Palm Sunday Evensong 18th March 2018
Killing the Son - Mark 12. 1 - 11
There are sixteen chapters in Mark’s Gospel. Ten of them cover Jesus’s public ministry up until he enters Jerusalem for the last time. Those who calculate these things say that this was a period of three years. Six chapters are then concerned with the next seven days: what we now call Holy Week and Easter - the last week of Jesus’s earthly life. It is the same in the other Gospels: eight out of twenty-eight in Matthew; five out of twenty-four in Luke; perhaps nine out of twenty-one in John. Holy Week is, literally, crucial for the Gospel.
There are many reasons why we should not be surprised. To be immensely practical, when someone close to you dies, the last moments you shared with them are imprinted on your memory, as if by retelling the detail of their last days you can place someone properly in their context and continue your love for them. When you get theological and recognise that this loved one was the Son of God, like he said he was but you didn’t quite grasp, then every one of those last moments becomes charged with significance.
You can almost see the Gospel writers telling the story of a healing, an encounter, a miracle, a saying, and realising now what was going on, even if then it was right before their eyes. Thankfully they resist the temptation to rewrite their own misunderstandings and weaknesses. Peter remains blundering and passionate; the disciples remain uncomprehending. But they are able to link events to words in the Hebrew scriptures, to put stories and events together, and to make every image count. Mark’s seven days in six chapters are telling.
It’s almost impossible to read the story of the wicked tenants in Mark 12 without putting on the glasses of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The vile tenants misuse the generous master’s trust, and commit the outrage of killing his son. Mark even ladles it on: it is the owner’s ‘beloved son’. It’s so obviously a story about Jesus’s death and the condemnation of those who led him to it that it doesn’t seem to be a parable at all, more an allegory where every element has a specific meaning. And, however you read it, the Israel of Jesus’s day doesnot come out well.
It is worth digging behind the allegory. Mark calls this a parable, and it’s the last full one he records in the Gospel. A parable was a story capable of interpretation on a number of levels. Jesus often told stories where his audience would be carried with him, until the twist at the end laid them bare. Here their sympathies would not start with the owner of the vineyard, but with the tenants. Israel was full of farms and vineyards owned by absentee landlords, where honest labourers toiled for little reward, as no more than sharecroppers. Rich owners were not popular. After the first rent collector is sent packing, the crowd my well have been thinking ‘good for them’.
It is when it gets out of hand and the son is killed that the sympathies of the crowd are exposed. Jesus is not making a point about the glories of unfettered capitalism, but in using a situation they all knew he was able to expose their complacency and narrowness of vision. You know the tenants went way too far, he says, but you started on their side, didn’t you? Consider that, with regard to God, you might be uncomfortably like them. Far from being distant from the story, the chief priests, elders and Pharisees, along with the crowds hanging on Jesus’s words, were right in the middle of it.
On the way to Jerusalem Jesus had caused controversy when saying, in hidden and open ways, that he was the Son of God. If the hearers in the temple hadn’t come to a conclusion about this before, there was no choice now. This was not a challenge to what they believed, because they were looking for the Messiah. It was a challenge to how they believed. In telling the parable Jesus lets his hearers know beyond doubt who he claims to be, and who he wants them to know he is. it was up to them to respond.
I wonder if the disciples understood then how they too failed to recognise Jesus, even when he spoke plainly to them. We have seen that they are at pains to point out how even they failed to listen, see, engage and respond. They tell us that faithful discipleship is about making a lot of mistakes, but learning from them. They encourage us to open our eyes, ears, hands and hearts to recognise what is right in front of us.
So how do we receive the story? Perhaps we too start with sympathy for those suffering under the economic grip of absent oligarchs and corporations. What about the little people? Jesus then shows how even the ordinary ones can start to dominate others, and get so carried away with their autonomy that they take a stand against God. Can we acknowledge that all humans, not just the powerful, seek to supplant and replace God?
From the perspective of the resurrection we know that the death of the Son is for all: those who put Jesus to death, those who watched, those who failed to act, those who did not yet know. We are all in this story. This Holy Week how will we receive the death of Jesus?
May we be those who say ‘this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’. Amen.
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