Thesis Number: #3 (Page 2 of 10)
The Covenant with God
The way in which a wandering people entered into a deal with Yahweh in the 6th century BCE reveals how the sacred and secular worlds were fused. The Israelites acknowledged one God in return for land. That land was owned by God (“all the earth is mine”: Exodus 19:5), and gifted at a price: compliance with a moral code (the Ten Commandments: Exodus 20).
Narratives which emerged out of that deal continued the traditions of the civilisations of antiquity, including the Jubilee (Leviticus 25): land was periodically restored to those who had lost it (because of drought, for example). Debts were cancelled. Households were sustained.
Thus, monotheism emerged as an arrangement in which relationships were built around a property right. Land was gifted by God to serve the common good. The Covenant stipulated that “Moreover the profit of the earth is for all” (Ecclesiastes 5:9), a provision that was not being honoured in the time of Jesus. The priests had become oppressors (Myers 2012: 52).
Jesus instructed through stories called parables. He affirmed the Jubilee as the Year of the Lord (Luke 4:19), and affirmed the debt cancellation practice in the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). He stressed that the rent of land was sacred. It was the Lord’s and not those who tilled the land, and it must be collected and devoted for the benefit of all (Mark 12:1-9).
The sanctity of rent was the cornerstone of the scripture (Mark 12:10; Psalm 118: 22-23). Ezekiel (47:14): “And they shall not sell of it, neither exchange, nor alienate the first fruits of the land; for it is holy unto the Lord”. Those first fruits were what we now call economic rent. Two thousand years ago, they were being pocketed by the urban elites. Jesus deployed the parable of the vineyard as “a metaphor for an oppressive agrarian political economy…The liberation of the people depends utterly upon the liberation of the land itself” (Myers 2001: 339).
The parable described how a vineyard was provisioned by “the lord of the vineyard” (Mark 12:9). Tenants were expected to pay rent. They decided that they would keep the rents. They killed the people who were sent to collect the rents.
The “lord of the vineyard” decided that, “Having yet therefore one son, his well-beloved, he sent him also last unto them, saying, They will reverence my son” (Mark 12:6). The tenants plotted: “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours” (Mark 12:9). They did kill him. So the “lord of the vineyard” had no choice but to “come and destroy the husbandmen” and transfer the vineyard to others.
Who was the “lord of the vineyard”? God alone could claim to be owner, according to Genesis and the Mosaic law. Who was the “one son” sent to persuade the tenants to pay the rents? Jesus!
This teaching offended “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders”. They “knew that he had spoken the parable against them” (Mark 12:12). They were abusing the rents that were the Gift from God to the whole community. That these community leaders associated the parable with taxation is revealed by their next question: “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” (Mark 12:14). Jesus knew that the rent-seekers wanted to trick him into making a treasonous statement. He gave a non-committal answer: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”.
Beware, Jesus warned, “the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces; and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts; Which devour widows’ houses…” (Mark 12: 38-40). The community’s leaders were not honouring God’s rule. In fact, they were taking the land from the widows, leaving them homeless. By exposing the way in which rent was being monopolised for the self-centred benefit of the few, Jesus sealed his fate. What followed became the tragedy of the crucifixion.