrong. There are fewer things that will more quickly destroy your life, your family’s life, and other people’s lives than an affair. And this is why God has forbidden it! God is not opposed to your joy; He is opposed to what kills joy. “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing,” Lewis, MC.

God is Nice

The second popular misconception about God is that He is really nice. God isn’t angry or judgmental or harsh. He is a kind of life coach who wants to spur us on like a cheerleader. Life is full of hard things that pull you down, full of discouragements, full of people telling you that you are not enough, that there is some standard you must live up to you, and God’s job is whisper to you that you are enough, you are perfect just the way you are. God certainly won’t judge you. 

But Jesus’ parable tells us something very different. God is not only willing to confront us, correct us, point out our sins, but He is also ready to judge us. What happens to the tenants in the parable? They are destroyed. If you’re not a Christian here today I wonder if this idea seems offensive to you. But, if we were in a town where a man had committed serious evil, evil of the sort caliber that causes us to shudder, and let’s say that he had committed one of these heinous acts that led to the death of one of your friends or one of your relatives. Now, what would you do if after the man was apprehended the county sheriff, out of some misplaced desire to not be too judgmental, refused to punish the man but decided instead to simply let him go after having a stern talking with him. You would be outraged at that—and rightly so. We intuitively recognize that when evil is committed there must be justice. Evil must be corrected. Friends, if we can all agree on that, then what is it about God’s judgment that we find so offensive?

Likely, it is the fact that God may judge us and we haven’t done anything worthy of judgment! Or so we think. We all assume that we are basically good people. Likely, this is what Jesus’ original audience thought as well. Remember, the original audience were the religious leaders of the day. As they are listening to Jesus’ parable, they likely are identifying with the righteous servants in the parable, not the wicked tenants (cf. Matt 23:29-36). Why? Because they think they are good, upstanding, respectable people—religious people! The thought that God would judge them was unthinkable! And it probably is unthinkable just as to you as well. I wonder, as we were reading the parable, who did you identify with? Did you also assume that you were one of the “good guys”? 

Justice requires a standard. For us to say that something is “wrong” requires a definition of “right.” What happens if we don’t have a standard? Justice is rendered totally useless and meaningless. You must have a standard for justice—but, where does that standard come from? Christianity teaches that the standard for justice is given to us by God, so it is above and over all cultures, all times, and people. And His standard is perfect obedience to His holy Law. 

This is why God’s judgment seems so offensive to us—as we take seriously the Law that God has laid out for us we realize that we have rejected it, ignored it, even mocked it. And for that, the Bible tells us, God’s judgment is coming. But dear friend, don’t you see that without the judgment of God the gospel, the good news of Jesus makes no sense? In the parable we are told that the beloved son is killed by the hands of the wicked tenants. While this has an immediate application to the contemporary listeners—they are quite literally the individuals who will have Jesus be crucified—in another sense, we all are represented by the wicked tenants, we all bear responsibility for Jesus’ death. What do I mean by that?

The Bible teaches us that Jesus’ death was not an accident, it was not incidental, it was not the cutting short of God’s plan—rather it was the very reason for which Jesus came. Jesus taught that He came “to give his life as a ransom for many,” Mark 10:45. In other words, His death was a substitution. Here is what the prophet Isaiah teaches us:

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed.

6 All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned—every one—to his own way;

and the LORD has laid on him

the iniquity of us all. – Isa 53:5-6

The gospel tells us that in Jesus’ death, the sins of all who trust and follow Jesus have fallen on Him. In the death of Jesus the righteous judgment of God falls on the beloved Son, rather than falling on wicked people like myself. So it was my sins that led Jesus to His death, it was my sins that brought on the judgment of God to fall on Jesus. 

So, now, if you are in Christ, your judgment day has already passed. If you are not a Christian, you can flee from the judgment of God by running to God for forgiveness in Jesus. You do not have to go to Hell! You don’t have to die in your sins and face the judgment day. You can die in Jesus and the forgiveness that He offers. Friend, God is not nice; God is just, God is gracious. He is angry with your sin, but He is willing and ready to forgive.

If you are in Jesus, then now it is your responsibility to follow Him. Don’t walk any longer according to the sinful desires of your heart, stop believing the lie that something outside of God will make you happy. Follow His path and His design for your life. 

 If you remember rightly, Jesus taught us in Mark 4 that parables help illuminate truth to disciples of Jesus, but confuse and confound those who are resistant to Jesus. Jesus goes so far as to describe His parables as a form of judgment on His opponents because they further hinder their understanding (Mark 4:11-12). It is thus ironic that the first parable that the temple authorities understand is a parable describing their judgment. 

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