Mark 12, 1-17 no. 36 Nov. 21

If we have read of Jesus’ power (over sin, sickness, nature, death) in the first eight chapters, we now read of Jesus’ wisdom, whether it be the wisdom expressed after each of his three prophecies about the passion/resurrection, or it be the wisdom he now shows in his brief teaching in the Temple area.

This latter teaching is unaccompanied by miracles such as characterized the first half of the Gospel; all is somber now, with the thoughts of crucifixion and contentiousness and refusal that now dominate the Gospel. Jesus now is against the east wall of the Temple compound, under an overhanging, protective, lengthy roof held up by pillars; here many teachers taught. Getting no answer to his question, "Was John’s baptism from divine or human origin?", Jesus now responds with a parable suited to the stubbornness of the Jewish leaders to admit the truth and bow to God’s will. Jesus tells a parable about an owner of vineyard who made sure he had a proper vineyard, with hedge and wine-press and (eight-foot) tower. He goes on a journey after leaving his vineyard to tenants; they care for the vineyard so that the master will have a profit from his endeavors. As the story goes, the tenant-farmers beat up or killed any servant the master sent to pick up his just income from his vineyard. What these tenants did to servants should not, the master thinks, be what they do to the vineyard owner’s only son, so beloved to him. But he, too, is killed and left unburied. (According to the contemporary law of Israel, if the only inheritor of an absentee, Gentile vineyard master dies, the tenant farmers have a right to the vineyard property.)

The story means to picture the rejection of God’s prophets over centuries, prophets who had called for the ’fruit of the vine’, i.e. good deeds, those deeds in accordance with the Law of Moses. The picture also includes the rejection of the son, ’My beloved son’, as Jesus has already been called by God at baptism and Transfiguration. The abuse of the son is underlined by his being thrown outside the city walls, to be whom? The parable proper ends with the only logical conclusion: the master of the vineyard will put the tenants to death and ask others to tend his vines. Jesus’ threat to the Jewish leadership is very thinly veiled; given his divinely decreed role, however, Jesus’ menacing words are meant to change, if possible, the hearts of those who continue to refuse God’s will. He wants their happiness, not their annihilation. To the parable of the vineyard is added a small observation about the irony of a stone, once rejected by stone-specialists, which the Lord has made the cornerstone of his building, perhaps of his Temple. Jesus was that stone, the foundation of the church Mark knows in Rome. It is the bulk of the Sanhedrin who is the object of Jesus’ bitter words, ’those responsible for the fruit of the vineyard’; the people are now, and always have been on the side of Jesus; the Sanhedrin members are wary of turning the crowds against themselves so they went away...for awhile. Will they repent or become even further hardened?

The question about payment of taxes to the Emperor is a clever trap. The Pharisees, so opposed to Rome, hope Jesus will oppose taxes and so be branded a revolutionary and killed; the Herodians, those in the employ of Herod Antipas and in favor of taxes, hope Jesus will support taxation and so lose the support of the Israelite populace whom Rome so heavily taxed. Jesus seems in favor of abiding by the law; at least he phrases his response in such a way that he leaves it to his antagonists to speak in favor of taxation. However, Jesus does not confront the more basic question: does Caesar have a right to tax Israel in any way he wishes? That is, to Caesar belongs what is his, yes, and what has his image and inscription on it is admittedly a sign that it is his – give it to him; but does he have a right to tax, and to tax as he wishes? Jesus does not answer that question here. The story, recounting how the Sanhedrin tried to embroil Jesus so that he made a serious error, ends on a note closer to the heart of Jesus. Human beings are in the image of God; that shows that they belong to God. Give to God what is His, you who are in the image and likeness of God. We are back at the center of things: repent, return to God!

John Kilgallen, SJ

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