Summary: The reason we decaffeinate Christmas is because we don’t want Jesus intruding on our lives. Don’t want to admit that we need help. Little baby Jesus is OK, but he’d better not get out of the manger.
This week a number of articles have come out, commenting on the push to get Christ out of Christmas. The best I read called this the decaffeination of Christmas. Carols that are all about trees, snow, reindeer, not about a baby born in a manger. Why do we do this? For some the story of Christmas is unbelievable. For some it’s a conspiracy or myth. For other’s it’s just nice to celebrate something at the end of the year, but there’s no connection between Christmas and the rest of their lives. It’s just a nice tradition, with no meaning. But underneath all that, I think this article got it right. The real reason we decaffeinate Christmas is because we don’t want Jesus intruding on our lives. Don’t want to admit that we need help. Little baby Jesus is OK, but he’d better not get out of the manger.
We’ve seen the same attitude displayed as we’ve worked through Mark. Everyone has their own ideas as to what the Messiah would be like and do. The disciples struggled with the idea that the Messiah must suffer and die. As we saw vividly last week the religious elite weren’t prepared to accept that Jesus had any authority or power. They engaged in fierce debates with him in the Temple, hoping to trap him, to bring him down.
It’s in the midst of all those debates that Jesus stops and tells the story that we’ve just heard. Unlike some of the other parables, the meaning of this one seems pretty clear. Even Jesus’ opponents understand it. It’s a great parable for us to look at just before Christmas. It’s a bit like Dickens’ Christmas Carol. This parable explains Christmas past, present and future!
Jesus begins, “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time.”
Those listening in could hardly have missed the meaning of the vineyard. Throughout the Old Testament it’s used as a metaphor for the nation of Israel. The image was so deeply rooted, that the gates of the Temple were covered in a golden carving of a grapevine. But the vineyard wasn’t always a good image. In Isaiah 5, God says he planted a vineyard but when he came to harvest it all he could find was bad fruit. When Jesus told the parable, the crowds would’ve also been reminded of the failure of Israel.
And as the parable goes on, we meet the bad tenants. They were meant to care for the vineyard in the owner’s stead. Instead their actions are pretty incredible. I’m embarrassed to admit that we’ve received a few yellow, or even pink, reminder notices from utility companies. They usually come with a polite note that if you don’t pay up, they’ll have to resort to debt collection measures. That’s the role the servants play in the parable. When we get one of those letters, we never resort to the tenants methods and kill the messengers!
It’s clear that Jesus is pointing the finger at those who were meant to be leaders of the nation. The failure of Israel is pinned on them. Elsewhere Jesus accused them of being no better than their forefathers who’d killed the prophets. Now he says they’ll even go one further and kill God’s Son.
At first the parable suggests their only motivation is greed and rudeness. But as it progresses we discover their true motivation. In verse 14, ‘But when the tenants saw the son, they discussed it amongst themselves and said, “This is the heir; let’s kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’” Greed plays a part, but there’s something more. Although they’ve been placed in the vineyard as tenants, they don’t want to acknowledge the true owner of the vineyard.
I’ve lived in rental houses for many years. As a tenant, you have to look after the place like it’s your own, but you know it’s not. You have to get permission, even to put a hook in the wall. It’s quite clear you’re not the owner.
In the parable, the tenants weren’t willing to just look after the vineyard. They wanted to be owners themselves. So they took the drastic step of killing the rightful heir.
The danger when we read a parable like this is to think it’s just a condemnation of the religious leaders in Jesus’ day. It’s easy to think the parable is only about them, their failure to respond to God, to respect his Son. We think all it tells us is a history of the nation of Israel and it’s failings. We think it’s only about the past. But that’s to miss the sting in the tail. Because it’s also about Christmas present.
That’s because Jesus isn’t just describing the condition of the religious leaders of Israel. He’s describing the condition of every human being. The vineyard isn’t just a picture of Israel, but of the whole world.