Jesus has come to reject those who won’t make him central, so shape your life around him (Mark 12:1–12)

Ever since my sophomore year in college, I’ve lived in houses which I’ve rented from several different landlords. I’m familiar with what it’s like to be a tenant. It’s only in the last few months, however, that I’ve had a taste of what it’s like to be a landlord. I’ve been working for an apartment management company, and while most of our tenants are well behaved, it’s the 10 percent that misbehave who give us 90 percent of our headaches. Nearly every day, I come home with new stories about irresponsible or clueless tenants.

But it’s tough to complain when you read about tenants like these.

It’s not hard to see who Jesus is pointing the finger at. His opponents, the religious leaders of Israel, recognize themselves right away as the tenants. After all, the prophet Isaiah had also compared Israel to a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1–7), and they saw themselves as tenants of that vineyard. Speaking through Isaiah, the Lord had condemned Israel for its rebellion, and now Jesus specifically condemns the religious leaders who have opposed him.

The tenants in the parable are traitors. They have been given great responsibility to care for the landlord’s vineyard and produce a crop for him. However, they don’t want to serve him; they want the vineyard for themselves. So they humiliate and beat and kill the messengers he has sent, just as the religious leaders of Israel have rejected the prophets whom God has sent, all the way up to John the Baptist. And when he sends his only son, whom he dearly loves—an act of mercy and madness!—they kill him, too, hoping that his inheritance would end up as their own.

Jesus is shredding the righteous disguise of his opponents. They appear to be doing the work of God, but in reality they are opposing his Messiah, the anointed King he has sent to rule Israel. They want control; they want to rule God’s kingdom for themselves.

Even though these leaders have been trained in the Old Testament scriptures from childhood, Jesus challenges them, “Have you not read this Scripture?” He quotes Psalm 118:22–23:

The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.

Why would the builders of a palace or temple reject a stone carved out of a quarry? Obviously, it’s because they see some sort of defect in it. It doesn’t fit into their blueprint for how the structure should look. The Psalmist felt like such a stone; he was rejected by his enemies as unfit to be one of them. Yet he and his allies marveled as the Lord delivered him, turning the rejection upside down and giving him victory over his enemies.

Jesus is the culmination of this pattern of deliverance. He is to be rejected, betrayed, and crucified by the powerful and influential men of his day. Then, despite their best efforts to destroy him, the almighty God will raise him from the dead and give him “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).

Jesus doesn’t fit into the plans of the religious leaders. He is a threat to their positions of power. If he is put in charge, they can no longer have authority over Israel; they can no longer demand that people follow their traditions; they can no longer run their lives the way they want to.

When the rejected stone is made the cornerstone of the building, then the blueprint must be changed, and the building plans must be altered to fit the new cornerstone. This means that Jesus will not “fit in” to our pre-existing lifestyle. No, Jesus demands thorough and foundational change from you and me. He will not be added as an extra ingredient in your life to make you feel spiritually fulfilled. He insists on being your foundation; he insists that you reorder your dreams and goals and values and morals around him. You must shape your life around him as the center. If you and I do this, his triumph will be “marvelous in our eyes.”

If you and I will not do that, then we appear in this parable as the wicked tenants, attempting to kill Jesus so that we may usurp his throne. But “whoever would save his life will lose it” (Mark 8:35)—the Lord will bring about a great reversal, our kingdoms will be flattened, and his eternal kingdom will be built over their ruins, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone.

So are you a faithful tenant of the Landlord? Or will you oppose him until he comes, inevitably, to reject you?

Jesus exposes our hard hearts (Mark 8:1–21)

Just yesterday, I had a brain-dead moment, commonly known as a “senior moment”—except that I’m not a senior. I was having lunch with a family from church, and I’d brought with me a glass plate which I had borrowed a few months back. However, after entering the house and being warmly welcomed, I suddenly realized that the plate wasn’t with me. I had left it out in the car, I announced to my hosts. And then they told me that I’d actually brought it into the house and given it to them not a minute before—none of which registered in my memory.

Major brain farts are a part of life. Unfortunately, in today’s passage from Mark, Jesus’ disciples are going to experience something more than a brain fart. They’re going to get called out on the carpet for being spiritually dull—by Jesus himself.

Our adventure begins with a moment of déjà vu. Once again, a great crowd gathers, they get hungry, Jesus feels compassion for them and asks his disciples to feed them, they bristle at this unreasonable request, and then Jesus supernaturally feeds the entire crowd with several loaves of bread and a few fish. It’s just like his feeding of 5,000 men, except now it’s a smaller crowd of 4,000 people. However, the context of this story tells us a couple of interesting things. First, Jesus is still in Gentile territory; this is a Gentile crowd! He’s doing the same thing for the Gentiles as he did for his fellow Jews, showing compassion on them and caring for their needs. Second, his disciples haven’t caught on after the first feeding—their response to him is nearly identical to their response the first time around. They still think this is a problem too big for Jesus to handle. They haven’t learned their lesson.

Well, right after this story, Jesus shows up in Galilee again, and he’s confronted by the local Jewish leaders in yet another showdown. Their attitude is unmistakable—they want to discredit Jesus and shut down his teaching ministry. Mark says that they’re “seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.” Now, this isn’t an open-minded search for the truth. After all, Jesus has just fed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread! The truth is obvious. No, these Pharisees have already decided that they don’t believe Jesus is from God. They’re just looking for an excuse, any excuse at all, to disparage him.

Jesus is exasperated with these hard-hearted opponents. He knows that no amount of evidence will convince them. “Why does this generation seek a sign?” he asks. “Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” He is adamant that they will not get what they’re demanding. Jesus won’t play their stupid game. Instead, he turns and walks away. He gets in a boat with his disciples and heads to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Jesus’ disciples apparently aren’t very good at planning ahead, because once again they didn’t pack enough food. They forgot to get more bread, and they only have one loaf with them! They’re pretty hungry, and you can guess what their thoughts go when Jesus mentions in his teaching, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” His disciples have bread on the brain, so they completely misunderstand this obvious parable. They hold a little pow-wow afterward to figure out what Jesus meant by this cryptic statement. Is he giving them baking advice? Should they change their brand of yeast? Have they been buying bread that has been contaminated by the Pharisees and Herod? But that makes no sense! They only have one loaf with them; why is Jesus bringing this up? Maybe it’s a veiled rebuke for neglecting to bring bread! Man, we really should have remembered to bring bread. I’m starved.

Jesus gets fed up (haha) and breaks into their conversation: “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand?” He is incredulous. Remember that he’d told them that his parables keep spiritually dull people from understanding the truth he wants to teach (Mark 4:10–12). And as he did then, he refers to Isaiah 6:9–10. “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” His disciples just aren’t getting it!

So Jesus conducts a memory drill. “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”
“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”
“Do you not yet understand?”

Jesus wasn’t worrying about bread, and his disciples should have realized that. Why? Because he could make as much bread as he wanted, whenever he wanted, with plenty left over. Bread wasn’t a big issue to him. So they should have realized it was a parable at once. Jesus is warning them about the Pharisees and about Herod—both of whom feel threatened by his authority and therefore oppose him. He’s worried that their “yeast” of unbelief may work its way into the disciple’s hearts and corrupt them. He knows that his disciples are in danger of developing hardened hearts that won’t comprehend what he’s saying to them. The awful irony is that even when he’s warning them, they miss the point of the warning because their hearts are already hard! It’s a catch-22: they can’t understand because their hearts are hard, and their hearts are hard because they can’t understand.

What this means is that the most ignorant, hard-hearted people are often the people who have been with Jesus the longest, who have been “Christians” their whole lives and have heard sound preaching for 50 years. It could be you or me. A skilled surgeon, only Jesus exposes our hard hearts. Only he can rescue us from them.

Jesus rejects his hometown (Mark 6:1–6)

Over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to spend time with college students, challenging them and encouraging them to follow Jesus Christ with their whole heart and become an active part of a local church. It’s exciting to see students with a teachable spirit begin to grow and bear fruit for the Lord, often for the first time in their lives. One of the challenges, though, is when a growing freshman returns home for the first summer. There, she finds out that “you can’t go home again,” as the proverb says. The student discovers that she has been transformed over the last eight months, while her family and friends back home have stayed the same. Her hometown church, if she has one, is the same as it always was. Before leaving, she fit in well; this was her home. Now, she doesn’t fit in anymore, and she knows that this place can never again be her home.

When Jesus returns to his hometown after a spectacular ministry of preaching and performing miracles, he encounters a similar problem. His homecoming is a letdown for anyone who expects the townspeople to welcome him as their favorite son.

With his disciples in tow, Jesus arrives at his hometown (Nazareth, though Mark tellingly refuses to name it). On the Sabbath, he preaches at the local synagogue, a place that must have seemed familiar to him; this synagogue was basically the small-town church he grew up in. When he preaches, the people of his hometown gather to listen to the boy from their town who has “made it big.” Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus says to them (for that story, read Luke’s account). Whatever it is, the people are “astonished.” They mutter to one another, “Where did this man get these things?” It certainly wasn’t from them! His “wisdom” and “mighty works” are unfamiliar to them. He was one of them when he was growing up as a little boy, but now he has outgrown their traditional, legalistic Judaism.

This doesn’t sit well with the people of Jesus’ hometown. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The rest of Jesus’ family is still stuck in the old mindset, the old legalism of the Pharisees. Like the rest of the town, they think Jesus is out of his mind (Mark 3:21)! They still fit in, but Jesus doesn’t anymore. The truth is, he never did; it’s only now that the townspeople are realizing it. As far as they’re concerned, Jesus has betrayed the small-town values which make them who they are. In their minds, he has turned his back on them. They are deeply offended.

Jesus responds to their attitude with a proverb of sorts: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” The irony is obvious. Like the proverbial prophet, Jesus is popular wherever he goes, but when he returns to the people who should honor him the most, he is rejected. You’d think his hometown and his family would be proud of him. They should be shoe-ins for “insider” status. Instead, they are upset at him because, instead of preserving their tradition, he has been announcing that it will be swept away with the coming of God’s kingdom.

Over the last two chapters, Jesus has shut down a raging storm, driven an army of demons out of a man, healed a diseased and hopeless woman, and raised a little girl from the dead. He certainly isn’t lacking for power. Yet Mark writes that he can’t do any mighty work in his hometown, other than healing a handful of sick people. Instead, he marvels “because of their unbelief.” Mark has been recording how people have “marveled” or been “amazed” because of his miracles. Even the people of his hometown were “astonished” at his teaching. Now it is Jesus who marvels, because their unbelief is so irrational. It is a supernatural unbelief. Jesus knows that it would be pointless to perform a great miracle here; the people’s hearts are too hard. They will only harden their hearts further, in denial of the fact that he is greater than they think he is. They are too intent on clinging to their old way of life, the old kingdom that will soon pass away.

What’s really sad is that people haven’t changed too much in the last 2,000 years. Jesus still confronts us today, offering a new way of life, a new kingdom. But most people reject him because they don’t want to change. They’re comfortable with the way they’ve been living. And you know what the scary part is? The people who are the most resistant to Jesus, who have built up a supernatural resistance, are the ones sitting in church pews on Sunday morning. It’s people who think they have known Jesus their whole lives and are familiar with all the stories. But they’re stuck in a legalistic way of thinking, clinging to human tradition rather than the Word of God. It is no surprise that Jesus is doing no mighty work there. Please, if you’ve never considered this before, do it now. Are you and your church clinging to human tradition? Are you clinging to the mindset of the culture around you—whether the culture as it is now or the culture as it was fifty years ago? That kingdom will not last for long; it cannot be your home.

Jesus departs from his hometown, teaching among other villages in Galilee, where people will listen to him. His mission must go on; the good news of God’s kingdom must be preached. Nazareth is left behind.

Jesus rejects those who reject him (Mark 3:20–35)

Have you ever seen a friend or family member turn an awkward situation into a train wreck? You know, the sort of situation where you just want to get out of the room, hop in a car, and drive about 500 miles away just to escape the tension? Entire TV shows have been written around this sort of premise.

Usually, I’m the one who causes situations like that. But today, it’s Jesus. Or at least, that’s how his family feels about him.

Mark doesn’t talk a lot about Jesus’ family. In fact, this is the only passage where they are mentioned. But we do get to see their attitude toward him at this point in his ministry: “He is out of his mind.” They are so embarrassed by Jesus’ teaching and behavior that they’ve come to take him home and lock him away until they can nurse him back to reality.

Now, here’s where Mark launches into one of his “sandwich” stories. If you read his gospel carefully, you’ll see that Mark likes to begin a story, interrupt it with another story, and then return to finish his first story. So it’s kind of like a story sandwich. The inner story helps you to understand what’s going on in the outer story. In this case, the outer story (the sandwich bread) is Jesus’ response to his family; the inner story (the delicious sandwich innards) is Jesus’ response to the religious teachers from Jerusalem who have come to slander him. Mark interrupts the first story so that we can understand why Jesus responds to his family the way he does.

So let’s take a look at the interrupting story. Jesus has become so popular that religious leaders have traveled from the capital city of Jerusalem to backwater Galilee in order to see what’s going on. They see him heal people and they see him cast out demons, but they don’t like his teaching, because he’s attacking their legalism. So how do they convince people to reject Jesus? Well, they can’t deny that miracles are taking place, so they announce that “he is possessed by Beelzebul…by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And the fact is, they truly believe it. They have convinced themselves that Jesus is a demon-possessed, Satan-worshiping deceiver.

Of course, Jesus makes short work of their claims. He points out the obvious: a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and neither can a household divided against itself. So why in the world would Satan launch a civil war against his own forces? He’s a little bit too bright for that.

Not content to shoot down these accusations, Jesus offers a better interpretation of what’s going on. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods,” he says, “unless he first binds the strong man.” He likens Satan to a strong man who maintains a grip on the people of Israel through demon possession. Jesus is the stronger man who ties up Satan so that “he may plunder his house.” Jesus is setting people free from Satan’s oppression. That’s what these exorcisms are all about.

At this point, Jesus turns to these religious teachers and utters one of the most harrowing condemnations in scripture. “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” This is “the unpardonable sin”—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. These teachers have seen the Holy Spirit at work, and they have called him the devil. They have resisted the gospel to the point that they are witnessing the life-saving power of the Spirit and convincing themselves that he is utterly wicked. So Jesus tells them, “There is no hope for you. Forgiveness is available to anyone who repents of any sin, no matter how severe. But you will never repent.” Like Pharaoh, they have completely hardened their hearts against the Holy Spirit, so in an act of judgment, God will harden their hearts further so that they may never believe in Jesus Christ and be forgiven.

The awful irony is that these teachers accuse Jesus of being “possessed by Beelzebul,” yet it is they who have aligned themselves with the devil. To reject Jesus is to choose a side—you must be in league with Satan and his demonic forces. Oh, how you and I need to pray to God, “Keep our hearts soft and teachable so that we can remain faithful to our Savior!”

On this tragic note, Mark returns to his first story. Jesus’ family has arrived outside the house where he is teaching. They send word for him, but he refuses to come. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. He looks around at those who are listening to him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

If we hadn’t read the interrupting story first, we might think that Jesus is being rather harsh toward his family. But now we understand: they rejected him first. They’ve chosen a side, and it is the side of Satan. They haven’t committed the unforgivable sin—they do repent and believe in him later. For now, though, we leave them standing outside, while Jesus has chosen to be with his new, adopted family instead.

This should be a clear lesson for us. Jesus doesn’t play favorites. If you grew up in a Christian home, or in a Christian culture, that’s no guarantee that Jesus won’t reject you. You must “be with him” (v 14) and do the will of God, proving that you really have believed in him. Jesus is a polarizing figure, separating insiders from outsiders. Will you be on his side or on the devil’s side?

The Broken Rose

~ ~ ~

The Broken Rose

Who would love the blossomed rose—
Luster her alluring pow’r,
Fragrance of arousal crowned?
Lovers all ablaze surround—
Bloom and root and stem devour.

Who would want the broken rose?
Seared in sin, in ashes grown;
Tortured pale, her petals torn;
Leaves are lost and left the thorn
Naked on the stem, alone.

Jesus wants the broken rose
While her twisted shape is thrown,
Shriveled, to the wilting scorn:
“Leave, oh, leave her not forlorn,”
Wept and whispered for his own.

Jesus loves the broken rose,
Waters with a bleeding show’r;
Root has gripped the sanguine ground;
Drops of blood, their riches found,
Rise through stem and red the flow’r.

~ ~ ~

Dead rose

Photo by David Garzon