Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’

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 watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. 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 amazing in our eyes”?’

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.

- Mark 11:27-12:12

Jesus clearly must be quizzed by the authorities in the temple at this time, because in yesterday's passage he has cleansed the temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dove sellers; he also would not allow any more wares for sale to enter the temple. This is their turf, and it is their authority that is openly challenged in this act. It's important, also, to recall that Jesus acts from the time of his entry into Jerusalem are all messianic in nature - and therefore the questions asked by the temple authorities must be asked, logically, on those grounds as well. So, in that light, the questions of the chief priests, scribes and elders are reasonable: ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’

But in Jesus' answer, we must once again remember the wonderful personality of this man who is Jesus. His human personality is vivid and strong, with a gift for words that has continued to grip those who care about these scriptures for 2,000 years. And beyond that gift for expression, the persona of Jesus the man (or should we say, Son of Man, as he calls himself in his worldly life?) is one of tremendous wit and alacrity, seasoned with life of the Near East, a life lived in the crossroads of the world's great classical civilizations at that time. Although a man of peace and non-violence, Jesus is also a tremendous defender of his faith and his teaching mission as he ministers throughout the times of his teaching recorded in these gospels. This man of peace, vivid and strong, is no pushover. He knows the answer to their question, of course. But he also is aware the question is a trap - and he chooses not to fall into it. So, he ingeniously replies by posing a question of his own: ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ He has turned the tables on the questioners.

It's important to remember that this dialogue takes place in front of the crowds at the temple. After the cleansing, the authorities must defend their territory, and the stage is truly set for an inevitable confrontation. But they are also afraid of the crowds. Because of the way that Roman rule was structured (in later centuries to be imitated by other conquerors of history such as the Ottoman Empire), the religious authorities were often seen by the people as collaborators with the Romans, seeking to maintain their positions. Therefore, charismatic figures like John the Baptist and Jesus himself were tremendously popular with the crowds. Knowing this, the authorities cannot reply that John the Baptist had no authority. Undoubtedly, John the Baptist's reputation as a prophet was sealed by his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Antipas. So the authorities answer Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’

So, the chief priests, scribes and elders are left stumped by Jesus' question; they are confused and cannot answer. And Jesus goes on to tell a parable clearly directed at them. By referring to himself as the "son" in the parable of the wicked vinedressers, he answers their question. His authority comes as the Son of God; this is a clear reference to his messianic status. But in the reference to the "stone the builders rejected" (Psalm 118:22,23) Jesus has also made it clear that his criticism is leveled at his questioners. Thus the confrontation is deepened. Jesus has defended himself against the authorities of the temple, and they can do nothing in front of the crowds who favor himself and John the Baptist. But it is a stage set for conflict: unless the authorities shore up their own power, they will lose that power. They fear an insurrection by the crowd, so they withdraw at this time.

We cannot forget the importance of fruitfulness, emphasized so deeply in the past two daily reading passages: first in the story of the fig tree without fruit, and now in the parable of the wicked vinedressers. Both the fig tree story and this parable in today's passage emphasize fruitfulness as the result of how we go into prayer, how we practice worship and relate to God - and most especially our own responsibility to watch ourselves and how we live. Do we practice forgiveness? is the number one question raised in yesterday's reading. Here we see the link between forgiveness, peacefulness and practicing good judgment. Nothing must stand in the way of our relationship with God, not pride, not our position, nor any worldly concern or matter. We seek good judgment, God's wisdom and the gift of discernment through God's grace. When we enter into prayer and worship, we are dealing with a tremendous power that shoulders us with the responsibility of that relationship and how we bear ourselves within it. Are we willing to give our own stumbling blocks up that stand in the way of that relationship, or do we approach it with a kind of selfishness, a quest for personal greatness (another form of idolatry that stands in the way)? Where does forgiveness - and good judgment - come from? These are all questions raised for us as individuals in these passages. We mustn't forget that the point of studying these scriptures is to find where they are meaningful to us today, and to each of us as individuals practicing our faith.

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