* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Mark 12: Vineyards and Cornerstones

In the next chapter of the gospel of Mark, after the business with the fig tree and Jesus' refusal to credential himself, the author includes several teachings that supposedly originated with Jesus during his time in Jerusalem. The author portrays some of the religious leaders of the day as scandalized by most of these teachings, presumably because they interpreted some criticism in Jesus' words. The first of these teachings is in the form of a story, or parable, and it is copied from the gospel of Mark with some slight variation in both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke. Many Bibles call this the parable of the wicked tenants, although such titles are much later conventions than the oldest extant copies of the text.

In this story, a man hires some people to run his business (a vineyard) while he is away. They decide that they can keep all the profits for themselves, so they abuse (or kill) every person the landowner sends to collect, including the landowner's son, thinking that they will be able to keep the place for themselves. According to this teaching, there will be dire consequences when the landowner shows up himself. The author of Mark follows the story with a quote from Psalm 118, but the connection is never explained directly. There is only the general sense that the chief priests, scribes, and elders ("they" here referring all the way back to the end of Mark 11) suspected that Jesus had said something derogatory about them.

The interpretation of this parable in the gospel of Matthew is more explicit. In this variation of events, Jesus tells the chief priests and Pharisees that they are like the wicked tenants in the parable. The author also suggests what the connection with Psalm 118 is, although many ancient copies of the text don't have the verse that clarifies this connection. It was quite possibly copied from the version of the parable in the gospel of Luke, in an editorial attempt to make the different variations match up more closely.

In Luke, the basic parable is the same, but the Psalm 118 quote is shorter. There is no explicit unpacking of the teaching itself, but the author makes a direct connection of the story to the line about "the stone that the builders rejected." Some translators use the word cornerstone and others use keystone to describe how that rejected stone actually functions. In one sense, that stone is a foundational support, and in the other, it is the center stone of an archway that holds everything together. Either symbol is useful, with more or less equivalent interpretation into life application. Still, although it's obviously a reference to the consequences of the wicked tenant's actions, the identity of the symbolic stone is still vague. Even in the original psalm, the bit about the cornerstone is not specific. It is a general poetic statement that what some experts believed to be an unsuitable foundation for action has been demonstrated to be an ideal foundation for action. The credit for that revelation is attributed to God, of course, since that was part and parcel to the culture.

The main point of the parable seems to be that "the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom" (Mt 21:43). In other words, the very thing that the tenants were aiming for will become unattainable, and other people will claim it instead. The very thing that the religious leaders were aiming for will likewise become unattainable, and other people will claim it instead. This is not a prediction of future events, but a warning to people who are trying to reach a destination with a faulty set of directions.

You can't build something truly impressive with rotten materials. You can't build loving relationships with fear. You can't build a lasting, admirable reputation on lies. You can't build the kingdom of God on political power and social coercion. There is more that we can say about this, but there are some terms here that may need to be clarified a bit. What is the "kingdom of God," that it could be taken away from people who claim to be believers? What are the "fruits of the kingdom" for that matter? And what is the foundational stone that has been rejected by the people who claim to be expert builders?

Many of these questions likely had specific answers for the original author of the quoted psalm, and for the original authors of the gospels. Such terms have been subject to interpretation for centuries, and there is little agreement among biblical scholars, although many assume that the stone referred to here is Jesus, because some epistles interpret it this way. For early biblical authors, the kingdom of God was not a synonym for Heaven, as is clear even from some of the words put into Jesus' mouth by the gospel writers. "Kingdom of God" is a tough term for us today, when we don't think very highly of monarchies and when scientific discovery has increasingly eliminated the need for belief in supernaturals. Instead of such a loaded term, we can think of this as the kind of world that everyone really wants to live in, if all of our irrational fears were dismantled and we were honest about what we actually value. The kingdom of God is simply a better world than what we experience right now--a world that is characterized by equity, justice, and compassion. These qualities are the "fruit" (outcome or result) of living like that better world is a possibility.

What would prevent the tenants in the parable and the religious leaders of the first century from practicing equity, justice, and compassion? One might say greed. Certainly that seems to be the motivating drive of the tenants. Greed is just another word for fear, though. Greed is fear of scarcity. The religious leaders may have reacted out of fear of scarcity, too. Possibly, they feared insignificance or powerlessness. Their fear overrode their capacity to find peaceful solutions to problems. Fear prevented them from dreaming big with regard to what their people and their world could become. They were more interested in control--conserving what power and wealth they could among a small number of people. This fear-driven conservatism has never resulted in long-term sustainability for any people. Not only were they not creating as much equity, justice, and compassion as they could have in the world around them, they were also preventing the very thing they claimed to want. The tenants in the story had lost the vineyard, and the religious leaders had lost the kingdom of God.

All of this is still a warning cry to the representatives of the church in the twenty-first century. While a great hue and cry often goes up against the non-believers or "unsaved" or "infidels," many of the most visible representatives of religion still build on a foundation of fear rather than equity, justice, and compassion. According to this parable, the people who will actually experience a better world ("the kingdom of God") are not just the people who claim to believe certain things or even people who claim to have a personal relationship with the spirit of a centuries-dead Palestinian. The people who will experience a better world are the ones who create that better world through displaying its evidence--people who actually practice equity, justice, and compassion. Many believers and religious leaders seem not to know that their gospel narratives make this assertion.

What is the proper foundation, then? What is the identity of a cornerstone that promotes equity, justice, and compassion. One interpretation of that stone that some have offered is hope, specifically hope in supernatural guidance and aid, and hope in a desirable afterlife. The problem with the brand of hope offered by many religious traditions, however, is that it's based on mythology and folklore. One doesn't claim sincere hope for leprechauns to make personal debt disappear, or hope for Aphrodite to actually intervene in one's romantic affairs. Genuine hope needs something a bit more solid.

Before you defend the legitimacy of religious hope too vigorously, consider the number of believers currently in prison because of fear-based actions, the number of believers who have been caught in sexual scandals, the number of believers who prefer to divorce rather than work on their relationships, and the number of believers who abuse their children and spouses. People who have legitimate hope in a supernatural who loves them and works all things for their good should presumably also have lives defined by less fear, violence, and harmful behavior than people who lack that kind of hope. The actual data suggests that believers have as difficult a time as everybody else--if not greater difficulty--behaving in a way that reflects equity, justice, and compassion, despite alleged supernatural guidance. So, I suggest that hope needs something a bit more solid underneath it.

If the stone is not a mythological savior, and the stone is not empty hope, what could possibly be an ideal that has been rejected as a worthwhile foundation by many people who strive to build a better world? Several candidates come to mind, actually. Reason is one fine foundation, for those who are capable and willing to employ it. Unfortunately, many people seem to lack the skill to reason well, and many people strangely prefer not to reason well. Self-awareness is another fine foundation. The more we understand ourselves, the more we can act intentionally in the world. This, too, may bump up against some limitations of personal ability, however. So, I'll propose a third identity for the foundation stone that has been rejected by nearly everyone: radical, unconditional love.

You may have just rejected that in your mind when you read it. You may have even rejected it out loud. We've grown accustomed to believing that love doesn't solve anything, possibly because of how we decide to define love. I'm thinking here of affectionate concern for the well-being of others. Not merely strong positive emotions toward someone, because emotions are not completely within our control. Not concern for the well-being of people such that we decide we have to manage their lives and decisions for them because they aren't capable of doing it for themselves. That's control, not love. Radical love is a conscious decision that incorporates all of humanity in that sphere of affectionate concern. Unconditional love means that we don't exclude anybody from our pursuit of equity, justice, and compassion. One advantage to calling radical, unconditional love a cornerstone is that it's exactly what the Jesus of the gospel narratives tells people, so it ought to be something with which any believer would agree.

Everyone's cornerstones don't necessarily need to be the same thing. It's important to recognize, though, that violence, oppression, shame, and dishonesty do not create the kind of lives we most want or the kind of world we most want to live in. There is no external supernatural. We are responsible for building a better world. To do that, we absolutely must learn to dismantle our irrational fears and we must strive toward emotional maturity. Beyond that, we can determine what guiding principles to build on. I believe that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and that keystone holds the entire archway of my life together pretty well. Right now, I'm happy with identifying my cornerstones as science, reason, self-differentiation, and radical unconditional love.

What are your cornerstones? Having four corners makes sense to me. Maybe you have more cornerstones or fewer cornerstones. Maybe you just have one keystone that holds everything together. Whatever the case, your foundation is strongest when it actually makes sense to you. Base your life on things you can actually trust and verify. Don't claim things out of shame or obligation when your deepest, most noble self rejects them. Build on truth, not on fear. When you feel driven toward violence, or toward trying to control other people's lives, or toward pretending to be something that you aren't, you're not building on solid ground. You are the only person who can build the life you most want. All of us together can build a better world.

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