March 3 | Third Encounter: Debts and Enemy Lines

Third Encounter: Debts and Enemy Lines
Text: Mark 12:1-17
Speaker: Mark Rupp

There is a strange stillness in the air. A moment full of anticipation, weariness, hope, and a good bit of fear. The stars shine down across the expanse known as No-Man’s Land, the frozen ground between two trenches that bears the marks of violence momentarily paused. The smells of blood and ash linger in the air, or perhaps only in the memory. Two men in uniform approach slowly, tentatively, from either side. Hearts racing, they gain a bit of confidence as their first steps are met not with violence but with curiosity.

One of the men reaches inside his pocket. In that brief instant, the other silently braces himself to react. But the hand emerges not with a weapon but with a cigar as the first man speaks the words, “Fröhliche Weihnachten.” Merry Christmas.

This is the scene that Melissa Florer-Bixler uses to open her book, How to Have An Enemy: Righteous Anger and the Work of Peace. It is one more fictionalized retelling of the Christmas Truce that happened in 1914 during WWI when a brief armistice took place between soldiers of opposing sides. If nothing else this pause in combat allowed each side to care for the wounded and tend to the dead. Many accounts of that day talk of soldiers singing carols across enemy lines. Some diaries and journals recount tales of swapping gifts, giving haircuts, and perhaps even playing soccer together in the fabled space between the trenches. 

There is enough evidence that this brief truce certainly happened, though there is no one version of the event, and–as Florer-Bixler is quick to point out–this event has been deeply mythologized in our culture, held up as the epitome of what it means to encounter one’s enemy and allow our shared humanity to turn enemies into friends. There have been movies depicting it, TV shows referencing it, a grocery store advertisement created a short scene from it to sell their wares, and certainly a few sermon illustrations.  But if we are able to strip back some of the mythology surrounding the event, we can begin to see that it wasn’t nearly the grand revelation of anti-war resistance that it is sometimes held up to be, most poignantly in the fact that the many–if not post–participants readily picked up their weapons on December 26 to return to the violence against those they’d met the previous day. 

Florer-Bixler starts her book with this story because she wants to show readers that “We are invested in the myth of instantaneous friendship across enemy lines as a cure to our social ills because it offers a simple explanation for the troubles we face today.” Rather than committing to the difficult and costly work of doing justice and tending to the realities of power, we too readily place our hope in interpersonal transformation that assumes we can all just get along if we get everyone in the same room, or at least get them to emerge from their trenches for the night.

Interpersonal conflict transformation has its place, but we can’t forget that when Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, he assumes that enemies are and will very much be a reality for us. Those words were originally spoken to an occupied, oppressed, down-trodden people, so we shouldn’t forget that this call to enemy-love was a costly one.

This Lent season, we are exploring Encounters on the Way in Mark’s gospel as Jesus makes his own journey toward Jerusalem. So far we have listened and contemplated encounters with a rich young man who wants so badly to follow Jesus but who ultimately walks away, encounters with the disciples about what it means to be great, and encounters with a man longing to be able to see.

And today our scripture passage offers us two separate but related encounters: a parable Jesus tells about a vineyard and a conversation he has in response to a tricky question.  Rather than seeing these as separate encounters, I see this section of Mark’s gospel helping us to explore what it means to encounter one’s enemies.

But before we can really dive into how Jesus shows us what it means to encounter an enemy, I want to be clear that we should never approach these sort of passages with the understanding that “the Jews” are the enemy or that the new thing that God is doing in Christ somehow negates or supersedes what God has done and continues to do through our Jewish kin. I’ll be the first to admit that some portions of the scriptures do lend themselves toward this kind of interpretation, but we must not be afraid to read scripture critically, knowing that just like us, sometimes the writers of the bible failed to live up to the Good News that was being revealed to them.

It is also important to remember that the distinct divisions between what we understand as Jewish and Christian did not even exist when these texts were being written. The Jewish Jesus was confronting other Jewish sects and teachers in a sort of heated inter-family argument. Jesus wasn’t an enemy to the Pharisees because they wished to follow the law of Moses.  He wasn’t an enemy to the Sadducees or the Herodians because they had differences in theological opinion.

So what makes our passage for today encounters with an enemy?

Florer-Bixler writes, “Power separates difference from enmity. I use the language of enemies in this book to describe a relationship between people, one that recognizes how a person uses their power, actively or passively, to harm or dominate another. When there are enemies, one is in power over the other, or there is a conflict over who holds power.”

Our differences do not make us enemies. The way we use power over and against one another is what creates relationships of enmity. The enemy that Jesus encounters in our passage for today are those leaders and authorities who use their positions of power to oppress others, to coerce and control those at the margins, or to collaborate with other powers to enact violence on their behalf.

Our use of the Narrative Lectionary is typically meant to be chronological, but in Mark’s gospel our passages for today and the next few weeks come after the Palm Sunday triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This is important to understand for today because the parable and question about taxes we read earlier come immediately after Jesus has entered Jerusalem and cleared the temple in his grand display of righteous anger. I think it is fair to say that he made a few enemies that day, and in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospel the chapters that follow that event contain not only our passage for today but other encounters with the various authorities who reacted to the clearing of the temple by seeking ways to destroy Jesus. 

Jesus clearing the temple is another sermon for another time, but I want us to understand that our passage for today is within this context of the enmity that exists between Jesus and the specific authorities seeking to harm him and his mission. So when the parable begins with “And so he began to speak to them” we know who the “them” is referring to.

Sometimes when Jesus tells parables we can end up like the disciples scratching our heads trying to figure out what he’s talking about, but this parable about the vineyard and the tenants who refuse to give the owner what is due is certainly not the most enigmatic one he’s ever told. Even so, I think there’s a few things to pull out and explore to help us understand a little deeper.

First is the sermonic structure of the parable. Even though it is not directly referenced, the early readers of this text would have been able to hear the allusion to the passage from Isaiah where the prophet compares Israel to a vineyard where God goes to find the fruits of righteousness but finds only injustice. Jesus begins with a scripture, tells a story to expound on that passage, then ends with a different passage of scripture from the Psalms about a rejected cornerstone to further expand our interpretative imaginations. In Isaiah the vineyard bears bitter fruit, but here it seems that the vineyard is bearing good fruit worthy of the harvest. And now there is a cornerstone thrown into the mix of this vineyard somewhere. 

Understanding this very conventional use of the Jewish scriptures by Jesus is another reminder that his enemy is not Judaism or the Jewish people as if he sits outside of the tradition. Jesus is  one of many teachers and prophets who have called the people back to a righteousness firmly rooted in the tradition.

The other piece of the parable that I want to explore a little more is, perhaps, the most troubling part of the passage where the story of the vineyard and its tenants seems to come to its climax when Jesus answers his own question about what the vineyard owner will do by saying, “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”

As I mentioned before, this particular parable shows up in Matthew and Luke’s gospels as well. Now, maybe this is a cheap hermeneutical (or interpretive) move, but I want to say that the version in Matthew’s gospel is better for understanding what’s going on here. Even though it is widely agreed that Mark’s gospel was the earliest of the four gospels and likely a source used for writing Matthew and Luke, Matthew makes one small change that, to me, better fits with what I think Jesus is doing with the parable.

In Matthew’s version, instead of Jesus rhetorically answering his own question–“What then will the vineyard owner do?” –the response comes from the chief priests and Pharisees who were listening. They are the ones who introduce violence and destruction into the narrative, projecting their own biases on the scenario. Up until that point, the vineyard owner has responded over and over again not with vengeance or violence but with vulnerability, sending more and more messengers and eventually even his own beloved son despite the repeated responses of the tenants.

In Matthew’s version it is only after the audience has projected their answer onto the narrative that they make the connection that the parable is about them, that they have, in a way, condemned themselves by exposing their reliance on violence and coercion rather than vulnerable, life-giving love. In this way, the parable and its response connects not only with the other surrounding passages where Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of those who are attempting to trick and trap him, it also harkens back to the story in the book of Second Samuel where the prophet Nathan slyly tells a parable against King David who also condemns himself through his own interpretation. 

Systems and structures built on violence and coercion can end up endlessly replicating themselves unless a new way of telling the story is introduced. What if instead of seeing the transfer of the vineyard to others as a punitive act we see it is a restorative one? What if instead of the cornerstone being seen as a Divine projectile thrown at those who oppose the Kin-dom of God, we see it as a foundation of justice and righteousness that will endure despite those who trip against it or attempt to build unstable structures of oppression on top of it?

How do we encounter our enemies?

Florer-Bixler writes, “We love our enemies when we extend an invitation to a form of life where those who have the power to destroy others no longer exercise the self-destruction of hatred, hoarding, and violence. We love our enemies by creating a world that releases them from the wages of their own violence.”

We love enemies not just by learning to tell a new story but telling that story with our very lives, the things we do, the commitments we act on, the systems and communities we build together. When we encounter enemies, we love them by refusing to allow ourselves or others to continue to be subject to their harm, even if that means we have to refuse to play by the rules they set forth or answer their questions within the bounds of their binary thinking. 

For the second part of our passage today, these enemies of Jesus approach him with words of flattery. They say, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere and show deference to no one, for you do not regard people with partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.” And then they hit him with the trap, a question they insist has a clear yes or no answer that will condemn Jesus either way he answers.  “Should we pay taxes to Caesar or should we not?”

As they were flattering him, they used a phrase that translates more directly as “you do not regard the face of anyone” which, perhaps, tees up Jesus’ response when he asks to see the coin used to pay the tax and turns the question back on them with a different question, “Whose head and whose title is this?” It was not only the head and face of Caesar, but it likely contained an inscription declaring his divinity. Caesar had declared himself a god, so when Jesus tells the authorities to give to Caesar what is Caesar and to God what is God’s, he puts the ball back in their court, forcing them to wrestle with the logic of their own capitulation to a power that seeks to rival God. 

I think his response is not just some epic mic-dropping gotcha moment or a mere refusal to answer the question. Once again, I think Jesus is exposing the self-destructive logic of the enemies to God’s kin-dom and inviting those enemies to imagine a new way of living. 

Once again Florer-Bixler can be helpful in understanding this shift. She writes, “In Christianity we do not resolve enmity by destroying our foes or finding middle ground with them. Instead, Jesus ushers in a different system–a new way of living that changes the order of power itself.” And later she adds, “More often than not, Jesus’ troubling statements to his disciples and followers, be they about money or marriage, treason or taxes, serve as eruptions that shake loose the confines of their imagination.”

Encountering our enemies in the way of Jesus doesn’t mean destroying them, it means confronting them with a different story, one that shakes loose the confines of their imagination enough for them to see that a new way is possible.

Finding common ground, emerging from the trenches and meeting one another face-to-face can be important, transformative, courageous work, but it can only go so far in tearing down the structures of domination that maintain a world where trenches are the only logic by which we live. If we return to our guns and bombs after encountering the enemy, we have failed to follow Jesus on the way toward the kin-dom of God. In every encounter, not least of which in encounters with enemies, our task is to see the face of God and to give to God what is God’s. 

This is what we owe to one another, the debt the vineyard owner comes to collect. The currency of the kin-dom of God is the fruit of righteousness that grows in abundance when we recognize the image of God stamped on every living thing. But there are those who actively work against this, who use their power to keep us from the way of Jesus.

Jesus doesn’t tell us not to have enemies. He shows us how to have enemies well. How to love them enough to expose their self-destructive logic. How to refuse to play by the rules of a system that is designed only to trap us in those same destructive habits. He teaches us how to create a new social order built on the foundation of love, committing so deeply to Life that you’re willing to walk toward Death to get there. 

On the way we will have many encounters, and in each and every one, may we always be ready to share a harvest of justice and the fruits of peace. This is what we owe to one another, friend and enemy alike. This is the only debt that God is interested in collecting.