Is It Time to Pay the Rent? (Mark 12.1-12)

Jesus once asked his disciples a startling question: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18.8 NIV). Perhaps the very notion that God will require an account from each and every individual is considered either quaint or ludicrous today. On the other hand, most of us hold out that God will eventually make all the unfixable wrongs right—one day.

One of the most powerful images God uses to help us understand that a day of reckoning is coming is that of the vineyard. As early as the prophet Isaiah (as in Isaiah 5.1-8), God spoke of his loving care for his people in the “Song of the Vineyard.” In this song, God speaks of himself as one who had a vineyard, which he lovingly tended:

He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.

When the time for harvest came the loved one looks for grapes only to find rotten fruit. In exasperation, God asks

“What more could I have done?”

In his anger, God then shares his intent: he will destroy the vineyard so it becomes a wasteland (which it really is already).

Then Isaiah points out, the vineyard is really the house of Israel and the house of Judah (God’s people); so when God came looking for justice and righteousness, he found bloodshed and cries of distress.

When Jesus told the parable about the “tenants in the vineyard” (Mark 12.1-12), it did not take much imagination to see that he was doing an updated version of the “Song of the Vineyard.”

In the parable a man (God as we learn soon enough) planted a vineyard with a wall, a winepress and a watchtower (as in Isaiah 5.2).

When harvest time came the owner sent a servant to collect the rent from the tenants, but the tenants responded in hostility. They did this several times, even killing some of the servants.

Finally the owner decides to send his son, since surely they would treat the heir much better. Yet they reasoned with one another: “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” Not only did they kill him, they threw his body outside the wall of the vineyard.

After Jesus finished this story, he asked, “What then will the owner of the vineyard do?”

To this question, Jesus also answers, “He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

The Pharisees wanted to kill Jesus because they knew the parable was spoken about them. However, Jesus merely pointed to one of God’s greatest concerns: that his people be fruitful.

While this is not a pleasant story, and I like it much better when I see it applied to the religious leaders of the first century, it is probably spiritually insightful to ask,

“When the time to pay the rent comes due, what will we be able to show God as evidence that we tended his garden well?”

How Well Do You Hear? (Mark 4.21-34)

The need to listen well remains the focus of the rest of the parables in Mark 4. At the end of the interpretation of the Parable of the Soils, Jesus left us with four options: (1) we don’t get it; (2) we are not very deep; (3) we care more about other things; and finally (4) we get it and live it.

While hearing is the primary sense noted in Mark 4, other words are used to underscore what Jesus is after: Do you get it? Therefore, verbs of seeing, perceiving and understanding are also present.

For example, in Mark 4.21-23, Jesus notes that a lamp belongs in a lamp stand so that it might provide light for those in the room. In this way, what is hidden (the “secret” of the kingdom of God, that is, Jesus) is meant to be “brought out into the open.” Though a lamp helps one see, the next line is the familiar: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!”

If we missed it, the next parable begins with “Consider carefully how you hear.” The enigmatic saying that follow these words makes more sense if they refers to how well we hear. Below are the text and my paraphrase.

With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. The level at which you listen, it the measure you will get, and more than that. Whoever listens well will get even more; however, those who do not listen will lose even what they think they have.

The final two parables in Mark 4 deal with perceiving (hearing) what God is up to. In the first the kingdom of God (God’s will or reign) is compared to the process of planting grain. The farmer does his part in planting the seed but does not know the mystery of how it grows, but because it is the work of God, it does. The last parable compares the kingdom of God to the growth of a mustard seed that far beyond its size becomes large enough that birds can find shelter on its branches.

Mark closes these parables with the comment that Jesus told the crowd as much as they could understand, but that he explained everything to his disciples.

The bottom line of why Jesus used parables is so people could “hear” his mission.

How Well Do You Hear? (Mark 4.1-20)

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said:

“Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, multiplying thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times.”

Then Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables.  He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“they may be ever seeing but never perceiving,
and ever hearing but never understanding;
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’’

Then Jesus said to them, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?

The farmer sows the word. Some people are like seed along the path, where the word is sown. As soon as they hear it, Satan comes and takes away the word that was sown in them. Others, like seed sown on rocky places, hear the word and at once receive it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. Still others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4.1–20)

The Parable of the Sower, also known as the Parable of the Soils, serves as something of a paradigm parable. In other words, the parable functions as a model for hearing other parables. When the Twelve showed that they did not get the point of parable, Jesus chides, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mark 4.13).

At its simplest, a parable is a story that illustrates. However, what is called a “parable” in the NT can include an extended figure of speech; proverb, or even a short pithy saying. Jesus used parables to draw people into His mission. Parables could also repulse those who could not “hear” what Jesus was saying to them.

In this parable the basic pieces of the story are a farmer, seed, and four types of soils in which only one is suitable for producing fruit. Out of these several points could be made. Since Jesus identifies the seed as the word (4.14), we could see Jesus as stressing the need to sow the seed. Or we could read the parable evangelistically to suggest that we need to target good soils. However, this misses the point that the farmer (presumably representing Jesus or God) still spreads seed on all of the soil types.

However, Jesus gives us clues on how to “listen” to this parable. The first word in v. 3 is “listen!” When he finishes telling the parable, Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Between the telling and interpretation of the parable, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6.9 as a warning: “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” Then he asks his disciples if they understand the parable. Notice all words related to “getting it.”

If this is correct, then Jesus calls us to assess how well we “listen.” Some don’t listen well at all—it is as if Satan takes the word away as quickly as we hear it. Other can hear as long as life is easy. Yet others can’t hear the word because worries, wealth, and wants are too loud. However, those who do “get it” are extremely productive.

How well then do you hear?

Sight Unseen (Hebrews 11)

A journey has a certain open-ended-ness to it. Those who set out on a journey usually have a certain destination in mind, yet there is also a level of uncertainty when it comes to getting there. Consequently, most of us are grateful for an “uneventful” trip—by which we mean nothing happened to prevent us from reaching our destination when we expected.

Yet no trip or journey is exactly the same every time we make it. There always remains before the traveler the potential of uncertainty. A traffic accident can change one’s journey. Road construction can change when one gets to where he or she is going. Personal illness can cause us to be a day or more behind what we had planned. Despite these and other potential challenges we usually decide the risk is worth it.

Life is a journey and faith is what we call the willingness to face the unknown. Faith is leaning into the future without knowing what lies ahead exactly. Faith is being certain about what we cannot see.

In Hebrews 11 we have a list of biblical notables who leaned into God’s future even though it was not always clear what the outcome would be. In each account there are two emphases: (1) by faith people acted “as if” God was in control; and (2) by faith they moved into an unseen future.

For example Abel, by faith, offered a better sacrifice than Cain. Abel’s goal was not to outdo Cain, but to please God, but the “unseen” result is that Abel’s example still speaks to us today. Or, take Noah. He built an ark without water to float his boat. Or, how about Abraham? He left his homeland for the unknown in search of God’s city. (Did he really know that he was looking for a city?) Or, what of Joseph? He spoke of the exodus as the Israelites were migrating to Egypt.

None of these actually found what they were looking for. The preacher of Hebrews asserts,

These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Did they know they were waiting for us?

Sacrifice of Praise (Hebrews 13.15-16)

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 13.15–16 NIV)

Throughout the sermon that we call the Letter to the Hebrews, the preacher has emphasized that Jesus is our perfect High Priest; his qualifications is that as God he can connect us with the Father and as a human he can understand and sympathize with us. Better than any of the early high priests Jesus can truly mediate the things of God to people.

Yet one of the most important functions of a High Priest was to offer sacrifices, first for himself and his family, and then for the people. Analogous to this, Jesus, while not needing to offer anything for himself, still needed, in the logic of Leviticus, to offer a sacrifice for his people. Here, the preacher offers his most significant insight: Jesus is both Priest and victim—but he is not a victim in that he is a willing and living sacrifice.

Now we are able to look back at the beginning of Hebrews to see why making purifications for sins before sitting down at the right hand of God (1.3b) is such a big deal.

Since Jesus has accomplished atonement (at-one-ment) with God, there no longer remains any useful reason for continuing animal sacrifices. They simply are not necessary since Jesus’ self-sacrifice in the heavenly temple.

However, there was one sacrifice from Leviticus that was not connected with the “forgiveness of sins.” The peace or thanksgiving offering was a free will offering just to express gratitude to God. In the passage cited above, this offering is transformed into “sacrifice of praise,” also called “the fruit of lips that confess his name.” This would include the public confession of Jesus in word and song.

Yet there is one more form of sacrifice mentioned in this text:  to do good and to share with others. Furthermore, this kind of sacrifice pleases God. Amazingly—to me—the kind of sacrifices that God is seeking through the Letter to the Hebrews are these: to love God by confessing him and by doing good to others.

And so closes Hebrews on the note of loving God and loving people.

The New Covenant (Hebrews 8.1-13)

When a writer takes a reader through a difficult discourse, it’s nice to have a summary every now and then. In Hebrews 8.1-2, we have just that: “ We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.”

This is point is driven by an elaborate analogy between the ancient tabernacle as a model for understanding the “heavenly” temple where Jesus now serves as the great high priest. As the Hebrews preacher develops thesis, he seeks as much of a one for one correspondence between the tabernacle’s priesthood and Jesus’ priesthood. Where it does not match up, the Hebrews writer offers a different explanation, such as Jesus being a priest like Melchizedek.

However, the ancient tabernacle and its priesthood only points to the true temple and its priest. All these former things are only a “copy” and a “shadow” of the real thing. Even the covenant or agreement God with Israel had been but a passing shadow since with Jesus comes a better covenant.

With a long citation from Jeremiah 31.31-34, the Hebrews writer builds his understanding of this “new” covenant. The essential problem with the old covenant was that the people broke it (Heb 8.8, 9). So what would be different with a new one? Jeremiah’s text mentions these

  • God laws would be in their minds and written on their hearts (instead of on stone).
  • “I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
  • All the people will know God!
  • God would forgive completely the people’s sins.

The fundamental difference between the old and the new is the level of the relationship. All these things God sought with his people in the Old Testament; however, because of the people’s inability to meet the demands of the covenant and God’s lack of an adequate mediator, the old covenant was now “ready to disappear.”

With Jesus, God enacted a new covenant with his people.

Jesus: A Different Kind of Priest (Hebrews 6.13-7.28)

The writer of Hebrews has a big problem. He needs to show how Jesus is our great high priest; however, everyone in his audience would know that high priests come only from the tribe of Levi. He finds a solution to this problem in Psa 110.4:

The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

This psalm originally celebrated God’s support of the king of Israel while also noting the king’s priestly role (see 1 Chr 15.27 where King David does priestly things). Furthermore, this psalm connects the king’s priesthood with another kind of priest, the mysterious Melchizedek.

Outside of Hebrews and Psa 110, the only other reference to Melchizedek is Genesis 14.18-20.

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High,
and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. (Genesis 14.18–20 NIV)

Three verses—that’s it. And those three verses are plopped in the middle of a story about how Abraham defeated five tribal chiefs to rescue his nephew Lot. Thus, just as these verses seem to come out of nowhere, so does Melchizedek.

Melchizedek (whose name is King + Righteousness in Hebrew) the king of Salem (the word for Peace) is a priest of El Elyon (God Most High) who for no reason mentioned blesses Abraham. After the blessing, Abraham gives Melchizedek a tenth of his spoils from the tribal chiefs. Then, just as suddenly, Melchizedek disappears from the Bible until Psa 110.

The preacher of Hebrews follows this logic: Since Jesus is not of the tribe of Levi he should not be able to be a priest of any kind. However, the priest Melchizedek predates the Levitical priesthood. That he blessed Abraham, the great-grandfather of Levi, shows that Melchizedek is greater than Abraham who further confirms this by giving a tenth to Melchizedek. In this way, Levi—who has not been born yet—gave a tenth to Melchizedek. Therefore, Melchizedek is greater than Levi. Consequently the Melchizedekian priesthood is greater than the Levitical priesthood.

Ok, it may not be our logic, but you can still follow it.

The point: Jesus’ priesthood is superior to that of the tribe of Levi.

Arrested Development (Hebrews 5.11-6.12)

Beginning in Hebrews 5.11 and going through 10.25, we have what one commentator calls the “Difficult Discourse.” And it is rather difficult: in it, the author of Hebrews will call his readers “lazy,” he will try to explain how Jesus is a high priest like Melchizedek, and finally he will seek to explain the work of Jesus as our great high priest.

You can almost feel the anger and frustration of the writer as he tells his hearers that they need to grow up. He is also saddened by the condition of his hearers who by this time “ought to be teachers,” but because of the their indifference they need someone to teach them as if they were starting all over again. They can’t handle solid food; they need to be nursed! Like Benjamin Button, they have, against God’s intentions, become babies again!

Some of the indicators of the readers’ immaturity include that they lose their focus on Jesus, they don’t seem to be encouraging one another, they are on the edge of giving up, and they don’t give meeting together the time it deserves.

But the telling sign in this passage is they have not grown beyond “first principles,” such as repenting, faith, teaching about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection, and judgment. These, according to Hebrews, are the “baby” doctrines!

The reason we need to grow up is that growing up is the anecdote to falling away. To give up on God is like re-crucifying Jesus and exposing Jesus to public shame! It’s like ground that receives the good rain only to produce thorns and thistles.

Though a hard word, the preacher of Hebrews holds out that his readers will respond to God’s Word. God will not forget our previous work so we should renew our engagement and effort. This active engagement in God’s mission is what will sustain us to the end.

Sometimes, the hard word is the good news!

Sometimes, it is just what we need to hear.

Jesus: The Sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 4.14-5.10)

The emphasis of the preacher/author of Hebrews is hard to miss. In a word (or two):

Hold on!

Don’t give up!

Hang in there!

To encourage his congregation, the preacher of this ancient homily has grounded his message in the Word of God: God now speaks through his Son who is better than the angels, better than Moses, and now is a better high priest.

In the text under consideration, the preacher wants his people to see Jesus as the “great high priest” who passed through the heaven (he will explain this later). He emphasizes that Jesus is a sympathetic high priest because he has been tempted in every way we are; however, he is a qualified high priest because he had not sinned as we have—so unlike the high priest of old, Jesus did not need to offer a sacrifice for his own sins before he could take care of the people’s sin. Therefore—and this is important—we should be eager to approach God because we know that we will find mercy and help there.

In weaving the analogy between the role of Jesus and that of the Old Testament high priest, the preacher seeks to clarify a couple of points. First, like the high priest, Jesus is called from among the people (his brothers; so chapter 2). So he understands us because he is one of us. Second, high priests are not self-appointed and neither was Jesus. God appointed him as stated in Psa 110:4.

Yet what really touches the Hebrews preacher is the sheer humanness of Jesus’ ministry. He prayed and prayed with weeping tears to the one who could save him from death—and God heard him. This invites some reflection since when Jesus prayed he was seeking another route other than his death but in the ends submits: “Your will not mine.”

Still, in a rather cryptic statement, the author of Hebrews says the Son “learned obedience from what he suffered.” How could the Son—who did not sin—learn obedience? Perhaps obedience goes beyond just doing what is commanded; maybe it is deeper than that. Perhaps it has something to do with lining our wishes, desires, and wants up with God’s.

“Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Heb 4.16)

Do it Today (Hebrews 3.7-4.13)

The recent movie Inception explored the possibility of having a dream within a dream. This engaging sci-fi thriller imagined going even deeper, as much as four levels deep. In the text covered today, the Hebrews writer explores a text within a text, as much as three or four levels deep. Let’s see if we can peel back the layers.

The first level is the text of the sermon (focusing today on Hebrews 3.7-4.13), which cites Psalms 95.7-11 that is itself a reflection on the events of Exodus 17 and Numbers 14. Working backwards through this text, we discovered that the Exodus and Numbers texts tell of how Israel rebelled against God, first, in not trusting God to provide water for the journey, and, second, for refusing to trust God’s ability to lead them into the Promised Land. The Book of Numbers records several rebellions against God: Aaron and Miriam conspiring against Moses (chapter 12), the people refusing to enter the land (14), and Korah’s rebellion (16).

In Numbers 14, God promises that everyone, except the faithful spies Joshua and Caleb, would die in the desert. Not one of them would get to enter the Promised Land.

Today—if you hear his voice:

Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion

Like the day of testing in the desert

where your fathers tried me;

they tested me though they viewed my deeds.

Forty years this generation irked me

So I said, “Their hearts were deceived and

they did not know my ways;

As I swore an oath in my anger,

“They will never enter into my rest.”

(Psa 95.11b-11 LXX, my translation)

Psalm 95 begins as a psalm of praise but ends with the warning not to harden one’s heart against the voice of God. The psalm ends with a declaration of warning: “They [the Israelites] shall never enter my rest.”

Finally, years later, the Hebrews writer picks up Psalms 95 to warn his people not to rebel against God. However, he does not stress the ominous “They shall never enter my rest,” but rather a single word that occurs earlier: “today.” So encourage each other today. Don’t be hardened by sin today. Hear his voice today.

Because Today is really all you have.