Unbelief


Mark 11:27-12:12

Text Comment

The next long section of Mark’s narrative of the Passion Week is devoted to conversations the Lord had with the religious leadership: the priests, the scribes or teachers of the law, and the elders. There is in fact a series of seven episodes in this following material. These clerics and churchmen had, as we have already seen, a deep and abiding animus toward Jesus and in these conversations were hoping to catch him in some remark that they could use against him with the people and with the Roman authorities. He used their questions, however, both to expose their true motives on the one hand and to reveal his own identity and elaborate his own message on the other.

v.27

This was, in other words, a delegation, perhaps an official delegation from the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body composed of priests and elders, some of whom would also have been scribes or teachers of the law.

v.28

It was the self-evident authority of Jesus that left the most indelible mark on both his friends and his enemies. That is obvious from the Gospel narratives. Jesus had an authority that they had never encountered before. He spoke and amazing things happened. He taught with a clarity, certainty and conviction quite unique and instead of citing other rabbis, as was the custom said “I say this.” Once again there is no denial of the works Jesus performed, his miracles, or the statements he made, such as declaring a person’s sins forgiven. The question put to him is rather by what right and by whose authority he said and did such things. The Sanhedrin held religious authority in Israel and they were obviously jealous of that authority. Jesus did not defer to them and that was a large part of the offense they took at him.

v.30

The Lord’s counter-question is not an evasion, as if he were simply dodging the blow they aimed at him. The meaning of his life and ministry harked back to the meaning of John’s ministry, a ministry of repentance – as was the Lord’s – and the preaching of a prophet sent from God to prepare the way for the Lord. What they thought about John to a great extent determined what they thought about Jesus. John had a view of Jesus they did not have.

v.33

The Sanhedrin’s answer is pure evasion. But their concern to get at Jesus and not to offend the people indicates that their problem was not that they did not know the truth but that they were unwilling to face it. The vital center of true faith was and is the recognition of the Lord. It is precisely here that the religious leadership failed.

12:1

The practice of tenant farming was widespread in Palestine at this time, so the parable, as always with Jesus, is drawn from the everyday experience of the people. That a story about a vineyard should be employed to tell the story of Israel’s spiritual life stems from Isaiah’s famous metaphor of Israel as the vineyard of the Lord (Isa. 5:1-2).

v.5

It is not at all difficult to tell, indeed, it must have been obvious both to the disciples and the deputation from the Sanhedrin, that the reference was to the prophets whom the Lord had sent to Israel and whose ministry Israel had rejected. Some of the OT prophets had been killed, but, more recently, John the Baptist had been executed and if the Sanhedrin didn’t the people widely recognized John as a prophet.

v.6

We might well ask what landlord in his right mind would send his son by himself to deal with tenants such as these. But that is just the point. The landlord is taking the risk. In the larger context of the Gospel the sending of the son suggests both the love of God for his people – his willingness to sacrifice his son – and his full awareness of what would become of him if he sent him into the world.

v.10

The citation from Psalm 118 reminds us that the rejection of Christ by the Jews was not only the result of the malevolence of these churchmen toward the Son of God but the plan and purpose of God and so became the means of something wonderful, the salvation of the world.

v.12

The Sanhedrin had no difficulty understanding the parable. They knew that Jesus was speaking about them. And then they proved him right by continuing to plan to do precisely what the tenants did in the parable: murder the Son of God.

I know that all Christians are by no means the same. Some are much more susceptible to doubt than others. Some find the conviction of the truth much easier to come by than others. Some learn the faith and it immediately makes sense to them, sense of their world and their experience, and they are never again troubled by doubts. Others are not so fortunate and must study and pray to be reassured that the teaching of Holy Scripture about God, the world, man, and salvation is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. These differences are found among prominent Christians and among the simplest.

And some of the reason for those creeping doubts that can flit into even an established believer’s mind and heart is the unbelief of so many others. I’m sure most of us, at one time or another, have, at least for a moment, wondered if we Christians can be right when so many people in this world do not believe as we do. Can our faith be truth when so many intelligent people do not accept it or, in fact, reject it out of hand? If the truth is so obvious, why don’t more people see it? This is certainly an argument unbelievers are nowadays turning against Christians. Are you the only people who can see the truth? Are you smarter than everyone else? Are you Christians alone wise and everyone else a fool?

But there is a subtext, a fundamental assumption in all of this discussion about numbers: about the multitudes who believe that Jesus is God and the savior of the world and the still larger numbers of people who do not believe that about him. And the subtext is that people are disinterested, unbiased in the matter of religious belief; that is, they believe or do not believe for entirely responsible reasons, reasons having to do with intellectual honesty, with rationality, with moral conviction, and the like. In that case it would be fair to conclude, would it not, that the reason so many do not believe is that the evidence is not sufficiently persuasive?

Certainly the atheists who have been writing popular books of late want us to believe that their unbelief is disinterested and unbiased. They do not believe in Jesus Christ, they are not Christians, they are not, for that matter, religious at all for one reason and one reason only: because they follow the evidence where it takes them, they look steadfastly at the facts and refuse to blink. In fact, they uniformly present themselves as courageous types, unwilling to medicate themselves against unwelcome truth the way religious believers do with their ideas of God and salvation and the next world. Marx famously described religion as the “opium of the people,” a form of escape from the harsh realities of life. Freud viewed religion in the same way, as a refuge for people who were afraid. And similarly the new atheist writers see themselves as more courageous. They are among the few who face the facts and, with flinty honesty, refuse to be bowed by the bleak, inhospitable nature of human existence.

But is this true? Has it ever been true that unbelief is really disinterested; has unbelief ever really amounted to simply an honest attempt to do justice to what human beings can really know? I mentioned last time that even prominent atheists have often enough admitted that they were unbelievers in some large part because they didn’t want there to be a God, at least not a God like the God of the Bible. As the modern scholar of religion, Karen Armstrong, expresses her viewpoint:

“It is wonderful not to have to cower before a vengeful deity, who threatens us with eternal damnation if we do not abide by his rules.” [Cited in Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About Christianity, 261]

The philosopher Thomas Nagel of NYU in a 1997 book published by Oxford University Press candidly admits:

“I want atheism to be true…It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God….I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” [The Last Word, 130]

Perhaps in the modern world there has been no greater reason for unbelief than the desire for sexual freedom. Huxley admitted this of his attachment to Darwinism, as we saw last Lord’s Day, but many modern thinkers do not hesitate to say the same thing. Christopher Hitchens, the columnist, author, and pundit who has written one of the recent spate of pro-atheism best-sellers, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is quite candid on this point:

“…the divorce between the sexual life and fear…can now at last be attempted on the sole condition that we banish all religions from the discourse.” [D’Souza, 269]

Dinesh D’Souza, in his recent book written in response to these attacks on Christianity and other religious belief, summarizes as follows:

“When an atheist gives elaborate justifications for why God does not exist and why traditional morality is an illusion, he is very likely thinking of his sex organs. It may well be that if it weren’t for that single commandment against adultery, Western man would still be Christian!”

In other words, don’t believe it when unbelievers tell you that they are unbelievers only because they have looked carefully at the evidence and have come to the only rational conclusion. They reject the faith because they do not want to believe it and their motives are often not nearly as noble as they imagine and as they claim. They want to be left alone to do what they want to do and they don’t want to be told that they can’t do it. Eliminating God is necessary to secure them that freedom. To be sure, they rarely so honest or straightforward as to their motivations for their unbelief. They do not even admit it to themselves. Their bias against God lies deep in the foundations of their thought. Such is man in sin; such is fallen man, the Bible says; always and by nature a rebel against his maker.

So when Richard Dawkins tells you that modern science has proved that God did not create the world you have every right – no matter his scientific credentials and his high profile as a university professor – to conclude that this is more wishful thinking, more bombast than a real argument. The fact is the distinct break that exists between the inanimate world and the living world, once thought to be quite small and perhaps easily bridged, is now known to be the most dramatic and gigantic gap that exists in all nature and no one has the foggiest idea how that gap could have been bridged, the gap between chemistry and the first living cell or even some proto-cell. The problems of explanation have become, in fact, exponentially more difficult over the past generation as the breathtaking complexity of the cell has been discovered.

When Richard Dawkins tells you that evolution is a fact, no longer a theory, you have every right to ask how in the world he knows that the genetic programs of living things, consisting of something close to a billion bits of information, containing in coded form thousands of intricate algorithms controlling, specifying, and ordering the growth and development of billions and billions of cells into the forms of complex organisms, that such remarkable things came to exist by a purely random process, came to exist by accident, in other words. You are entirely free, confidently to ask if it is at all reasonable to suppose – particularly given the steady accumulation of disconfirming evidence – that random, accidental, mindless processes could have constructed a reality, the smallest element of which – a functional protein or gene – is complex wildly beyond our own creative capacities, a reality whose perfection of function is the very antithesis of chance, which excels in every sense anything produced by the intelligence of man, and which happens to be billions of times smaller than the smallest piece of functional machinery ever constructed by man. [Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, 338, 342, 351] In such unbelief in God something more is at work than an impartial and disinterested examination of the evidence.

And that is what we have in a naked form in our text this morning. We have the Lord Jesus unmasking the real motivations for unbelief among the people who might have been thought most likely to believe in him. We might well imagine that a miracle worker, someone with power to heal the sick, control the weather, and provide food by miraculous means would be welcomed with open arms by the Jews, then a downtrodden people whose prospects for better things seemed slim to none. What is more, this was a people with a long tradition of waiting for the appearance of a king who would restore their fortunes as a people. Was this not that king? Did he not open for them new vistas hitherto unimagined? Why then the unbelief? And not simply unbelief; an open hatred? These religious, these upright men wanted Jesus dead! Even the most skeptical of scholars of the New Testament have not denied that Jesus was crucified near Jerusalem during the reign of Tiberius and the governorship of Pontius Pilate. What was his crime? What made an amateur rabbi from Galilee and one by all accounts little interested in politics such a focus of establishment outrage?

Well, later Mark will personalize this antipathy on the part of the religious leadership. They were, he reports in 15:10, jealous of the Lord. So jealous, indeed, that it was perfectly obvious to the Roman governor what was really going on, why they really wanted Jesus dead. They were envious of his reputation with the people, his phenomenal popularity infuriated them. He was making them seem small and their orchestrating his death was little more than their revenge for his having done so.

In every walk of life, in every sort of human relationship, pride and jealousy get in the way. In the book I read recently about the Hungarian mathematician, Paul Erdős, I discovered that among mathematicians also jealousy is rampant. The author summed up the situation by saying, “If they can’t fathom what’s in [God’s] book, they don’t want anyone else to.” An American mathematician was more blunt: “I’d rather a theorem not be thought of than I not be the one who thinks of it.” [Hoffman, 41] Small-minded? Absolutely! But so universally true. And so it was here with the Sanhedrin and Jesus.

Dorothy Sayers reminds us that the greatest thing that ever happened, the crucifixion of the incarnate Son of God, came to pass through the agency of a corrupt church, a timid politician, and fickle proletariat. Nothing too noble, nothing too disinterested in that. Some wanted to preserve their places; others wanted him to do for them what they wanted done; he disappointed their expectations and called on them to repent. Never a likely way to popularity in this world. They didn’t believe in him because they didn’t want to; they were angry at him! Many have commented on the rage that animates the people who write against God. Why do angry at someone who does not exist?

But there is something more here. In the parable that Jesus told, in v. 7, we read the tenants say, when they learned that the landlord’s son was coming on his behalf, “This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.”

Now much has been made about that statement of the tenants. It has been asked why they might think, why anyone would think that if they murdered the landlord’s son the property would fall to them. Surely they would be murderers and would not only lose the property but their lives or their freedom when they were punished for their crime. Some scholars in reply have offered persuasive evidence that possession of property without payment of rent for a period of four years under the Jewish law that applied at that time constituted title to ownership. There might, in other words, have been something to their scheme. But this is a parable and Jesus isn’t interested in elaborate legal claims. What we have here is nothing but the sort of evil and utterly foolish things that people often do under the impulse of selfish desire, [France, 461] and do without much thought of possible consequences.

But for the purposes of the parable there may well be more to the strategy of the tenants. In the parable, of course, the tenants’ taking and killing the son of the landlord and throwing his body out of the vineyard was a prophecy of what was about to be done to the Lord Jesus. It represents real actions about to be taken against the Lord Jesus, who is in fact the son of the vineyard owner. And if the tenants’ actions are real actions, what in fact these men and others would do in real history in a few days’ time, then the motivations ascribed to them here in the parable may very well be understood to be the actual motivations as well.

In other words, if humanity can dispense with God, or kill God – in this case God the son come into the world as a man – then it can have the vineyard for its own. These men can, in effect, become owners of the vineyard themselves. They can take God’s place in other words; they can unseat him. [Edwards, 359] The motives of the tenants are universal, in other words. They are the motives of unbelieving man, to unseat God and take his place. Here is a profound and historically satisfying explanation for unbelief. Man desires to rid the universe of God, at least to rid it of any God that he cannot control, of any God that makes categorical moral demands of him and threatens to punish him for disobedience.

We often hear about man’s quest for God. Many people think of religion – the various religions of the world – as the demonstration of man’s quest for God. Man is trying to find God in these various ways; so many think. So say many university teachers of the philosophy of religion. But it is not so. The Bible makes it very clear that it is not so. In reality, the religions of mankind are not a way to find God but a way to escape from God. So are the various philosophies of man, including and perhaps especially the most secular and atheistic of these philosophies. Man may invent a high God that is far removed from him so that man has very little to do with god and can live in largest part apart from and without reference to God. Laws and rituals will be devised so that man can appease or even satisfy and please God and earn rewards from him but all the while living his own life largely as he pleases. Man may well bring in such a god to help him in the hour of death or in some crisis, but otherwise he stays in his place and leaves man alone. Or, in another conception, God may be brought near so that he can be worshipped as a spirit in a tree, or the sun or moon, or in some animal. He may be absorbed into nature and man himself becomes divine or everything becomes divine. But in all of these cases, God is managed. He is forced into a shape, a nature, a character that is acceptable to man. God is not really sought, he is manufactured and he is manufactured so as to be controlled in a way that leaves man to live his own life as he pleases.

As C.S. Lewis put it,

“An impersonal god – well and good. A subjective god of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap – best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband – that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God’!) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing he had found us?” [Miracles, 98]

A god who does nothing and demands nothing, a god whom we can control with relatively modest investments of time and money, a god who leaves us be, who permits us to remain who and what we are: that is the god people are searching for. That is the God these clerics and churchmen were happy to serve. The living God, the God who actually exists, the God to whom we owe our lives, the moral God who made us moral creatures, who gave us a conscience, who make us live in a moral world, and who promises to hold us accountable; that God men and women do not seek. The God who enters the world to encounter us, the God who appeared as a man in Jesus Christ, who makes demands, who issues a summons, who requires that we understand our existence in reference to him; that God is not what people seek. The Bible says as much. In this sense “there is no one who seeks after God,” a text from Psalm 10 that Paul quotes in Romans 3.

“In his pride the wicked does not seek [the Lord]; in all his thoughts there is no room for God.”

That is what the Lord is saying here in his parable describing the tenants who planned to kill the son of the owner of the vineyard so that they could have the vineyard for themselves. The people did not reject Jesus, nor did the religious leadership, because he failed to prove himself to them. Bertrand Russell was once asked what he would say if he discovered after his death that there was an afterlife after all. He pompously replied that he would tell God, “Sir, you did not give me enough evidence.” [D’Souza, 261] But that is poppycock as well as blasphemy. There is evidence aplenty, evidence that has proved sufficient to demonstrate the existence of the next world to a great company of men and women, plenty of whom were as smart and the most of whom were better human beings than Bertrand Russell.

There is the evidence of creation itself that recently has forced the long-time and very public atheist philosopher, the previous generation’s Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew to change his mind and accept that there must be a God. We know too much about the universe to believe it came into being by chance or accidentally. There is the evidence of man’s nature, his consciousness and self-awareness, his personality, his moral nature, his conscience, his capacity to appreciate goodness and beauty, his concept of time, the longings of his heart; there is the historical and moral authority of Jesus Christ, the historical verifiability of the Bible, there is the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, the evidence of the Christian life, and on and on.

But all of this has a flip side. There is a summons contained in all of this evidence. It is a summons to submission to the living God, the Maker of heaven and earth. It is a summons to bow the knee and to worship and obey the one who has given you life. It is a summons to acknowledge that his will must become the norm of your life. And it is finally a summons to acknowledge that you and I have lived constantly and profoundly and comprehensively in ways that are unworthy of this God and of the nature he gave me, that I must confess myself a sinner, that I must seek forgiveness in that way that God himself has provided for it, and that I must embrace a new life of obedience and service in gratitude for his gifts to me.

There is the rub. There is the reason for unbelief. To believe, really to believe, is to bow, to confess, and to obey. Pride will not bow, nor will it confess, nor will it obey. It will not no matter the cost. That is why men and women do not believe. It is not for want of evidence. It is not an act of courage on their part. It is unwillingness to surrender themselves; it is rebellion, jealousy, and defiance. The same rebellion and jealousy and defiance we Christians still find so much of in our own hearts and minds. It is not difficult for us to understand the bias that accounts for unbelief. We have so much of that same anti-God bias remaining inside us! It is the desire to be one’s own God, which both explains unbelief and guarantees that it will never succeed. Man is not God; he makes, in fact, a very poor, a pathetic imitation of God. And he invariably disappoints those who worship him as God, including himself.

Worse still, denying God does not alter the fact of God’s existence or his absolute rule over this world and the life of human beings in this world. The Sanhedrin managed to kill Jesus and by so doing they only served unwittingly to assist in the salvation of the world, to exalt Jesus to the highest place in heaven and on earth, and to secure their own judgment on the last day. They did not manage to keep him dead or to stamp out the movement that was growing around him. In fact, by their hateful acts they ignited that movement and sent it on its course of conquest throughout the world. They had a bias against Jesus deep in their hearts. They didn’t want him to be their Lord. All men have such a bias. It is why it is such an extraordinary thing to believe in him. It means you must have changed your heart and bent your will. Think of it – God changed you! Or can change you, and will if you ask him.