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Tony's Reflection 88
I don’t think I have ever seen so many dives and flea pits as I did 40 years ago, when I was a student and went flat-hunting.
The worst was a small, dark room in the back of a tenement, with hardly any natural light. The wall where the window was had been knocked through, to make an entrance into a tiny greenhouse. The wooden frame around the greenhouse panes was rotten and the wind whistled in through the holes. What were once shelves for plants now made kitchen “worktops” and there was a draughty shower cubicle in one corner. Even in spring, it was perishing cold. It was hard to believe anyone would put that up for let.
Dodgy landlords are not a modern phenomenon. Back in Jesus day, there were plenty of absentee landlords, living in luxury, consigning tenants to squalor. In today’s episode
Mark brings us a parable about tenants and landlords - with a shocking role reversal.
Jesus and those with him are still in the temple. He has dumbfounded the assembled leaders with his question about John the Baptist. They are rooted to the spot, like rabbits caught in the glare of headlights. Mesmerised and helpless in the face of the power of his words. They had been so cocksure when they asked about his own authority, but now they are speechless and defenceless. Unable to turn away, their feet are rooted to the ground.
The crowd watch, open-mouthed. They cannot believe the carpenter has silenced the temple elite. They relish the discomfort and the shifty, shameful looks on the leaders’ faces.
Jesus starts to tell a parable. He is in the midst of white-hot controversy… surely not a time for stories? Yet there is a sting in this tale, a sharp one …
“A man planted a vineyard…”
Vinegrowing was one of the major industries in Israel. This was familiar territory. This is clearly a premium vineyard. A wall provides shelter from the wind, reflecting the sun’s heat back onto the grapes; a watchtower, for a guardsman to keep away pests, animal and human; its own built-in wine press, so you could go from fruit to flaggon all on one site.
Peter’s mind went way back, to the first time he heard Jesus teaching in parables. Stories of seeds and shopping bags came flooding back. Back then, the parables were simply quirky stories to those on the outside. It was only the insiders who had the mysteries explained.
This time, it was different. Everyone knew what he was talking about. They all knew the words and stories of the old prophets off by heart. Isaiah had written a song about a vineyard, also complete with watchtower and wine press. Jesus was picking up the old song, where the vineyard had been Israel, but the story was about to take an unfamiliar twist.
It seems this owner isn’t going to enjoy the vineyard himself. He’s going to let it out, to tenants. In his absence, the tenants will have total control over the vineyard.
The crowd are already figuring this story out. The vineyard is Israel. The owner is God. And the owner puts the tenants in charge of his vineyard. Who are these “tenants” who have been put in charge of the “vineyard” of Israel? It doesn’t take long for the penny to drop. The “tenants” are the religious leaders. All eyes are now fixed on the temple rulers, now looking distinctly uneasy, shuffling nervously, wondering what is coming next.
It’s harvest time. The tenants will soon be raking in the money. The landlord sends a servant with a polite request for a share of the fruit. Surprising the landlord only wants “some”…
The tenants, though, turn on the servant, beat him and send him away empty-handed. No one expected this. They are used to ruthless landlords – but ruthless tenants?
Further servants are sent. Some are beaten. Others are killed. This is unheard of. It is unthinkable. Despicable. Outrageous. Tenants would never dare affront a landlord like this.
Outside the temple stand the statues of the prophets. Now, they are honoured. But in their day, the religious leaders of Israel had persecuted them, rejecting their message from God. The sting in the story comes home … The crowd realise that the “landlord’s servants” are the prophets. The tenants are the religious leaders who have a shameful history of rejecting God’s messengers.
The landlord now has no servants left to send. The only one left in his household is his precious son. He cannot believe the tenants will disrespect his son, so now he will go to collect the rent.
The tenants, though, turn on the son and kill him too. They know that, according to Jewish law, once the landlord is dead, if there is no heir, they will inherit the vineyard. They murder the son and wish death upon the landlord.
By now the crowd are utterly outraged. Jesus seizes the moment. “What do you think the landlord will do to those tenants? He will kill the wretches and find himself new tenants for his vineyard.” There is a loud cheer from the crowd as they see justice done at last.
The religious leaders simply stand and glower. They knew full well Jesus claimed to be the “son” of the landlord. They were already plotting how they could do away with him. This had been in their dark chambers, a closely guarded secret. How did Jesus know?
The crowd puzzle, too. Who in their right mind would want to kill the final and highest messenger from God? Who would refuse to respect a landlord who sends his own son to collect his dues? The landlord had then killed the tenants. Would their respected religious leaders really bring that same fate upon themselves?
There is no puzzle for the religious leaders. They know exactly what Jesus is saying. When the time was right, they would silence him. For good.
It takes a stone hard heart to turn away from the Son, God’s ultimate messenger. But people still do. The consequences are even more dire than befell those tenants, in the story. More dire than those which came on the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. These consequences are for real. And they last for all eternity.