Built on a rock

When something goes wrong, do you look to blame others?  Do you look to take responsiblity?  Do you look to Jesus?

Full Text: 

Built on a rock

February 28, 2016 – Mark 12:1-12


I got a chance to tour the Dane County Jail this week.  Christa Fisher, the interim chaplain there, invited me to join members of the Madison Area Lutheran Council.  We were led by Sergeant Boldt (Sheriff Mahoney had called in sick.)  He has been serving there for over 25 years. 

At one point, one of the members of the board asked him what changes he had seen over that period of time.  The sergeant said that the change he has seen applies not just to the jail but across society.  When he was growing up, he said, and something happened that was not supposed to, his father and grandfather had taught him to look at himself first and to ask if he bore any responsibility for what happened.  If he could determine that, objectively, he did not, then – and only then – he could look at other people.  Now, he said, people don’t look at themselves first.  They look at others.  They are much more likely to blame others than to take personal responsibility.


The parable that Jesus tells in today’s reading is a call to personal responsibility.

Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem.  He has made his entry to the celebration of the crowds and the chanting of Hosanna.  On his first visit to the temple, he spends his time house-cleaning.  He overturns tables and drives out those who are buying and selling and changing money. 

He quotes the scriptures – “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” And then he says, “But you have made it a den of robbers!”

This does not endear him to the chief priests and the scribes. They are enraged.  They want to kill him but the people are captivated by him.

            So, when Jesus returns to the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders – the enemies of Jesus – confront him.  “By what authority are you doing these things?  Who gives you the right?”

            Jesus knows they aren’t really interested in the question of authority.  They’re only interested in protecting their turf and in getting rid of him.  So he responds to their question with a question of his own – “By what authority did John baptize?  Was his authority from heaven or was it from earth?”

            His opponents are not sure how to answer.  If they say, “from heaven,” Jesus will ask them, “Well, then, why don’t you follow him?”  If they say, “from earth,” they will offend all those who do follow him, for John is very popular.

            So, they say, “We don’t know.”

            Jesus says, “Since you won’t answer my question, I won’t answer yours.”  Which, of course, did not win him any friends among the chief priests, the scribes and the elders either.

Although Jesus does not answer their question, that doesn’t mean he has nothing more to say.  He speaks, but in the form of a parable.  It’s a parable like that told by Isaiah.  Isaiah says, God is like a vineyard owner.  God bought the best land, dug it, cleared it of stones and planted choice vines.  God also put up a stone wall to protect it and built a watchtower to guard it.  But, even with all that extra special care, the vineyard yielded only wild grapes – grapes unusable in wine.  So, God will destroy the vineyard, because he wanted justice, but saw only corruption.  God wanted compassion, but saw only cruelty.

            Jesus extends this image of the vineyard owner.  A man planted a vineyard, gave it over to farmhands to take care, then went off on a long journey.  The time came to collect the profits.  Rather than return himself, he sent a servant. But the farmhands just beat him up and drove him off.  He sent another; that one they tarred and feathered.  He sent a third; that one they killed.  And so it went. The vineyard owner kept sending servants; the farmhands beat them or killed them.

            Finally, the vineyard owner says, “I will send my son.  Surely they will respect him.”

            But the farmhands said, “Now’s our chance!  If we kill the son, the vineyard will become ours!”  So they grabbed him, killed him and threw him over the fence.

            At last, he cleans house.  He destroys the tenants and gives the vineyard to others.

            Again, Jesus quotes scripture: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  This is the Lord’s doing; and it marvelous in our eyes!


            I think there are a couple of strange things about this parable.  The first is – what are they thinking?  “If we kill the son, the land (or the company or everything) will become ours!”  How do they jump to that conclusion?  Or are they simply so deluded they think that they will never get caught no matter what they do?  Like the investors who ran the Ponzi schemes.  But perhaps there are things that we do to protect ourselves, to obtain possession of other things, which make sense to us in our passion, but, when we examine them objectively, are pretty crazy.

            But it’s not just the behavior of the tenants that makes no sense to me.  The behavior of the vineyard owner makes no sense to me.  How is it that he thinks – after sending countless servants – all of whom are beaten, driven off or killed – that sending his son is a good idea?  Who among us would send our children into such a dangerous situation?

            Certainly, we could read this parable as a teaching about how God has finally gotten fed up with Israel and has now made the church his chosen people.  But that leaves us with a hard theological question – Can God un-choose the chosen people?  Can God go back on a promise of eternal faithfulness?  Because if God can do it with Israel, then God can also do it with us.

            Isaiah, who tells the original vineyard parable, says, many chapters later, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb.  Even these may forget, but I will not forget you!”  (49:15)

            And Paul, in struggling with the question of God’s faithfulness to Israel says, in Romans, “I ask, then, has God rejected his people?  By no means!” (11:1)


            So, where does that leave us?  What do we do with this crazy story?  We could see this story simply as the narrative vehicle by which Mark (as well as Matthew and Luke) brings the simmering hostility of the religious leaders toward this challenger to a boil and hardens their resolve against him.  And it certainly is that.

            Or we could see this story as about us.  Not that God has rejected us.  (By no means!)  But as a call to moral responsibility.  This begins with self-examination.  What has God given us that we use for our own purposes without reference to God?  What has God given me that I have seen as my own apart from God? What do I need to bring back?  What do I need to return to the light of my relationship with God?  Where is my heart?

            What behavior of mine that I do over and over again thinking it will bring me happiness, but does not?  Maybe we are the crazy ones.


            On Thursday afternoon, I was at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage for our bi-monthly mindfulness meditation group.  In the course of the discussion, one of the guys commented that, when you come to prison, you get labeled.  You get labeled for whatever you did and you keep that label even if what you did was 30 years ago.  (And, by and large, I agree with that.)  Then, a younger man chimed in, “Yeah, they keep us locked up and they don’t do anything for rehabilitation.  They expect us to get better, but we just get worse.”  (And I think there is a lot of truth in that statement as well.)

            But then one of the older guys said, “My first day in prison I decided that my rehabilitation was my responsibility.”  And a number of the other men nodded their heads.  Rehabilitation starts when you take responsibility for your own actions. 


            Maybe we are the crazy ones.  Maybe we need to take responsibility for our own actions.  Maybe we need to take responsibility for our won rehabilitation.  But if we do, we will not do it alone.

Because maybe God is the crazy one – sending servant after servant who is forcefully rejected.  Maybe you think that sending his son is an act of sheer lunacy.  Or you could think of these actions of actions of great love, time and again calling us back, even being willing to risk his own son, is an act of great, great love, simply because God wants you back.

So, now is the time.  Now is the time to take responsibility for your own life.  Now is the time to take responsibility for your own rehabilitation.  Now is the time to build your life on the stone that was rejected, but became the true cornerstone.

Now is the time to build your life on Jesus.