A Sermon preached at Southminster
January 31, 2010
Much like last week’s text, our passage from Mark’s gospel has some similarities to other gospel texts, but is, in my hearing, a little harsher than the versions told in Luke 20 and Matthew 21.
I had a hard time trying to figure out why Mark told all of these stories in this order, but here is what I noticed.
All of these stories—the vineyard, the emperor’s money, and the seven bridegrooms for one bride—are all about ownership. People trying to figure out who owns what.
In the first story, Jesus tells a parable that isn’t very subtle. Usually, when you hear a parable, you wonder, which character am I? But in this parable, it is so apparent that the religious leaders are the wicked tenants, that they even recognize it about themselves. And they aren’t very happy about it.
So this parable exposes the mistakes of the religious leaders—people who certainly should have recognized the Son when he showed up on the grounds, but killed him, as if that would allow them to inherit the vineyard. This is a pretty scathing indictment about religious leaders who should have been giving the harvest over to God, but were keeping it for themselves.
Most religious leaders, I suspect, when asked, would say, “of course the harvest isn’t ours. We work for God.” But I wonder if there are times when we don’t function that way. When we try to claim ownership for the programs or successes. When we try to claim God’s people as our own. I’m leery of casting judgment here, suspecting it would also be pointed toward me.
But this text starts out with a reminder that the work of the church, the work of God’s people, is not ours. It does not belong to us. This is good news for us. We are just the laborers. At the end of the day, it is God who is in charge. How great would it be if we could really live as if this were true?!
If we get new members—it is not because of us. It is because God wants more people to be with us on the journey. If our worship numbers increase—it is not because of us. It is because God delights in our worship and wants more of us to make a joyful noise. If our budget increases—it is not because of us. It is because God has things for us to do here in the community and in the world.
The second section of our text involves the response from the religious leaders. They recognize that Jesus has just strongly criticized them, but they’re afraid of the crowd, so they walk away. But they send some people to test him, to try to trap him in what he says.
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?”
Can’t you just hear the sarcasm? This is one of those examples in scripture where people are speaking the truth, whether or not they are aware of it.
And their plan is that if Jesus says NOT to pay taxes, then they can go tell the authorities that he’s being subversive. If he tells them to pay their taxes, they can tell the people that he’s in the control of the authorities and doesn’t care about them.
If the question in the first part of the text is who does the vineyard belong to, the question here is who does the money belong to?
So, Jesus, sensing their trap, asks them whose face is on the money. “the emperor’s”.
Then give the money to him.
Now, I know that nobody likes to pay taxes, but this text should remind us not to confuse the kingdom of God with our own political system. Belief in God will not get you out of your civic responsibilities. It is a tricky thing, and even though the religious leaders had ulterior motives in asking the question—I think it is still a fair question.
We talk about the Kingdom of God and we work to make that a reality. Yet we are living in the Kingdom of the United States of America. And the two kingdoms do not have the same goals. I think we can work for God’s kingdom in the midst of this other one in which we find ourselves. But we shouldn’t confuse them.
And, like the question of who owns the vineyard, this is good news for us too. It means that God’s kingdom is not limited by coins, or by what the rulers of this world do or don’t do. “Sure, give this coin to the emperor,” Jesus seems to be saying. “God isn’t limited to this.” He almost treats their question with an attitude, of “aren’t they just precious?” Or as my friends in the South would say, “bless their hearts. They are comparing God with some mortal.”
So the harvest of the vineyard belongs to the owner of the vineyard. The things of the emperor belong to the emperor.
And our final test for Jesus today is brought by a second group of religious leaders—the Sadducees. This group really ceased to exist within Judaism after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, but they were very different than the Pharisees. They were biblical literalists—when they read “an eye for an eye”, they would really take the eye. They also didn’t believe in an afterlife. Resurrection isn’t mentioned by Moses in the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures, so they didn’t believe in it. Using that reasoning, I would guess that they also don’t believe in cell phones, HD TV, or sliced bread (other things not mentioned by Moses.
In any case, they ask Jesus a question about the resurrection. The one they don’t believe in.
Talk about a theoretical case. So a guy dies. His widow marries one of his brothers. He dies too….and on it goes. Seven brothers for one bride—and who will she be married to when they get to heaven? There’s an awkward heavenly family dinner party, no? Poor woman.
The Saducees want this question to be about who owns this woman—brother 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7?
But Jesus answers a different question—who owns life? the living or the dead?
And he knows they are strict biblical literalists, so he quotes their
favorite guy to them—
have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’?
Jesus doesn’t limit God to earth, and he doesn’t answer the underlying concern of the Saducees about the resurrection, but he does tell them to stop worrying about theoretical situations in the afterlife. God is the God of the living. To me, that means that we should spend more time caring about how we treat people now, rather than saying, “I can’t stand to be around so and so, but I’m sure we’ll all get along just fine in Heaven.”
Promising someone great things in the afterlife while depriving them of justice here on earth, would probably lead Jesus to tell us, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”
I also saw this part of the text in stark relief this weekend. I flew to Seattle to say goodbye to my Uncle Leonard who has brain tumors and was just placed on hospice this week. As the family gathered around his bedside, I heard Jesus’ claim, “He is God not of the dead, but of the living” in a new way. Death will be a release for my uncle from his disease. When he dies, he will not need any consolation, for he will be whole again. But this weekend, as the family gathered around his bedside, there was great celebration in being together. I could feel God’s presence smoothing over those family relationships that can be stressful and allowing us all to rest in each other’s presence. I was thankful that we have a God who cares for the living.
So we give to the landlord the things that belong to the landlord. We give to the emperor, the things that belong to the emperor. And we give to those around us, to the living, the things you need to live a good life here and now.
This passage is heading toward the end of Jesus’ story in Mark’s gospel. It is as if Jesus is about to make his claim about who he belongs to. He is marching quickly toward the cross, where he will claim with his life that he belongs to God.
We aren’t to the season of Lent quite yet, but we will be in a few weeks. Lent, the season of preparing for the event of Easter, is a time to clean out the closets of your heart, soul, and mind, preparing you to receive the gift of Easter.
Perhaps this struggle about ownership and priorities in Mark could be useful for us as we prepare for Lent.
Do our lives reflect the God we serve?
When worship is over this morning, we invite you to stay for the annual congregational meeting. Only members can vote, but all people who participate in the life of the church are welcome to stay and listen. I think, as we talk about the budget and a few other matters, is you’ll hear confirmation about how well our life as Southminster seeks to reflect the God we serve. Surely we can do better—perfection is only for Jesus, we remember. But through your faithful participation, stewardship, and commitment this year, we have grown and strengthened our commitment to God’s work in this place and in our community. I cannot think of a place I would rather be, than right here with you. And it is such a privilege to be on the journey with you. God is, indeed, the God of the living, and I look forward to working with you in this upcoming year to show God’s love and concern for those living people whom God places into our care.
Thanks be to God.