Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Mark 12:1-17) transports me to an 1882 saloon in Leadville, Colorado, where (as Oscar Wilde reported in his Impressions of America) a sign hangs above the door: “Please don’t shoot the piano player; he’s doing the best he can.” This inspiration for Elton John’s 1973 album (that brought us Daniel and Crocodile Rock as well as the country-music-flavored Texan Love Song and Jack Rabbit) is reminiscent of the entreaty, “don’t shoot the messenger,” a sentiment found as far back as Sophocles (though I don’t think the messengers actually got “shot” back in the ancient Greek times). Were Jesus to have put up a sign over the entrance to the faith community, it could well have been “Please Don’t Shoot the Prophets – They’re Doing the Best They Can.”
The Mark passage has Jesus digging once again into his prophetic repertoire to pull out another country-music-flavored parable of farm life, this time drawing on Isaiah’s imagery of the faith community as a vineyard, planted by God. There are some troubling verses in Jesus’ version of the vineyard song, starting with a Deist-like absentee landlord (land-Lord?) playing the role of God, and the concluding scene of this land-Lord morphing into Rambo the repo-man, exacting vengeance in the vineyard by destroying all the tenants in the process of repossessing the land. As troublesome as these allegorical points are, the story/song serves Jesus’ purpose and reveals some basic truisms about the relationship between God, the religious institutions that plow the field of God’s love, and the messengers of God who come calling.
For one thing, you can count on the institutional caretakers who inevitably emerge to take care of the faith to always get confused about their role. The tenants just can’t seem to help getting overly possessive of the field, so much so that the original calling to be good news, to be a blessing to the world, often gets lost in the shuffle. As the old tobacco-spitting and bourbon-guzzling Baptist iconoclast Will Campbell has been known to say, the institutional church is perhaps the greatest barrier to the proclamation of the gospel, (Newsweek article). The theology or ideology of any particular set of tenants is irrelevant to this truism; the institutional church invariably takes on a proprietary air when it comes to articles of faith. Which necessitates God sending some messengers, some prophetic piano players, to remind folks that they have the words but have forgotten the tune.
And the story accurately describes the typical response to these prophets who traipse in reminding folks that the fruits of love and mercy are overdue. The institutions don’t tolerate prophets very well. The messengers generally get snuffed, right up to the point where even God’s own Son pays the prophetic price. To prove the point, before Jesus can even get up from the piano bench after playing this tune for the saloon full of scribes and Saduccees, they are plotting a way to trap him, trying to catch him off-guard with a politically charged question about Caesar, fulfilling Jesus’ story as if on cue.
This parable is a cautionary tale for those of us who are invested in the tenant farming systems we call the organized church today. And it is a harsh reality check for those messengers who come calling on God’s behalf. They better keep that sign up above the door.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.