(A sermon on Mark 11.27-12.12 preached at Wine Before Breakfast on March 3, 2015.)
It’s been a week since Brian started us down the road with Bartimaeus, the once blind beggar leaping and following Jesus from Jericho to Jerusalem. Between then and now in Mark’s gospel, Bartimaeus’ eyes have seen:
Jesus approach the Mount of Olives
commandeer a village donkey,
mount his steed,
and ride down into David’s city
accompanied by an impromptu procession,
a front and rear guard of Passover pilgrims,
rolling out their clothes like a red carpet,
gathering palms from the fields,
and shouting their fool heads off.
Bartimaeus has seen Jesus and his disciples
enter the temple in the evening,
take a good look around, leave,
only to head back in the morning,
curse a barren fig tree on the way,
drive out buyers and sellers,
overthrow their tables,
bring the temple to a standstill,
hiss (or is that curse?) some words from the prophets
and then leave again,
as a fig tree withers to its roots behind them.
And now, Bartimaeus sees Jesus make a third trip to the temple.
And he braces himself for the escalation.
No sooner has Jesus slipped back in than the temple establishment
—a group of ordained clergy, biblical theologians, and respected elders—
head him off.
And then … they talk.
More like a stand off, or an inquisition.
It starts with a question:
“By what authority are doing these things?”
Where’d you get the nerve?
What (or who) gives you the right
to reel in the holy place like some drunk?
Not only is it a fair question; if anything, Jesus has forced the question.
“What gives you the right to do these things?”
The problem isn’t their question.
You know, it may be the only question that matters.
The problem is that they’re not really asking it.
“I will answer your question,
tell me about John’s baptism—
where did the authority for that come from?”
After an awkward pause, they reply,
“We don’t know.”
Now, if that was a case of
sudden onset epistemic humility,
the fallen shoulders of an honest skeptic
weary and wanting to be persuaded,
that’d be one thing.
But Mark tells us what’s going on.
This is the fear talking.
This is self-defence.
After all, they know who they are. They are the builders—the builders of the nation, the keepers of the temple, the protectors of the people, the tenant-farmers of God’s beloved vineyard Israel.
If they were to say what they really think—that John and Jesus are a sham—there’s no telling just what these Passover pilgrims might do—because it’s pretty clear who they’re ready to follow. And it’s hard to be the nation builders once you’ve lost the people. It’s hard to control the vineyard when the vines belong to someone else.
So suppose they say John’s baptism was authorized by heaven. Well, then they can already hear the question Jesus would ask.
“So why didn’t you believe him?”
And that question’s just a little too dangerous.
Because the truth is
that they’ve decided they don’t want to believe John.
The truth is
they don’t want to believe Jesus.
And the story Jesus tells in response reveals why.
It’s not the first time someone’s told a story like this.
Jesus is covering Isaiah’s song of the vineyard; he’s adapted it into a parable.
But Jesus’ version reaches further than Isaiah’s did.
It tells the sad story of Israel, God’s vineyard.
The tenant-farmers—Israel’s kings, priests, theologians, elders, and sometimes the people themselves—have a history of mocking, and beating, and murdering God’s prophets sent to harvest the fruit of justice and faithfulness.
But Jesus’ story takes a far more insidious twist.
The planter of this vineyard won’t back down. He should abandon the vineyard or torch it. But after everything he still wants something to do with the tenants. Surely, he reasons—too naively—they would honour my son if I sent him.
But when the tenant-farmers recognize the son coming,
they see the chance they’ve been waiting for:
they could have the vineyard all to themselves,
and they say the same thing
Joseph’s brothers said when they saw their father’s favourite coming:
“Here comes the heir. If he’s out of the picture,
the inheritance is ours.”
They kill the son, and they throw his body out of the vineyard.
Jesus’ story answers their question about who sent him.
But it also answers the question that they don’t want him to ask:
“Why didn’t you believe John? Why don’t you believe me?”
Because if they did, then they couldn’t be the builders anymore.
They’ve seen the crowds go after John and Jesus;
they’ve heard Jesus tell them they have it all wrong;
they’ve seen him threaten the temple.
If God sent Jesus, then they could lose it all.
And more than anything,
they want to keep what they’ve built;
there’s no room in the plan for a new cornerstone.
They want to be their own.
Their stand off with Jesus is a Lenten moment.
And it’s why Lent is terrifying.
“If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves
and take up their cross
and follow me.
“Whoever saves their life will lose it
whoever loses their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will keep it,”
For them to turn back now
and believe John and Jesus
would all have to die.
And because they’re not willing to die,
Jesus has to.
It’s the only way to keep what they have.
from where they sit
it’s either going to be him
or it’s going to be them.
So when Bartimaeus, who pleaded for Jesus to let him see again, looks at them,
he sees people closing their eyes as tightly as they can.
But, you know, it’s not their stubbornness,
their inflexible fantasy of autonomy that surprises me.
I know too well what I’m capable of when
Jesus trespasses on the borders of my self,
when he calls into question
my most cherished stories,
my deepest ambitions,
my most convenient privileges,
my favourite self-fashionings,
and when he says “mine”
to the very heart of me.
I will, and have, done anything I can to silence Jesus.
So what surprises me isn’t their stubbornness.
It’s that Jesus’ mercy is infinitely more stubborn and relentless.
His question was never just a trap. It was an out,
an eleventh hour intervention of mercy.
“Come on. Where did John’s baptism come from?”
Even now, it’s not too late to turn.
And Jesus’ story wasn’t just a brutal sendup.
It was a reality check,
drawn in large, startling figures
to get the attention of the nearly blind:
“Don’t you see where this story is going? “
Even now, it’s not too late to turn.
It doesn’t have to play out like this.
In the end, though, they refuse to see.
They won’t be turned around.
But it doesn’t ultimately matter
because neither will Jesus.
You can reject the cornerstone;
but you can’t keep him in the scrap heap.
You can stand Jesus up at the gates of hell,
you can bind him hand and feet
and throw him into outer darkness,
until he weeps and gnashes his teeth,
but he’ll be damned if he’ll give up on mercy.
Even now, it’s not too late.
That doesn’t mean
we can’t lock ourselves securely inside ourselves,
and shut our eyes as tight as we can.
But if Bartimaeus reminds us of anything
it’s that blindness doesn’t much stop Jesus either.
Jesus doesn’t accept our endings.
And the way he ends the story hints
that somewhere on the other side of a cross and an empty tomb,
beyond our blindness,
past the stamina of our stubbornness,
there’s the possibility of joyful surrender:
“the stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this is the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes.”