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Mar_12:1 - Mar_12:12 .
The ecclesiastical rulers had just been questioning Jesus as to the authority by which He acted. His answer, a counter-question as to John’s authority, was not an evasion. If they decided whence John came, they would not be at any loss as to whence Jesus came. If they steeled themselves against acknowledging the Forerunner, they would not be receptive of Christ’s message. That keen-edged retort plainly indicates Christ’s conviction of the rulers’ insincerity, and in this parable He charges home on these solemn hypocrites their share in the hereditary rejection of messengers whose authority was unquestionable. Much they cared for even divine authority, as they and their predecessors had shown through centuries! The veil of parable is transparent here. Jesus increased in severity and bold attack as the end drew near.
I. The parable begins with a tender description of the preparation and allotment of the vineyard.
The picture is based upon Isaiah’s lovely apologue Isa_5:1, which was, no doubt, familiar to the learned officials. But there is a slight difference in the application of the metaphor which in Isaiah means the nation, and in the parable is rather the theocracy as an institution, or, as we may put it roughly, the aggregate of divine revelations and appointments which constituted the religious prerogatives of Israel.
Our Lord follows the original passage in the description of the preparation of the vineyard, but it would probably be going too far to press special meanings on the wall, the wine-press, and the watchman’s tower. The fence was to keep off marauders, whether passers-by or ‘the boar out of the wood’ Psa_80:12 - Psa_80:13; the wine-press, for which Mark uses the word which means rather the vat into which the juice from the press proper flowed, was to extract and collect the precious liquid; the tower was for the watchman.
A vineyard with all these fittings was ready for profitable occupation. Thus abundantly had God furnished Israel with all that was needed for fruitful, happy service. What was true of the ancient Church is still more true of us who have received every requisite for holy living. Isaiah’s solemn appeal has a still sharper edge for Christians: ‘Judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard. What could have been done more to my vineyard that I have not done in it?’
The ‘letting of the vineyard to husbandmen’ means the committal to Israel and its rulers of these divine institutions, and the holding them responsible for their fruitfulness. It may be a question whether the tenants are to be understood as only the official persons, or whether, while these are primarily addressed, they represent the whole people. The usual interpretation limits the meaning to the rulers, but, if so, it is difficult to carry out the application, as the vineyard would then have to be regarded as being the nation, which confuses all. The language of Matthew which threatens the taking of the vineyard and giving it to another nation obliges us to regard the nation as included in the husbandmen, though primarily the expression is addressed to the rulers.
But more important is it to note the strong expressions for man’s quasi-independence and responsibility. The Jew was invested with full possession of the vineyard. We all, in like manner, have intrusted to us, to do as we will with, the various gifts and powers of Christ’s gospel. God, as it were, draws somewhat apart from man, that he may have free play for his choice, and bear the burden of responsibility. The divine action was conspicuous at the time of founding the polity of Judaism, and then came long years in which there were no miracles, but all things continued as they were. God was as near as before, but He seemed far off. Thus Jesus has, in like manner, gone ‘into a far country to receive a kingdom and to return’; and we, the tenants of a richer vineyard than Israel’s, have to administer what He has intrusted to us, and to bring near by faith Him who is to sense far off.
II. The next scenes paint the conduct of the dishonest vine-dressers.
We mark the stern, dark picture drawn of the continued and brutal violence, as well as the flagrant unfaithfulness, of the tenants. Matthew’s version gives emphasis to the increasing harshness of treatment of the owner’s messengers, as does Mark’s. First comes beating, then wounding, then murder. The interpretation is self-evident. The ‘servants’ are the prophets, mostly men inferior in rank to the hierarchy, shepherds, fig-gatherers, and the like. They came to rouse Israel to a sense of the purpose for which they had received their distinguishing prerogatives, and their reward had been contempt and maltreatment. They ‘had trial of mockings and scourgings, of bonds and imprisonment: they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, they were slain with the sword.’
The indictment is the same as that by which Stephen wrought the Sanhedrim into a paroxysm of fury. To make such a charge as Jesus did, in the very Temple courts, and with the already hostile priests glaring at Him while He spoke, was a deliberate assault on them and their predecessors, whose true successors they showed themselves to be. They had just been solemnly questioning Him as to His authority. He answers by thus passing in review the uniform treatment meted by them and their like to those who came with God’s manifest authority.
If a mere man had spoken this parable, we might admire the magnificent audacity of such an accusation. But the Speaker is more than man, and we have to recognise the judicial calmness and severity of His tone. Israel’s history, as it shaped itself before His ‘pure eyes and perfect judgment,’ was one long series of divine favours and of human ingratitude, of ample preparations for righteous living and of no result, of messengers sent and their contumelious rejection. We wonder at the sad monotony of such requital. Are we doing otherwise?
III. Then comes the last effort of the Owner, the last arrow in the quiver of Almighty Love.
Two things are to be pondered in this part of the parable. First, that wonderful glimpse into the depths of God’s heart, in the hope expressed by the Owner of the vineyard, brings out very clearly Christ’s claim, made there before all these hostile, keen critics, to stand in an altogether singular relation to God. He asserts His Sonship as separating Him from the class of prophets who are servants only, and as constituting a relationship with the Father prior to His coming to earth. His Sonship is no mere synonym for His Messiahship, but was a fact long before Bethlehem; and its assertion lifts for us a corner of the veil of cloud and darkness round the throne of God. Not less striking is the expression of a frustrated hope in ‘they will reverence My Son.’ Men can thwart God’s purpose. His divine charity ‘hopeth all things.’ The mystery thus sharply put here is but that which is presented everywhere in the co-existence of God’s purposes and man’s freedom.
The other noteworthy point is the corresponding casting of the vine-dressers’ thoughts into words. Both representations are due to the graphic character of parable; both crystallise into speech motives which were not actually spoken. It is unnecessary to suppose that even the rulers of Israel had gone the awful length of clear recognition of Christ’s Messiahship, and of looking each other in the face and whispering such a fiendish resolve. Jesus is here dragging to light unconscious motives. The masses did wish to have their national privileges and to avoid their national duties. The rulers did wish to have their sway over minds and consciences undisturbed. They did resent Jesus’ interference, chiefly because they instinctively felt that it threatened their position. They wanted to get Him out of the way, that they might lord it at will. They could have known that He was the Son, and they suppressed dawning suspicions that He was. Alas! they have descendants still in many of us who put away His claims, even while we secretly recognise them, in order that we may do as we like without His meddling with us! The rulers’ calculation was a blunder. As Augustine says, ‘They slew Him that they might possess, and, because they slew, they lost.’ So is it always. Whoever tries to secure any desired end by putting away his responsibility to render to God the fruit of his thankful service, loses the good which he would fain clutch at for his own. All sin is a mistake.
The parable passes from thinly veiled history to equally transparent prediction. How sadly and how unshrinkingly does the meek yet mighty Victim disclose to the conspirators His perfect knowledge of the murder which they were even now hatching in their minds! He foresees all, and will not lift a finger to prevent it. Mark puts the ‘killing’ before the ‘casting out of the vineyard,’ while Matthew and Luke invert the order of the two things. The slaughtered corpse was, as a further indignity, thrown over the wall, by which is symbolically expressed His exclusion from Israel, and the vine-dressers’ delusion that they now had secured undisturbed possession.
IV. The last point is the authoritative sentence on the evil-doers.
Mark’s condensed account makes Christ Himself answer His own question. Probably we are to suppose that, with hypocritical readiness, some of the rulers replied, as the other Evangelists represent, and that Jesus then solemnly took up their words. If anything could have enraged the rulers more than the parable itself, the distinct declaration of the transference of Israel’s prerogatives to more worthy tenants would do so. The words are heavy with doom. They carry a lesson for us. Stewardship implies responsibility, and faithlessness, sooner or later, involves deprivation. The only way to keep God’s gifts is to use them for His glory. ‘The grace of God,’ says Luther somewhere, ‘is like a flying summer shower.’ Where are Ephesus and the other apocalyptic churches? Let us ‘take heed lest, if God spared not the natural branches, He also spare not us.’
Jesus leaves the hearers with the old psalm ringing in their ears, which proclaimed that ‘the stone which the builders rejected becomes the head stone of the corner.’ Other words of the same psalm had been chanted by the crowd in the procession on entering the city. Their fervour was cooling, but the prophecy would still be fulfilled. The builders are the same as the vine-dressers; their rejection of the stone is parallel with slaying the Son.
But though Jesus foretells His death, He also foretells His triumph after death. How could He have spoken, almost in one breath, the prophecy of His being slain and ‘cast out of the vineyard,’ and that of His being exalted to be the very apex and shining summit of the true Temple, unless He had been conscious that His death was indeed not the end, but the centre, of His work, and His elevation to universal and unchanging dominion?
GOD’S LAST ARROW
Reference to Isa_5:1 - Isa_5:30 There are differences in detail here which need not trouble us.
Isaiah’s parable is a review of the theocratic history of Israel, and clearly the messengers are the prophets; here Christ speaks of Himself and His own mission to Israel, and goes on to tell of His death as already accomplished.
I. The Son who follows and surpasses the servants.
a Our Lord here places Himself in the line of the prophets as coming for a similar purpose. The mission to Israel was the same. The mission of His life was the same.
The last words of the lawgiver certainly point to a person Deu_18:18: ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you like unto me. Him shall ye hear.’ How ridiculous the cool superciliousness with which modern historical criticism ‘pooh-poohs’ that interpretation! But the contrast is quite as prominent as the resemblance. This saying is one which occurs in all the Synoptics, and is as full a declaration of Sonship as any in John’s Gospel. It reposes on the scene at the baptism Mat_3:17: ‘This is My beloved Son!’ Such a saying was well enough understood by the Jews to mean more than the ‘Messiah.’ It clearly involves kindred to the divine in a far other and higher sense than any prophet ever had it. It involves pre-existence. It asserts that He was the special object of the divine love, the ‘heir.’
You cannot relieve the New Testament Christ of the responsibility of having made such assertions. There they are! He did deliberately declare that He was, in a unique sense, ‘the Son’ on whom the love and complacency of the Father rested continually.
II. The aggravation of men’s sins as tending to the enhancement of the divine efforts.
The terrible Nemesis of evil is that it ever tends to reproduce itself in aggravated forms. Think of the influence of habit; the searing of conscience, so that we become able to do things that we would have shrunk from at an earlier stage. Remember how impunity leads to greater sin. So here the first servant is merely sent away empty, the second is wounded and disgraced, the third is killed. All evil is an inclined plane, a steady, downward progress. How beautifully the opposite principle of the divine love and patience is represented as striving with the increasing hate and resistance! According to Matthew, the householder sent other servants ‘more than the first,’ and the climax was that he sent his son. Mightier forces are brought to bear. This attraction increases as the square of the distance. The blacker the cloud, the brighter the sun; the thicker the ice, the hotter the flame; the harder the soil, the stronger the ploughshare. Note, too, the undertone of sacrifice and of yearning for the son which may be discerned in the ‘householder’s’ words. The son is his ‘dearest treasure,’ his mightiest gift, than which is nothing higher.
The mission of Christ is the ultimate appeal of God to men.
In the primary sense of the parable Jesus does close the history of the divine strivings with Israel. After Christ, the last of the prophets, the divine voice ceases; after the blaze of that light all is dark. There is nothing more remarkable in the whole history of the world than that cessation in an instant, as it were, of the long, august series of divine efforts for Israel. Henceforward there is an awful silence. ‘Forsaken Israel wanders lone.’
And the principle involved for us is the same.
‘Christ crucified’ is more than Christ miracle-working. That ‘more’ we have, as the Jews had. But if that avails not, then nothing else will.
He is ‘last’ because highest, strongest, and all-sufficient.
He is ‘last’ inasmuch as all since are but echoes of His voice and proclaimers of His grace.
He is ‘last’ as the eternal and the permanent, the ‘same for ever’ Heb_13:8. There are to be no new powers for the world; no new forces to draw men to God. God’s quiver is empty, His last bolt shot, His most tender appeal made.
III. The unwearied divine charity.
‘They will reverence My Son.’ May we not say this is a divine hope? It is not worth while to make a difficulty of the bold representation. It is but parallel to all the dealings of God with men; and it sets forth the possibility that He might have won Israel back to God and to obedience. It suggests the good faith and the earnestness with which God sent Him, and He came, to bring Israel back to God. But we are not to suppose that this divine hope excluded the divine purpose of His death or was inconsistent with that, for He goes on to speak of His death as if it were past Mar_12:8. This shows how distinctly He foreknew it.
Its highest aspect is not here, for it was not needed for the parable. ‘With wicked hands ye have crucified,’ etc., is true, as well as ‘I lay it down of Myself.’
Let us lay to heart the solemn love which warns by prophesying, tells what men are going to do in order that they may not do it and what He will do in order that He may not have to do it. And let us yield ourselves to the power of Christ’s death as God’s magnet for drawing us all back to Him; and as certain to bring about at last the satisfaction of the Father’s long-frustrated hope: ‘They will reverence my Son,’ and the fulfilment of the Son’s long-unaccomplished prediction: ‘I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto Me.’
NOT FAR AND NOT IN
‘A bruised reed He will not break, and the smoking flax He will not quench.’
Here is Christ’s recognition of the low beginnings of goodness and faith.
This is a special case of a man who appears to have fully discerned the spirituality and inwardness of law, and to have felt that the one bond between God and man was love. He needed only to have followed out the former thought to have been smitten by the conviction of his own sinfulness, and to have reflected on the latter to have discovered that he needed some one who could certify and commend God’s love to him, and thereby to kindle his to God. Christ recognises such beginnings and encourages him to persevere: but warns him against the danger of supposing himself in the kingdom, and against the prolongation of what is only good as a transition state.
This Scribe is an interesting study as being one who recognised the Law in its spiritual meaning, in opposition to forms and ceremonies. His intellectual convictions needed to be led on from recognition of the spirituality of the Law to recognition of his own failures. ‘By law is the knowledge of sin.’ His intellectual convictions needed to pass over into and influence his heart and life. He recognised true piety, and was earnestly striving after it, but entrance into the kingdom is by faith in the Saviour, who is ‘the Way.’ So Jesus’ praise of him is but measured. For in him there was separation between knowing and doing.
I. Who are near?
Christ’s kingdom is near us all, whether we are heathen, infidel, profligate or not.
Here is a distinct recognition of two things-a Degrees of approximation; b decisive separation between those who are, and those who are not, within the kingdom.
This Scribe was near, and yet not in, the kingdom, because, like so many in all ages, he had an intellectual hold of principles which he had never followed out to their intellectual issues, nor ever enthroned as, in their practical issues, the guides of his life. How constantly we find characters of similar incompleteness among ourselves! How many of us have true thoughts concerning God’s law and what it requires, which ought, in all reason, to have brought us to the consciousness of our own sin, and are yet untouched by one pang of penitence! How many of us have lying in our heads, like disused furniture in a lumber-room, what we suppose to be beliefs of ours, which only need to be followed out to their necessary results to refurnish with a new equipment the whole of our religious thinking! How few of us do really take pains to bring our beliefs into clear sunlight, and to follow them wherever they lead us! There is no commoner fault, and no greater foe, than the hazy, lazy half-belief, of which its owner neither knows the grounds nor perceives the intellectual or the practical issues.
There are multitudes who have, or have had, convictions of which the only rational outcome is practical surrender to Jesus Christ by faith and love. Such persons abound in Christian congregations and in Christian homes. They are on the verge of ‘the great surrender,’ but they do not go beyond the verge, and so they perpetrate ‘the great refusal.’ And to all such the word of our text should sound as a warning note, which has also hope in its bone. ‘Not far from’ is still ‘outside.’
II. Why they are only near.
The reason is not because of anything apart from themselves. The Christian gospel offers immediate entrance into the Kingdom, and all the gifts which its King can bestow, to all and every one who will. So that the sole cause of any man’s non-entrance lies with himself.
We have spoken of failure to follow out truths partially grasped, and that constitutes a reason which affects the intellect mainly, and plays its part in keeping men out of the Kingdom.
But there are other, perhaps more common, reasons, which intervene to prevent convictions being followed out into their properly consequent acts.
The two most familiar and fatal of these are:-
b Lingering love of the world.
III. Such men cannot continue near.
The state is necessarily transitional. It must pass over into-a Either going on and into the Kingdom, or b going further away from it.
Christ warns here, and would stimulate to action, for-a Convictions not acted on die; b truths not followed out fade; c impressions resisted are harder to be made again; d obstacles increase with time; e the habit of lingering becomes strengthened.
IV. Unless you are in, you are finally shut out.
‘City of refuge.’ It was of no avail to have been near. ‘Strive to enter in.’
Appeal to all such as are in this transition stage.
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on Mark 12". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Sixth Week after Easter