Mark 11:26-12:12. The question is, who is to be master?

“And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or 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. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”- they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”

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. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some 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.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What 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 marvellous in our eyes’?” 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.”

Jesus entered Jerusalem like a king, acclaimed by the crowds. He went straight to the Temple- not to worship, but to inspect. What he found did not please him. We’ve looked recently at the way Jesus cleared the Temple courts, teaching that those in charge of it had made it into a hideout for robbers. At the end of chapter 11, and on through chapters 12 and 13, Mark continues to describe Jesus’ ministry in, around, and about, the Temple.

Election time is nearly upon us (this study written just before the 2010 UK General Election- Ed). Already, the newspapers are full of the doings and sayings of our leaders and would-be leaders and the airwaves are saturated with politics. Already, the image consultants are on overtime. The PR agencies are busy, and the spin doctors are dizzy.

If you’re a realist (hopeless naïfs like to call us “cynics”), then you’ve long ago learnt to detect when a politician is lying. If you haven’t yet acquired this ability, then I’m happy to reveal the secret. The trick is to watch the mouth very carefully. There’s a give-away sign, and if you’re paying close attention to the politician’s mouth, you can nearly always pick up on it. When the mouth moves- the politician is lying.

 Here, Mark introduces us to a bunch of scheming lying politicians. They come to trap Jesus into making a damaging admission, and Jesus treats them as they so richly deserve.

 1.      Who are the “chief priests and the scribes and the elders”? How do these folk relate to other groups who come to confront Jesus in this chapter?

2.      What do they mean by their question? What are “these things”, and what authority do they expect Jesus to claim?

3.      Is Jesus’ “answer” merely an evasion? Do these men have the authority to question Jesus?

4.      Why is John the Baptist a relevant figure to mention?

5.      Jesus then tells a parable. How are we to interpret the meaning? How does the quote from Psalm 118 add to the parable?

6.      When the Jewish leaders hear Jesus’ parable, they clearly interpret it as hostile to them. Are they right? How does Jesus view these men?

7.      Why does Mark tell us that “they left him and went away”?

8.      How does this passage fit into Mark’s developing story?

9.      What should we take from this passage?

 

1.      Who are the “chief priests and the scribes and the elders”? How do these folk relate to other groups who come to confront Jesus in this chapter?

There are several key groups here. Mark mentions three distinct groups, but the three groups all come together and speak with one voice when they address Jesus.

The chief priests come from 5 or 6 dominant Israelite families. These are all Sadducee families; they are aristocrats, bluebloods. They have old money. They are wealthy and powerful. They’ve held the levers of power, notably controlling the office of high priest, for at least decades.

The second bunch Mark mentions, the scribes, are the teachers of the law. They are a professional outfit, made up of men with the relevant qualifications. They are the “guild of expert theologians”. They have been trained in the OT law, and in the techniques of interpreting it and debating it. They are thought of as the authoritative voice of what God says about a particular matter. If you ask them a legal question, then they will be able to quote to you all the relevant parts of the law, and then what a dozen rabbis have said about the matter, and what other rabbis have said about the comments of the first rabbis, ad infinitum. The Scribes will be full-time students and teachers of the law. Rich patrons will support them in that work.

Being a scribe didn’t mean that you couldn’t also be a Sadducee, or a Pharisee, or an Essene, or anything else. Each of those groups would probably have had their own “in-house” scribes. But the Scribes as a group were dominated by Pharisees. Both Mark and Luke talk about “Scribes of the Pharisees” (Mark 2:16, Acts 23:9), and all the Gospel writers (and Jesus himself) feel it appropriate to talk of “scribes and Pharisees”, as though the two groups go together. And there is a natural fit between the Scribal profession, and the Pharisaic concern for the law.

The elders, the third group here, are just that. They are elders. Mostly older men, elders are those who govern a particular community. Every town in Israel would have its elders, who would sit at the gate and judge cases brought to them by the townsfolk. The particular elders in view here are the elders of Jerusalem, and so they are correspondingly grand and important. They will be respected men of considerable standing in the city.

The three groups mentioned were the groups from which the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, was drawn. The idea is that these are the “official Jews”. Jerusalem (and especially the Temple) is the official centre of the nation, and these are the Israelites who collectively control Jerusalem (and especially the temple).

In the rest of the chapter, Jesus is asked questions by the Pharisees and Herodians, the Sadducees, and a Scribe. But here, in the first instance, the three most important groups come all at once, and they speak with one voice, all asking the same question.

 

2.      What do they mean by their question? What are “these things”, and what authority do they expect Jesus to claim?

What are the “official Jews” demanding here? They want to know who gave Jesus the authority to do as he is doing, but what has Jesus done that is so outrageous that they need to see his credentials? When they come to confront him, Jesus is walking about in the Temple- that’s all. Although of course that isn’t the whole story. Earlier this week, Jesus has come as the judge of the Temple, and has turned over the tables of the money changers and animal sellers, and has taught the crowds gathered in the Temple. We’ve looked at the content of his teaching. He said that the Temple was supposed to be a house of prayer, but that “you”- whoever “you” are- have made it a den of robbers. Jesus explained, from the OT, that the Temple was meant to be a place where people from all over the world could come and meet with God. Egyptians and Syrians and Romans- all of them could come here to pray to the God of Israel. That was the idea. But “you”- levelled primarily at those in charge of the Temple, and secondarily at the whole nation who had allowed it to happen- had made the place into a den of robbers. It had become a hideout for wicked men, the place where they go to escape from the consequences of their law-breaking.

That’s what the chief priests, scribes, and elders are talking about. They are outraged that Jesus has disrupted the Temple services, and they are furious that he dares to teach such things about the Temple and about those who govern it. He has made serious accusations against them. He has denigrated their authority. So they demand to know on what authority he dares to do such things. What are they trying to do here? They are already plotting against Jesus. This question does spring from their outrage that Jesus would dare to accuse them of wrongdoing, but it is not an immediate reaction. It is not a gut-level response, and eruption of rage coming straight after they’ve heard Jesus teaching against them. This question comes at least a day after Jesus cleared the Temple courts. The rulers of Israel have had time to confer and plan. This challenge is cleverly designed to force an admission out of Jesus that he sees himself as the Messiah, the king in David’s line. Jesus has been careful never to claim Messiahship openly. He has done so to his disciples, but he has kept it fairly quiet. He has even told men and demons to be silent when they would have identified him as the Holy One of God.

But recently, Jesus has publically acted like the Messiah, riding into the city in the way he did. And now these smooth experienced leaders want him to say something like “On whose authority?? I am the king of the Jews. This is my father’s house. I’m in charge here.” This question is a dangerous one. If Jesus had been naïve, he might have given an answer like that. And then his feet wouldn’t have touched the ground. He’d have been straight into the courtroom before Pilate, accused of supplanting Caesar.

 

3.      Is Jesus’ “answer” merely an evasion? Do these men have the authority to question Jesus?

I put the word “answer” in inverted commas, because it’s patently obvious that Jesus doesn’t really answer the question at all. In one sense, he’s not evading the question- the question he asks does answer their question, at least implicitly. But Jesus has no intention of sitting there and answering them, as though they had the right to demand answers from him. What is going on here is actually a very subtle power struggle, which Jesus wins hands down. Notice that he fails to answer their question, and instead asks them a question. Now, if Jeremy Paxman had Alistair Darling on Newsnight, and asked him a question, and Darling said, “Well, that’s a good question, but what I’d like to know is…” and then asked a question of his own; would Paxman let him get away with it? Of course not. Paxman would ignore Darling’s question, and say “Come on, Chancellor, answer the question”. But that doesn’t happen here. Jesus won’t tell them straight where his authority comes from. Instead, he simply asserts his authority by asking them a question. And apparently it doesn’t enter the heads of these men to say “Look, we’re asking the questions here, thank you so very much. And we just asked you- where do you get the authority to behave like this?” Jesus asks them a question, and they actually attempt to answer it- they treat it seriously. Now if these men had real authority, they’d sweep Jesus’ question aside as impertinence, and demand that he answer theirs. But they can’t. They just submit to Jesus’ authority without even realising they’ve done so.

And their answer shows them up to be shallow politicians. Notice that they are not actually interested in the truth of the matter at all. Once they try to answer Jesus question, they don’t do it right. They are not asking themselves, “Was John, in fact, a true prophet or a false prophet?” All they care about is how their answer will play in the public arena. For them, the important question is “What will the people think?” As it happens, they didn’t believe John’s message. But they are not thinking about how to answer the question truthfully at all. They are born spin doctors. They care only about politicking. They don’t care whether John or Jesus is a true prophet. They go for expediency, deciding that “We don’t know”, is the safest answer. Mark is scornful of them, which is great- “They feared the crowds”– you can hear the sneer.

 

4.      Why is John the Baptist a relevant figure to mention?

Of course, the implication in the question Jesus asks is that his authority comes from the same place as John’s. He serves the God John served. And John said that he was only the best man at the wedding, and that the bridegroom was yet to come. So in a way, the question originally asked is answered. But not in a way that will make any sense to a Roman court.

It’s very clever. Jesus says more than he could have said by a straight answer, but also less than he would have said by a straight answer. He doesn’t give his enemies an opportunity to haul him up on charges, but by mentioning John, he tells them that his authority is from God, and that their authority is a sham.

John, of course, had excommunicated all these men. As far as John was concerned, the whole Temple system was a bust. John was born of a priestly family, the son of Zechariah the priest. He himself could have taken his place, by right, among the priests. But he threw all that over. He didn’t go to minister in Jerusalem, the religious heart of the nation. Instead, he went out into the desert and expected the people to come to him. John declared that Israel was no longer God’s people, unless they all repented.  He baptised people- which was what you usually did to Gentile proselytes seeking to worship with the Jews- but John baptised good Jews. As far as John was concerned, the only real Jew was a Jew who had been baptised by him. He preached that the whole nation had become corrupt, that every Jew needed to repent and become a Jew all over again, and that God’s judgement was surely not far off for this wicked nation- “the axe is even now at the root”, he said. John was saying “It’s no longer enough to be Jewish. Messiah is coming, and he’s looking for faithful Jews.” He baptised at the Jordan, the original entry point to the land, as though the land was still full of Caananites and needed to be conquered all over again. Everything John did and said worked towards the goal of preparing a new Israel, ready for Messiah. And in doing so, he implicitly declared that everything the official Jews were doing at the Temple was worthless. It was all pomp and show, and no reality.

There may also be echoes of suffering here. John, let us not forget, had his head cut off for being a preacher of righteousness. If Jesus is continuing where John left off, then what lies in store for Jesus?

 

5.      Jesus then tells a parable. How are we to interpret the meaning? How does the quote from Psalm 118 add to the parable?

Jesus talks about a vineyard in the hands of tenants. The tenants are corrupt and greedy; they refuse to give the owner of the vineyard his due, and they kill his son and heir. Given the context, the interpretation is rather obvious. We’ve just had the acted-out parable of the fig tree. Then we’ve had the Jewish leaders demanding to see Jesus’ license for Temple-wrecking. And then Jesus has asked them about John- who was put to death for his ministry. So now Jesus tells in words the story he’d acted out with the fig tree.

Both the fig tree and the vineyard were pictures of Israel. Figs and vines are both naturally symbolic of prosperity and plenty. In the Israel of Jesus’ day, you didn’t have sugar (we didn’t have sugar in this country until around the time of the Crusades). So there were none of the sweet foods we eat today. Fruits and honey were the sweetest things around, and especially sweet fruits were figs and grapes. A farmer would grow corn or wheat or vegetables as stock crops to make sure he and his family had enough to eat; he would keep animals to eat on special occasions; and if he still had money and land, he could grow fig trees or vines, and have figs to eat and wine to drink. Fig trees and vineyards were supposed to bring joy. So Jeremiah, prophesying of the coming invasion by Babylon, says “behold, I am bringing against you a nation from afar, O House of Israel, says the Lord… They shall eat up your harvest and your food… They shall eat up your flocks and your herds, they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees.” The figs and vines are in a different category to the other crops.

The parable draws on many parts of the OT. There’s certainly an echo of Isaac there with the “beloved son” who is killed. But it’s based most heavily on a song Isaiah sang- in chapter 5 of his prophecy. In brutal summary of that song: God had a vineyard. It was unfruitful despite every effort from God. God destroyed it. In more detail: God planted a vineyard, Israel. He tended that nation, cared for it, as a man cares for his vineyard. A careful farmer will make sure that his vine is well fertilised, well drained, well watered. He builds a hedge around it to protect it from animals who would trample on it and eat the grapes. He gets ready to enjoy the crop, carving out a wine vat in which to tread the grapes into wine. And in like manner, God cared for Israel. He rescued them from Egypt. He gave them the law. He gave them a land for their own. He separated them from the Gentiles who would have dragged them down into idolatry and wickedness. He put them on the path of righteousness. He defended them from their enemies, gave them priests, Nazirites and prophets to show them the way they should go. God did everything Israel could have wanted. And yet this vine bore no fruit. God looked for a nation who feared him and loved him, but he found a stiff-necked and disobedient people.

Jesus introduces an important twist into Isaiah’s story. He makes the prophets and the Jewish leaders into key players in his drama. Israel is still God’s vineyard, the place where God looks to find sweet and delightful fruit. But we have some new characters too. The prophets are the ministers of God, sent to collect the fruit from the vineyard. The Jewish leaders are the tenants; the men who ought to be caring for the vineyard and making it bear fruit for God. But as Jesus sees it, the tenants have been a bunch of crooks and cheaters. They haven’t been tending the vineyard on the master’s behalf at all. They’ve been looking out for themselves. And so they beat the prophets up and wound them in the head. Maybe Jesus intends particular prophets to be brought to mind here- John the Baptist is an obvious candidate. But Jesus’ point is that all down the centuries, the Jewish leaders have used Israel as their own personal property. Jesus skewers their thinking exactly. They think of their positions as rulers as theirs by right, to be used for personal profit and comfort. And when they see Jesus, they are worried that he has come to take the vineyard off them. So they will kill him in order to keep “their” vineyard.

Jesus warns them; their plans will come to nothing. They might kill the Son, but the Father will be angry and will destroy them and give the vineyard to others. Jesus prefigures his own death, and the giving of God’s people into the care of his apostles. But the immediate point is to predict that these leaders won’t change their attitude just because a son has come rather than a servant. They rejected a prophet like John and disbelieved his message- they say so here. And now that Jesus has come, they are not about to repent of their course of action.

Just in case they might have missed it, Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 118- “the stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” Who are the builders? The chief priests, scribes and elders were the builders, building Israel as God’s house. But they were rotten builders, and the house they were building was a rotten structure- because they had rejected the most important stone. They were not building according to Gods blueprint. Jesus was the keystone to Gods plans, and they refused to recognise him. Jesus is God made known, he is the outshining of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (Heb 1:3). Those who know him, know the Father, as he himself said (Jn 14:8f). Jesus is the sacrifice provided for sinners to come to God. He is central to any true knowledge of God. Nobody comes to the Father, except through him. And when the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus, they rejected God. Men who set themselves against God are like men who jump from the cliffs onto the rocks far below, and think that they will break the rocks apart and walk off unscathed. God destroyed those men, and gave the vineyard to others.

 

6.      When the Jewish leaders hear Jesus’ parable, they clearly interpret it as hostile to them. Are they right? How does Jesus view these men?

They can’t really miss it, can they? It is very hostile. Which shows us Jesus’ attitude towards them. He wasn’t trying to be nice to them. He wasn’t trying to win them over. They were wicked men, and Jesus simply condemned them for it. If they wanted to repent at this point, they still could. But Jesus knows they won’t, and he isn’t going to plead with them to see sense.

 

7.      Why does Mark tell us that “they left him and went away”?

Because Jesus has just won. This has been a battle. The question they asked about authority was a perceptive one. They were manoeuvring to get Jesus to make a damaging statement. But actually, the question of authority is key. Jesus, remember, is in the Temple. He is slap bang where they think their power rests. If these official Jews are in charge anywhere, they’re in charge in the Temple. But Jesus walks in and starts acting as though he’s the boss. They come to cut him down to size, but the encounter ends with them beating the retreat. They leave Jesus and go away. Jesus is still in possession of the disputed territory. He is still Lord of the Temple.

 

8.      How does this passage fit into Mark’s developing story?

In all sorts of ways. It is a ratcheting up of hostility, and a prefiguring of things to come.

It shows that the suffering is certainly not over, just because the crowds acclaim Jesus as the Davidic king. The crowds might all be on Jesus’ side for now- but the crowds were on John’s side too, and it didn’t do him much good. The fact is that the official leaders of Judaism- the chief priests, the legal experts, and the rabbis, are all against Jesus. They are actively out to get him. Jesus can make them look foolish with ease, but sooner or later, their hatred will hurt him. These men hated John, and that made it easy for Herod to do away with him- he knew there would be no objections from the ruling elite. If John had had the support of the Jewish elite, Herod would almost certainly not have dared to cut off his head. Jesus saw John’s execution as the responsibility of Israel as a whole, not Herod alone- “They did to him as they pleased” (Mark 9:13).

And it gives us a preview of Jesus’ death. Jesus has already told the disciples three times that he is going to Jerusalem to die. But now he says it to a wider audience- albeit in parable form. The tension mounts.

 

9.      What should we take from this passage?

We can see Jesus here. We can see him being wise and deft in handling hostile questions, and we can love him for that and try to imitate his wisdom to know how to deal with enemies, and how to tell when somebody is a real enemy.

But more than that, we can see his love for us. God still has a vineyard, he still has a people. But he has taken it from the corrupt leaders, and given it to others. Pre-eminently, Jesus himself is the keeper of the vineyard.

Jesus is the son of the parable. But although the son in the parable didn’t know what was going to happen to him, Jesus did. And he came to the vineyard anyway. Knowing that wicked men would lay hands on him and put him to death, he came anyway. He loved his people so much, that he came to die for them. And he still cares for his church. He gave her faithful leaders, the apostles and those who came after them.

Some of us are leaders in our churches, and our responsibility is the greater. We can be warned not to think of the church as our personal property. If we can be said to hold it at all, we hold it in trust for one who loves it jealously.

All of us are members of churches. We can all remember that Jesus loves his church, and so seek to bear fruit, and to help others to be fruitful.

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