Mark 12:1-12 The memorial tied to a pole has weathered more than 4 seasons. The mylar balloon is crumpled and hanging down instead of floating upward. The stuffed bear is dirty and missing an eye. No one wants to take it down. It marks a sacred spot. A spot where one human being took the life of another human being. A spot that serves as a constant reminder of violence, visible and invisible. Beneath acts of visible violence lie the ongoing processes of structural violence (like discrimination or profiling of any kind) and the even more pervasive cultural violence (like poverty, racism, and the conscious and unconscious demeaning, negative or arrogant judgements we constantly make about people and actions). We are talking about the systemic, insidious violence which permeates our society. So much so that we have stopped noticing the groups or communities which do not have a place at the tables of power, the places of decision making. So much so that we don’t even notice the violence of extreme poverty and what that does to a person’s psyche, how that shapes a child’s world view. So much so that we just assume that repeated violence is the norm and when the next memorial of balloons and a teddy bear goes up down the street we are not surprised.
In an environment like this, it seems next to impossible to find the kingdom of God. Instead we seem to be surrounded by the kingdom of the NRA, the kingdom of the drug kingpins, the kingdom of the sex traffickers. It seems that those with the most power wield it over others in ways that constantly keep them at risk of experiencing injury, death, psychological harm, or deprivation. When people are at risk of those kinds of results due to an intentional use of physical force or power, the World Health Organization defines it as violence, whether that force or power is threatened or actual.
I am not ready to throw my hands in the air and give up, basically giving in to the power of people, organizations or institutions which operate by the rule of threatened or actual violence. How can we find the kingdom of God in the midst of this violent world?
The first step perhaps is to name it. To acknowledge the violent world we live in and the violent culture we participate in. Jesus was not afraid to name violence when he saw it. He tells a story to point a finger directly at the perpetrators of violence against God and God’s people. They are the church people with the power, church people who work hard to hold onto their traditions, church people who assume that they are the only ones with a key to God, church people who are afraid to lose it all as this Jesus movement continues to gain steam.
The leaders of the faith are the tenants, the arrogant ones who want the vineyard for themselves, even though it belongs to God. The vineyard is the people of God, the community of faith. Three times the owner of the vineyard sends messengers to collect his due from the grape sales. Three times the tenants use intentional, actual physical force to cause emotional and physical harm and even death. Beating over the head, insulting, refusing to turn over the owner’s share sounds like rebellion to me, mutiny, an attempted coup, a struggle for power. And then there is murder. This is the obvious violence, the visible violence in the story. Jesus calls them on the carpet for not listening to the prophets God has sent to tell the leaders to stop abusing the people, for ignoring the call to repentance. He seems to include a reference to John the Baptist who was more than beaten over the head.
But there is deeper violence in this story. First, the vineyard owner distrusts his community to the extent that he needs a fence around his vineyard. You could say that a fence is practical to keep out the deer, but I think the fence is more than that. He lives in a world where honesty and trustworthiness are not expected. He lives in a world where you assume you need an alarm system because people out there are bad. He builds a watchtower out of fear of being attacked, out of a need to prepare for expected violence. We live in that world too. We build fences and walls because we are afraid. We are afraid we will lose something that we think is ours– in the story it is property. But it can be power, authority, money, even life. Let’s build a wall to keep out the bad guys, we say. It really has never worked. In our self-righteous thinking, we forget that there are always bad guys on the inside as well.
There is more. This guy not only owns grape vines. He owns people. No matter what the time period in history, slavery is a violent institution. A slaveowner commits violence against those individuals he forces to work for him, people who have to obey him, people without any power, people at great risk of experiencing injury, death, psychological harm, or deprivation, all parts of the definition of violence. Let me be clear here–I don’t think Jesus is equating God with a slaveowner, but he uses the existing violent system of owning people as a way to get his point across.
If we are hunting for the kingdom of God, we first acknowledge the realities of the world we live in. The next step in searching for the kingdom of God in the midst of violence is to look for what God is doing. In the story, the gracious action of God is surprising. After all, what vineyard owner would put up with this kind of treatment on the part of his tenants? The police should have been called, arrests made. After all of this violence, abuse and murder, this owner does something wildly unexpected… he sends his Son, giving the greedy, abusive, wicked tenants another chance. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,…” God is always the giver, the one who offers grace. Even to people mired in violence. Even to people who killed his Son. God works in the midst of the intentional use of physical force or power to harm others.
I continue to be in awe of the way God works through people of faith who refuse to let the violence win. The violence of alcoholism and all that goes along with it finally claimed the life of Eggy a couple of summers ago. I got a glimpse of the kingdom of God when his neighbors on Harlem Avenue gathered for a memorial service on the sidewalk near where he lived, singing and reading scripture, sharing stories and supporting one another, remembering the good pieces of Eggy’s life. That same violence of addiction along with homelessness basically killed Cathy. Her friends who lived in tents in the woods asked to have a memorial service in the church. Cathy’s friends came, her estranged daughter came, church people came. Her daughter wrote me a note of thanks, saying that she had no idea that her mother had such a support system and was surrounded by people who loved her. She was grateful. God is doing things in the midst of violence.
This story does not have a good ending. The wicked tenants have gone too far down the road toward a power grab, toward seeing themselves as able to climb out of being renters and becoming owners with authority and power. They can’t see that this is their last chance to repent and make amends with the vineyard owner. They only see the Son as a barrier to the inheritance. They murder the owner’s son, and then, to place additional insult on top of the vineyard owner’s grief and pain, they throw the son’s dead body outside the fence. Kind of like the guy who beats you up and then turns around and spits on you too, to tell you how he really feels.
Now the vineyard owner has lost his patience. The tenants will be destroyed. The care of the vineyard will be given to others. The church people had showed a complete inability to be responsible with their assignment to care for the vineyard, to care for God’s people. Violence begets violence, we have always heard. How true it is.
Jesus quotes a psalm they all would have known. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” These church people considered themselves the builders and maintainers of the religious tradition. They decide the stones they want to include and which ones they will reject They have made a grave mistake here, and are rejecting the wrong stone. This stone, this Son of God, will be the most valuable stone of all.
The destruction of the church people is not immediate. They crucified the Son and claimed ownership of God’s people for a couple of decades, until the temple was destroyed at the hands of the Romans and they were left with zero power, zero authority, zero hope. They lost it all. There is no room for arrogance in God’s vineyard.
We have started the year with 35 homicides in Baltimore. 35 families in mourning. 35 pairs of shoes gathering dust in the closet. 35 too many. And the violence underneath it? Frustration at the constraints of poverty. Desperation and fear of being stopped by police. Addiction to drugs, to alcohol, to power over others. Blatant racism and unconscious bias. Gender inequality in the workplace. Absentee landlords. Stress at home. Hopelessness.
Violence permeates deep down in our culture. We must name it. We can see its effects. So where will we find the kingdom of God at work in the midst of a violent world? We will find it in God’s servants inside and outside of the church who take seriously their responsibility to care for all of God’s people. We will find it in people who refuse to be arrogant. In people who share power and invite others to the table. I hope we will find the kingdom of God in people like you and me, even though we live in a world filled with violence. We can be the ones who say, “that’s enough!”. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Returning peace for violence says, “that’s enough”. We certainly have enough darkness. Let’s continue to look for the light of God’s kingdom at work, even in the night. Amen.